Unbeknown-st to most, the French and Vietnamese cuisines are connected and this connection goes way back. The link between the two is fostered by the colonial history of Vietnam when the Catholic missionaries arrived in the early 17th Century.
However, the arrival of the missionaries was not a prelude to a peaceful relationship. Instead, Vietnam would eventually be colonised by France. Cambodia was also colonised. As a result, the Indochinese Union was formed in 1887, which allowed for a strong French influence to be maintained in Vietnam in the next seven decades.
After the French left Vietnam, following the Geneva Accord, the influence can still be felt. The cultural ramifications of having the French around for decades lasted, well until the present period. One can only look at the architecture strewn all over Ho Chi Minh City today, which is known as Saigon at the time to see this strong influence. The Saigon Opera House is a prime example of this lasting colonial effect of the French in Vietnam.
More than the architecture however is the French colonial influence on Vietnamese cuisine. Modern Vietnamese cuisine, of course, cannot be said to be a rendition of French cuisine. Instead, it is a mixture of influences - the culinary impact of Vietnamese flavor before it was colonised and the French influence.
Vietnamese food has a distinct flavor well before the French arrived and made Vietnam a colony. Like most colonies, Vietnam has its history and culture before it was conquered and transformed. This naturally means it has its culinary history and culture. During this period, Vietnamese cuisine is more influenced by its neighbouring countries, more so by China. The influence was mutual.
Vietnamese influence on Chinese food can be observed at the time up until today. For example, the presence of wontons and wheat noodles. Even though Vietnamese noodles are unlike Chinese noodles in different ways, one can usually confuse the two considering they sometimes taste the same - similarly using New World vegetables such as chili peppers and corn, among others. These two ingredients originated from the Ming Dynasty and reached their way to Vietnam, even before the French arrived.
Notwithstanding the influence of the neighbouring countries however, Vietnamese cuisine has its unique characteristics that lasted until today. One of these is the Vietnamese philosophy to concocting a recipe. No other countries have this philosophy.
Central to the Vietnamese way of preparing cuisine is not moulding together of the five main taste elements - sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. This is not only because of the unique flavor that combining them will lead to. Instead, the Vietnamese believe that each taste corresponds to a particular organ of the body. In particular, sweet corresponds to the health of the bladder, sour is associated with the health of the small intestine, salty can affect stomach health, spicy corresponds to the health of the gall bladder and lastly, bitter is linked to the health of the large intestine.
Vietnamese people are very enamoured with the number five. Cooks before and after the French came made sure to always include the five types of nutrients in their cuisine - powder, water, protein, fat, and minerals. In addition, you can always see five colours in the foods prepared - white, black, red, green, and yellow.
This is why Vietnamese cuisine always looks so colourful, compared to Western dishes. The green is a staple because there’s always something fresh and leafy in Vietnamese food. The resulting dishes are not just attractive to the eyes, but also to a person’s tongue.
Balance is simply the key principle. The combination of five, whether it be flavors, colours, and nutrients, is the result of wanting to achieve balance with the food Vietnamese people would be feeding their bodies. This is why cooks always make sure to balance between heating and cooling properties of the food, which may not make sense to most Westerners.
The Vietnamese know what foods can be categorised as cool foods and what can be considered warm, which is not Western dishes usually taken into consideration. For instance, duck meat is considered cool so it must be served during warm weather or served with some ginger, which is perceived as having warm properties.
Chicken is differentiated from duck meat — again, not so many know about this — and therefore, served during winter because it has warm properties. It is preferably served with sour sauce such as vinegar, considered as having cool properties. These characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine were already present way before French influence and remain integral to understanding their food as a whole.
In the modern period, however, French influence on the food cannot be discounted. These influences exist in the ingredients that did not necessarily exist in the pre-French colonial period in Vietnamese foods, such as asparagus and potatoes. Now, these ingredients are everywhere in modern Vietnamese foods.
Vietnamese paid homage to France though, by recognising these ingredients are not originally theirs. For instance, Vietnamese called asparagus as “Măng tây,” roughly translated to “Western” bamboo shoots. Up until the present, asparagus is still perceived as an ingredient to be used only for special occasions too, probably because it is considered foreign. Asparagus soup is often served as a first course during weddings.
Apart from asparagus, potatoes are from France as well. As a side story, even though the potatoes are from France, it was not until Antoine Patienter popularised these in the 18th Century, potatoes are in general, considered disgusting, for the lack of a better word.
French look at them as inedible, unfit for human consumption. Instead, they feed them to farm animals, particularly the pigs. Long story short, however, potatoes did become popular in France and the French introduced them to the Vietnamese.
The same as the asparagus, Vietnamese recognised that they are western when giving them a name. Potatoes in Vietnamese are called khoai tây, or Western yam. They associated them to the local sweet potatoes, but they naturally knew they were different and more importantly, foreign.
Onions too are of French influence on Vietnamese. Onions are quite staple in French cuisine, but now they can also be found everywhere in Vietnamese foods. They are called hành tay or “western” shallots. You can check out most Vietnamese cuisines now and see these quick-pickled onions placed as garnishes.
