While it may get squeezed into the margins of the cooking, lifestyle and travel pages by Mediterranean and other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food does now hold significant international currency. Even non-foodie types could probably name one key ingredient from the country's diverse kitchen.
Phở noodles, fish sauce and fresh intensely flavoured herbs are some of the hallmarks. Summer rolls (gỏi cuốn) and bánh mì are dishes that are commonly available in cities all over the world where the Vietnamese have taken up residence. They've crossed over the cultural barriers and do not seem any longer to belong just to the Vietnamese.
Other aspects of the cuisine here are much maligned. Dog meat is an obvious example which gets a pretty unanimous thumbsdown from the food press and food tourists alike. It's a place that most westerners simply do not want to go (for the record, yes I have...) but they almost certainly do want to express their abject horror about the practice of eating dog. In general, in fact, in amongst all the gushing about Vietnamese food and how healthy and fresh it is, there does tend to be inordinate attention drawn to the exotica in the food scene here. As an expat who blogs about food here, the pieces I read that mention the dog-meat, the insects, the snake, the aphrodisiac properties of the rice wine, the eating of endangered species, the smelly dipping sauces...the list goes on...are really beginning to grate. The Vietnamese will readily admit, partly in jest, that they will eat anything with arms and legs except chairs and tables.
This angle on Vietnamese cuisine is a cliché. It needs a rest.
Far more interesting are some of the vegetables found prepped and ready for cooking in the wet markets here. In Hoi An recently, I was greeted at one vendor's stall by bitter melon and bamboo shoot, ingredients I occasionally eat yet rarely cook. In my mind, these examples of simple and fairly omnipresent produce are just as worthy of a few column inches as the dog meat.
The bitter melon (khổ qua) is not to everyone's taste and, I hasten to add, would possibly elicit a more dramatic over-reaction from the palate than dog, insect or snake. As the name suggests, it is rather severe in the mouth. Some of the Vietnamese dishes I've eaten that have bitter melon as the feature ingredient are khổ qua xào trứng (bitter melon stir-fried with egg) and canh khổ qua nhồi thịt (stuffed bitter melon broth).
Much blander on the tongue is bamboo shoot (măng). When fresh it is used in stir-fries and, fresh or reconstituted from dry, it is frequently seen in soups paired with poultry. Sliced thinly in a bowl of bún măng vịt (duck and bamboo noodle soup) or in a slow cooked soupy stew of pigs feet (măng hầm giò heo), both traditional northern dishes, bamboo shoots can be bought in big tubers, sliced or shredded, dried young or old.
So if there is a point I'm trying to make here, I suppose it is that between the fame and the exotica of Vietnamese cuisine lie some more austere elements worthy of at least a mere mention.