VIETNAMESE food would never make it as fast food: Meals are meant to be assembled delicately and eaten slowly. ``It's almost a ritual,'' says Nicole Routhier, author of the award-winning ``The Foods of Vietnam'' (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35): ``You build up a meal and enjoy it.'' People pay respect to food by taking time to eat slower, she says in an interview.
Ms. Routhier demonstrates by wrapping a piece of lettuce around a sumptuous spring roll, adding a sprig of coriander leaf, and dipping it in some spicy fish sauce. ``Every bite is a new bite - an explosion of flavors,'' she declares.
Here at the Saigon Restaurant on Mulberry Street in New York's Chinatown, Routhier joins a writer for lunch. Outside, customers at a food market - most of them Asian - mill around, examining fish and produce.
Inside, however, the clientele is decidedly Western, an indication of the surge of interest in this cuisine. Noted food writer Craig Claiborne considers it one of the best in the world.
``It's gaining popularity,'' says Routhier, talking about the food she grew up with and now cooks professionally. Five years ago, Vietnamese restaurants were primarily frequented by Asians. But now the word is out, says Routhier: ``One person eats and loves it and says to someone else, `Hey, you should try it.'''
Jan Khuu, owner of the Saigon Restaurant, says that in the eight years since she opened it, she has seen more and more non-Asians venture through her doors. People from other Asian countries come in, too, she adds: ``Japanese people love it.'' Ms. Khuu has recently opened a second restaurant, specializing in seafood, around the corner.
As with many ``new'' Asian cuisines in America, Vietnamese is often brushed off as yet another variation on Chinese. ``That's what frustrates me the most!'' says Routhier, shaking her head. To make matters worse, some restaurants in the United States claim to be Vietnamese, but are not authentic. ``Most of the time what is served to [Americans] is half Chinese,'' says Routhier. (She advises customers to ask ``Is this the way you eat in Vietnam?'')
Eaten with chopsticks, Vietnamese food is obviously Chinese-influenced. The two cuisines offer rice and noodle dishes, seafood, chicken, beef, and some stir-frying and hotpot cooking. Thai and Indian seasonings made their way into the cuisine as well: coriander, lemon grass, curry.
As chefs like Routhier are quick to point out, however, Vietnamese food is very different in the way ingredients are used and prepared.
For example, says Routhier, ``we love raw vegetables, unlike the Chinese, who would most likely add them to stir-fries or heavy stews.'' Also, most of the food is grilled or raw, she adds. The idea of ``building'' a meal is also different: At a Vietnamese meal, one is constantly adding herbs, or wrapping with rice paper and lettuce, or dipping in sauces - or all of the above - right at the table.
``We eat an astronomical amount of fresh herbs and vegetables. We consume incredible amounts of seafood,'' says Routhier. ``Also, we eat an awful lot of peanuts because of their crunchy flavor. ...'' Pho - a beef and rice noodle soup - is probably the most well-known dish in Vietnam, often eaten for breakfast. Generally, the Vietnamese prefer long-grain white rice. Tea, green and black, is the main drink.
Another significant influence is that of the French: They ruled Vietnam from 1859 until they were driven out in 1954. French bread and caf'e au la^it (made with sweetened, condensed milk) are especially popular in southern Vietnam, where dishes tend to be spicier and hotter than in the north. Because of Vietnam's ties to France, some of the best Vietnamese restaurants outside of that country are in France.
``Rice paper is all our own,'' says Routhier. It starts as a dry, brittle pancake that has a long shelf life. Dipped in water or steamed, it becomes a sort of elastic pancake, light and pliable. It's like a food blanket used to wrap pieces of meat and/or vegetables and other ingredients.
Compared with other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese is a lot lighter because it calls for little oil and fat: ``The climate is very hot; people don't want anything heavy,'' says Routhier. ``You can eat as much as you want and get away from the table not stuffed,'' she says.
What every Vietnamese meal will include is fish sauce. Called nuoc mam, it's basically fermented anchovies - ``what salt is to us,'' says Routhier. Nuoc mam comes in several different grades.
The Vietnamese spring roll is also a staple. ``You cannot go into a Vietnamese restaurant without ordering spring roll,'' Routhier says. Made usually of meat, noodles, vegetables, bean sprouts, and herbs in rice paper, the roll is traditionally wrapped in lettuce with more herbs and often dipped in nuoc cham - hot fish sauce made with lime juice, chilies, sugar, garlic, and vinegar.
This particular restaurant is probably trying to adapt to American tastes, says Routhier: The fish sauce is sweeter than she is used to. Interestingly, the Vietnamese in America have fallen for iceberg lettuce, not found in Vietnam. They love the crunchy texture, says Routhier.
Chao Tom - barbecued shrimp paste on sugar cane - arrives at the table. It's made with ground shrimp, rice powder, and other ingredients to form a paste that wraps around pieces of sugar cane. After grilling, it's brushed with scallion-flavored oil and topped with peanuts. There is a delicious exchange of flavors, explains Routhier. Scraped off the sugar cane, the grilled shrimp paste is then wrapped with thin carrot strips, bean sprouts, and tiny rice vermicelli in lettuce and rice paper. ``Don't forget the herb,'' advises Routhier with a careful eye on this reporter, who keeps forgetting. ``It's important.''
Herbs are paramount in Vietnamese cooking. ``We consume humongous amounts of herbs,'' says Routhier, who was born in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to a Vietnamese restaurateur mother and a French father. In addition to adding flavor, she says, herbs help clear the palate between bites of food.
Viet cuisine uses dozens of varieties of herbs, many of which are unknown to Americans save basil, mint, coriander, ginger, and maybe lemon grass. Because of their scarcity, Vietnamese restaurants in America often have to make do without. ``A lot of places cut out herbs - they're too expensive,'' says Routhier. In her opinion, that's a shame because they can be obtained. Many herbs are grown in Florida, California, and Hawaii by Vietnamese immigrants.
As restaurant owners will attest, however, cutting small corners is often necessary for survival.
`NOT easy. ... Family help and don't pay too much,'' comments owner Jan Khuu, who joins us over a rainbow ice (a custard-like dessert made with red beans, coconut milk, agar, sugar, and crushed ice). Routhier explains that, many times, family members work for free to help a restaurant survive.
With Routhier acting as translator, Ms. Khuu tells how she and her family escaped from Vietnam in 1977 on a boat they secretly purchased with dozens of other people. After a year of planning and seven days at sea, they landed in Malaysia and then traveled to the United States.
Rising rent and taxes, says Khuu, have put strains on her restaurant, which she says serves as many as 500 people a day. But through savings, she was able to open up the new restaurant around the corner. Most ingredients she needs are available right here in Chinatown, she says.
What does her family like to eat? Mrs. Khuu laughs when she says her three children like McDonald's hamburgers and Kentucky Fried chicken. At home, they will sometimes have such American food as sandwiches or hamburgers.
As for homeland fare, ``sometimes we cook different things not on menu,'' says Khuu: ``It's very good to eat; but very smelly - no good [for restaurant business]. Some Americans love it; they ask why we don't serve it.''
Some Vietnamese food is esoteric, explains Routhier - such as certain fermented fish. ``It's very, very pungent. ... If you served it in a restaurant [in the US], people would run away!''