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Cuisines around the world: Vietnam

Nathan Young writes on what makes Vietnamese food so uniquely flavorful.

Vietnamese cuisine is based on a philosophy of balance between the five elements, each of which is described with a different flavour. Wood is sour, metal is spicy, fire is bitter, earth is sweet, and water is salty. It’s believed that each flavour corresponds with a different nutrient, and that in turn, corresponds to five different organs of the digestive system. What this means for the quality of the food is that meals are well balanced, as chefs aim to appease all these tastes. There’s also a focus on balancing the five senses. Fresh herbs and chilies are used to garnish most dishes, as the smell, sound of crunch and appearance are considered almost as important as the taste and texture of the dish.

There’s something of a variety of Vietnamese restaurants in Dublin, and while none of them are especially fancy affairs, they offer good food at fair prices. Aobaba on Capel Street offers Vietnamese street food, and is accordingly cheap and cheerful. It can be hard to get a seat here, but they also offer takeaways. Although not authentic Vietnamese, they also serve a range of bubble teas and iced coffees. Without raising the price point by much, joints like Pho Ta in Temple Bar offer more western style service, with starters, mains, and desserts. In Vietnam, only the dessert would ever be served separately from the other dishes, and food is placed communally in the centre of the table to be shared.

Compared to other east-Asian cuisines, the Vietnamese use very little oil, instead preparing food in broths, or often simply serving vegetables raw. Fresh chillies cut finely and bean sprouts are often served alongside soups and broths to be added last minute by the diners, so that they retain the fresh crunch. Flavour is also added in sauces, including soy sauce, fish sauce, and hot sauces. Phở, a broth with rice noodles and meat, is perhaps the most successful Vietnamese dish internationally. The meat options include beef, chicken, pork, and seafood, but there are options for vegetarians as tofu also features heavily.

Due to war, social upheaval, and colonialism, the majority of Vietnam has been in poverty for a most of the previous century, and the food reflects this – offal is common, and few luxury ingredients appear on the menu. Stir fried and deep fried dishes are available, but they aren’t as prevalent. Because of this, and the popularity of fresh vegetables among chefs, Vietnamese food is often considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.