Any seasoned connoisseur of Vietnamese food will tell you it’s a cuisine that champions balance in all respects. Savoury, sour soup broths are rounded out with sweet sauces, while saltiness is usually met with an equal punch of spice. Texturally, it’s no different: crunchy, delicate herbs and vegetables cut right through silky meat and noodles, and crispy, fried exteriors encase chewier fillings.
Underscoring it all is a particular tang, a defining characteristic of many Vietnamese dishes, invariably provided by the many fermented foods that act as condiments or accompaniments to the main meal – or sometimes constitute the main meal itself.
Funky aromas of fermented fish paste (mắm chua) or sour pork (thịt lợn chua) are the calling cards of any honest Vietnamese restaurant, and rarely will a Vietnamese dish be served without some nước mắm, or fermented fish sauce – not only in the bustling streets of Hanoi but in Australia, too.
A long-standing tradition
But it’s more than just food that’s being preserved – there are over 50 ethnic groups in Vietnam, each drawing on and upholding an immense backlog of knowledge about fermentation processes to create flavours unique to specific parts of the country. In the north, you’ll find sour fermented pork, but not so much in the south – there, it’s all about fermented shrimp and fish.
Fermentation in Vietnam was born out of necessity, but it’s a process that’s become storied and culturally rich. It’s a tradition that’s followed the Vietnamese diaspora wherever they’ve taken root, including Australia. VN Street Foods in Sydney’s Marrickville is famous for Hanoi specialties, including bún đậu mắm tôm, a deep-fried bean curd dipped in thick, fragrant fermented-shrimp-paste soup.
Short term fermentation
Nem chua (sausage), sour fermented pork, paste made from fermented rice (com me), and fermented fruit and vegetables (dua chua) are all preserved using ‘short term’ processes, resulting in sour-tasting foods intended for quick consumption.
Short term fermentation is usually simple, relying on salt, a few air tight containers and the passage of time (for dua chua, anywhere between one and three days). It’s how we end up with zingy pickled carrots atop our lunch-time banh mi, or as one part of a tasty side salad.
The process behind nem chua is a little more involved: lean pork meat is ground into mince, mixed with boiled pork rind, powdered rice, salt, pepper and garlic. The mixture is shaped into cubes or cylinders, garnished with herbs, guava or pieces of garlic and chillies, and the whole parcel is wrapped in banana leaves before resting for one or two days, depending on exterior temperatures. Once fermented, nem chua is typically eaten as an appetiser.
Take a load off, plan a holiday or get your kitchen remodelled – these foods will be fermenting for a while; in the case of fish sauce, sometimes up to six months.
Long term fermentation techniques are associated with fish and shrimp, and are more commonly used in the south of Vietnam, but the regional variations in production are many. The ingredients and methods necessary to make mắm chua depend ultimately on where in Vietnam you are – near southwest An Giang province, it’s mắm cá lóc, made with snakehead fillet fish fermented with salt and seasoned with sugar. In Hue province, the specialty is tôm chua, a sour fermented shrimp paste made with steamed glutinous rice, spices, herbs and (of course) locally sourced shrimp. Tôm chua is usually left to ferment for around 30 days, and enjoyed as an accompaniment to noodle or pork dishes.
Things like mắm chua, nuoc mắm (fish sauce) and tương (soybean sauce) all require copious amounts of salt to ferment, and, punch-packed as they are, are inextricable from classic Vietnamese dishes.
Using the sun as a tool
Bò một nắng (‘beef dried in the sun’) is a signature specialty from the Central Highlands, where the sun delivers a particularly fierce heat to the scorched earth below. The people of Krông Pa (dubbed the ‘fire pan’ of the province), know how to use the sun to their advantage, however.
Meat from bulls in the area is marinated with a blend of salt, chilli, garlic, lemongrass and sesame – but it’s not an approximation. “If it’s too salty, [the meat] will lose its original flavour; but if it’s too bland, it will rot,” Trần Thị Thiên, a local cook tells Vietnam News. The meat is then rolled in a unique area speciality: dried yellow ants.
The sun works quickly; the meat only needs to hang 30 minutes before it’s roasted to pink perfection on the inside, but satisfyingly dry and crunchy on the outside. A kind of Vietnamese beef jerky, only for the adventurous.
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