What exactly is Vietnamese food? It seems like all the Vietnamese dishes are similar! I looked at my friend in disbelief. My facial expression was probably as shocking to him, as what he said was to me. So, I told him about what happened to us on the first day we arrived in Hanoi:
Sitting on a pink plastic stool, I waited impatiently for my bowl of Pho. When we were finally served, I looked at my dish, at Kerstin, and then at the waiter. Why does my Pho look like this? Where are the fresh white onions, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and all other “green” stuff? Where are the beef meatballs? And where are all the side sauces?
Our local guide in Hanoi giggled. I can see that you are from Southern Vietnam…. I explained to him that I was born and grew up in Luxembourg. Only my family is from Vietnam. But yes, they used to live in Saigon. Ah, yes, I see! Well, only Southern Vietnamese people eat Pho with so many different toppings. Maybe because they can’t prepare a sophisticated Pho? Our guide giggled again. I could sense an air of mockery…
I must admit that before visiting Vietnam, I had no idea that Pho or any other Vietnamese food is prepared differently depending on the region. Now to my friend, who thought that all Vietnamese dishes taste the same, I urged him to visit Vietnam. Then he’ll perceive the differences, not only in the variety of Vietnamese dishes, but also in regional flavors.
From appetizers to desserts, let me take you on this journey through Vietnamese cuisine…
and introduce you to our 20 favorite Vietnamese dishes.
1. GOI CUON
Goi Cuon is my absolute favourite Vietnamese appetizer. Sometimes called spring roll, summer roll, cold roll or rice paper roll, Goi Cuon is believed to be introduced to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants. In Northern Vietnam, they call it Nem Cuon. This is probably the reason why I couldn’t find any Goi Cuon when we visited Hanoi and Halong Bay. The locals couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what I wanted to order…
But it didn’t matter, for I know how to prepare Goi Cuon myself. It is actually one of the rare (only?) Vietnamese dishes that I can prepare, because it its quite easy. Goi Cuon are served cold or at room temperature. So there is no need to cook nor deep-fry the rolls. All you need are cooked prawns, slivers of pork, fresh vegetables, and bun (rice vermicelli). Then wrap a bit of everything in a banh trang (rice paper), before dipping the rolls in a Hoisin sauce, to which you can add a few fresh chili and crumbles of nuts.
2. CHA GIO
I grew up with the smell of Cha Gio. Every morning at 4am my mother prepared hundreds of Cha Gio filled with ground meat – may it be pork, beef, or chicken -, and diced vegetables such as carrots, kohlrabi, bean sprouts and jicama. When I brushed my teeth, she was deep frying the rolls. By the time I finished my breakfast, she was ready to take the bus to Luxembourg City, where the warm crispy and golden rolls would be sold within hours.
It’s not easy to obtain a perfect Cha Gio: the way the ingredients are prepared and mixed, the quantity of ingredients to be wrapped, the degree of moisture of the rice papers, the way the Cha Gio are rolled, the temperature of the oil in which the rolls should be fried, the way they’re being put into the boiled oil, the amount of time they’re inside, AND the way you take them out… every little detail matters! Even the way you stack the rolls once they’re done matters! But if a Cha Gio is well made, you’ll love it! You wouldn’t even need to dip it into Nuoc Nam fish sauce!
3. BANH CUON
Originally from Northern Vietnam, Banh Cuon is a made from steamed fermented rice batter, shaped as thin delicate sheets. These rice sheets are then filled with minced mushrooms, shallots, and seasoned ground pork. Once they’re steamed, you taste them with slices of Cha (pork or chicken saussage), topped with fried shallots, sliced cucumber and lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. There is also a variant of Banh Cuon in Thai cuisine, called khao phan.
4. NEM CHUA
Nem Chua is a fermented pork dish. It’s sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Since they’re usually served or sold in bite sizes, you can put them in a salad, or eat them as a snack. When I was a kid, I loved devouring a nem cha after school, while all my friends ate chocolates or cookies.
