Vietnamese cuisine encompasses the foods and beverages of Vietnam and features a combination of five fundamental tastes in the overall meal. Each Vietnamese dish has a distinctive flavour which reflects one or more of these elements. Common ingredients include fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. Vietnamese recipes use lemongrass, ginger, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander; Saigon cinnamon, bird's eye chilli, lime and Thai basil leaves. Traditional Vietnamese cooking is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of dairy and oil, complementary textures, and reliance on herbs and vegetables. With the balance between fresh herbs and meats and a selective use of spices to reach a fine taste, Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest.
In the northern part of the country, thanks to the influence of neighbouring China, people tend to use more soy sauce than other parts, where fish sauce is more usual. Other common ingredients in Vietnamese cooking include black pepper (mainly in the north), hot chilli, coconut milk, limes, lemon grass, tamarind and cane sugar, supplemented by asparagus and potatoes, courtesy of the French influence. Methods of cooking vary from simmering or boiling to frying or grilling.
Stir-frying using a wok and chopsticks is common. Many European influences can be found in Vietnamese dishes, including sauces, meats, cold roast pork, patés and baguettes (French rolls). At the other end of the scale, in some parts of the country there is still plenty of demand for exotic meats such as dog, turtle and snake.
Vietnamese food is distinct and unforgettable. The cuisine relies on a balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot flavours, achieved through use of nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce, cane sugar, the juice of kalamansi citrus fruit or tamarind and chilli peppers. Dishes use plenty of fresh herbs but tend not to be overly spicy, as chilli sauces are served separately.
Goi cuon - Vietnam’s most famous dish: translucent spring rolls packed with greens, coriander and various combinations of minced pork, shrimp or crab. In some places they’re served with a bowl of lettuce and/or mint. A southern variation has barbecued strips of pork wrapped up with green banana and star fruit, and then dunked in a rich peanut sauce – every bit as tasty as it sounds.
Banh mi - This baguette sandwich filled with greens and a choice of fillings, including paté and freshly made omelette, is so good it’s been imitated around the world.
Banh xeo - These enormous, cheap and filling Vietnamese pancakes translate (banh xeo means “sizzling pancake”) pancake contain shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and egg, which is then fried, wrapped in rice paper with greens and dunked in a spicy sauce before eaten.
Bun cha - A Hanoi specialty, you’ll find bun cha at food stalls and street kitchens across the city. Essentially a small hamburger, the pork patties are barbecued on an open charcoal brazier and served on a bed of cold rice noodles with assorted foliage and a slightly sweetish sauce.
Pho - Vietnam’s national dish a the country’s great staple is pho (pronounced “fur”), a noodle soup eaten at any time of day but primarily at breakfast. The basic bowl of pho consists of a light beef or chicken broth flavoured with ginger and coriander, to which are added broad, flat rice noodles, spring onions and slivers of chicken, pork or beef.
Cao lau - Central Vietnam does it best. Among Hoi An’s tasty specialities is cao lau, a mouth-watering bowlful of thick rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rind croutons in a light soup flavoured with mint and star anise, topped with thin slices of pork and served with grilled rice-flour crackers or sprinkled with crispy rice paper.
Cha ca - Seafood dishes are among the standouts of Vietnamese cuisine. Cha ca, reportedly devised in Hanoi, is perhaps the best known. It sees white fish sautéed in butter with dill and spring onions, then served with rice noodles and a scattering of peanuts.
Mi quang - This unheralded and affordable noodle dish is a Hanoi specialty. Ingredients vary by establishment, but expect to see a simple bowl of meat noodles enlivened by additions like flavoursome oils, fresh sprigs of leaves, shrimp, peanuts, mint and quail eggs.
Nom hua chuoi - Vegetarians rejoice. Nom hua chuoi, or banana-flower salad, is a great meat-free option. Lime and chilli are the key flavours and add a refreshing punch to the shredded veg.
Com tam - “broken rice”, is a street-stand favourite. Recipes vary, but you’ll often find it served with barbecued pork or beef and a fried egg.