The Art of Vietnamese Cuisine Comes to Israel

You can't just follow a recipe to achieve excellent Vietnamese cooking. There's a philosophy to the food, and soon Israelis can learn it through not one but two restaurants preparing to open in Tel Aviv.

October 22, 1979: A second group of Vietnamese refugees lands in Israel, which takes them in as a goodwill gesture five years after the war in their homeland has ended.

More than 30 years later: The group is alive and well in Jaffa, and grows and prepares much of its own food. If during that time they'd wanted home-cooking, well, too bad -– or, as they say in Vietnamese, “Khong co gi.” Vietnamese cuisine was unknown in Israel, though we know the Chinese, Thai and Japanese kitchens well.

As the world rediscovers the charm of seasonal, environmentally-aware cooking, Vietnamese kitchen is coming to the fore. Here in Israel, restaurants are bringing Vietnamese touches to their kitchens, but now two full-blown Vietnamese restaurants will be opening soon: Wong, at the end of Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, and Hanoi, on Lilienblum Street.

A whole philosophy: Balanced body

“Except for the Japanese kitchen, it’s the most elevated, refined and delicate cuisine around,” says Rima Olvera, the chef and owner of Oasis, a restaurant that combines her vision with her understanding of the Vietnamese kitchen. “Behind this kitchen is a whole Buddhist world view and philosophy that says everything you put into your body has to be balanced. That’s why they don’t prepare any dish that is only sweet or only spicy. Instead, the dish combines sour, sweet, bitter, salty and spicy flavors."

When the food arrives at the table, you don’t eat it right away. You listen to it, you smell it, she says. "These are also colorful foods, carefully prepared with the five colors representing the sky, the earth, air, water and fire. No matter where in Vietnam it may be, every food must appeal to the five senses."

Olvera, who says that the Vietnamese kitchen was one of the most difficult and fascinating ones she studied, says it is no wonder that the West has had trouble duplicating it, particularly when it comes to following recipes.

“Even working with a recipe, you won’t be able to get the same result. You can’t go on the Internet, study it for two weeks and then go and do it. You have to understand the philosophy behind it first of all, and then the way it sees the environment," she elaborates. "Sometimes an ingredient may be sweeter during a particular season, and during another season, its flavor will change. A spice can be very strong in one season and more delicate in another. It’s something you have to know and understand in order to prepare Vietnamese food."

Impoverished north, austere food

With the help of a brief lesson in Vietnam’s geography, Olvera lays out the general outlines of its kitchen.

Vietnam is divided into three provinces: the north, the center and the south, and each has its own culinary traits.

The poorer, more rural north was under communist rule for a long time. This resulted in a more ascetic lifestyle, and dishes that come from there are not spiced as much. There is almost no sharp flavor except for black pepper.

The situation is the complete opposite in the mountainous central region. This landlocked area uses almost no fish, but it is full of farms with livestock, vegetables and a great deal of chili, so its sauces are extremely spicy.

The kitchen of the southern district, which is considered rich in raw ingredients, is the best-known to us of all the areas of Vietnam. Its proximity to the sea and the delta enables it to use much more fish and seafood and far less meat.

Each district is so different from the others that one might think they were different countries, Olvera says. “The Vietnamese customarily didn't transport ingredients from the south to the north, at least not in the past. So the local seasonal kitchen was really just that – they ate what was available in their environment.”

The French connection

“The Vietnamese kitchen is my latest love,” says Osnat Hoffman, the chef of 44, a restaurant where southeast Asian flavors meet. Hoffman believes that Vietnam is a fascinating country from a culinary perspective because of the many influences it has been exposed to. “Vietnam was under Chinese occupation for many years. Afterward came French colonialism, which had a fascinating influence on the food.”

One dish that illustrates this is pho, one of the most popular foods of the Vietnamese kitchen.

“Pho is a clear beef soup with ginger and garlic,” says Hoffman. “The spices are Vietnamese, but it’s actually a consomme that’s prepared in the opposite order – a crazy consomme,” she says, laughing. “The Vietnamese kitchen has many traits of the French kitchen, but things are done there in the opposite order.”

Another dish that captures the essence of Vietnam’s history is the banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich made of a baguette with liver pate and pork belly, spiced with five-spice powder – an influence from the Chinese kitchen – with fish sauce, and served with daikon and Vietnamese coriander: “The baguette is made to withstand their weather. The mix with the French kitchen stands out because it’s surreal – it’s surprising to find a baguette in the middle of Saigon.”

When it comes to rice, Vietnamese are the experts. Their expertise goes beyond the traditional preparation of rice as a raw ingredient to include rice dough, rice sheets and rice noodles.

“They make wonderful use of it beyond the grain in its natural form,” says chef Yisrael Aharoni, who is associated mostly with the Chinese kitchen. “It’s a very refreshing kitchen – light and natural, with abundant flavors. To a certain extent it’s reminiscent of the Thai kitchen, but it’s much more refreshing. Its herbs are its crowning glory – it uses lots of fresh greens that we’re not familiar with at all.”

Like the Persian kitchen, the Vietnamese like to use a centerpiece of fresh herbs, Aharoni says. The Vietnamese version of herbs such as basil, coriander and mint are completely different in character from their Mediterranean siblings. “This gives the meal freshness like no other kitchen does.”

So why have we never had a Vietnamese restaurant until now? “For the same reason there are no real Chinese or Thai restaurants here, but just general Asian ones instead,” sneers Ayal Kitches, one of the owners of The Bun.

Kitches’s restaurant is influenced by southeast Asian kitchens without committing to any single one, and Vietnamese dishes are on the menu. “People love the pho, but it’s a hard-core dish, not for every person or every palate. It has spices such as star anise, fennel and cinnamon, fish sauce and lime, and that’s actually the Vietnamese kitchen,” he says.

Tomer Appelbaum
Ilya Melnikov