A true taste of Vietnam
There is much more to Vietnamese food than combining a selection of ingredients, cooking them in a pot and serving them up as a satisfying dish. Unlike many cuisines in the world, the food in Vietnam has a strong philosophical importance stretching beyond flavours and smells. There are five elements which form the foundation of Vietnamese cuisine, with each local dish boasting a distinctive set flavours reflecting at least one of the elements.
Many Vietnamese dishes are made up of five fundamental taste sensations – spicy, bitter, sour, sweet and salty – which correspond to five organs – gall bladder, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and stomach.
Dishes also feature five different types of nutrients – powder, liquid or water, fat, protein and mineral elements – whilst many chefs and cooks also try to include five different colours in each of their dishes – black, white, red, green and yellow.
The fifth element of Vietnamese cuisine is found in the enjoying of the food. Local dishes appeal to diners via five senses – the arrangement of ingredients attracts the eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, flavours of five spices are detected by the tongue, fragrant smells from herbs reach the nose and some meals can be eaten with the fingers, appealing to the tactile senses.
With so much depth and thought behind every dish, Vietnamese cuisine really is a feast for the senses. Whether you’re dining in a local restaurant, sampling the street food or thinking about trying Vietnamese recipes yourself at home, you’ll be treated to bursts of flavour and a medley of textures in every mouthful.
Vietnamese cooking: History and influences
Due to its historical connections with China, Vietnamese food shares a lot of characteristics with Chinese cuisine. China introduced a multitude of dishes to Vietnam over the years, including wontons, wheat noodles and chow mein. The local Vietnamese people adopted these foods, adding their own styles and flavours in the process, creating similar, but overall distinct dishes.
Ethnic minority groups living in the mountains close to the China-Vietnam border also took on some Chinese dishes, including roasted pork and braised pork belly. Various New World vegetables, such as chilli peppers and corn, also arrived in Vietnam from the Ming dynasty.
The Vietnamese adopted baguettes from the French, combining them with a type of Vietnamese stuffing to create the popular fast food dish ‘Vietnamese Baguettes’. Different to a European baguette which is made with wheat flour, Vietnamese baguettes are usually made with rice flour, creating an overall lighter and less filling baguette. The French also introduced onions, lettuce, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, artichokes, asparagus, tarragon and coffee to Vietnam.
Coconut and various curry spices were introduced to Vietnam through the country’s neighbour, Cambodia. Although curry isn’t a common dish in Vietnam by any means, you will find chicken and goat curries served throughout central and southern Vietnam, although they’re usually reserved for special occasions such as weddings, funerals and anniversaries. Just like in Cambodia, Vietnamese curries are eaten with steamed rice, rice noodles or French baguettes.
Key ingredients in Vietnamese cooking
Vietnamese food is considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, thanks to its reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables, as well as its minimal use of oils and fats. Common ingredients found in most local dishes throughout Vietnam include fish sauce used for flavour and protein, shrimp paste found in marinades and dipping sauces, hoi sin sauce used as a table condiment and to flavour meat, and anchovy sauce which is most commonly diluted to make sauces or used neat as a condiment.
Fresh herbs are always used in place of dried ones when possible, with the most popular choices being mint and peppermint which are both used in salads, star anise mainly used to flavour soups and stews, and ginger, lemongrass, Saigon cinnamon, long coriander, lime, bird’s eye chilli and basil which are used to enhance the flavours of all sorts of dishes.
Beef is most commonly reserved for special dishes, such as Pho, in Vietnam, with chicken, goat meat, frogs’ legs, prawns, pork and snails being common sources of protein.
Traditional Vietnamese street foods
If you’re looking for a true taste of Vietnam, one of the best – not to mention cheapest – places to eat is on the streets. Throughout the country you’ll find loads of kiosks and vendors selling all sorts of dishes, from soups and stews to salads and noodle-based delicacies, providing you with plenty to choose from.
Pho – a type of beef noodle soup – is probably the most famous dish outside Vietnam and the number one street food within the country. This delicious soup comes in two main variations, one which originated in the north and the other which was developed in the south. Both kinds are based on a clear soup flavoured with ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon and beef, with generous helpings of noodles, steak and onions thrown in for texture.
Known locally as com t?m, broken rice is a dish made with rice from fractured rice grains. Broken rice is most commonly seen paired with pork ribs or shredded pork, complemented with various greens, pickled vegetables, a prawn paste cake, boiled egg and grilled prawns for a hearty dish.
Fractured rice grains are a cheaper grade of rice created during damage in milling. Whilst they’re only used as a food industry ingredient in Europe and America, fractured rice grains are used in everyday cooking in West Africa and South East Asia.
