The French, used to eating beef, were astonished upon their arrival in Vietnam1, to discover that it was not part of local cuisine. Traditionally, the Vietnamese saw oxen and buffaloes as beasts of burden, so they rarely ate them. French colonists set up cattle farms in order to have access to their choice meat.
At the time, dairy products were also rare in the Vietnamese diet and nearly impossible to find throughout the country. Since the French came from a food culture where butter, milk and cheese played a central role, they began to import condensed and powdered milk. These products were initially intended for French settlers but, from 1915, also became available on the Vietnamese market2. The middle classes soon adopted them, together with all kinds of other imported foodstuffs, such as ham, pâté, champagne and spirits.
In her article Cuisine and Social Status Among Urban Vietnamese, 1888-1926, Erica J. Peters clearly shows how the urban middle class of the period consumed such food as a means of asserting its new social status. Serving champagne, sampling hams, and enjoying the same products as the French was all for good reason: Food was used as a way of integrating into the realms of the French administration and symbolised an attitude of openness towards this culture. The French, for their part, were delighted with this change in culinary habits, which illustrated that French lifestyle was beginning to be adopted and, above all, that a new market was opening up for products imported from France.
Apart from beef and dairy products, the French also introduced a wide range of new fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, broccoli, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes, beetroot, rocket and more. Herbs such as dill, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, basil and sage, were also soon incorporated into Vietnamese cuisine.
The colonial period added French bread and pastries to Vietnamese eating habits too and these have become an important part of the everyday Vietnamese diet today. Imported drinks included champagne, wine, beer and coffee.
The introduction of new ingredients to Vietnamese cuisine is also reflected in the Vietnamese language, with many new products bearing names similar to the French: atisô (artichaut – artichoke), ca cao (cacao – cocoa), ca phê (café – coffee), ca rôt (carotte – carrot), sô cô lat (chocolat – chocolate), and giam bông (jambon – ham), for example. Other names were adopted in a less precise fashion: bo (beurre – butter), dau cô ve (haricot vert – green beans), su hào (chou-rave – kohlrabi), pho mat3 (fromage – cheese), and so on.