24 Jun Navigating the regional flavours and subcultures of food in Vietnam
Myth and legend abound in Vietnam when it comes to food and for the uninitiated, trying to decide where and what to eat could be overwhelming, but with a little time you will discover that Vietnamese cuisine is all about the fresh ingredients, virtually non-existence of dairy or oil and a heavy reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables.
With a philosophy of balancing the five elements, Vietnamese cuisine often incorporates five fundamental taste senses (ngũ vị): spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (Earth).
Understanding Regional Flavours
The warmer climate of the south and the fertile lands create an ideal environment for an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. You will find that the food in the south uses garlic, shallots and fresh herbs quite liberally. The southern Vietnamese also have a bit of a sweet tooth and this can be seen in the liberal use of coconut milk in their dishes.
Central Vietnamese food uses spices liberally, and thanks to its imperial history you will find dishes in places like Hué are both very decorative and colourful and are reflective of the ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine.
Due to the colder climate in the north of Vietnam the production of spices are limited and you will find that the northern Vietnamese cuisine has a very light and subtle balance of flavours.
What to eat
Eating in Vietnam is a sensory delight and the following are our top dishes to try when exploring the country:
Phở (or pho) is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily served with either beef or chicken (Phở bò tái nạm is the dish with the thin slices of beef)
Cha Ca La Vong is a Hanoi speciality of turmeric fish with dill and a restaurant in Hanoi by the same name was featured in the New York Times and the dish voted one of the 1001 things to eat before you die.
Bánh xèo (named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet) are Vietnamese savoury fried pancakes made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. Southern-style bánh xèo contains coconut milk and certain Central regions skip the turmeric powder altogether. They are served wrapped in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or banh trang wrappers, and stuffed with mint leaves, basil, fish leaf and/or other herbs, and dipped in a sweet and sour diluted fish sauce. In the Central region, it is often wrapped in fresh rice paper with a sausage (nem lui) and then dipped in a special sauce which consists of fermented soy bean and sticky rice sauce, ground pork liver, ground and toasted peanut and seasonings.
Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is only found in the town of Hội An
Bún bò Huế or bun bo is a popular Vietnamese soup containing rice vermicelli and beef.
Bánh Khọt is a mini-sized rice cake that is fried and served with fresh mustard leaves and herbs, as well as sweetened fish sauce for dipping.
Bò Lúc Lắc is a dish of cubed beef, sauteed with cucumber, tomatoes, onion, pepper, and served with a soy sauce dish. It is a French-inspired Vietnamese dish and often served with French fries.
Bánh mì is a filled baguette typically eaten street side from a vendor. Fillings include steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, spreadable pork liver pâté, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, canned sardines in tomato sauce, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce, head cheese, fried eggs, and tofu. Accompanying vegetables typically include fresh cucumber slices, cilantro and pickled carrots and daikon in shredded form and it is often served with a Vietnamese horseradish and chili sauce.
Bún chả is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodle, which is thought to have originated from Hanoi, Vietnam. Bun cha is served with grilled fatty pork over a plate of white rice noodle and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce.
What are your favourite dishes to eat in Vietnam and where? We would love to hear from you!