Steam wafts straight up from a gigantic bowl of noodle soup, tender slices of beef floating in the clear broth, a mound of thin rice noodles at the bottom of the bowl. This Vietnamese pho (pronounced "fuh") is accompanied by a plate piled high with mint, Thai basil, watercress, bean sprouts, and often a mixture of shredded carrot and daikon.
"Soups are at the heart of Vietnamese cuisine," writes Corinne Trang in "Authentic Vietnamese Cooking," and pho, in particular, "is considered a meal." Many Vietnamese eat pho daily. But the soup is one small part of this fresh and vibrant cuisine, which is bright and layered, both complex and simple. This applies to noodle and rice dishes, other fish and meat soups, and an array of crunchy salads.
In Massachusetts, the Vietnamese population is over 47,000, with the largest communities in Dorchester, Quincy, and Worcester (and the concentration of restaurants there as well). For these immigrants and their children, food is the connection to their culture. For non-Vietnamese, the food is an exciting array of Asian dishes not quite like any of its neighbors. It's time for a primer.
"The first thing you've got to learn about Vietnamese cuisine is the fish sauce," says Vietnam-born award-winning author Andrew Pham, who recently taught a writing class at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill. Fish sauce, called nuoc mam, is an indispensable ingredient of the Vietnamese pantry. Mixed with lime, sugar, and water, it becomes nuoc mam cham, which can be modified with other ingredients, and is a constant in every kitchen.
"A good cook always knows how to mix table dipping sauce," says Pham. "This is highly unique. Only in Vietnam is fish sauce elevated to this level," he says. Cooks will emphasize different attributes of the sauce according to what it accompanies.
Balance is at the core of the cuisine. Jamie Bissonnette, chef and co-owner of Coppa and Toro in the South End, traveled to Vietnam last year, exploring and learning as much as he could. "They say metal, wood, fire, water, earth. That's how they refer to their cuisine. The five fundamental tastes: sour, bitter, salty, sweet, spicy," says Bissonnette, who saw this played out in many dishes.
"We have a lot of fresh vegetables in our cooking as well as herbs," explains Nikki Tran of Quincy, a second generation Vietnamese-American. In fact, it's hard to find a meal that doesn't include mint, basil, cilantro, or green onions. On weekends, Tran helps in the kitchen of Thuan Loi, her parents' South Yarmouth restaurant. They came to the United States in 1980, part of the wave of refugees who fled after the war. When she joins them and her siblings at the restaurant, she finds it comforting, she says. "I feel like myself in the kitchen."
The three main regions of Vietnam — North, Central, and South — have their own distinct cooking style. Because so many Vietnamese-Americans are from the South, it's that bold style most represented here. A classic dish is clay pot catfish (clay pots were often the only cooking vessel a family had). "It is impossible to travel to Vietnam without encountering clay pot catfish," writes Pham in "Catfish and Mandala." Hunks of bone-in catfish are seasoned with cracked pepper, then braised in a sweet-salty sauce of coconut water, palm sugar, and fish sauce, sometimes with herbs and spices. "It's one of those dishes that's always sitting around," explains Pham. "All that salt and sugar preserves the fish and you don't have to refrigerate it." It's important because many parts of the country lack refrigeration.
France controlled Vietnam for nearly a century, until 1954, and this left a strong influence on the cuisine, most evident in the banh mi sandwich. The popular street food starts with a baguette, which is spread with pate and spicy mayonnaise, then filled with grilled meat, herbs, and pickled and fresh vegetables. It's a contrast of flavors that strikes a perfect balance.
Crepes get a twist in banh xeo (bonn-SAY-oh), lacy rice flour rounds stuffed with shredded pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, accompanied by fresh vegetables and nuoc cham sauce. Vietnamese-style coffee is another French legacy. Served hot or cold, a drip brew is mixed with nearly an equal portion of thick, sweetened condensed milk.
Restaurateur Duyen Le immigrated with his family in 1987. He owns two restaurants called Le's in Allston and Cambridge, and the two-year-old Pho Le in Dorchester. Pho Pasteur in Chinatown, now owned by a friend, was opened by Le as well. Since he shuttles back and forth between locations all day, Le likes to eat a bowl of bun bo hue (boon-bow-HWAY). It is noodle-based with a pungent broth of shrimp paste, pork hocks, and beef, to which chili peppers, lemongrass, and a variety of aromatics are added. "It takes 16 hours to make," he says. In fact, he's the one who prepares the soup base and all sauces for his restaurants.
Bissonnette, who cooks Italian food at Coppa and Spanish at Toro, has managed to incorporate elements of Vietnamese cuisine. "I was fascinated by the simplest things," says the chef. "I was like, let's take five ingredients out of every dish and make it so much more simple and approach the whole menu that way." One dish that changed is seviche. "I almost always make a Vietnamese 'vinaigrette,' like lime and fish sauce and palm sugar, and base it off that," he says.
The all-important fish sauce is part of the culture in other ways. Some people find creative ways to use it when describing themselves. When he returned to Vietnam in 1994 to bicycle through the country, Pham recounts, he had several interactions with locals curious about his ethnicity.
He would simply say, "Whole undiluted fish sauce, I am."
Matt Barber can be reached at email@example.com.