Vietnamese food

FOLLOW THE FOOD IN VIETNAM


FROM FRESH INGREDIENTS TO REGIONAL VARIATIONS

Food in Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's healthiest options and provides a bedrock upon which Vietnamese base their entire world. You can't move for pop-up kitchens and street food stalls where food is cooked right before your eyes by passionate chefs who appear from behind dented silver pots, baguette pyramids, and cabinets concealing garlands of marinated meat, fresh fruit and cooking equipment.
Food finds you in Vietnam and if you'd like to pull up a tiny plastic chair, wield a pair of chopsticks and raise a bowl of soup to your lips then read on as this could well be your first tantalising taste of things to come.

FRESH, HEALTHY & DELICIOUS


Fresh, aromatic ingredients, such as mint, lemon grass, ginger, basil and coriander, are used within a variety of distinctly Vietnamese tasting dishes. Seafood, beef, duck, chicken and veggies combine with rice and noodles for soups, stir-fry dishes, rolls and pastries/dumplings (known as banh). Across the country you'll find everything from open air markets and sit down restaurants to shop fronts and street corners, all offering every pocket of society the chance to pull up a pew and tuck into what will be, for travelers, a combination of familiar favourites and not-so-well-known curiosities.

No matter where you are, food in Vietnam follows the same principles of fresh ingredients and harmonious textures, with the overall dish needing to be well presented and contain herbs and vegetables.

CLASSIC
VIETNAMESE DISHES


Pho (meat and rice noodles cooked in a salty broth blended with herbs) is a prime example of balancing flavours and stands as staple sustenance for local people and travelers alike.
Fried spring rolls are another popular street food and restaurant dish with veggie or meat fillings, combined with a sweet or savoury sauce, found in the north as nem ran and in the south as cha gio. A healthier alternative to fried spring rolls is goi cuon which features salad, shrimp, pork and veggies wrapped in clear rice paper to be dunked in an accompanying bowl of peanut or soy sauce.

REGIONAL VARIATIONS


If you cut Vietnam into three regions: north, south and central, you'll discover distinct variations on classic dishes and differing ingredients more commonly used to create regional specialities.

North Vietnam has a slightly cooler climate than the south and there are less opportunities to cultivate chillies so heat is less pronounced, although black pepper is often used to give dishes a bit more of a kick. The lack of spice doesn't mean a lack of flavour as soy, fish and prawn sauces, often balanced with lime juice, serve up a typical taste of North Vietnam. The north also favours freshwater fish and shellfish in place of seafood and meat, with crabs, found in paddy fields, used in traditional dishes like bun rieu, a tomato and rice noodle broth.

As many Vietnamese migrated away from the north, especially Hanoi, several well-known national dishes went with them including the rice noodle classics of bun cha and pho ga, that you'll find served all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
Central Vietnam is all about the spice with red and green chillies providing stark colour contrasts to rice and noodle dishes to reflect the more sophisticated tastes of the former Vietnamese dynasty that resided in the imperial, centrally-located, city of Hue. As the capital of the royals, Hue has become synonymous with culinary expertise with carefully balanced flavours combining wonderfully well in classic dishes such as bun bo Hue (rice noodle soup with marinated beef and lemon grass) and banh xeo (a savoury pancake coloured with turmeric and stuffed with pork, shrimps, onions and bean shoots).
Coastal areas and more tropical temperatures make South Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta, a hotbed for freshly grown produce. Garlic, shallots and a huge variety of herbs complement seafood dishes and coconut-based recipes to create a much sweeter dishes, more reminiscent of Thailand and Cambodia. South Vietnam also serves up a simple comfort food, com tam, which is basically grilled pork chops, rice and sliced veggies, often accompanied by fish sauce or broth on the side. Sticky rice is another firm favourite here, with xoi (sticky rice) served with slithers of meat and spring onions, definitely worth checking out on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Outside influences


Vietnam’s neighbours China to the north, Cambodia to the south and nearby Thailand have had huge impact on which dishes tend to be more popular and the differences in preparation within each region.

Another major influence on Vietnam’s food is France, which attacked and captured Vietnam during Napoleon's colonisation drive during the mid to late 1800s. Although Japan occupied Vietnam during WW2 and Vietnam declared independence from France in 1945, the French influence still remains.
Baguettes, potatoes, asparagus and onions have all made their way onto restaurant and café menus the length and breadth of Vietnam. Typically French ingredients, such as butter and wine, feature in several dishes to offer a less healthy, although nonetheless delicious, alternative to more typical Southeast Asian offerings. Banh mi (filled baguettes), banh cuon (steamed crepe/rice cake) and banh xeo (crispy crepes) are all commonplace throughout Vietnam thanks to the French.
If you're looking for further evidence of the culinary colonisers, Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of coffee beans, with coffee a huge part of Vietnamese culture and consumed pretty much any time and any place.

CULTURAL CEREMONIES & FAMILY FEASTS


As with most other parts of Asia, food in Vietnam plays a significant part in cultural events, religious ceremonies and family get-togethers with salt, in particular, thought to provide a key connection between the living and the dead.
A typical family feast, which will be prepared for an important event like a wedding, funeral, religious festival and Tet (Vietnamese New Year), will usually consist of several main dishes served at the same time to be shared by the table, alongside individual bowls of steamed rice. Social standing, age, gender and relationship to the host will form the basis for who sits where.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into a family home, either on a home stay or through your Vietnamese tour guide, or if you're dining out with new found friends, it's always wise to brush up on Vietnamese dining etiquette prior to settling down to eat:

  • It's considered polite to use both hands when passing round a dish of shared food.
  • Chopsticks should always be placed on individual chopstick holders rather than on top of a bowl and definitely not sticking out of a half finished bowl of food.
  • Asking for a fork as an alternative to chopsticks is perfectly fine, although make sure you express your inadequacy sufficiently enough to ensure there are smiles all round.


  • Bowls will often be held quite close to an individual's mouth when eating, with significant slurping not uncommon when supping soup and noodles.
  • Spoons for soup are traditionally held in the left hand.
  • Don't even think about eating directly from a communal shared food bowl or serving plate.
  • Basically – don't worry, ask your tour guide or just watch what other people do around the table.
Food in Vietnam is a delight for all the senses. Be brave. Sit down with local people. Use chopsticks. Have a good old slurp. Follow the food in Vietnam, and you won't go far wrong.
Photo credits: [Top box: Tri Nguyen] [Classic Vietnam dishes: Codename5281 ] [Central Vietnam - pancake: yoppy] [Outside influences - Banh mi: manhhai] [Vietnamese New Year - Tet: L?u Ly ] [Eating etiquette: Tauno Tohk]

Written by: Chris Owen
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