Western cuisine is on the rise in Vietnam, and not just since yesterday: especially the metropolises Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have seen a wave of French, Italian, American, Mexican and German restaurants in the past decade. Interestingly, Vietnamese seem to embrace this development. More and more local residents have been venturing to foreign restaurants to tease their palates with exotic tastes and flavours. A simple question arises: how did this come to be?
Fish Sauce Versus Cream and Butter
Is Western food really so exotic to Vietnamese? After all, Vietnam’s eventful history gave the country’s people ample opportunity to get to know the Western lifestyle. The French colonised the country in the 19th century, and of course, they brought their food.
Because of this, many Vietnamese dishes have Western roots. You want proof? Just look at their names! Banh mi, Vietnam’s take on the French baguette and one of the country’s most popular snacks, originates from the word pain de mie, which means, simply, toast. And pho, Vietnam’s ultimate signature dish, bears its name from pot au feu, a French beef stew (which is probably why French obstinately pronounce pho like feu).
But the Vietnamese never failed to give those French dishes a distinct local touch, making them theirs and preserving the people’s food comfort zone. After all, Vietnamese cuisine itself boasts a rare variety of dishes and flavours throughout the country, from the hearty Northern dishes to the tangy Central delicacies and the sugary Southern fare.
No cheese here though, no pastry and no foie gras. The differences between the Vietnamese and the French cuisine remain striking: chopsticks here, fork and knife there; shared meals here, individual servings there; fish sauce and soy sauce here, cream and butter there – and can you imagine a French bon vivant sitting on a tiny plastic chair in a Parisian brasserie!?
Still, things in Vietnam are constantly changing. The country is opening to the world on multiple levels. Of course, Ho Chi Minh City, the cosmopolitan metropolis and expat magnet, is in the vanguard of this international development: this is where trends are set. More and more foreign residents are coming into the city, and with them a cosmopolitan food scene that just keeps growing. Old Saigon has become a culinary gateway to the world!
With the new food offer, a certain curiosity has taken hold of the Vietnamese. The more international the city becomes, the less local Saigoneers shy away from gastronomical adventures, most likely because they are more familiar with Western smells, tastes and textures. “Fusion” is the new magic word in Vietnam’s upper-class cuisine, which mixes Eastern and Western food traditions to create stunning new flavours.
But there’s also another tangible change within the Vietnamese society. Booming Vietnam’s middle class is growing, so today many more Vietnamese can afford a lifestyle earlier generations couldn’t even dream of. While their parents had to save every dong they could, this new up-and-coming class can afford being fancy – and, more importantly, they want to be fancy. Farewell to the tiny plastic chairs, hello fine dining!
The Fine-Dining World Leader
Fine dining is still an expat domain in Vietnam, simply because it has never been part of the local food culture. It’s no wonder, then, that Thao Dien, Saigon’s expatriate hub in District 2, is also the city’s fine-dining centre. Not only is the foreign food scene more costly as it relies on imported ingredients, but the service and cooking staff have to meet the highest international standards to satisfy potentially demanding guests as well.
This is all the more true for French cuisine, the fine-dining world leader. Consequently, Vietnamese who want to experience top-class Western food and service standards are drawn to French restaurants. Here, they find the richest and most diverse selection of quality food from the motherland of Michelin.
Those little palate-pleasers, the French canapés, amuses-bouches and mignardises, as well as the rich flavours of wine sauces and cooked-on-point fillets have never made their way into Vietnamese food traditions. Pair them with the outstanding wines from France’s pre-eminent wineries and the world-famous French dessert expertise – and you have a feast that will open a new culinary world to any Vietnamese gustatory adventurer.
For a second time, Vietnamese are “making French dishes theirs” as they whole-heartedly indulge in everything français. So, shouldn’t we say that is it only now, centuries after the first encounter of the two countries, that French cuisine has truly found its way into Vietnamese culture?