A Guide to Vietnamese Flavors and Food Culture

Vietnamese street food
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It is the abundant use of fresh herbs and vegetables that sets Vietnamese cuisine apart from those of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese food is a healthy mix of light and refreshing flavors with very little added fats.

The Vietnamese love to wrap parts of their meals in rice paper and lettuce leaves – grilled shrimp, grilled beef, stir-fried pork are all good candidates for the filling, although sometimes, only vegetables and herbs like mint, basil and cilantro are used. The spring roll, which has come to personify Vietnamese food is, in fact, a favorite appetizer on most Vietnamese menus.

Lots of Fresh Herbs and Vegetables

Fresh herbs and veggies such as bean sprouts are mandatory with the famous Vietnamese Pho (pronounced fir) or beef noodle soup. They can be added to the hot soup or munched fresh, it doesn’t really matter. Pho has been around for 100 years as a traditional breakfast dish but, nowadays, it is eaten all day long.

Vietnamese cuisine draws a lot from the Chinese, who ruled the country from 111 BC for 1,000 years and left behind their cooking methods of stir-frying, steaming, braising and stewing in clay pots.

The French, who were there for slightly less than a 100 years, bequeath the Vietnamese their baguette and also their pates, which the Vietnamese steam in banana leaves and localize with the addition of chilies and spring onions. Another great legacy of the French may have been the Pho, which some believe to have originated from the French beef stew, called the pot au feu.

Regional Cuisines

Regional cuisines in Vietnam vary. The colder Northern region is known for its hearty beefy stews. This is the area that was conquered by the Chinese in second century BC and where most of Vietnam’s ethnic groups live. Stewing is a popular style of cooking here—a similarity that it shares with the Chinese.

The Central region of Vietnam is the home of imperial cooking. With Hue, the ancient royal capital, located here it is not surprising that the food here is highly refined just like the former court chefs used to cook it, and well, fit for a king. Delicate portions are served in multiple courses.

Down South where it is more tropical, the cuisine borrows from those of neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and also Malaysia. Rich with fresh seafood, the food here shows a bit more of an Indian influence and is generously spiced with chilies, coconut milk and a variety of herbs and spices.

Fish Sauce

As with many other Southeast Asian countries, a meal is not to be had without fish sauce, called nuoc cham in Vietnam. The locals combine their fish sauce with chopped chilies, garlic, sugar and lime juice, a concoction called nuoc mam pha, for a perfect balance of the sweet, salty, sour and spicy tastes. This is a favorite dipping sauce that is versatile enough to accompany practically any Vietnamese dish.