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Chinese-Vietnamese Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)

Summer Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(2) page(s): 24 to 27

The dietary habits and the dishes of the Chinese-Vietnamese differ considerably from those of the Han Chinese. We learn many when evaluating diets of Vietnamese in North America when we did a study concurrent with colleagues in Oregon and Toronto. In some of that early data, we found responses tinged with things Chinese. That was how we realized the folks we were querying had some Chinese heritage.

China is north of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia are to its west. Check this out on the map on this page. Vietnam’s culinary influences relate to these countries but the most important one is to China as they were one country from 111 BCE when Han emperors annexed the Red River Delta until the Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam in 938 CE.

We saw and tasted some of them in Saigon in the south and in Hanoi in the north when we visited there. Current Vietnamese cuisine is divided into three parts. These are in the north, in the middle, and in the south of Vietnam. During early Chinese rule the cuisine incorporated stir-frying and deep-frying in a wok, and lots of vegetarian cookery influenced by Buddhism which began in the second century CE.

Soon thereafter, eating and growing rice became important. Today, Vietnam is the world’s third largest rice exporters. Readers can learn more about the Vietnamese and their food in this magazine’s Volume 14(1). Other culinary influences come from the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century, and Hakka food influences in the 17th century. Both impact northern Vietnamese cookery. About the same time, in what was Saigon but now called Ho Chih Min City, the Chinese impacted Cholon and its Chinatown with Chinese dishes and tastes. A French writer, Didier Lauras, described this region as a “Chinese enclave on Vietnamese soil.” Folks ate and still eat foods resembling different areas in China. In the 19th century, the French began to see Vietnam as a route to the resource-rich provinces of southern China. By 1887, they controlled the Mekong Delta and then the whole country. They later combined Vietnam with Cambodia and Laos and formed the ‘Union of Indochina.

However, during World War II, Vietnam fell under Japanese control until 1945. Thereafter, their leader, Ho Chih Minh, proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The Geneva Conference divided the country at the 17th parallel, and in 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam became a reality with major food shortages. These were addressed after 1997 and national elections.

In the center of this country, and eventually in all of Vietnam’s one thousand mile north to south land, availability impacted what the people ate and are still eating, particularly in the north. Seafood was dominant as it was during Vietnam’s Imperial cuisine, particularly around the capital of Hue where shrimp and sweet potatoes are important foods.

Southern Vietnamese culinary dominates around Saigon as do tastes of Indonesian and Thailand. Around the 16th century, western explorers including the Dutch and French came bringing desires for wheat, white potatoes, tomatoes, and cress; and they introduced condensed milk for their coffee and wheat to make sweets to accompany their coffee. Later they showed the locals how to make French bread and serve it with butter and yogurt; and they taught how to make many pastries and cakes. These added sweets stayed in the Vietnamese diet, as did caramelized foods in all courses. The Vietnamese continued the use of Chinese cooking techniques and Chinese tastes mixed with these new foods. Today, locals like to flavor their foods with raw and cooked herbs, and this is one main difference from their classic Chinese culinary heritage. One morning, during a visit to a Vietnamese farmer’s market in Middle America, we had an unexpected chance to meet some new American-Vietnamese immigrants. After knowing one lady less than ten minutes, we jumped into her car and went with her to a market to see what she was talking about. Here we bought some lovely clothes and some foods to truck back to New York City two days later. And here, we also learned more about the foods and herbs of Vietnam and the local Chinese-Vietnamese population in this region of our own country. She and her friends were ‘boat people’ resettled near this market, and after some hours with them and some years later, we were able to use this knowledge when we went to Vietnam.

While with her, she showed us an herb we knew not. It was one she and her friends often used calling it Nouttuynai cordata. Though it did smell similar to coriander, we knew it was not quite the same. After returning home, we found it was not a Japanese herb as they said, but Houttuynia chameleon, an herb we never heard of.

We did see these herbs for sale in that market place, even bought some to tote home, and we did see them growing behind their apartments. They had planted them two months earlier and this new friend whispered she brought the seeds to the mid-west secreted in her clothing so she could have them in her meat and fish dishes, even with her rice. We were soon invited into her kitchen where she used them in dishes she prepared for us. We ate lunch with her family and a few neighbors and thanks to these folk, had a great introduction to Vietnamese-Chinese foods and customs.

We spent a few hours speaking about her heritage and her food. She said that she and many friends from Vietnam were families living in Vietnam only for three generations. Their great-grandparents moved to Vietnam from China in the 1800s when she was a child. They had come to Saigon with many other families, and these same Chinese folk relocated together once again, this time to America.

