Flavors of Vietnam
Thousands of Years in the Making
For centuries, Vietnamese cooks have been adapting the techniques, ingredients, and recipes of conquering overlords, trading partners, and neighboring nations, to create a cuisine that is arguably the best in the world, and certainly one of the healthiest. The flavors of Vietnam are fresh and light, featuring herbs such as basil, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, and coriander/cilantro. The versatile fish sauce known as nuoc mam makes an appearance at most meals, as do seafood, rice noodles, fresh vegetables, rice, and lime juice.
Vietnam's three main areas, the north, central, and south, have their own regional variations, reflecting their different climates, cultures, and traditions. In the north, which has a distinct winter, ginger and dill are commonly used, as are some Chinese spices. The food of the central region is the spiciest in Vietnam and includes everyday home cooking as well as the elaborate Imperial cuisine developed during the Nguyen Dynasty. In the lush, tropical south, there's a stronger focus on salads and herbs, which are added to soups or used as wraps.
Vietnamese dishes balance textures and flavors by blending spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Each dish should appeal to all five senses, too, and great attention is paid to the colors, spices, textures, and presentation of even the most humble dishes. The Vietnamese also follow the Chinese belief that each meal should contain a yin-yang balance of "hot" and "cooling" foods.
Vietnam has a plethora of noodle dishes, from stir-fries to soups containing noodles made from rice, tapioca, and wheat, and sometimes a combination.
Banh canh. Thick slurpy noodles made from tapioca and rice flour are the main ingredient of this popular coastal soup, which is usually prepared with a combination of ca (fish), cua (crab), cha ca (fish cake), and cha lua (Vietnamese sausage).
Bun bo Hue. Perhaps the most famous central Vietnamese noodle dish is the spicy beef soup, bun bo Hue, from the former Imperial capital of Hue. The broth is made by slow-cooking beef bones, lemongrass, and high-quality shrimp paste. A spicy red oil is made by frying chili and annatto seeds; this is added at the end to create a thin mouth-kicking layer on the broth.
Bun rieu and hoan thanh mi. In the north, the noodle specialty is bun rieu, featuring thin rice noodles and a tomato-y broth made with pounded rice paddy crab. The Chinese influence in this region is also apparent, for example, in the popular noodle dish hoan thanh mi. Said aloud, it’s clear that hoan thanh is the local adaption of wonton, while mi is Vietnamese for wheat noodle.
Mi Quang and cao lau. Central Vietnam's Quang Nam province, which contains the cities of Hoi An and Danang, is home to some of Vietnam's most delicious noodle soups, in the form of mi Quang, a savory half-soup, half-salad noodle dish with pork, prawn, quail eggs, and rice cracker shards. Equally popular is cao lau, which uses local noodles with an almost mythical backstory, along with pork and fresh herbs. According to the local belief, cao lau noodles are only authentic if they are made from water from a certain Hoi An well and the ash of a particular type of tree found on nearby Cham Island.
Pho. Perhaps the most famous Vietnamese food, and the unofficial national dish, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a tangle of silky rice noodles and beef (which can be raw and sliced thin) or chicken in a fragrant broth with hints of roasted onion, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves, garnished with coriander, onion, green onion, and bean sprouts; this is a must-try dish. True foodies will enjoy the subtle changes in the way pho is prepared and served as they travel through Vietnam. In the south, an array of accoutrements, including a basket of fresh herbs, is served alongside a bowl of pho, but in the north, Hanoians believe the broth should be so good, nothing needs to be added, so minimal accompaniments are provided. Once you get down into the Mekong Delta, the pork and prawn noodle soup known as hu tieu is more common than pho.
The fact that the Vietnamese word for rice, com, is the same as the word for food indicates how important this staple is to the Vietnamese diet.
Chao. Rice porridge is a staple in the diet of Vietnamese children. Similar to Chinese congee (but better), chao can be prepared with ca (fish), tom (shrimp), ech (frog), heo (pork), bo (beef), hai san (seafood), or chay (vegetarian).
Com tam dishes. Throughout Vietnam, rice restaurants offer cheap home-cooked meals to working people. Called com binh dan in the central regions and com tam in the south, these places are where adventurous visitors can try a range of dishes using the time-honored travelers' point-and-order method. The signature com tam dish is barbecued pork marinated in fish sauce, garlic, and palm sugar, and a slice of Vietnamese quiche—an egg pie containing noodles, wood ear mushrooms, and ground pork. Other dishes often on display in the glass-fronted com stalls include ca kho to (caramelized fish in a clay pot) and thit kho tau (pork and duck eggs stewed in coconut juice).
Rice cakes and snacks. Sticky rice is a sweet anytime-of-day snack, although in Ho Chi Minh City it's most common to see food vendors pushing carts of colorful sticky rice—purple, black, and green—after dark. Rice is also used to make a range of delicious steamed crepes and savory cakes, such as banh cuon—rice crepes loosely stuffed with pork and mushroom, and topped with fried shallots and fish sauce—and banh beo, bite-size rice cakes topped with dried shrimp powder and green onion oil.
Rice wine. There are many forms of rice wine, including the central Vietnamese ruoi can, a sticky rice wine prepared in 6-liter vats and consumed communally through giant straws, and snake wine, where whole snakes are infused in rice wine or grain alcohol, seen most often in tourist shops.
Banh mi, wraps, and rolls
Banh mi. One of the most obvious culinary legacies of the almost 100 years of French rule, banh mi is the Vietnamese version of a baguette. There are a few different varieties of banh mi, with the most popular being banh mi thit, a crisp-on-the-outside and fluffy-on-the-inside baguette with pâté, slices of Vietnamese sausage, strips of cucumber, pickled carrot and radish, fresh herbs, and slices of chili. Banh mi op la is a great on-the-go breakfast, filled with a fried egg, soy sauce, and strips of cucumber. There's also a roast pork and barbecue sauce version, banh mi heo quay, and in seaside towns banh mi ca cha (fishcake) abounds. The best banh mi vendors will lightly toast the baguette before slicing it open, filling it with fresh ingredients, wrapping it in a square of paper secured with an elastic band, and presenting the warm parcel to the customer.
Cuon Diep. Vietnamese cuisine also features a range of other wrapped and rolled delights, some of which are prerolled, such as cuon diep (mustard leaf wraps), while others are a wrap-your-own affair, customizable with a vast array of herbs, meats, and salad items.
Spring rolls and summer rolls. The most famous of Vietnam's various wraps and rolls are its fried spring rolls. Known as nem in the north and cha gio in the south, fried spring rolls are stuffed with pork, prawn, and crab. Goi cuon, known as summer rolls or fresh spring rolls, consists of rice paper wrapped around vermicelli, pork, shrimp, and fresh chives.
The internationalization of Vietnam, combined with the influx of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), has created some exciting new culinary experiences in both bars and restaurants in the major cities. Creative Vietnamese-themed cocktails such as the Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen's Mekong Delta in Ho Chi Minh City are well worth a tipple, and a series of new restaurants, including Anan Restaurant & Rooftop Bar, now prepare Vietnamese dishes with some interesting and delicious modern twists.
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