When you think of Asian food, is it only Chinese and Thai that come to mind? Now there’s a new Asian “Pho-nomenon” that is slowly making waves across India. Yes, it’s Vietnamese cuisine we are talking about. Vietnamese food is one of the most varied cuisines in Asia—a delicious blend of the food from its colonial visitors and its inherent age-old native flavours and techniques.
Today, Pho, Bánh, Bun Cha and Goi roll off the tongue of diners as easily as laal maas, kalmi kebab and rogan josh, thanks to the number of Vietnamese restaurants that have popped up around us. Though many of these deal in simple street food, across India you’ll find eateries ranging from just delivery, like Pho King Awesome (in New Delhi), and canteens like Va Pho (Chennai), to luxury joints like Blue Ginger (Taj West End, Bangalore), Honk (Hotel Pullman, New Delhi), and By The Mekong (St. Regis, Mumbai) dishing up delectable Vietnamese fare to cater to every pocket.
Inside Delhi’s eclectic Hauz Khas Village is quaint Little Saigon, started by Vietnamese Hana Ho. Hana Ho came to Delhi in 2010, worked at the Blue Ginger at Taj Palace as head chef for six years before she decided to set up her tribute to Vietnamese food. “This is a new cuisine for Indians and with more people travelling to Vietnam now, there’s a definite palate for it,” she says.
Like our dishes, Vietnamese food is homely and comforting though spicy. Ask well-known chef Manu Chandra why Vietnamese flavours appeal to Indians and he says, “It’s the bold, often spicy, flavours and lightness in the food. While the former is always appealing, the latter is in vogue and everyone wants to eat healthy. Asian cuisines lend themselves to that, and Vietnamese especially.”
All about freshness and flavours
As in India, food is central to Vietnamese culture. But unlike our cuisine, it’s not heavy and loaded with spices. Add to this the influence of other cuisines like French (due to colonisation) and Chinese (neighbour), and you have an unmatched authenticity and uniqueness. While their crepes and stews have been influenced by French cuisine, the use of various sauces present a distinct Chinese influence. The end result is a burst of sweet, spicy, salty and sour flavours which are showcased in their rice noodle soups (Pho), steamed rice paper rolls (Bánh Cuon), sandwiches (Bánh Mì), steamed rice cakes (Bánh), and sago puddings (Chè Tự Chọn).
One of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the country was Blue Ginger at the Taj West End in Bangalore. They introduced not just Pho to their guests but also delicacies like Vietnamese Raw Papaya Salad, Fresh Summer Rolls, Hanoi Grilled Fish, Grilled Sea Bass and Bun Cha.
“Traditional Vietnamese food makes use of plenty of fresh ingredients (herbs and vegetables) and there’s minimal use of dairy and oil. There’s a balance between fresh herbs and meat and selective use of spices which gives it a fine taste,” says Hana Ho.
But the appeal of this particular Asian cuisine to the Indian palate also lies in ingredients that are common to dishes. Chef Sandeep Narang, Executive Chef, Taj West End, says, “While curiosity has led to experiments with new flavours, the existence of the “Rice and Curry” as a staple in both the cuisines has made us more comfortable with Vietnamese cuisine in India. Add to this, usage of known ingredients such as potato, raw mango, jaggery, tamarind and fish has driven acceptance of Vietnamese cuisine in our country.”
These known flavours are definitely attracting people to Vietnamese cuisine not just in north India but even in the south. In Chennai, for instance, guests at Va Pho just can’t get enough of their Saigon Pho, Mekong Grilled Fish and Vietnamese Pineapple Fried Rice. And even coffee! “As we know the people of Chennai are addicted to coffee, and the Vietnamese iced coffee is one of the top favourites on our menu,” says Va Pho’s Chef Ram
Question of health quotient
Often, people think that beef, chicken, fish and pork are staples in Vietnamese dishes, but this isn’t true. You’ll find a whole host of vegetarian options like salads, stir-fries, fresh rolls, rice and curries on any menu. Hana Ho says that 40% of her menu is vegetarian and that is the case with most eateries. And the veg fare is a delight.
Like Chef Manu Chandra puts it, in Vietnamese cuisine the ingredients are the star, and the treatment to vegetarian food is great and with a lightness of touch. Not only does this cuisine use less oil and dairy but it also makes limited use of additives and preservatives. Most items are prepared by simple cooking methods like boiling, tossing, grilling and steaming, thus, ingredients retain their freshness and dishes are far lower in calories.
People who are health-conscious or have certain dietary requirements will find varieties in Vietnamese dishes. “Vietnamese cuisine is a healthy, low-fat, and delicious alternative to burgers and chips and many other classic takeaway options. More people than ever before are also discovering they are gluten intolerant or celiac. One of the greatest benefits of this cuisine is that most of the dishes are made fresh from rice flour, so it is gluten-free, and low in fat,” explains Chef Neeraj Balasubramanian of The Park, Vishakapatnam, which serves Vietnamese fare.
So if you’re looking for a new culinary adventure, then this is the perfect time to feast on Banh xeo and Bun cha and more.