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This paper shall look into the characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine, taking into account the country's unique historical and social influences that have shaped their thinking and attitude towards food. Being a former colonial country in the Southeast Asia, Vietnam has been the context of various cultural and historical fusions (Dung and Linh 2007). The development of its cuisine from the earliest times bears the marks of new influences from other countries and tastes, helping to make a truly rich and unique collection of dishes that reflect the country's history.
As we have already noted, Vietnamese cuisine is unique for its cultural and historical influences. Vietnam is a long, narrow country on the lower portion of the Asian mainland, bordered by China, Cambodia, Laos and the Gulf of Thailand. The country's geography has proven to be an important factor in shaping its cuisine and food production over the years. Because of the peculiar shape of their country, the natives tend to think of it as a bamboo pole with a basket of rice at each end.
Geography has also lent specialties of each region a different flavour, because climate plays a big role in the availability of ingredients for different dishes. The northern cuisine is reflective of the country's Chinese cooking heritage by specializing in dishes with soy sauce, noodle-based soups and stir-fried foods. Northern dishes are less flavourful than those found in the south or the middle portion of the country because its climate is not suitable for a large number of spices.
Central Vietnam is abundant with fresh produce, and is characterized by its propensity to use extreme spices and to serve up colourful food that is reminiscent of the region's past as the seat of royalty. A traditional meal involves several complex dishes in very small portions. Finally, Southern cooking has been most heavily influenced by Thai food, such that their dishes are sweet or spicy in taste because it boasts of a climate that is suitable to a bigger number of spices. Immigrants from across the Cambodian border have also helped define the style and flavour of Southern Vietnamese cooking. This part of the country is also where the vestiges of French colonial cooking are most apparent.
History, as we have already noted, plays an integral role in the development and fusion of Vietnamese food with other cultures. Almost ten centuries' worth of Chinese domination in the country has left significant imprints in their cooking styles, as well as the particular dishes and the choice of ingredients. The French colonizers, on the other hand, influence the traditional Vietnamese menu by introducing various techniques of sautéing. Vietnamese soups are also part of their French heritage.
Other factors such as the socio-economic classes dictate on the availability of food products in the country, such that poorer people cannot afford to buy particular kinds of food because of higher prices. They are more likely to consume more rice and less meat and vegetable dishes, but this does not mean that they are enjoying their native cuisine less than the rich. The country's dense population subsists mostly on carbohydrates in the form of rice, other grains and noodles.
Vietnamese food is most popular for combining an array of vegetables, herbs and meats to come up with different meals (Dung and Linh 2007). Vietnamese cuisine's usage of some some ingredients such as coconut and coconut milk is a characteristic that it shares with its Asian neighbours, but an authentic Vietnamese meal also boasts of culinary contributions from other countries, particularly China and France. It is also cooked using unique traditional styles that have been passed from generation to generation.
Because of its propensity to use light ingredients and vegetables, Vietnamese food is one of the healthiest cuisines around the world today, which is a prime reason for why it is quickly becoming popular in a more health-conscious society. The diaspora of whole communities, coupled with the forces of globalization and capitalism, have also helped to propel Vietnamese cuisine to the forefront of the culinary world (Thomas 2004).
Like other Asian countries, rice is a staple in the Vietnamese diet. It is grown in water paddies all around the country, but the climatic conditions at the Red River delta in the north and the Mekong river delta in the south are most favourable for this crop. Rice is the main source of carbohydrates (in the form of starch) in the people's diet, eaten three times a day with a vegetable and/or meat main dish. Rice is also made into a variety of cakes, noodles, and desserts.
Vietnam is currently the world's third largest exporter of rice, and this commodity also holds a prime position in the country's economy, apart from being a mainstay in the dining table. The country is still predominantly agriculture in nature, with a climate that can support a large variety of flora and fauna.
Rice is usually consumed jointly by all the family members. The typical Vietnamese meal would include several main dishes, a soup and a bowl of rice for everyone. These are laid out on a table where the family members sit around and take their food from the dish platters with chopsticks-this is the only country in the Pacific and the Southeast Asian regions where people traditionally eat their meals with chopsticks. This habit is clearly one of the Chinese influences in Vietnamese cooking.
The meal is usually not divided into courses and everything is served all at once. When the younger Vietnamese eat with their elders, they ask the latter to get their share of the food first as a sign of respect typical in the whole Asian region. Like the Chinese, traditional meals are also accompanied by a cup of tea, especially when there are guests around.
The meal is not complete without vegetables on the side and a variety of small bowls filled with salty sauces in which the people dip their food. Vegetables are usually served as salads tossed in with beef or shrimp, in order to complement the strong flavour of the meaty main dish. The classic dip in these traditional family meals is a kind of salty fish sauce called nuoc mam.
Apart from the land-grown rice, the country's coastal and river areas provide another staple of the Vietnamese diet-fish and other aquatic species. The country's two major rivers are an important source of seafood that help to balance the carbohydrate-rich diet of the locals. The rivers also serve as a way of transporting the goods to the local water markets, where fresh produce from the coastal villages are sold. In fact, seafood occupies a bigger portion in the Vietnamese diet than other meats such as pork, chicken or beef, which are usually consumed in smaller quantities.
The Vietnamese cook their food in many ways, but unlike the Chinese, they prefer to keep the dish light by using as little oil as possible. While some viands are deep fried or stir fried, there are also a great number that are cooked by only boiling, tossing or steaming them. Vietnamese cooking is also not as rich or heavy as the curry-based dishes of Thailand, for example.
The distinctive light and fresh flavour of the Vietnamese locals can be achieved by using a variety of spices and ingredients such as mint leaves, lemon grass, shrimp, native fish sauces, basi, garlic, and ginger. Cooking styles also vary from region to region, with the north preferring a lot of dishes that are slow-cooked or stir fried, whereas dishes in the south are mostly grilled or simply eaten raw.
The Vietnamese are popular for being keen snackers, and they are rather fond of eating at street-side stalls or small shops specializing in a single dish, instead of the modern restaurants lining the streets in the cities. Their tradition of eating out is very strong even if most meals are cooked and eaten at home. The streets are filled with t sweet aroma of delicious snacks being cooked everywhere, because the Vietnamese are likely to stop anywhere and grab a bite whenever they feel hungry.
Some of these roadside attractions are actually prestigious family restaurants that have been serving customers for many, many years. Tourists in Vietnam should, however, be a little wary of what they eat because of the presence of so many herbs and spices. People with allergies are especially susceptible because they may not know that the food they are eating contain an ingredient that they may be allergic to.