Vietnamese cuisine, while once relatively provincial and unknown, has captured the interest of the Western world due, primarily, to three important attributes, as detailed below.
Fresh and Healthy Ingredients
Vietnamese cuisine is highly regarded throughout the world for its common use of fresh vegetables and meats, sparse dairy products and oil, and variety of complementary textures, herbs, and spices. Together, these qualities create one of the healthiest diets in the world, all without sacrificing taste.
Meats are briefly cooked and vegetables are often eaten raw. If they are cooked, they are usually boiled or only briefly stir-fried. Fresh fruits are abundant and refined sugar is a rarity.
Balance in Taste and 'Energy'
The ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang, of balancing the hot and cold qualities of certain foods, is still quite common in Vietnamese cuisine and is integral to understanding the complex and harmonious tastes that Vietnamese cuisine can offer.
A strong emphasis is put on the balance between the fragrance, taste, and color of each Vietnamese dish. Five elements, or taste senses, are included in every Vietnamese meal: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water), and sweet (earth).
In addition to taste, Vietnamese chefs address the other four senses: the food arrangement attracts the eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose, and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching.
French Influence on an Asian Tradition
In addition to the Romanized alphabet, the strongest remnant of the French colonization of Vietnam lies in its food. Bread, called bánh, in the form of baguettes and sandwiches, is still quite popular in local cuisine and noticeably separates Vietnamese food from that of its neighbors, such as China and Cambodia.
The French also brought with them potatoes, carrots, onions, and coffee. Coffee, in particular, has been adopted so wholly by the Vietnamese that Vietnamese-style coffee is now considered a delicacy.
Vietnamese Cuisine Essentials
Noodle soups are a staple of Vietnamese cuisine and exist in a range of regional varieties. They are inexpensive, widely available, and simply delicious! Some common dishes are detailed below.
Rice noodles, beef or chicken, herbs and a delicate but flavorful clear broth make up this popular Vietnamese staple. A restaurant specialty in the rest of the world, pho is a common and inexpensive street food in Vietnam and commonly contains spring onion, bean sprouts, and other herbs and spices.
Like many local delicacies, ph? varies wildly between different cities and even between neighboring vendors.
Bun bo Hue
This beef noodle soup is often spicier than pho, and with a darker broth and thicker noodles. Additives can include beef bones, lemongrass, mint leaves, lime wedges, and dried chilies. Like pho, bun bo hue is commonplace and inexpensive but hearty and delicious.
The noodles of Bánh canh are made from tapioca flour and are much thicker than other traditional Vietnamese noodles. This dish is popularly served with seafood, such as shrimp and fish cakes, and is commonly enjoyed in Southern Vietnam.
This is a vermicelli noodle dish commonly topped with crab meat and tomatoes, often alongside onion, tofu, and other vegetables. For the daring, congealed pig's blood is a favorite topping among southern locals. Bún riêu is popularly enjoyed in summer for its 'cooling' properties.
Banh is the Vietnamese name for bread or pastry, and includes a range of different types of meals and snacks. Some of our favorites are detailed below.
Often eaten for breakfast, this steamed bun is filled with chicken, eggs, mushrooms, or other vegetables, although by far the most common ingredient is ground pork. Vegetarian bánh bao can be found and is popular amongst Vietnamese Buddhists.
This is a savory fried pancake made of rice flour and flavored with turmeric, pork, shrimp, and green onions. This snack is fried, usually in coconut oil, and is often dipped in sweet, fermented peanut sauce.
This is the generic name for the Vietnamese baguette, introduced by the French during Vietnam's colonial period.
Every bánh mi stall will prepare their sandwiches a little differently, but each baguette is traditionally filled with pata, sliced pork, and cucumber, and can include jalapenos, mayonnaise, ham, eggs, shredded pork, fried tofu, and many other ingredients.
Fresh ingredients are ubiquitous in Vietnamese cooking, and some of the most delectable dishes have the least amount of oil and are often hardly cooked.
