Braised snakehead fish in a clay pot, Southern Vietnamese food

Vietnamese Cuisine: The Introduction

Tiếng Việt

While Vietnamese cuisine abroad mostly flies under the banners of phở and bánh mì, its full spectrum is an endless combination of intriguing and fresh ingredients. The food varies from region to region, but generally, it’s characterized by simplicity and unmistakable flavors.


Growing up in Vietnam, I realize that our cuisine is an embodiment of the country’s history and lifestyle. Decades of hardship had driven the Vietnamese cooks to utilize what they have at hand and make the best out of it. The result is unfussy dishes that are made of local and seasonal ingredients. They are often inexpensive and can be re-created just as well on the side of the road as in high-end restaurants.

Despite this simplicity, Vietnamese food is delightfully textured and rich in flavors. That’s because every dish is cooked with great care, with every component are meticulously prepared. Let’s take phở as an example. This popular dish might look simple, consisting of rice noodles, boiled beef, broth, and herbs. But making a good bowl of phở, especially the clear and aromatic broth, is an elaborate process. It involves many steps and is usually very time-consuming.

Those are just some main features of Vietnamese food. Yet the world of Vietnamese cuisine is far more complex, with regional differences and foreign influences. Through this series, I would like to give you a glimpse into this world and explore its richness and diversity.

The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine

Like other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is built around the idea of harmony. This means that each meal should be balanced in terms of flavors. For instance, seafood that is considered “cold” needs to be seasoned by heat-provided ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger, or chili. Reversely, spicy food needs to be relieved by “sourness” which has the cold attribute. Furthermore, each meal should also feature different colors. For example. vivid colors from main dishes, a milder tone of rice or noodle, and green shades of veggie dishes or herbs. Frankly, it is rare to see a Vietnamese meal with a single color dimension.

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Regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine

Another aspect of Vietnamese cuisine is the availability of regional variation. As Vietnamese cook with products and ingredients coming from their vicinity, their food often carries the unique characteristics of the respective area. Generally, Vietnamese cuisine can be categorized into three distinct fractions: Northern, Central, and Southern. They vary in terms of main ingredients, tastes, and flavors. Yet these dishes share many fundamental features, including the complementary textures, the liberal use of herbs and vegetables, as well as the presence of traditional spices such as fish sauce or shrimp paste.

Northern cuisine

In northern Vietnam, the food tends to be light and balanced on the palate. It is not bold in any particular taste – neither sweet, salty, spicy, bitter nor sour. In fact, it combines the subtle flavors of many different seasonings such as lime, fish sauces, and black peppers. Chilies and other exotic spices are sparsely used in northern cuisine as the colder climate limits production. Some signature dishes of the North are bún chả (vermicelli with grilled marinated pork), phở (rice noodle in soup) or bánh cuốn (rolled rice sheet).

Bún chả, vermicelli with grilled marinated pork

Central cuisine

The food of Vietnam’s central part, however, boasts a complex mixture of spicy flavors. This spiciness comes from chilies, which grow in abundance on this dry mountainous land, and by-products of chilies. Saltwater fish is the main source of protein here, as well as prawns, squids, and clams. Additionally, Central Vietnam is where the last dynasty of Vietnam was positioned. That’s why many regional dishes are strongly influenced by the royal cuisine. These dishes are often meticulously prepared and served in small portions. Some signature dishes of the Central are mì Quảng (Quang-styled noodle), and Hue’s savory pastries.

Bánh bèo, savory steamed rice cake

Southern cuisine

On the other hand, the food in southern Vietnam is vibrant and flavourful. Thanks to the natural richness, cooks in this region are not restricted to certain ingredients, with even more liberal use of herbs, garnishes, and condiments. The southern land is also known for its unorthodox cooking techniques such as mud-baking. In this technique, fish or chicken are covered in mud and then cooked over fire. This reflects exactly the open-minded lifestyle of the people living there. Moreover, sugar is often added to southern cuisine, making it distinctively sweeter than other regions. Some signature dishes of the South are cơm tấm (broken rice with grilled pork) and cá lóc kho tộ (braised snakehead fish in a clay pot).

Braised snakehead fish in a clay pot

Cuisine of the ethnic minorities

Aside from the three main regional cuisines, tribal food is an unmissable piece of Vietnam’s culinary scene. It is usually rustic and bold in flavor, with many ingredients coming directly from the mountain such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, freshwater fish, and wild animals. In these regions, insects are sometimes considered a delicacy. And traditional spices often give place to a wide variety of nuts, leaves, and medicinal herbs. Most prominent dishes include cơm lam (sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and thịt nướng lá mắc mật (roasted meat with seasoning leaves).

