Traditional Vietnamese cooking is well known for its use of fresh herbs and vegetables balanced with meat or seafood, and its use of very little oil. It is considered to be one of the healthiest diets in the world.
A very long time ago, Vietnam was ruled by China, and some of that influence remains today, for example in the use of chopsticks and cooking in a wok.
The north of Vietnam is closest to China, and the influences there are stronger than in the south. For example, soy sauce is rarely used in southern cooking and more likely to be used in the north.
In the north, stir fried food is more common, and dishes contain fewer herbs and vegetables because the climate is less favourable than that of the south for growing them. Northern dishes use pepper for heat, while those of the south use chillies.
In the 1800s, Vietnam was a colony of France, and French food influences are still very evident today in Vietnamese cooking. Potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, lettuce and carrots are just some of the ingredients that were introduced by the French and are now considered to be an essential part of Vietnamese cooking. Coffee was also introduced, and today Vietnam is one of the largest producers and exporters of coffee in the world. However, unlike the French, the Vietnamese drink their coffee sweetened with condensed milk, and often enjoyed iced.
Vietnamese have also adapted the French bread, the baguette, to their own, filling it with a variety of meats and adding pickled daikon radish and coriander. Also common in Vietnam are other baked delights of French origin such as croissants and pastries.
Rice and noodles
Although there are differences in style of cooking in different parts of north, central and south Vietnam, some things are the same. Rice is a staple food, just as it is all through southeast Asia. Noodles are also a basic food, used in both soups and other dishes. They are made in different widths, of wheat, rice or mung beans. An essential of all meals is fresh vegetables and herbs, and a common sight at every dining table is a platter of cucumber, bean shoots, hot peppers and sprigs of herbs such as coriander, basil and mint.
For healthy balance, many Vietnamese dishes included five tastes: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. In traditional medicine, each of these elements is good for different organs of the body, such as liver, gall bladder, intestines and bladder.
Dishes should appeal to the diner's senses, so Vietnamese cooks try to have pleasing aromas, to include some crisp food for texture and sound, to arrange food attractively, and to have five colours: white, green, yellow, red and black. The sense of touch is used in finger foods, for example, diners pick up a fried spring roll and wrap some raw lettuce or herbs around it to eat with the spring roll.
Common ingredients throughout Vietnam include fish sauce, black pepper, chilli, coconut milk, limes, lemongrass, and tamarind. Cooking methods include simmering, grilling and stir frying .
A Vietnamese meal includes many shared dishes. Plates of a variety of foods are put on the table all at once and people help themselves. A meal could include a soup (such as noodles with chicken or pork), rice, grilled or steamed meats or seafood, a vegetable dish, a salad, and fresh fruit. There will be at least one dipping sauce. Vietnamese spring rolls, either fried or fresh, are often a part of a meal. Famous Vietnamese dishes include spring rolls, either fried or fresh, bread rolls called banh mi, crispy seafood pancakes and delicious salads using green papaya or green mango as a base.
Probably the most famous, and certainly the most popular dish in Vietnam is a noodle soup called pho (pronounced fer), eaten at any time of day. It consists of broth, wide flat noodles, pieces of either beef or chicken, and herbs. It was originally a northern dish, especially for breakfast on bitterly cold mornings. However, since the reunification of north and south Vietnam, pho has become popular in the south as well. Pho is served in street stalls as well as in restaurants.
Essential herbs in Vietnamese cooking
There are many essential herbs used when eating Vietnamese food. These are often used raw to wrap other foods, or are added to the food while cooking. Each has not only a particular flavour element (such as bitter, sour, minty), but also has a medicinal effect such as helping digestion, or body temperature, or being good for the liver or heart.
Some examples are:
Sawtooth coriander (ngo gai)
Sawtooth coriander (ngo gai) has a stronger but similar flavour to coriander. It is eaten raw, added to salads or on top of soup. It is made into a tea to improve appetite and digestion, and to sooth tummy aches.
Perilla (tia to)
Perilla (tia to) has a flavour rather like a combination of basil and mint. It is eaten raw in salads, or added to soups and meat dishes. It is a good addition to food flavoured with cumin. It is added to steamy baths to improve the skin.
Vietnamese mint (rau ram)
Vietnamese mint (rau ram) is spicy and peppery. It assists indigestion and stomach aches, and is put on wounds and swellings.
Green mango (xoai song)
Green mango (xoai song) is tart and refreshing. It is used in salads, and eaten with salt and pounded chilli as a snack. It is an excellent source of fibre, vitamins A and C.
Asian basil (rau que)
Asian basil (rau que) has a slightly sweet, slightly aniseed flavour. It is used raw, added to a soup as it is served, or added to a salad. Crushed leaves are applied to cuts to disinfect them.
Mustard leaves (cai xanth)
Mustard leaves (cai xanth) are eaten raw or cooked and are high in vitamin A. They have a slightly peppery flavour.
Water spinach, or morning glory (rau mong)
Water spinach, or morning glory (rau mong) is used as a vegetable, stir fried or in soups or stews. It is an excellent treatment of bites.
Bitter melon (kho qua)
Bitter melon (kho qua) is bitter, and crunchy like cucumber. It is often made into soup or cooked with meat. It is good for treating stomach problems.
Amaranth (rau den)
Amaranth (rau den) is used like spinach, raw in salads or cooked.
Banana blossom (bap chuoi)
Banana blossom (bap chuoi) is used in salads, stews and stir fries. The outer leaves are removed, and the centre is the part that is used. As each outer leaf is removed, you can see tiny stalks that would have developed into bananas. It is an excellent source of fibre, vitamin C and potassium.