A Vietnamese Baguette, known in Vietnam as a bánh mì th?t nu?ng, is one of the most delicious sandwiches you’ll come across in the country. This dish is made up of a French-style baguette, baked using rice flour instead of wheat, combined with various flavourful local cold cuts, such as sliced pork, pork belly or sausage, along with creamy cheese, buttery liver pate and crunchy vegetables. Although it sounds quite plain and ordinary, the flavours and textures combine perfectly to create a dish miles away from your average filled baguette.
Since the Vietnamese baguette is so popular, it comes in a myriad of versions. There is a vegetarian option made with tofu and a breakfast variation made with scrambled eggs, onions and soy sauce. The most interesting of them all is the ice cream Vietnamese baguette, comprised of scoops of ice cream stuffed inside a baguette, topped with roughly crushed peanuts.
Seafood lovers looking for seafood specialities in Vietnam will fall head over heels for the local grilled clams. You’ll find this delicacy from street vendors throughout the central coastal beach streets – if you can’t find them by sight, simply close your eyes and follow your nose. The undeniable smell of big, fat, juicy clams marinated in a blend of chicken stock, rich soy sauce, hot chillies and chives cooking over smoky coals is hard to miss.
Pho – beef noodle soup recipe
This recipe makes enough for four generous servings and is suitable for a main meal. Whilst the long list of ingredients might look intimidating, every single ingredient is a must if you really want to achieve the authentic Pho taste found from street sellers throughout Vietnam.
There is quite a lot of prep work involved and you’ll need to set aside several hours for cooking time, too, so make sure you’ve got at least six hours free – don’t worry, most of this time is passive cooking.
The soup is made up of a simple beef broth combined with a handful of extras for interesting textures and added flavour. If you really want to go all out, you can garnish the plates with blanched bean sprouts, hot chillies, mint leaves and lime wedges, just like the locals do.
Ingredients for the broth
1 medium-sized white onion, peeled and left whole
5cm piece of fresh ginger, left whole
1kg beef soup bones (marrow and knuckle bones)
2 star anise
½ cinnamon stick
450g beef, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white sugar
Ingredients for the bowls
450g banh pho noodles (thin, flat rice noodles)
100g raw sirloin steak, thinly sliced
½ medium white onion, thinly sliced
2 green onions, chopped
Optional garnishes for the plate
Chillies, thinly sliced
1. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil into a frying pan and cook the onion and ginger together over a very high heat for around 15 minutes. Use a pair of tongs to turn the onion and ginger every now and then so that all sides are equally blackened. Remove the onion and ginger from the frying pan and leave them to one side to cool
2. When cool, remove the blacked skin from the onion under warm water. Cut off and discard any extra charred parts, as well as the root and stem ends
3. Smash the ginger with the flat side of a knife to loosen the centre part from the skin. Discard the skin and leave the ginger to one side with the onion
4. Place the bones in a large cooking pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil over a high heat and allow to boil for three minutes
5. After three minutes, empty the cooking pot and rinse the bones with warm water. Rinse the cooking pot to get rid of any residue and pop the bones back into it
6. Pour 2.5 litres of water into the cooking pot with the bones and bring it to a boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and gently simmer for five minutes
7. Skim any scum that rises to the surface of the cooking pot before adding the charred onion and ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, bite-sized beef chunks, salt, fish sauce and white sugar into the pot. Stir the ingredients and leave them to cook uncovered for 90 minutes
8. After 90 minutes, turn the heat off and fill the sink ½ way up with cold water. Place the cooking pot into the cold water and leave for ten minutes to prevent the beef from drying up and darkening as it cools.
Remove the meat from the cooking pot and leave it to cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge
9. Whilst the meat is cooling, dry the bottom of the cooking pot and put it back onto a medium heat to simmer for another three hours
10. After three hours, use a fine colander to strain the broth into a large bowl or saucepan. Discard everything left in the colander
11. Skim as much fat as you like off the top off the broth using a ladle. Taste the soup and add more salt, fish sauce or sugar if you think it needs it
To assemble the bowls
1. Remove the cooked beef chunks from the fridge and allow them to warm up to room temperature
2. Keep the broth hot on a medium heat on the hob and soak the dried noodles for 15-20 minutes in hot water, until soft and opaque
3. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and bring to a boil over a high heat. Blanch the noodles by putting them into the boiling water for 20 seconds then removing with a slotted spoon
4. Divide the noodles between four bowls – the noodles should fill at least ¼ of each bowl
5. If you’re using bean sprouts: Blanch the bean sprouts in the same way you blanched the noodles, leaving them to cook for 30 seconds in the same pan. Drain them and use them to garnish the plate
6. Evenly divide the cooked beef chunks, thinly sliced raw steak, white onion, chopped green onions and coriander into the bowls on top of the noodles
7. Ladle the hot broth into the bowls, making sure it covers all the ingredients to slightly cook the raw steak and warm the other ingredients through. Serve on a plate with any of the additional garnishes listed