These are Vietnamese spring rolls containing pork, prawns, vegetables, and other ingredients wrapped in rice paper. They are often served as appetizers; however, as casual Vietnamese meals often have many dishes, you can fill up quickly on goi cuon!
Bo luc lac
This French-inspired meal, translating to "shaking beef", is a common dish consisting of cubed, sauteed beef over a bed of fresh greens. Vegetables include tomatoes, cucumber, and green peppers, although the most common is watercress.
This is a Vietnamese salad and it always contains fresh, green vegetables and often includes fruit, such as jackfruit and papaya. Depending on the region, local favorites can include anything from chicken and pork to rice paddy eel and jellyfish.
Desserts are widely enjoyed in Vietnam, often as beverages and often served cold due to the tropical climate. Don't leave Vietnam without trying the desserts listed below.
Ca Phe Sua Da
Vietnamese coffee is loved throughout the world. To make an authentic brew, sweetened condensed milk is used instead of fresh milk, and the dark roasted coffee is dripped over it at the bottom of the cup through a metal strainer called a phin.
It can be drunk hot and fresh but is often served iced and is very popular among locals.
This is a Vietnamese sugarcane juice. It's an extremely popular roadside drink in Vietnam and, especially during the warmer months, this sweet snack can be a lifesaver.
This drink is often crushed right in front of you, so you know it's fresh. Remember to ask for it served over ice and to add, if they have it, some kumquat juice to cut down on the intense sweetness.
Fruit smoothies are called sinh to in Vietnamese and are another very popular summer drink. Sinh to xoai and sinh to bo, mango and avocado respectively, are our favorites, although custard apple, durian, jackfruit, and strawberry smoothies are also popular.
The Asia Highlights Experience - Handpicked Restaurants in Vietnam
At Asia Highlights, we know that the dining experience is crucial to understanding and experiencing a new culture. Around a dinner table is where thoughts and ideas are exchanged; food is inexplicably tied to the texture and soul of a community.
These restaurants are chosen by our staff to give our guests the most memorable, authentic dining experience possible while in Vietnam.
Viet Deli Restaurant - Hanoi
This restaurant has decor reminiscent of a French villa in a nod to the colonial history of Vietnam. However, their menu is consistently and authentically Vietnamese.
This spot is one our favorites for the gentle, laid back atmosphere and, in particular, the goldfish swimming beneath the tables! The spring rolls and papaya salad are our favorites.
White Lotus Restaurant - Hoi An
The White Lotus, sitting in the heart of the beautiful coastal town of Hoi An, is the ideal place to try the wonderful seafood dishes the Vietnamese have to offer.
Like many of our favorite spots, the architecture there is distinctly colonial with warm-colored walls, soft arches, and lots of greenery to create a very casual and comfortable atmosphere for dining and drinking.
The White Lotus also has cooking classes for those who want to take some of the magic of Vietnamese cooking home with them!
Dining Room Restaurant - Ho Chi Minh City
The Dining Room manages to amazingly combine the authenticity of a traditional Vietnamese meal with a modern presentation and atmosphere. In Ho Chi Minh City, where authentic Vietnamese food can be somewhat hard to find in the wake of rapid industrialization, the Dining Room remains a modern gem.
It has a variety of casual and classic Vietnamese dishes including spring rolls, noodle soups, and fruit smoothies.
Breakfasts and lunches in the Vietnamese culture are often quick and without much fuss. Like many Asian cultures, dinner is usually a large, family affair with many dishes, often cooked by the women. Here are some helpful tips to remember when dining with a Vietnamese family:
- Vietnamese meal gatherings are often lively and slow. Shared dishes are picked up using your chopsticks, but never directly eaten from them.
- Slurping and sipping are not considered faux pas, as they are in the West.
- Finishing your food is respectful; when done, place your chopsticks across your rice bowl.
- Try every dish before serving yourself more of your favorite.
- Taking gifts to a dinner invitation is advisable and very respectful. We suggest flowers, desserts, or fruits.
- As in most Asian cultures, wait for the oldest person at the table to eat before you begin.
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