Are you ready to relish in the magic blend of spices and flavors of Vietnamese food? Clearly you’ve decided to take a leap into this cuisine (since you’re reading this article) and that’s great. Vietnamese food, when prepared properly, isn’t only flavourful and delicious, it’s healthier for you and bears distinctive tastes that are plain amazing.
If you’re willing to go on the journey of learning about a new cuisine, don’t be afraid! You’d be surprised to know how many foods and recipes have been created by means of exploration.
With Vietnamese, you might get to experiment with different ingredients, oftentimes in the Vietnamese language, different tastes, textures, bitterness, saltiness, fatty, savory, all with their distinct personalities within Vietnamese cuisine. Trust us, if you’ve already had a taste of Vietnamese dishes, you know that salty isn’t the same salty as we know it. So, throughout this guide, we will be teaching you some of the most basic, but not at all less tasty, Vietnamese beginner hacks to get you started.
Why Learn About Vietnamese Cooking?
Well, Vietnamese is all about the balance. Take their national dish for example, with their delicious beef broth and noodle soup all accompanied by fresh herbs, spices, fish, and citrus altogether.
Vietnamese food is a culinary reflection of the Buddhist five-element philosophy, which pairs a natural element with flavor, for instance, the element of fire to bitter and earthy to sweet. Every dish is harmony between the elements and their chosen flavor. And even though all recipes will vary from region to region and city to city, the common denominator within Vietnam is contrasting textures within their cuisine. If you’ve tried some, and we’re sure you have, you may have noticed that chewy and fleshy ingredients are often paired with crunchy ones. For instance, when eating some rice noodles with some fatty pork and crunchy vegetables or fried onions all on the same dish.
6 Things You Didn’t Know About Vietnamese Cuisine
It’s hard to write a beginner’s guide to Vietnamese cuisine without touching upon some of its mysteries and history. Apart from the five-element secret we just mentioned, there are other, very curious facts that will let you further understand why Vietnamese cuisine can be unique.
1. Savory for Breakfast is the Way to Go
While in greater parts of America, breakfast can be savory at some point, it is always paired with something sweet – even if it’s just a cup of coffee. In Vietnam, however, breakfast is strictly savory. You will surely not come across any Vietnamese person munching on a sugary cereal or gulping a syrup bathed pancake. Due to their traditions, the Vietnamese are early risers and need the energy to go through their day. So naturally, breakfast is all about steaming hot soups, rise, and bánh mìs when starting the day. Surely you’ve heard of the infamous pho soup right? Well, this is a traditional breakfast dish – which can also be consumed throughout any time of the day.
2. Cuisine Varies from Region to Region
Like with any country in the world, foods vary from city to city. Vietnam is divided into three regions: central, south, and north. Each of these regions offers its own unique characteristics for Vietnamese cuisine. For instance, in northern Vietnam, the food is less spicy compared to the other regions and black pepper is strongly preferred over chili and home to the famous bun cha. Whereas in central Vietnam, they offer different varieties of spicy flavors and mixtures. In Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, they are revered for its distinctive and delicious dishes. In the South, food tends to be on the sweeter side and herbs are often used in cooking.
3. Desserts can be Liquid Too
If you’ve even been to Vietnam, you know the temperatures can often be sweltering. So, it’s no surprise that the Vietnamese prefer liquid, icy-cold desserts. For instance, Che is Vietnamese dessert drinks, soups, and puddings. These often consist of mung, coconut milk, fruit, or kidney beans – which are just a few of the most popular ingredients. You can get these in a variety of banana and coconut milk, sweetcorn and rice pudding, and the colorful photogenic one: che ba mau, a drink based on jelly and beans which is one of the most refreshing you’ll ever have.
4. Vietnamese Coffee Culture
You may have not known this but Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world. Their beans are incredible. They are strong and flavorful and skyrocket your energy. With its inside punch and flavor, it’ll keep you buzzing all through the day. Traditionally, you can enjoy it with condensed milk with ice, known as “ca phe sua da”.
