Culinary traditions love to travel. Well before we had long-haul jets and refrigerated trucks to transport foods from one place to another, they made their way around the globe through immigration, colonization, and trade. This kind of movement has always informed what’s on our plates, and has re-shaped many culinary traditions, even those we regard as static. Italians, for instance, didn’t always have the tomato. I Pomodori weren’t introduced to Europe until the 16th century, and even then they weren’t embraced immediately. Can you imagine? Italian food without the TOMATO!?
I’ve always been particularly interested in the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, a result of French colonization during the 19th century (with French influences beginning centuries before then). Perhaps I’m fascinated because the French and Vietnamese culinary traditions are each so complex and compelling. While the Vietnamese are revered for their healthy and flavourful cuisine, a number of French influences snuck in there a century back, and have become an integral part of it. Let’s explore a few examples, shall we?
First and foremost – banh mi! It’s a sandwich made with a baguette, after all!
This uber-popular snack, now found around the world, is a prime example of the Vietnamese taking a French staple and transforming it into something that’s all their own.
While the internet can’t quite agree on what gives a Vietnamese baguette its shattering crust and airy interior, many attribute it to a mix of rice and wheat flour. Banh mi fillings can vary hugely, but they generally include a mix of some kind of grilled meat, pickled daikon and carrot, fresh cilantro, a sauce or two, and often pâté.
They’re also cheap, so they make the perfect snack. In Richmond, you can get them at almost any Vietnamese restaurant, but my favourite was the meatball banh mi at New Asia Deli.
Looking back through my posts, I’m realizing just how many Vietnamese subs I ate during that year. Wow.
Bò kho (Vietnamese beef stew) is another great example of the Vietnamese riffing on a French tradition by using their own ingredients. Beef was popularized during colonization, so it’s no surprise they took their initial inspiration for cooking it from the French.
Instead of fresh herbs like thyme, however, bò kho is flavoured with a fragrant combination of lemongrass, star anise, cloves, and chilies. But, like any hearty French stew, it’s served with a fresh baguette for dipping and wiping the bowl clean. I had this kind of stew twice in Richmond – once at Thai Son, and a second time (my favourite of the two) at Pho Japolo.
Finally, for those who love getting a fix of Vietnamese coffee, you may be interested to learn it was also introduced by the French in the 19th century. Today, Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of the Robusta variety, and the second largest coffee exporter! The popular way to consume Vietnamese coffee is over ice, and while I don’t drink much coffee (it gives me belly-aches, sighhh), I love the stuff. It’s such a beautiful sight – the inky black coffee cut by swirls of creamy, white condensed milk….
Also, now I really want one of these.
A few other French/Vietnamese dishes to keep your eyes out for include Bún Ốc (soup with sea snails), Bánh Patê Sô (hot pastry pie), and Bánh Flan, which is inspired by crème caramel, and often ‘made Vietnamese’ with the addition of coconut milk.
So, I hope the next time you’re out in one of Richmond’s many Vietnamese restaurants, you can entertain your friends with a few of these facts. I, for one, am very appreciative that the Vietnamese culinary tradition, with all its influences, managed to make its way to Canada. That’s a long way to travel, but we’ve been blessed with banh mi because of it!
*Vietnamese iced coffee photo from www.bonappetit.com
*Banh Flan photo from www.fernandezandleluu.co.uk