“Straight from the source” a series of stories about food and life from around the world narrated by our chefs.
Guest blog post from Vietnamese Culture Kitchen chef Linh Nguyen
I was born in Sai Gon to parents from the north and south of Viet Nam. My entire life has been a fantastic mix of all three regional cultures and cuisines. Our day to day family dinners would be an eclectic mix of northern and southern cuisine, while larger family gatherings would include cooking from my aunts and uncles-in-law from the central region. My mom would marvel at how my dad would add boiled green onions instead of fresh bean sprouts and basil to his pho, and my dad would be almost offended at my mom’s use of sugar in her stews. Whenever Auntie #5 from Hue (southerners and centralers don’t use names, just their rank) would walk by a dipping sauce or a pot, she would surely add a couple more spoonfuls of chili paste or one or two extra peppers. Although culinarily, the line was clearly drawn between the north, center and south we always managed to have a great time cooking and eating together. Most of the time, my southern aunts and mom would run the kitchen, whipping up delicious southern food full of bright colors and fresh vegetables. Whenever in-laws were allowed in the kitchen, they would add a central and northern flavor to the mix, incorporating the heat and delicacy of central food and the wintry warmth and pickled goodness of the north.
Each distinct region in Viet Nam has its own historical and food culture, each claiming to be the best. In the north, the birthplace of pho, dishes tend to be saltier and more vinegary than the rest of the country. With less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than central and southern Vietnamese, northerners tend to rely more on pickled condiments, hearty stews and soups flavored with dried spices, and salty braised meats and vegetables. In the south, the opposite is true. The warmer weather provides yearlong bounty and southerners take full advantage of their environment. Many dishes are accompanied by a large plate of fresh vegetables to be added raw at the table. In the central region, home of the capital of the last Vietnamese dynasty, court cuisine still has lingering influences on every day food. Central food tends to be spicy, bite-sized and more elaborate in preparation and presentation.
Although there are many regional distinctions, Vietnamese cuisine and life in general is dictated by a search for balance-a balance between hot and cold, sweet and salty, spicy and salty, soft and crunchy…the list goes on! With many special occasion dishes, such as pho, this attention to balance is maintained. Southern-style pho consists of a rich beef broth, a variety of meat, and rice noodles balanced out by fresh bean sprouts, peppers, herbs, and lemon juice. Northern-style pho achieves balance in a different way: pickled garlic and vinegar are used to balance the richness of the broth instead of fresh vegetables.
Balance is also sought out in everyday meals. In any Vietnamese house, a normal weeknight dinner consists of five parts: soup, meat, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit. At my house, you can almost always depend on eating a light and gingery broth with greens, a braised or caramelized catfish or pork in claypot, a mountain of stir-fried, garlicky greens, aromatic jasmine rice, and a huge portion of fresh fruit on any given night of the week. The light and fresh vegetable dish balances out the heavier protein-rich meat dish, the wet broth balances out the dry rice, and the sweet fruits balances out the savory part of the meal.