5. BANH XEO
Literally “sizzling cake”, Banh Xeo is a fried pancake made of rice flour. Stuffed with shrimps, lots of soja bean sprouts, onions and fatty pork, Banh Xeo is actually not eaten like a crepe, although that’s how most Westerners eat it. You cut it and wrap it either in a banh trang (rice paper) or huge lettuce leaves, along with a few mint leaves and basil. Then you dip it in Nuoc Nam fish sauce.
For those who don’t like to eat with your hands, stay away from Banh Xeo, or eat it like Westerners do with a fork and a knife. The best Banh Xeo I have ever had was at the local market in Hoi An. They even topped the ones my mother cooked!
6. BUN BO HUE
The name of this dish says it all: it’s a bun (rice vermicelli) with bo (beef) from Hue (former capital located in Central Vietnam). The broth of Bun Bo Hue is cooked with beef bones, beef shank, onions, coriander and lots of lemongrass.
Some people add pig’s knuckles and cubes of coagulated pig blood. I know this sounds weird and perhaps even disgusting to some people. But keep in mind that pig blood curd is in fact a popular delicacy in Vietnam, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Bun Bo Hue tastes best if you add a spoonful fermented shrimp paste, fresh mint and basil.
7. NEM NUONG
If you love barbecued meat, then you will love Nem Nuong. This Vietnamese dish from Nha Trang consists of chargrilled pork meatballs, infused with shallots, black pepper, and Nuoc Nam fish sauce. Nem Nuong is served with fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, carrots and mint leaves. It is accompanied either with rice noodles or rice. And of course topped with lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce, like most Vietnamese dishes!
I suppose that by now, I don’t need to explain what Pho is. Let’s just say that if there is one Vietnamese dish that you need to know and taste, it would be Pho, because it’s considered as Vietnam’s national dish.
Today, it is savoured during lunchtime or dinnertime. But originally, Pho is sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors. My father always says that pho is not a “real” meal. It’s a noodle soup meant to be slurped quickly in the street, sometimes still sitting on your motorbike. The broth is prepared in huge cauldrons hours in advance. And the noodles can be cooked in boiled water within a minute or two. So Pho can almost be considered as a type of junk food. But the healthy kind of junk food…
The interesting thing is that Pho exists only since the beginning of the 20th century! It became popular throughout the world thanks to Vietnamese refugees who fled the war. And in 2007, the word Pho was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
9. BANH MI
Literally, Banh Mi means bread. All kinds of bread. But since the French introduced the baguette in Vietnam, the term is now commonly used to designate a “Vietnamese sandwich”. Less crusty than the Parisian baguette, the Vietnamese baguette is still much better than a zillion other kinds of breads around the world. But unlike the French sandwiches, Banh Mi also have typical Vietnamese ingredients, such as Nuoc Nam fish sauce, pickled carrots, and cilantro.
When we lived in Paris, I used to eat a banh mi during lunchtime instead of any other types of sandwiches. Sometimes, I wondered if my mouth smelled of Nuoc Nam fish sauce during classes? But then, my professors and classmates didn’t seem to have noticed it…
10. BUN RIEU
Bun Rieu is a specialty from the Mekong Delta. It’s a rice vermicelli soup with fresh tomatoes, eggs, crab and shrimp paste. As many other Southern Vietnamese soups, Bun Rieu is of course also topped with lots of fresh vegetables, such as green onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, and Vietnamese water spinach stems (called rau muong).
11. BANH CANH
When I was a kid, I used to hate Banh Canh, because the thick noodles made of tapioca and rice flour reminded me of worms. Now I love Banh Canh, especially when I’m cold but don’t want to gain more weight. They are often compared to Japanese Udon, but these Vietnamese noodles taste less sweet.
Banh Canh from Southern Vietnam includes fish balls, pork and herbs. But in other Vietnamese regions, the broth can be shrimp-flavoured, crab-flavoured, and sometimes includes pork knuckles.
12. CHAO TÔM
Chao Thom is another traditional dish from Hue in Central Vietnam. As the name says it, this dish is made of shrimp (tôm). It’s actually shrimp surimi grilled on a sugar cane stick. Honestly, it’s the shrimp’s flavour on the sugar cane that is delicious, not really the grilled shrimp itself. Chao Tôm is often served as an appetizer. In North American and Europe, it is sometimes served as a meal with bun (vermicelli), mint, carrot, lettuce, and crushed peanuts.
