Rice is the principal staple Vietnamese food and one of
the most important crops. For the poor, rice with only a sprinkling of
low grade nuoc mam is considered a meal and an occasional addition of
fish and few vegetables may constitute the whole diet. For other
Vietnamese, rice still comes first but the addition of fish, meats and
poultry, as well as a variety of vegetables and fruits round out the
diet more completely. Without rice - simply boiled white and fluffy - it
is scarcely a meal.
Rice flour is used in the making of many dumplings and
pastry dishes that are cooked usually by steaming. One such soft
dumpling dish is called banh cuon, made by rubbing a ball of soft dough
over cheesecloth stretched tightly over a pot of boiling water. The
steam cookes the circle of dough which is then lifted off, filled with a
minced mixture of meat, fish or vegetables, then rolled and dipped in
nuoc cham before popping in the mouth. "Papers" of almost cellophane
consistency are made usually commercially out of rice flour and are
called "rice papers". Cut into small squares these are used at the table
to wrap variously prepared tidbits, then a preliminary sauce-dunking
makes them the special dish called cha gio.
Some western-type breads and rolls are available in
Saigon in restaurants catering to European or western tastes but these
are not a regular part of the Vietnamese diet. Noodle dishes, as in
other East Asian countries, often form the basis of a quick lunch.
Noodles may be prepared from rice, wheat or buckwheat flours. As with
almost every other type of dish, what makes it distinctly Vietnamese is
the addition of nuoc mam.