Vietnam has a long coastline and seafood plays an important part in its cuisine, which (as with most Asian countries) is based on rice, or rice-based products like rice noodles. The cuisine of Vietnam has been influenced by many other countries; some that share common borders, for example Thailand, others, such as China, that have historically occupied the area.
The Chinese dominated the region for almost 1,000 years and the French were a colonial power from the mid-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth centuries. Indian culture has also had a lasting influence, as the south of modern-day Vietnam was part of the Indian kingdom of Funan from the first to the sixth centuries AD and the Hindu kingdom of Champa covered the region from Danang to Nha Trang by the eighth century AD. There was a healthy trade in spice and cotton between Vietnam and India for many years and a large Indian population in Vietnam until the late 1970s.
Examples of foreign influence in Vietnamese cooking include:
- Chinese - coriander, star anise, ginger and garlic;
- French - paté, coffee, baguettes;
- Indian - dried spices such as nutmeg, cardamom, curry leaves and cumin;
- Thai - fresh herbs and salads.
Vietnamese, like most cuisines, is regional, and is broadly divided into southern (the food of the Mekong delta), central (mainly the city of Hue), and northern (including the northern highlands which are cooler and not as influenced by Vietnam’s long coastline). The most common flavouring agents however, appear in most meals and include fish sauce (nuoc mam), white pepper, red chilli, ginger, limes, lemongrass, peanuts, palm sugar and coriander leaves.
A typical Vietnamese meal includes a range of typical side dishes, including:
- Fish sauce;
- Nuoc cham - fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar and often chilli and/or garlic;
- Mashed fresh chillies;
- Other dipping sauces - either hot and sour or rich and sweet;
- Fresh herbs and salad vegetables.