The legacy of the French colonial era lives on today in Vietnam quite visibly in the form of infrastructure, architecture, and through the French influences on Vietnamese cuisine. However, the Vietnamese have taken some of the distinctly French food and drink items and put their own twist on them.
When travelling in South East Asia, I don’t really expect to encounter delicate French pastries, crusty breads or steaming mugs of cafe latte.
Generally, I expect SE Asian desserts to be gelatinous, rice-, tapioca- or coconut-based confections. Or perhaps based on fruits in a syrup? On one infamous occasion I tried a dessert delicacy in Malaysia that my tastebuds still haven’t quite recovered from. Bread doesn’t normally feature highly in traditional Asian cooking, and it’s only been in recent years that a ‘cafe culture’ has developed in parts of SE Asia.
So it was a bit of a surprise the first time we went to Vietnam and discovered that there was a huge range of breads on offer, that croissants make an appearance on almost every breakfast buffet, that patisseries feature a wealth of sweet treats, and that one of the most famous of the Vietnamese street foods (bánh mì) consists of what looks like a French baguette, filled with aromatic meats and salad. And coffee? Coffee is a Vietnamese staple.
Of course, that was total ignorance on my behalf…as what would you expect in a country that was colonised by the French for over 100 years? Many of the foods we experience in Vietnam today show the influence those years, but recreated into a distinctly Vietnamese cuisine and culture.
Banh mi is an excellent example of the French influence-with-a-twist, and consuming a freshly made banh mi is a must on any Vietnamese itinerary. Banh mi consists of a crusty baguette roll which is spread with butter and pâté, and then filled with meats (such as crispy pork, or grilled fish patties), pickled radish/daikon or carrots, onions, tomatoes, cucumber and coriander, and topped with a bit of chilli. It’s a sandwich packed with flavour, and a fabulous lunch choice. The best I’ve ever tried was from a street stall in Hoi An while we were doing The Original Taste of Hoi An Food Tour.
But in my bread-consuming experiences, there was something I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. The bread used in bánh mì (and on the breakfast buffets) somehow seemed lighter than our breads at home. And I couldn’t work out why or how.
One story is that the Vietnamese incorporate rice flour into their baking (in equal parts with wheat flour) and that is what gives the bread the lighter texture and the crispy crust. However, a few minutes spent on Google and I discovered that is a highly contentious claim. Many people who have tried to recreate Vietnamese baguettes themselves say that the rice flour creates a heavier texture. It seems the Vietnamese baguette-bakers are keeping the secret of the fluffy-crustiness exactly that…secret.
In any case, it’s definitely an example of a former colony taking an element of the colonial culture and refining it for their own tastes.
Patisseries abound on the streets of HCMC offering a huge array of pastry and dessert items. Again, they are influenced by the traditional French patisserie culture, but often have their own twist. Light and fluffy, many of the items feature flavours such as green tea, mango or durian. Or they are elaborately decorated in a distinctly Vietnamese style.
Plus, of course, the French left their mark on Vietnamese coffee culture. Coffee is incredibly popular throughout Vietnam. Coffee shops are the meeting places for Vietnamese people at all times of day or night, and the coffee itself has its own particular style and flavour. There’s a ritual for preparing and drinking it that is quite different to European methods.
Coffee was a relatively new and popular substance in France at the time they colonized Indochina, so it didn’t take long for the French to take advantage of the Vietnamese climate and soils to start a coffee-growing industry. Nowadays, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer/exporter (after Brazil). The beans grown in Vietnam are predominantly the cheaper and faster-growing robusta beans, which are mostly used in instant coffee production. The taste is more bitter than the arabica beans, which partly explains the way the Vietnamese prepare it with sweet condensed milk.
In Vietnam, coffee is brewed using single-cup filters that sit over the coffee cup or glass. And somewhat confusingly, it is nearly always served with a glass of hot or cold tea too.
The hot coffee drips through the filter into a glass or cup which has a centimetre or two of sweet condensed milk already in it. Once the coffee has all dripped in, the milk and coffee are stirred together. If you’re drinking it iced, the coffee & milk mixture is then poured into a second cup or glass filled with ice.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s also an option to try ‘ca phe chon’ (or civet-cat coffee). This is coffee made from beans which have passed though the digestive tract of a civet cat and are collected from their faeces. Apparently, these cats love their coffee too, and they have a knack of tracking down the best coffee cherries to eat. The beans are then fermented in their intestines before being returned to the world to be ‘harvested’. This process supposedly strips some of the bitterness from the coffee, and imparts a mellow flavour.
There’s lots of coffee stalls offering ca phe chon (or weasel) beans for sale, but most of what you see is actually fake weasel coffee. Real chon coffee is quite rare, and can cost up to USD$3000 per kilogram. In the instance of the fake beans, the flavour is recreated by biotechnologists isolating enzymes that replicate the action of the chon intestine and then combining that with chocolate powders. I’ve tasted some of the fake weasel coffee, and I’d say they’re doing a good job of that process, as it quite honestly tasted like sh*t.
This is one twist on French coffee culture I’m sure none of those colonials saw coming.