Vietnamese cuisine is rich and varied, replicated in countries all over the world and lauded for its flavour as well as being healthy.
The central ingredients are fish sauce, soy sauce, rice and fresh herbs (particularly lemongrass, mint and coriander), chilli and ginger, with a distinctly small use of any dairy products or oil. These ingredients are key to dishes served throughout the country, however there are some striking regional variations, which we will discuss later.
Despite the regional variations there are, of course, overarching similarities that run through many of Vietnam’s most iconic dishes. Some of the fundamental features are: a heavy use of spices and herbs, the use of fresh vegetables (salads and vegetables are generally served raw; if they are cooked, they are only very briefly stir-fried or boiled), and the use of complementary textures: crunchy and soft and delicate and rough are often served together to give harmony to dishes.
Another principle of Vietnamese cuisine that most people may not know about is that it traditionally centres on sets of five. There are five tastes balanced in each dish: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty, and five colours (which correspond to natural elements): white (metal), green (wood), red (fire), black (water) and yellow (earth). In addition, authentic dishes are designed to appeal to the five senses: taste, sight (food is arranged aesthetically), smell, sound (crunchy and crisp ingredients) and touch (particularly with finger food).
In the below article we examine some of the most popular Vietnamese dishes, their recipes and regional variations.
Northern, Central and Southern Vietnam have large differences in language, geography, climate, culture and food. In Northern Vietnam, thanks mostly to the cooler climate, foods are generally less strong in taste due to an inability to grow many spices and in the past there was less use of meat and poultry, meaning a higher reliance on seafood.
The dishes of Central Vietnam are most notable for their spiciness (much more so than in the rest of the country) which is thanks to the mountainous topography here providing the ideal climate for the cultivation of spices. It also has a reputation for having more complicated dishes served in smaller portions.
Meanwhile Southern Vietnam’s warmer weather gives it an advantage when it comes to growing vegetables and keeping livestock: the dishes here have more abundance of garlic, shallots and fresh herbs. They are also notable for an increased sweetness as there is a higher use of sugar and coconut milk here than elsewhere.
Pho / Noodle Soups
Broths and soups are common throughout the country, the most famous of which is the pho or noodle soup. However, there are large regional differences to the traditional pho, the southern version is generally sweeter and uses more fresh herbs and vegetables, particularly bean sprouts. Meanwhile the northern pho uses wider rice noodles, green onion and is generally only garnished with fish sauce, chilli and vinegar. Central Vietnam has its own noodle soup (originating in Hué) called bún bò hue.
How to cook a beef pho
First you need to make the broth (this is the most important step so take your time). Start by par-boiling beef (on the bone), after around 10-15 minutes you should see a colour change in the water, now you need to drain this water, scrub the bones to get rid of any excess proteins and refill your pan with new water.
Next add ginger, salt, onion, fish sauce and star anise, bring to boil and then leave to simmer for several hours. Whilst the broth is simmering cook your rice noodles (first soak them for an hour and then bring to a boil very briefly). Serve your noodles topped with thinly sliced pieces of cooked beef, fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and chilli, finally pouring the broth over all. Add a lime wedge on the side.
Banh xeo / Vietnamese Pancake
The bánh xèo, literally meaning ‘sizzling cake’, is a savoury pancake that is a staple part of Vietnamese cuisine and a dish to be enjoyed by the whole family. It is also great for dinner parties as once you have prepared your ingredients you can easily make multiple pancakes in quick succession.
To cook we start with the preparation. Prepare a batter of rice flour, wheat flour, turmeric, water, coconut cream, salt and spring onions. Then prepare the fillings: de-headed shrimps, boiled pork belly, soaked mung beans, washed and chopped onions and bean sprouts.
Into a heated pan add oil, onions, pork and shrimp. Once lightly browned add the batter. Then come the bean sprouts and mung beans. Cover for a couple of minutes (until the batter starts to go translucent at the edges). Remove the lid. Once the pancake is crisp fold in half and serve with green salad leaves (make sure to include mint) and fish sauce for dipping.
This recipe is a more typically southern version as it includes coconut cream. The central provinces exclude turmeric from the recipes and the pancakes are served wrapped in lettuce leaves, dipped in a mix of fish and sweet and sour sauces.
Banh mi / Vietnamese Sandwich
Bánh mì actually just means ‘bread’ in Vietnamese, however, the term is generally understood to refer to a Vietnamese filled baguette, a dish that is a perfect example of the fusion of French colonial and traditional Asian cuisine. There are many potential fillings for a bánh mì: fried egg, pork belly, grilled chicken, meatballs, cheese, tofu and even sardines.
However the most typical bánh mì will consist of a baguette filled with various cold cuts of pork belly and sausage, liver pâté, a meaty jelly (known as head cheese), cucumber, carrots and plenty of chili sauce. It is hard to find a definitive recipe for a bánh mì because it is such a flexible dish and everyone will have their own preferences but here is a short guide on compiling a great one.
Start with the bread, Vietnamese bread is slightly different from a French baguette but the French will do if you can’t find the Vietnamese version. Next apply a base layer of mayonnaise (or salted butter if preferred) mixed with a seasoning sauce: usually a Maggi brand seasoning sauce will be used, however if this is unavailable then soy sauce or tamari can be used instead. After this comes the meat or tofu: whatever you are using you want it to be fairly dry and not an excessive amount, the ideal ratio of protein to vegetable is 1:1-2. Finally a layer of sliced pickles, cucumber, fresh chillies, cilantro and then you’re ready to serve!
Some extra recommendations
Now I imagine that the above article has whet your appetite for some tasty Vietnamese treats but with such an abundance of options for cooking classes, places to eat and things to try, where do you begin? Here we’ve got a few extra specific suggestions of places not to miss on a culinary tour of Vietnam.
- If you’re looking for possibly the best bánh mì in the whole of Vietnam, and we’ve tried a few, then go to Madam Khánh in Hoi An, nicknamed the ‘Bánh Mì Queen’ and for good reason: every sandwich is delicious and at the princely cost of VDN20,000 (less than USD1) you will want to eat here every lunchtime! Find Madam Khánh at 115 Tran Cao Van, Son Phong, TP. Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam.
- If you’re thinking about doing a cooking course the Vietnam Cookery Centre in Saigon offers a selection of really great classes including extended programmes for residents and a range of day courses for tourists. The courses have varying menus and starting times but we would recommend doing one that includes a visit to the market. Check out their website for more details: http://www.vietnamese-cooking-class-saigon.com/
- A must-go for authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi is Noodle & Roll, a little restaurant with a big menu bursting with flavour. Everything is delicious but our top pick would be the fresh spring rolls. Find them at 39c Ly Quoc Su, Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem, Ha Noi, Vietnam.
- When in Ho Chi Minh City a delightful evening can (and should) be passed at the Secret Garden restaurant. Hidden away down an alleyway on the top floor of an unassuming building sits a rooftop restaurant. Amidst the potted plants and fairy lights you can enjoy a tapas style selection of traditional Vietnamese dishes – baked catfish and marinated pork are a must-try.