13. HU TIEU
Very similar to Pho, Hu Tieu is a noodle soup originated from the Chinese Teo-chew ethnic (my ancestor’s origin!), who settled in Southeast Asia. In Teo-chew dialect, it is called koe-tiau. Usually eaten at breakfast, Hu Tieu is also a famous dish in Thailand, Cambodia (called kuy teav), Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Compared to Pho, the rice noodles of Hu Tieu are square-formed. And unlike Pho, you have to dress the quickly boiled noodles with garlic oil, sugar, oyster sauce and soy sauce, before adding the broth made of pork or chicken bones. Other ingredients include seafood, chicken, and pig’s blood jelly. Hu Tieu can also be tasted as a dry noodle dish. In this version, instead of adding the broth to the seasoned noodles, just serve the soup in a seperate bowl.
14. COM TAM (+ BI CHA TET NUONG)
Literally “broken rice”, Com Tam is a rice dish from Saigon made of fractured rice grains. It is served with grilled pork, bi (thinly shredded pork skin), steamed egg, and fresh sliced cucumber. This dish is usually topped with Nuoc Nam fish sauce, but I personally prefer the grilled pork’s sauce, mixed with caramelized onions. Since Com Tam is a rather dry meal, you usually “cleanse your throat” with a bowl of broth on the side.
15. BO LUC LAC
This cubed beef sauteed dish is a French-inspired Vietnamese dish. My father used to tell me that this is what they ate when they went to a “European” restaurant in Vietnam. But except for lettuce, the fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, nothing in this dish is European.
The name of this dish derives from the shape of the beef: “Luc Lac” literally means small cubes the size of a dice. Why is the meat cut like that? Well, it is an Asian custom to cut meats in small pieces before cooking them, and not on your plate. Firstly because it’s easier to eat with chopsticks, and secondly because using a knife on the table was considered as rude. Bo Luc Lac is not just served with fresh vegetables and slices of onions, but the beef cubes are to be dipped in a sauce made of salt, pepper and lime juice.
16. CANH CHUA
Canh Chua is Kerstin’s absolute favourite soup. Originated from the Mekong Delta, this sweet and sour soup is made of tamarind-flavoured broth with fish (from the Mekong River), tomatoes, coriander, basil, lemony-scented herbs, bean sprouts and pineapples. Canh Chua is usually served with white rice, which is then a side dish for the fish. A little tip: always take the fish out of the pot, before serving the soup.
17. CA KHO TO
Ca Kho To is another Vietnamese dish made of fish. But this time it’s catfish, cooked in a clay pot with caramelized sauce (nuoc mau), shallots, and tons of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. If you don’t like fish, you can also get the same dish with beef (called Bo Kho), or with porc, eggs and coconut juice (Thit Kho). But either way, you’ll love the sauce of this Southern Vietnamese comfort dish!
Traditional Vietnamese desserts, mostly consisting of sweet drinks or sweet soups, are usually called Chè. There are a lot of varieties, both hot and cold. The most famous chè is certainly Chè Ba Mau. It contains “three colours”: green beans, red beans, and yellow beans, mixed in coconut milk and lots of crushed ice.
Our favourite version of Vietnamese sweet drink is however Chè Dau Do. It contains red beans, tapioca and coconut milk.
19. STICKY RICE DESSERTS
There are also many Vietnamese desserts which are made with glutinous rice. One of my favorite steamed sticky rice dessert is with bananas, packed in banana leaves. But I also love sticky rice with fresh mango and topped with warm coconut sauce.
20. BANH LA DUA
Originally from Indonesia, pandan cake is popular in many Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Vietnamese, pandan leaves are called la dua. So the cake is called Banh La Dua. And yes, it really is green. But no, it is not weird. It’s light, fluffly, spongy, and simply yummy! Some bakeries sell pandan cakes filled with strawberries or whipped cream. While others top it with shredded coconuts. Kerstin like the one with whipped cream, whereas I prefer the simple chiffon cake, savored with a glass of cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee).
What about you? Which is your favourite Vietnamese dish?
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