Influences in Vietnamese cuisine
It is not one element, but many which make Vietnamese cuisine delicious and healthy. A defining feature, for example, is the combination and adaption of influences from France, China and various other Asian nations to create a unique food philosophy. Or let’s consider the intricate integration of herbs and vegetables, and the clear, clean flavors and vibrant color palates for each set of ingredients.
A key building block is the number five. A balanced fusion of five tastes – spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). These correspond to the five colors of white (metal), green (wood), yellow (earth), red (fire) and black (water). Which in turn stimulates the five senses.
Culinary diversity across the three main regions is important too. The north, south and center have distinct dishes particular to that area, as well as subtle and overt variations of the nation’s iconic fare.
Northern cuisine tends to be less spicy/sweet and less overt than other regions. Southern areas, meanwhile, boast more vibrant and flavorsome creations, while central regions incorporate more spices and bolder elements.
Culinary aromatic balancing
The melting pot of cultures not only makes Hoi An historically colorful but also has influenced the town’s cuisine through vibrant colors and divine flavors. Originating in the 15th century as an important South East Asian commercial port, the Hoi An area became home to many Chinese traders and merchants. Hence the strong influence of Chinese cuisine. According to Chinese tradition all food has energy and is therefore guided by the forces of Yin and Yang. In simple terms, yin refers to passive-negative forces and yang its active-positive counterpart. A regulating balance is created, especially important when it comes to food. Over-indulging in either element affects the body’s balance. Yin foods have cooling and expanding properties, while yang foods do the opposite by warming and contracting. Hoi An cuisine places great importance on this yin yang combination by balancing flavors and textures.
When considering secrets behind Hoi An flavors, look no further than the specialty of Tra Que organic vegetable village. This agricultural community supplies vegetables and herbs to most of Hoi An’s food outlets and markets, and thus plays a part in numerous Hoi An dishes. For centuries the farming families have been cultivating high quality, superbly flavored herbs and vegetables, essential ingredients in many dishes. These products have their own balancing energies and compliment staple foods such as rice, beans, meats. For example, items such as bean sprouts and tomatoes have yin qualities while spring onion and coriander are yang foods.
Following Vietnam’s regional culinary diversity and uniqueness, Hoi An’s cuisine features variations on national iconic dishes as well as local delicacies specific to the town and Quang Nam province.
On this whistle stop tour of Hoi An cuisine the dishes below illustrate a little about this very big gastronomic topic.
One quintessential Hoi An dish has existed since the 14th Century. Said to have emanated from Phu Chiem village in Quang Nam province, Mi Quang is a noodle dish. Originally created for workers over time has grown into a source of local pride. Memorable for a harmonious mixture of flavors and textures, it consists of thin flat rice noodles and a balance of fresh ingredients. Traditionally mixed with shrimp, pork and vegetables, topped with grilled sesame rice crackers, fried shallots, peanuts and a variety of fresh herbs, the flavors are enhanced with a little sweet-flavored broth making the noodle dish moist. The dish even has its own saying:
“Thương nhau múc bát chè xanh,
Làm tô mì Quảng anh xơi cho cùng”
It relates to a girl from Quang Nam province who offers her boyfriend a cup of tea and a bowl of Mi Quang to signify how much she loves him.
One dish which locals say cannot authentically be replicated outside Hoi An is Cao Lau. Invented in Hoi An, its uniqueness comes from the town’s water. Hoi An has many ancient wells dating back to the Cham period; the Ba Le Well the most famous. It is reputed that alum-free water from this well was/is the secret of Cao Lau.
Water used for soaking the rice noodles is mixed with ash from Cham Island giving the noodles a chewy consistency and a distinct flavor overall.
Cao Lau is a special type of noodle dish. The preparation of the noodles follows a very precise and seemingly complex process. And unlike other dishes which can be regionally adapted, the Cao Lau’s recipe should not be changed. In addition to noodles and the intensely flavored broth, the other compulsory ingredients are slices of pork and crispy pigskin, raw vegetables, coriander, and soya sprouts from Tra Que village. The name of the dish also has a significance. Cao means high and lau means chamber. It is said that the combined words may have referred to when the local business men at the time would sit in high chambers to eat while keeping watch on their shops and business.
A cracking good time
A seemingly simple looking dish is deceptively complex behind the scenes. Banh dap means cracked or smashed rice pancake. Incorporating yin and yang principles, it combines two kinds of rice paper sheets. A thin wet sheet is sandwiched between two dry brittle sheets. To eat, one smashes the ‘sandwich’ creation into small pieces which are then dipped into mam cai, a special fermented salted fish paste.
A common specialty
While the above are regionally unique dishes, Hoi An demonstrates it can take food common throughout Vietnam and create special signature dishes. One such example is humble chicken and rice (Com Ga). Hoi An combines fluffy yellow pandan leaf-flavored rice topped with particularly high quality local shredded chicken, and crushed onions and herbs – the later, of course, being Tra Que inspired.
Thanks to the areas natural, unique and secret qualities Hoi An has fast developed a reputation as a food paradise and a gastronomical delight.
Sign up with Red Bean restaurant to experience a great authentic cooking class
Visit Tra Que organic village and Hoi An market to select superb ingredients
Learn how to cook a selection of Hoi An dishes