Herbs and spices are an everyday staple for any kitchen cupboard, in homes all around the world. Without them the myriad of intricate flavours and aromas that distinguish between cuisines today would be lost, leaving everyone with the same, bland bunch of vegetables, proteins and complex carbohydrates. I love plain vegetables, don’t get me wrong, but pair a humble potato with garlic, salt and a spot of chili and it suddenly becomes something far more exciting. Herbs and spices elevate and diversify our food, and for that they are completely invaluable.
Different cuisines around the world are defined by the herbs and spices they use, and how they are prepared. Vietnam’s own national cuisine is one of the most unique in the globe, partly because of the way it is eaten, but largely because of its huge emphasis on herbs, spices and strong, salty sauces. In particular fish sauce, which has to be one of the most pungent and yet most delicious acquired tastes out there.
There are a range of factors that have influenced the use of spices and herbs in Vietnamese food, from geography to religion and foreign settlement. But to truly understand it all, we will first go back to the very beginning.
A Brief History of Spices
Spices are an everyday product now - just little bits of dusty plant that sit in our cupboard, on our shelves, and disappear into our pots and pans. But the spice trade was once comparable, in terms of importance, to that of gold or precious stones. Did you know that nutmeg was once worth more in weight than gold?
The spice trade originated in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. It was initially controlled by Arabic spice merchants, bringing spices back from China and India to the West over land on a route now known by historians as the Silk Road. This trade road connected Asia with the Mediterranean world, via North Africa and Europe, enabling the development of some of the greatest civilisations in history, from Rome to the ancient Chinese Empire.
At the turn of the European Age of Discovery in about 1500, colonising nations such as Portugal, France and England began to expand the spice trade around the globe, setting up companies and trade centers on Asian coasts. The Portuguese were the first to successfully find their way through Africa to India, and the Spanish, English, Dutch and French followed.
With the rise of the middle class over the Renaissance period came a similar rise in the demand for spices and herbs, and the growing competition among empires to produce and trade these spices sparked bloody conflicts over the control of the spice trade. Wars over the spice industry lasted for several centuries from 1500 to 1700, and by the time the U.S. entered the industry in 1800 the spice trade was in need of a change. The U.S. began to work directly with Asian growers rather than with European companies, establishing their own businesses around Asia and contributing their own spices - from chili powder to dried onions and garlic.
Eventually, as is the way with any commodity, the supply of spices began to outgrow the demand and with that the value of spices fell. People began trading not only the spices but the spice plants themselves, and these aromatic essentials of any fine dish became not only widely available, but widely used among the top and bottom tiers of society alike. Today, spices are valuable not as a commodity but as an agent to individuality. Without them our food would be very mundane!
How Did the Use of Herbs and Spices Develop in Vietnam?
Vietnamese cuisine is a product of a number of cultural, historical and religious factors, but the country’s nation-wide focus on fresh herbs and vegetables, delicate balance and clean aromas was there from the start. It all comes down to geography.
Both the availability and therefore the use of spices in North Vietnam are limited, due to its colder climate. Northern Vietnamese tend to use black pepper, a locally grown spice, to season their dishes rather than chili which requires a warmer climate. Chili, brought to Asia originally by the Portuguese, is not native to Vietnam but now holds a very significant position in southern Vietnamese cooking.
Central Vietnamese cuisine is notable for its fragrance, and for the abundance of spices that grow in the area due to its mountainous, humid terrain. The warm weather and rich soil in the South allow for an even wider range of crops, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and it is this area of Vietnam that is responsible for Vietnamese curries.
The influence of various cultures on Vietnamese food is also a key factor in the use of spices around the country. The South of Vietnam is known for being the most widely affected by the spice trade, with its convenient coastal location making it a perfect trading spot, and its warm climate making it perfect for growing key imports such as chili from the Americas and spices from India. The South is perhaps the most diversified in terms of cuisine given its involvement in trade, and the influence of nearby Cambodian culinary tradition1. The middle regions2 of Vietnam are perhaps the most interesting examples of this, with the royal culinary traditions of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19th Century leaving its mark on the area, with colourful, rich, almost regal foods still around today. Hue was originally the citadel of the Nguyen Dynasty. It was a cultural hub for the nation, bringing together intellectuals, Confucians and creatives, and it was the area in which the idea of “Royal Food” for Vietnam originates.
Vietnamese food is also heavily influenced by its various periods of foreign settlement, from Chinese settlement in 111 to French colonisation in the mid 1800s3. When the Chinese incorporated Vietnam under the Han Empire, they brought both Buddhist and Confucian beliefs and culture into the country. With this came the idea of yin and yang - the balance of opposites - and the concept of applying this principle to cookery4. The Vietnamese apply the idea of balancing the five elements (metal, wood, earth, fire, water) using colours and spices that correlate to an element.
The colour white represents metal, as does a touch of heat/spiciness; a sour taste and the colour green represents wood; yellow and a sweet taste is for earth; the colour red and bitterness symbolises fire; and salty flavour and black colouring represents water. It is the balance between these tastes, colours and hence elements that underpins Vietnamese cooking5. The North of Vietnam remains the most heavily Chinese-influenced area of the nation, and rich, fried food and ingredients similar to those in Chinese cooking are more common here.
This idea of balance was elaborated and altered by the French when they settled in the nation many centuries later. Bringing their own range of European standards, delicacies and principles to Vietnam, the French left the Vietnamese people with some of their modern staples - banh mi baguettes with pate and cold roast pork, baked croissant-like cakes and the Vietnamese sponge cake. The French also brought some key European products to the region, such as potatoes and asparagus.
How Are Herbs and Spices Used in Vietnamese Food Today?
In the modern world, Vietnamese cuisine is known for its delicate aromas and huge base of fresh vegetables and herbs - it’s like a garden on a plate! As an export, it is gaining a reputation around the globe as the next big healthy but delicious alternative, while Vietnamese cuisine in Vietnam remains just as aromatic and herb-filled as ever.
A number of locally grown herbs and spices are considered staples to the Vietnamese diet, as well as a number of imported elements such as chili and turmeric. Thai basil and Vietnamese mint are some staple examples of this, used in noodle soups and broths such as sour canh chua and sweet canh ngot. Lime leaf is another example, and lemongrass, perilla leaf and black pepper are all staples for a range of Vietnamese foods, from bo kho to the various types of hu tieu6.
Vietnam is also now an active member in the spice export trade, adding a range of spices, most prominently black and white pepper, to their already flourishing global trade in arabica and robusta coffee. Before the 1990’s the nation barely made enough pepper to use domestically, but with a stagnant domestic market and a growing international demand, Vietnam’s pepper exports are through the roof7.