As a teenager in Minneapolis, I was lucky to have exposure to many global cuisines. I remember my mother making a point to eat at a different type of restaurant once a week. This became a special ritual and we both got to expand our culinary horizons in this way. We tried so many different and wonderful things: Lebanese, Thai, Ethiopian, Indian, Pakistani, Greek, Korean, Lao, Mongolian, and Vietnamese foods, among others.
We rather quickly became very fond of the Vietnamese food we were eating at a handful of different restaurants. My mom and I were won over by the freshness of this food. Beautiful produce, including vegetables and many fresh herbs, appeared alongside small portions of grilled chicken, beef, pork or tofu-these elements often topped a bed of sticky rice or rice noodles, with rich broth underneath.
The traditional dish Bun Cha
And then there were the condiments... each table had its own collection of them to choose from. You could customize your dish to be exactly the way you desired it. Hoisin sauce added a rich, fermented depth of flavor, nuac mam (fish sauce) could be used if you needed a salty and fishy accent, and the various kinds of chili sauce could be used to add delicious pungency (if you wanted it). Here is what you might find at your table at a Vietnamese restaurant:
Many delicious condiments
Vietnamese dishes can include very complex flavors. This is partly due to the fact that the philosophy of Vietnamese cooking emphasizes the need for balancing and contrasting flavors. These can include spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet elements. A person used to the typically bland flavors of "middle of the road" American food can be initially quite shocked by the juxtaposition of these flavor elements!
Another factor that highly influences the flavors of Vietnamese cuisine is the liberal usage of fresh herbs. Lemongrass, Lao ginger, mint, cilantro, Thai chilis, cinnamon, and basil are frequently featured in many dishes.
What dishes might I find at a Vietnamese restaurant?
There are many popular dishes (and plenty of obscure ones) that you could try. Soups and broths are very commonly encountered- the most famous being Pho. Pho is usually served in a large bowl, and in its most basic form consists of a clear broth of meat, spices, and bones. Beef or chicken is added and the dish is topped with herbs and bean sprouts.
One of my favorite dishes is a rice based one called ga xao gung. This is chicken sautéed with ginger and nuac mam (fish sauce). A wonderful variation includes sauteing the chicken with highly aromatic lemongrass.
Another specialty of Vietnamese cooking is the rice flour pancake. Banh beo is a pancake topped with fried shallots and shrimp. The influence of French colonization can be seen in the preparation of crepes. One of the most popular Vietnamese crepes is called banh xeo. This is served with pork, coconut oil, onions, lettuce and fresh herbs.
The french also brought the baguette to Vietnam, and baguettes are used in banh mi, or the Vietnamese sandwich. Inside, one might find various types of barbecued meats, pickled carrots, sriracha flavored mayonnaise, jalapeno slices or Thai chilis, and cilantro. Delicious!
The summer roll is very popular, and many restaurants serve this as an appetizer, but it can also appear sliced up and on top of certain dishes. The summer roll is made up of a rice paper wrapper (similar to a springroll wrapper, but sometimes transparent), tiny shrimp, fresh herbs, lettuce, and rice vermicelli. It is especially tasty dipped in nuoc cham (fish sauce combined with lime juice and chilis).
Curries are another favorite dish, and they are distinctly different from Indian and Thai curries. Ca ri ga is a great curry made with chicken, carrots, peas, and coconut milk.
What can you recommend to drink?
Vietnamese restaurants usually offer a variety of interesting things to drink. I really love and recommend Vietnamese iced coffee. This is very strong coffee made in a french press, and served with ice and sweetened condensed milk. Another good choice is soda chanh. This is soda water to which lemon juice and sugar has been added. Shakes made of durian (if you can stand it), jackfruit, or avocado are sometimes available, and Vietnamese beer can be great if the weather is especially hot.
Are there regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine ?
Yes, regional differences do exist. The region's climate, availability of certain ingredients, and its unique customs are the deciding factors here. In the north, fresh fish and seafood are frequently used, with crab being a very popular ingredient. There is less reliance on chili peppers here, with black pepper being the preferred "hot and spicy" element. Food in central Vietnam is known to feature a liberal use of spices (more can be grown here because of the climate), and chili peppers and shrimp paste are used frequently here. The royal city of Hue is famously known for multicourse meals of incredible complexity, and historically cooks here had to have hundreds and hundreds of signature recipes to appease royalty during feudal times. South Vietnamese cuisine makes excellent use of locally available foods. The climate in this region allows for the growth of many vegetables and herbs, and shallots, garlic, and coconut milk are featured regularly in its dishes. Another factor that makes food in the south stand apart is the use of sugar. Sugar is included not just in desserts here, but also in all sorts of savory dishes.
A map showing the regions of Vietnam
So, is Vietnamese food healthy?
Yes! I believe that Vietnamese food is quite healthy! It is a cuisine that emphasizes fresh vegetables and herbs. Meat is used sparingly-not as the central focus of the meal (as in western countries). Drinks and desserts often feature fresh fruit, and the portions aren't gigantic (although a bowl of pho can be very big). There is a focus on presentation rather than sheer quantity. Traditionally, Vietnamese meals include several dishes that are shared by everyone present. In this way, people are assured of having a healthy variety of foods, and it is a communal experience. Sweets also tend to be associated with certain festivals and therefore are not necessarily consumed regularly. Adherence to the Vietnamese philosophy of the five fundamental tastes (spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) helps to ensure that people consume the proper proportions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and that a balance of flavor is created in healthy ways.
If you haven't already, I really recommend visiting a Vietnamese restaurant in your area. You may come to appreciate and love all that this cuisine, and its many variations have to offer. Happy and healthy adventurous eating!