5. Animal Blood is Widely Used in Vietnamese Cuisine
Yes, as rare as it may sound, raw animal blood is one of Vietnam’s delicacies. For instance, Tiet Canh is soup made from fresh animal blood (freshly slaughtered), cooked meat, herbs, and the fish sauce. If you were brave enough to try it, it can be described as buttery, sour and cool at the same time. You can wash it down with rice wine too. This dish is often found on the street and can be consumed during festivities such as the Lunar New Year, once the animal is killed in the home of the host.
6. Fish Sauce all the way
Fish sauce is one of the most important components of the Vietnamese cuisine, you can’t do Vietnamese without it. This exquisite sauce is created by fermenting anchovies and salt. The sauce, which can be very strong alone, loses its sturdy fish taste when paired with other ingredients. Balance is found when these sweet and salty flavors are all intertwined into the food. This makes a versatile and totally adaptable condiment and is widely used in many of the most popular dishes in Vietnam and used a dipping sauce too! You haven’t experienced Vietnamese Cuisine if you haven’t tried this delicious fish sauce.
Ultimate Vietnamese Ingredient Shopping List to Get you Started
1. Oyster Sauce
This almost-syrupy sauce is made from reducing boiled oysters and extracting an essence that is later mixed with sugar, water, and thickened with cornstarch. The result? Extreme goodness. But more than that, it’s a sweet but also savory, almost caramelly sauce that works great for sautees and spreads great through any food. This is a staple of Southeast Asian cooking, and you might have seen (and tasted it) in more than one occasion. You’ll be using it to tone down any bitterness brought on by leafy greens in your Vietnamese dishes, as well as add sweetness to beef cubes.
2. Jasmine Rice
Like in most Asian countries, rice is served with almost every dish- in Vietnam as well. Learning how to make rice, is one of the first teachings the Vietnamese receive when they are children! Noodles, on the other hand, are also very popular amongst various dishes, but many say, that they can’t go without rice. It just has to go with every meal. And throughout your own journey through Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll find out that rice is indispensable for most dishes. Jasmine rice is distinctively floral and fragrant, it’s much more than rice. It adds a flavor element and complements umami sauces and salty broths. Jasmine rice, compared to sushi or regular white rice, is not at all glutinous but can still stick together when properly cooked.
3. Pickled Veggies
In Vietnam, these are called do chua, which literally translates to “sour things”. Jars filled with colorful pickled veggies can be traditionally found in every household in Vietnam. You can use any type of veggie, there are no rules, however, the most commonly used are: carrots, cabbage, mustard greens, and cauliflower. Because of the pepperiness and saltiness of many dishes, the tangy and sweet “pickled things” are often side dishes that offer a pop of luster to the experience.
4. Sambal Oelek
You can’t beat sambal oelek. This is where a strong and balanced heat comes from. When paired with other key ingredients such as pickled veggies, rice, or fish sauce, it really brings out some distinct flavors. This hot sauce is on the chunkier side and is less ground than other squirt-bottle ones.
5. Rice Vermicelli
These “bun” are Vermicelli rice noodles and every Vietnamese household will have a pack of thin vermicelli noodles in their pantry. In Vietnamese cuisine, you will often find yourself swapping rice noodles for rice, while other ingredients remain basically the same. For instance, you can make bun thit nuong cha gio, which are noodles accompanied by greens, eggrolls, pork, peanuts, and fish sauce. It’ll fill you up right away, but it remains light enough so that you don’t feel so heavy after finishing it.
6. Fresh Herbs
You can’t do Vietnamese cousine without a bunch of fresh herbs at your disposal. Why? Well, because most of the noodle soups and appetizers you’ll be making will all hold the same combination of herbs, including green onion, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, which are oftentimes even used as a garnish. When making pho, whether from the south, north or center, rest assured you’ll be throwing a bunch of chopped herbs on top. This is what makes all the difference, all these fragrant juices will seep into the broth, offering a slight crunch that throws off a bit of the chewiness in the noodle and meat (remember what we said about the five elements?). Another example includes Vietnamese eggrolls which include lettuce leaves but are rolled with basil, mint, and cilantro.