When asked specifics about their diet, she said they eat rice daily as it their staple food, as is pork. Here, they serve beef to guests as they did in Saigon, and they consider that appropriate behavior when treating their guests. The fruits and vegetables they eat are mostly fresh, a few are pickled with salt before fresh ones go out of season.

In Vietnam and in the USA, she tells us they prefer duck eggs salted or buried in lime and ash. Her grandma told her these eggs are of Hong Kong origin. In Vietnam, she used to eat lots of organ meats when available and large amounts of fish and seafood. They had these foods almost every day and flavored them with the already mentioned herb and many others.

She uses soy sauce and fish sauce, the latter called nuoc mam they have daily as a condiment, and use soy sauce in cooking. She drinks tea many times a day, certainly at all meals. As to dairy products, the only one she mentions is condensed milk and she uses it in her coffee in mid-afternoon and late in the evening, but rarely at meals. She usually has soup for breakfast, calls it pho and says 'fer,' and says it is often made with leftover liquids made from meat and fish bones and a few vegetables. These she puts into her pho and rarely uses beef to make it.

She goes on to say she and her family eat rice with stir-fried vegetables for lunch, usually without meat, and more of the breakfast soup or pho, and for dinner the family has many stir-fried dishes with pork and plain white rice with it.

The all use chopsticks, hold the rice bowl close to their mouths, use lots of bean sprouts, cook with ginger, coriander, mint, purple basil, and the herb mentioned above. When I asked about fish sauce, she said they use a little, often with chili sauce, and that it is expensive here.