Roasted chicken with seasoning leaves
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Foreign Influences in Vietnamese cuisine

Situated on the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam has been a cultural melting pot for centuries. Merchants from near and far came to ports like Hoi An to commence trading, bringing with them customs, religions, and undoubtedly culinary knowledge. For example, noodles from China, spices from India and Indonesia, coconut milk from Khmer and Champa, etc. However, the Vietnamese didn’t just copy the whole thing. They imbued foreign dishes with a national identity. In other words, they alternate the food so that it is more suitable to the Vietnamese palate. Typical dishes that display this cultural adaption are Cao lầu (Hoi An-styled noodle), thịt kho hột vịt (caramelized braised pork and duck eggs) or mì hoành thánh (wonton noodle soup).

Decades of French occupation also have a huge impact on Vietnamese cuisine. New ingredients such as tomatoes, coffee beans, and even baguettes started to appear in the Vietnamese kitchen. But again, the Vietnamese re-created the food, making them more Vietnamese. The results are bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette), cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk), and many delicious dishes.

Cao lầu, Hoi An-styled noodle
Banh mi – Vietnamese baguette
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14 thoughts on “Vietnamese Cuisine: The Introduction”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    When I saw this post in my reader, I told myself to read this only after I eat. Otherwise it would be a torture. On my first trip to Vietnam (to the southern part of the country) in 2011, I must admit I only tried the usual: pho, goi cuon, and a few other dishes whose names I can’t remember. But in following years, my palate expanded and I became more adventurous with food. Then in 2017, I visited Vietnam for the second time, but this time to the central region. I sampled as many local dishes as possible, and I was completely blown away with everything I ate. I agree with your descriptions of Vietnamese food. It’s fresh and simple, yet rich and complex. Unfortunately my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Jakarta has been closed since the start of the pandemic.

    1. How sad! The pandemic also took a heavy toll on the Saigonese food scene, especially the vendors. Some lost their lives, while many others returned to their hometown and might never come back…

      So you have tried the cuisine of the Central and the South. Do you see any similarity between them and Indonesian cuisine? Both regions had contact with Java from an early age, so I guess there might be some similar features 🙂

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        It’s interesting that you mention about the past connection between Java and Vietnam (specifically the Chams). However, none of the dishes I tried in Vietnam reminded me of what I eat back home in Indonesia. They have different profiles and characters.

      2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        You’re very welcome. You should come to Indonesia and try the dishes yourself! 😀 (although there are a lot of regional varieties here)

      3. Definitively! It is difficult to find a good Indonesian restaurant here. The cuisine is still underpresented. Appears only on the menu of Asian-fusion eateries. Even so, there is only satay… And I doubt its authenticity. It tastes like VNese skewers, serving with peanut sauce 🙂

  2. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Wonderful post, and beautiful photos. It made me hungry for Vietnamese food, and brought back memories of some fabulous meals I had both in Vietnam, and in Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver. There’s a quite large Vietnamese population here so the local restaurants are pretty good.
    Alison

      1. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
        Alison and Don says:

        Not that I can think of. I’ve had fabulous seafood pho in a funky restaurant here in Vancouver. It’s known as a restaurant that the Vietnamese eat at so that’s a recommendation. But there are other places here but I can’t remember the names of the dishes, just that it was always delicious. Check out Anh and Chi in Vancouver to get an idea of a more up-market place.

  3. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
    Mabel Kwong says:

    I found it extremely hard to get through your post as your photos of Vietnamese cuisine was so amazing, so appetising. Had to stop and stare I’ve always wondered about the background of Vietnaese cuisine, and you presented this cuisine to us in such a straight-forward yet insightful manner, Len. This is such a well-thought out phrase from you, ‘Like other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is built around the idea of harmony. That is very true of Chinese cuisine which can also be as colourful as Vietnamese cuisine. Now I finally know why banh mi is the way it is – it looks French and that is because of decades of French occupation and its influence on local Vietnamese food.

    It’s quite easy to find Vietnamese food here in Australia. You can find banh mi and pho in so many shopping centre food courts here. I remember during free work lunches or parties, banh mi is a popular choice on the table – cut up into smaller pieces. Vietnamese rice paper rolls are popular here in the summer too.

    The braised snakehead fish in a clay pot looks so good. Wouldn’t mind trying that. Hope you are doing well, Len 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Mabel! Here, we are gradually getting out of lockdown. There are still restrictions regarding indoor dining and intercity travel. But at least, we are not stuck at home anymore. How about you? I’ve heard that Australia starts to lift restrictions as well 🙂

      1. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
        Mabel Kwong says:

        That is lovely you are able to go out and getting out of lockdown. Enjoy 🙂 Yes here in Australia we are coming out of lockdown. It will be interesting to see what’s to come. Hoping for an upcoming summer where we can get out and about here 🙂

      2. Same here. I hope we can enjoy a pleasant holiday. No large outbreak during the festive season please *finger cross*

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