The Rise of Fine Dining in Vietnam

By: Robyn Wilson

Well-known for its street food tours and alleyway cafés, visitors to Vietnam can often make the mistake of overlooking its more upmarket eateries.

But while street food will always be deep in the country’s heart, its soul now lies with the exquisite culinary experiences that can be had in its new wave of fine-dining restaurants. These young, enterprising chefs are creating a new identity for Vietnamese cuisine that is entirely its own.

vietnamese foodImage source: finedininglovers.com

By mixing elegance, quality ingredients and traditional cooking techniques, Vietnamese fine dining selects the best parts of street food and brings them to the restaurant table with a touch of class.

Teaching the Basics

Of course, getting to grips with the basics is vital for any successful chef and kitchen – something that can be seen in Ho Chi Minh City’s Mai Sen Bistro and Maisen Vocational Training Centre (56 Nguyen Van Lac, Binh Thanh District), which teaches restaurant service and cooking to disadvantaged, budding young chefs and restaurateurs from Vietnam and sets them up for a future to cook in some of the best Vietnamese kitchens.

“Crucial techniques such as braising, grilling and stewing are all part of the three-year training course at the school” according to Minh Phan, one of its students. He explains how they are also taught the importance of presentation – something which can often be overlooked in street cooking.

vietnamese foodImage source: vietnam.ahk.de

It is the mixture of these traditional skills with modern techniques that creates fine dining at its best, as well as the subtle combination of flavours and textures that can only come from generations of refinement.

Popular street foods like pho and banh mi contrast the crunch of raw or pickled vegetables with the softer texture of cooked meat or paté. To take this to another level, fine dining restaurants add their own flair. La Residence in Hue, for example, has a salad starter with soft pomelo, grilled sun-dried squid and a crispy prawn cracker.

Likewise, in Saigon’s Xu Saigon restaurant there are dishes which balance textures well, such as nem cua bể, a crispy deep-fried crab spring roll, served with crunchy pickles and a soft, fresh rice noodle salad.

Learning from the Past for the Future

In many of the high-class kitchens of Vietnam, it is not only traditional techniques that continue to influence modern-day chefs.

As Mike Barclei-Smythe, the general manager of Global Vintage Wines, who works with and dines at many of the great restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City points out, many traditional recipes are still being used today.

One in particular, which is a favourite of his, is the Vietnamese dish, mắm kho quẹt. “It’s made from pork fat, pieces of pork, dried shrimp, onion, garlic and sugar and is traditionally cooked in a clay pot and used to be a cheap way to feed a family,” he explains.

vietnamese foodImage source: danangcuisine.com

But this an old dish that many modern Vietnamese chefs are plating up in their kitchens today across the country.

Fine dining is not only about distilling the essence of the past – it’s also about innovation, and what better ingredient to play with than the nation’s favourite?

Served with most meals, rice, or cơm, is an essential part of the Vietnamese diet. The street food cơm tấm, literally translated as “broken rice”, is essentially a dish of small rice bits, served with a little meat (most often pork), fish or vegetable and is eaten by locals with a fried egg and diluted fish sauce.

vietnamese foodImage source: sidestreetpho.com

A nice modern twist of this classic can be seen at The Hue House in Ho Chi Minh City, where the chefs have mixed brown and white rice grains together and added diced carrot.

The Hue House owner, Huy Tran, says having two types of rice adds to the texture, while the carrot enhances its sweetness, turning this modest side order into something rather special.

The same restaurant has played with the humble bánh đa – a popular rice cracker snack – by adding the choice of several extravagant toppings, including steamed fish or minced shrimp, something that you would never find perched down on a stall in the street.

An Eye for Ingredients

Mr Tran says it is the quality of these ingredients that sets his and other fine dining restaurants apart from street food stalls.

Global Vintage Wines’ Mr Barclei-Smythe adds that high-end kitchens have greater control over their ingredient supply.

A point which Mr Tran echoes saying he and his chefs hand pick their ingredients daily to ensure quality – something that can be seen in their bánh bột lọc dumpling dish. Instead of cooking these dumplings with the traditionally smaller and cheaper shrimp, The Hue House selects larger and finer-quality prawns.

vietnamese foodImage source: quadacsan.net

It is this attention to detail and quality that makes fine dining Vietnamese food so special.

Blending tradition with new ideas and better-quality ingredients opens up a whole new world for the chefs making waves in Vietnam’s cities, and the number of new restaurants opening is a testament to their success.

About the Author

Robyn Wilson is a freelance journalist currently based in Asia. Formerly the news editor for a popular B2B publication in London, Robyn now writes on food, travel, culture and history. She blogs at: www.weirdfishes.org

Banner image source: shermansfoodadventures.com

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