7. Fried Shallots
Not only are these easy to make, once sprinkled on a wide array of Vietnamese dishes, these will also offer a nutty and oniony taste. All you need to do is chop some shallots, throw them in low heated oil and wait until caramelized. Strain the mix and keep them on the side as a garnish and keep the oil for cooking other dishes! It’s more than delicious, it’s almost out of this world. Plus, it adds plenty of texture.
8. Vietnamese Peppercorns
Pepper in Vietnam is not the same as the one we may have in America. Vietnam black pepper is distinctive and is oftentimes served fresh (green) and will turn black in an hour. The Vietnamese love their pepper on everything and so will you as you experiment with their cuisine.
Vietnamese Beginner Recipes to Get you Started
Now that you know some of the ingredients you can implement for Vietnamese cuisine, let’s get into some of the delicious recipes you can start making at home.
1. Bun Mam
This is a dish specifically from the Southern region of Vietnam. Bun, suggests it consists of noodle with a dark-colored broth, all prepared from fermented fish sauce. This can either be fish or shrimp and gives the broth a balance in flavors. This dish might sound a bit fishy, but with the right balance of elements, it is not as fishy as it might smell or with the right balance of elementssound. You’ll need rice vermicelli noodles placed in the bottom of the individual bowl before the broth is added. You can finish it off with seafood, meat, prawns, and pork on top of the noodles. After that, slice up some aubergine and finish it off. You can also apply some tamarind juice or sugar to balance out the flavors to find the right taste for you.
This is one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes which originates in the North of Vietnam. Shortly after, it spread across the entire country as the Vietnamese migrated south. There are some differences between southern and northern Pho due to the fresh sprouts and herbs implemented, the north missed these ingredients in their recipe. Pho is usually prepared with beef, but it can also be made by using chicken. However, this isn’t as traditional. The broth is made from beef bones, star anise, charred onions, and ginger. For garnish, you can include Asian mint, lime wedges, and/or bean sprouts.
3. Fried Wonton Dumplings
These are tiny parcels prawn mix and shrimp deep-fried and covered in tomato salsa, cucumber, coriander, and pineapple. Sometimes, in restaurants, they would set the shrimp mix aside.
4. Egg Coffee
Legend says that in the ’40s as milk was hard to come by, a young barman turned to egg yolk to use it as a substitute. This dessert is one of the most popular and includes a variety of ingredients, not just egg yolks. Nowadays, it includes condensed milk, coffee powder, butter, and cheese. Many have tried this and it seems there are no gray areas – you either love it or hate it. When making it and tasting it, try to not think of western coffee, because you’ll be disappointed!
5. Bun Rieu
This is a traditional Vietnamese recipe made with meat and rice vermicelli in the form of a soup. It is served across the Southern region of Vietnam. The broth is made up of tomato and meat and added noodles. One of the common Variations is Run Rieu Cua, this version is garnished with freshwater crab. It is crushed and made into a paste before it’s added into the broth.
This isn’t really a dish, it is the name given to sea snails. When a restaurant serves these, the dish is then named Quan Oc. They are served in all shapes and sizes. In restaurants along the coast of Vietnam, you’ll find huge tanks of live seafood available for the day. You can pick your favorite and ask how you want it to be cooked. You can steam, roast, grill, or BBQ your selection. It’s quite simple!
7. Mi Quang
This is a traditional central Vietnamese dish and is widely popular in Hoi An and Danang. You can find it on the streets anywhere across this region and is amazing to kick start your day. It’s made up of pork slices, rice noodles, sesame rice crackers, unpeeled prawns, quail eggs, and peanuts. The traditional broth for this dish is poured over the noodles and meat which adds an amazing flavor to the dish. You can pair this with banana flowers, lime, herbs, and chili on the side.
8. Ban Xeo
This dish translates to “sizzling cake” due to the sounds the batter makes once it hits the pan. This dish is paired with dipping sauces, rice paper, and salads. You can wrap the “pancake” with fresh herbs and cucumber inside a rice paper and dip it before you eat. This delicacy is served in restaurants and on the streets. For dipping sauces, it is traditional to have them with fish sauce, or nouc cham.
Are you ready to take on the challenge of exploring Vietnamese cuisine? We sure hope you are! You will not be disappointed. The exquisite and unique flavors of every Vietnamese dish will have you singing joyfully with every bite you take.