Another food influenced by the French is coffee. At present, Vietnamese coffee is quite popular. You go to Vietnamese and chances are you’ll go back to your country bringing some packs of Vietnamese coffee. But it is worth knowing that is actually a legacy left by the French.
The French started to drink coffee as early as the 1600s, although they too were merely influenced, but by the Middle Eastern. France brought coffee to Vietnamese two centuries later during the colonisation. It did not hurt that Vietnamese has a climate so conducive to growing coffee. This is why it quickly adapted and integrated into Vietnamese local cuisine and has even become a symbol of Vietnamese culture.
Right now, Vietnam has become the second-largest coffee exporter in the world that you probably think it was not influenced by any other country, or France in particular. Not that Vietnamese have their coffees similar to how the French take them. If French love their cafe au lait and espressos hot, the Vietnamese love their coffees cold, only sweetened by adding condensed milk.
In fact, if you are looking for that food that you can say to have integrated the French influence totally, this is coffee. Vietnamese people did not accept coffee as is, as they did the other foods such as potatoes and onions. They do not even label coffee as western anything. Instead, they made something new out of coffee.
Many more Vietnamese foods are just like that, integrating French influence and then making them more Vietnamese. Cooked cream desserts are a good example. They are called bánh flan in Vietnam. Unlike how French eat or serve their cooked cream desserts, Vietnamese people use coconut milk and not just a mixture of cream mixture and milk.
Moreover, their cooked cream desserts are flavoured with coffee. In France, if you have been, you will be able to taste similar desserts but flavoured with caramel instead. The innovation in Vietnam makes these desserts quite popular, and if you are unaware, you would think there are no outside influences to these delicious desserts, let alone a French one.
The same goes for our favourite BANH MI - Vietnamese baguette! Bread is not that common in East Asia centuries ago. In fact, it is still not today, compared to other forms for carbohydrates such as rice and porridge. When the French colonists arrived in Vietnam, they naturally brought with them baguettes. The Vietnamese adopted this and now a staple of Vietnamese cuisine or restaurants are bread and sandwiches. Naturally, they do not look like French bread. The Vietnamese made their own versions of baguettes and sandwiches, following their principle of balance. Vietnamese baguettes are strewn all over the nation now, and even in Vietnamese restaurants all over the world, you’d be hard-pressed to say they were influenced by the French.
For one, Vietnamese baguettes do not even look anywhere close to French baguettes, maybe only at a distance. However, if you look at them closely, especially when you touch and taste them, the differences are so clear.
Vietnamese baguettes are made with rice flour and not wheat flour, which is what French baguettes are made of. Just by changing this key ingredient is enough to make the Vietnamese baguettes have their own distinct flavor and texture, so different from the French baguettes.
Vietnamese baguettes are then utilized to create one of the most known Vietnamese cuisine around the world, which is the banh mi or Vietnamese sandwiches. These sandwiches obviously follow the Vietnamese principle of preparing dishes.
They have the five distinct flavors combined - sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and a bit spicy. They have protein and minerals, as they are made of grilled meat, pate and a lot of vegetables. Coriander and other fresh herbs make the banh mi a sandwich of its own league.
If you are in Australia and literally surrounded by breads, you’d know it immediately when you are staring at and smelling Vietnamese baguettes and banh mis. Go to a Vietnamese restaurant and it’s literally impossible for it not to have banh mi on its menu.
One more French influence on widely known Vietnamese cuisine is PHO. We are actually hearing a collective gasp now. You are asking, “Huh? pho is from the French?” and “What! Pho is not 100% Vietnamese?” now, aren’t you? Well, the soup is not. Pho is actually the mixing of 100% Vietnamese rice noodles and then French meat broths. The name pho itself might have a French connotation, a silent nod given by the Vietnamese to their colonizers.
Pho, pronounced as “fuh” if you speak proper Vietnamese that is, could actually stem from the French phrase, “pot au feu,” literally pronounced similarly — again, if you know how to speak French and know how not to murder the sounds of these words. We know we would.
Also, since beef is not really part of most Eastern cuisines, the fact that there is a good presence of beef on Vietnamese pho, is another evidence that it has a great European influence. Vietnamese pho, if you are not aware, are made of tripe, slimly cut steak, and some meatballs. Coupled with the clear broth, you get a fantastic dish with the pho, a stellar Vietnamese cuisine
It’s so considered Vietnamese that when you think of Vietnam, pho is part of your immediate thoughts. If you’re thinking of pho right now, you should certainly check us out. Just saying. At Original Saigon, we apply modern cooking techniques to traditional dishes, but you’ll get PHO so masterfully done and so Vietnamese, you’d really wonder if there is French influence to it.
Notwithstanding the strong French influence however, Vietnamese cuisine is very unique. If you think about it, most colony retained their colonizers’ cultures and flavors anyway, one way or another. However, most rise up to make sure they would have distinguished personality, Vietnamese is no different when it comes to its food.
In fact, Vietnamese have done it so well that they were able to achieve their own identity when it comes to food. Nowadays, when people think of what food they want to eat – they’ll probably rattle off Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, no matter where they live. You’d rarely hear people say they want French food, unless you’re in Europe.
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