Délicieux: How France Influenced Vietnamese Cuisine

The French set up shop in Vietnam in 1859, and after quite a few skirmishes, created “French Indochina” in 1885. They remained in Vietnam until they were booted out in the mid 1950’s, but those 95 years in between created some major changes in Vietnamese cuisine.

Prior to the initial French occupation, the Vietnamese diet focused primarily on fish, vegetables, herbs, and noodles. Beef was not used widely until the beginning of the French occupation, but today it is a staple of the cuisine, featuring prominently in that most comfortable of comfort foods: Pho.

Pho is a hearty hot soup perfect for those winter blahs, and consists of slices of various kinds of beef and beef balls swimming in beef stock and flavored with basil, lime juice, hot peppers, and sauces. Besides Pho, beef is a main ingredient in many entrees such as butter beef, beef stew, beef with lemongrass and black pepper beef.
The French are famous for rich, luxurious foods like paté, custard, cream and croissants, all of which play an important role in modern Vietnamese cuisine. The crusty, crunchy French baguette is a staple at Vietnamese bakeries, and the best example of the food marriage between the two cultures is Bahn Mi, which is a sandwich consisting of liver pate, sliced meats like pork, beef or chicken, vegetables, cilantro, and pickled vegetables on a baguette.

Desserts, while not as widely eaten in Vietnam as in other cultures, also reflect a distinctly French influence. Sweets like egg custard tarts, coconut custard, caramel custard and butter cookies, which would be just as at home in a French or Vietnamese bakery, remain favorites. “Vietnamese coffee”, that super-strong, rich confection, was born from “Cafe Bombon” which was originally created in Spain and migrated all over Europe. It’s a favorite of anyone needing a major caffeine buzz, and consists of espresso and sweetened condensed milk.

Besides beef, pate, custard, baguettes and coffee, the most typical French breakfast food, the croissant, can be enjoyed in endless varieties. Stuffed with ham, chicken, or other types of sliced meats, or served plain with few wedges of Laughing Cow cheese and a pat of butter, the croissant remains a fixture in Vietnam today. Eaten primarily there for breakfast, Vietnamese-style croissant sandwiches are also tremendously popular in American-Vietnamese bakeries where they are often enjoyed as an economical quick lunch for college students or executives on the go.

If you’ve never sampled the glorious marriage between French and Vietnamese foods, check out your nearest Vietnamese restaurant or bakery for a delectable fusion treat.

Nice article. On a minor historical note, while the French “set up shop” in South Vietnam in 1859, they didn’t take control of Central and North Vietnam until 1885. On the plus side, by taking control of the South, they ended the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, with its attendant mandatory assimilation policies that would have erased Cambodia’s identity and absorbed its territory into Vietnam.

As for coffee, it pays to note that today Vietnam is the world’s #2 coffee producer. Though much sold on the international market is blending quality Robusta, some very fine coffees can be savored in Vietnam itself. Northern and Southern tastes differ,with black and bitter coffee being common to the North as opposed to the cafe sua (condensed milk sweetened) version common to the South. Hanoi is definitely a tea drinkers city for the excellent teas that can be found there, but cafe sua by a Hoan Kiem lake open air coffee bar is a memorable experience.