How Vietnamese food is different than Chinese food
Most people clump all “Asian” foods in one category but that is completely wrong.
Anyone that has travelled Asia can tell you the Vietnamese and Chinese have two unique and individual cultures that—though they may be related—stand very much apart from one another. This goes doubly for their food.
Culinary tradition is as much a product of geography as it is of history. Vietnamese cooking has always differed from that of Chinese cooking because the climates of the two countries are very dissimilar. Vietnam boast four seasons in the north but only two in the tropical south. In Vietnam there can be found spices and herbs and ingredients that are not native to any other part of the world. In fact, Vietnam is where both the modern domesticated chicken and modern strains of rice which can be harvest twice a year originated. Thanks Vietnam!
So geography gave ancient Vietnamese chefs all sorts of fresh flavors to add to their dishes—think Basil and lemongrass as obvious examples (but there are SO many more).
Not only that, but some ideas, techniques, and items were brought to Vietnam throughout its history. The Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, and Thai all had close proximity and varying amounts of trade or other interaction (including overlapping origins) with Vietnam. The French colonized Vietnam for over a hundred years, bringing a European cookbook—so to speak—to the Vietnamese.
From this special blend of geography and history was born our favorite dishes like Pho and Banh Mi. And too something more important—balance.
Many culinary identities go to the extreme in their use of a particular ingredient whether that ingredient is a spice or a spiciness level, a type of carbohydrate base, or even a particular cooking technique. Vietnam, on the other hand, has learned to balance all these parts of cooking so that Vietnamese food is not overly heavy in one direction or another. Vietnamese stir-fry is savory but not salty. Vietnamese soup is well rounded with ingredients that complement one another. Vietnamese has both hot and ‘fresh’ dishes.
In short, Vietnamese food stands apart from the other varieties of Asian food. Yet, that difference is hard to put into words. Maybe the best way to really understand is to give Vietnamese food a try one day.