The Vietnamese diet relies heavily on rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and seafood. Although influenced by the cooking of China, which ruled Vietnam for centuries, Vietnamese dishes tend to be more pungent and include more raw vegetables and herbs. Also a former French colony, Vietnam embraces European staples not traditional to east Asia, such as French-style coffee, baguettes, sandwiches and flan.
Pho, a Flavorful Soup
If there’s a national dish of Vietnam, it’s pho, a hearty soup based on a broth made by simmering beef or chicken bones with onion and ginger. The components of pho vary according to available ingredients and the cook’s preferences, but it always contains rice noodles. It may include meat ranging from beef to chicken to tripe and is often seasoned with star anise or cinnamon. Pho is typically served with fresh chiles, lime and herbs such as cilantro and basil on the side.
Rice and Noodles
The Vietnamese diet features long-grain rice and rice noodles as prominent ingredients. Rice paper, thin translucent rounds made of rice and water, are used to wrap both fried and fresh spring rolls. Bun cha, the “working man’s lunch” in Vietnam, is a staple in Vietnamese restaurants everywhere. It consists of grilled pork or other meat served over thin rice noodles and accompanied by a sweet-sour sauce, fresh lettuce, herbs and vegetables.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh greens, including several varieties of spinach, Chinese broccoli and cabbage, are abundant in the Vietnamese diet. Other popular vegetables include bamboo shoots, chayote, bitter melon, fresh cucumbers, bean sprouts, yams and mushrooms. Vietnam grows pineapple, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, rambutan, litchi, sapodilla, durian and other tropical fruits. Fresh herbs, including cilantro, mint and basil, are served with pho, grilled meats and other dishes.
Meats, Poultry and Seafood
Thanks to the country’s long coastline, the Vietnamese diet includes plenty of fish and seafood. One of the most popular fish is basa fish, a catfish native to the Mekong River Delta. Fish is often served braised or stewed, or else it's deep-fried whole and served with a sweet and sour sauce. Meats and poultry are commonly used in stir-fries or marinated with lemongrass, garlic and chiles, then grilled.
Seasonings and Sauces
Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes the harmony of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Nearly every dish contains garlic. The cuisine also makes liberal use of chile peppers. Ginger, shallot, lemongrass, soy sauce and cinnamon are other typical Vietnamese seasonings. Fish sauce, or nuoc mam, a pungent liquid made from fermented anchovies and salt, is the most widely used condiment and flavoring. Nuoc cham, a combination of fish sauce with lime juice or vinegar, sugar and water, graces just about every restaurant table in Vietnam. Garlic and chiles may be added to it, as well as shredded vegetables such as cabbage, carrots or green papaya. The Vietnamese diet also features caramel, cooked until it’s very dark, in sauces for dishes such as braised catfish or tofu.