We did ask about congee, and she said it was not popular, that pho is their main hot breakfast food, and that it is popular at lunch, too. One lady who dropped in and joins the conversation, says she does not like to cook, her family only eats pho away from home, and that they eat out a lot. She is clearly embarrassed, and adds, "fast food." She goes on to say that her children used to eat xoi at school for lunch. This is a steamed mixture of sticky rice, beans, peanuts, and pork, and in Vietnam they took it to school in a banana leaf and ate it with their fingers. They did the same when having goi cuan, a Vietnamese pancake made with noodles, bean sprouts, mushrooms and shrimp. Before she left Vietnam her kids loved it but here, she tells us, "my kids tell me their friends do not like its smell and taste, so they do not eat it any more."
Chicken Pho
1 three to four pound chicken, cut into four pieces
4 chicken thighs
1 Tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1/3 pound fresh ginger, cut into four to six pieces
1/2 pound rice noodles, broken into short pieces
1 cup coriander, cut into two-inch sprigs
1/2 cup chopped scallions, green parts only
1 cup bean sprouts, their tails removed
1-3 chilies, optional
1. Put the chicken quarters, chicken thighs, salt, peppercorns, and the ginger in a large pot, and cover them with one gallon of water. Bring this to the boil, reduce the heat and skim the surface until no more scum rises to the top.
2. After half an hour, check the chicken to see if no pink meat remains, if so, remove the chicken from the bone, discard skin and bones, and pull the chicken meat into long strips. Do not use a knife to cut the meat.
3. Strain the broth. Return the chicken and all cooked solids and liquids to the pot, add the rice noodles, and bring to the boil. When the noodles are cooked, remove and discard the ginger, then add the coriander, scallions, and bean sprouts, and the chili peppers, if desired, and allow the soup to sit for five minutes before serving it in a large soup tureen or in pre-heated individual soup bowls.
Caramel Pork in Claypot
1/4 pound pork leg meat, cut into one-inch chunks
2 Tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, separated
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
2 large shallots, peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 scallion, minced, green and white parts separated
1 teaspoon seeded and chopped chili pepper
1 Tablespoon sugar or a piece of solid caramelized
1. Heat half the vegetable oil and half the sugar in a dry fry pan stirring until brown. Then remove from the heat and set aside to mix into ingredients in step 2.
2. Marinate the pork with the fish sauce and the rest of the sugar, the chicken bouillon, pepper, white part of the scallion, the shallots, and the chilies.
3. Bring the pork mixture and half cup of cold water to the boil, quickly reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour.
4. Garnish with the green scallion pieces, and serve over rice.
Seafood Fritters
1/2 pound peeled sweet potatoes, grated
1/4 pound shrimp, oysters, and/or clams, each cut into four pieces
1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup canned coconut milk
1 cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons very coarsely chopped fresh mint
2 Tablespoons very coarsely chopped Houttuynia cordata
1. In a small linen towel, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the grated sweet potatoes.
2. Dry the shrimp, oysters, and or the clams in paper towels, and set them aside.
3. Mix the flours, sugar, turmeric, and salt and slowly stir then add the coconut cream making a thick batter.
4. Add the potatoes and sea foods and do not thin this thick batter unless it can not be stirred. If this is the case, add more coconut cream a tablespoon at a time.
5. Heat the oil and pour in heaping tablespoons of this batter to make the fritters; do not make too many at one time. Fry them on both sides, then drain them on paper towels. Repeat until all are made, putting them on a pre-heated serving plate. Sprinkle the herbs on them, and serve.
Shrimp and Lotus Root Salad
10 large shrimp, cooked, peeled, veins removed, each cut in four to six pieces
1 small carrot, grated
1 section of lotus root, peeled, cooked, thinly sliced, and quartered
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
2 Tablespoons Houttuynia cordata or coriander, coarsely chopped
1 chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 Tablespoons fried shallots
1 bunch chives, cut into half-inch lengths
1. Mix the shrimp, gated carrot, lotus root pieces, and the fish sauce and mix well.
2. Then add half the Houttuynia cordata, the chili pepper pieces, shallots and chives, and toss again.
3. Put this into a large serving bowl, sprinkle the other half of the last four items, and serve.
Pumpkin in Coconut Cream
1 small Asian or kobacha pumpkin, peeled and cut into one-inch cubes
1 cup taro root, peeled and cubed into one-inch cubes
10 medium-size wood ear fungi, soaked and chopped coarsely
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, their paper exterior shells removed and discarded
1 cup peeled silk squash, cut in one-inch cubes
1 cup stirred canned coconut cream
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped mint or coriander leaves
1. Put the pumpkin and the taro root cubes in two cups of cold water in a medium-size pot. Bring this to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for ten minutes.
2. Next, add the fungi, peanuts, silk squash, and the coconut cream, also the sugar and the salt, and simmer for five minutes more.
3. Now bring this to the boil for three minutes, then drain, and discard the liquid.
4. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and when hot, add the drained vegetables, and stir-fry for three minutes. Put everything cooked into a serving bowl, sprinkle the mint or coriander leaves on top, and serve.
Fish Stew with Pork Belly
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
10 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1/4 cup pork belly, sliced then diced
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 stalk lemon grass, white part only, minced
1/2 pound boneless and skinless firm-fleshed white fish, cut into one-inch cubes
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 pound small shrimp, shells and veins removed and discarded
1. Heat wok or large pot and stir-fry the garlic, shallot and pork belly pieces about eight minutes or until the pork belly pieces are crisp; be careful not to burn the garlic or shallot pieces.
2. Add three quarts of boiling water and simmer for ten minutes before adding the fish, sugar and the shrimp. Simmer for five more minutes, then serve in a soup tureen or into individual soup bowls.
Chicken Chunks with Mango
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small red seedless chili pepper, minced
1 pound chicken boneless and skinless breast and thigh meat
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
1 peeled ripe tomato, cubed
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 almost ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and cubed
1/4 cup roasted cashew nuts
1. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, then the minced garlic and stir-fry for one minute before adding the chili pepper. Stir once then add the pieces of chicken and stir-fry for two minutes.
2. Add the snow peas, the cubes of tomato, and the fish sauce and lemon juice. As soon as it boils, add the mango and the cashew nuts, turn off the heat, and remove the contents to a pre-warmed bowl, and serve.
Steamed Ground Pork
1 ounce bean thread noodles
6 dried Chinese black mushrooms
1 pound ground pork
3 peeled and minced garlic cloves
3 shallots peeled and minced
4 eggs, three beaten well, the other one set aside
2 ounces canned anchovies, minced with their oil
2 fresh chili peppers, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3 cups freshly cooked rice
1. Soak noodles and the mushrooms separately in warm water for half an hour. Cut the noodles into one-inch pieces and discard the mushroom stems and slice them thinly.
2. In a large bowl, mix the pork, garlic, shallots and the three beaten eggs, then add the anchovies, chili peppers, and the ground pepper, and gently stir into the pork mixture.
3. Put the pork mixture into a round heat-proof pan and smooth the surface making a small indent into the meat. Then break the last egg into this.
4. Put two inches of water into a steamer or a large pot, bring it to the boil, cover the pot and steam for forty minutes.
5. Put the hot-cooked rice into a wide serving bowl, take the pork out by extra-large tablespoons and put it decoratively on and around the rice, then serve.
Pickled Carrots
1/2 cup white rice vinegar
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound peeled baby carrots, cut into 0ne-quarter inch rounds
1. Put vinegar, sugar, and salt into an enamel pot and bring to the boil, then allow this to cool covered overnight.
2. Add the carrots and let them sit in this enamel pan for three hours. Then transfer them and the liquid to sterilized jars, cover with sterilized lids, refrigerate for one week, then serve.

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