Layers of flavor and texture from fresh herbs, meats, noodles, rice and pungent sauces are the backbone of Vietnamese cuisine.
The cuisine of Vietnam is simple and healthful, but rich enough in flavor to satisfy the most adventurous palate. It is sometimes compared to Thai food, but Vietnamese cuisine is not as rich and has a more subtle heat. The dishes are beautifully balanced to retain the individual flavors of each ingredient.
The Signature Flavors Of Vietnam
Fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, Thai basil and lemongrass, fresh lemon and lime, and garlic and shallots are often combined with grilled meats, crisp greens and noodles. The resulting contrast of textures and temperatures is a prominent characteristic of the cuisine.
Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce): Essential to all Vietnamese cooking is nuoc mam, or fish sauce. There are more than sixty varieties of nuoc mam produced in Vietnam, and the process has been elevated to an art form. The quality of the fish and salts that are used, as well as the climatic conditions and type of wood barrels used for fermenting all contribute to the quality and subtle flavor nuances of each variety.
To produce fish sauce, small anchovies are laid out over fine mesh and salted heavily to begin the fermentation process. The salt extracts the liquid from the fish, which drips through the mesh into a wooden container.
This liquid is then placed in barrels and allowed to ferment further. The darker the sauce, the longer it has fermented, creating a richer flavored product.
There are three culinary regions of Vietnam and each has a distinctive flair.
The southernmost region of the country is Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The soil is rich and fertile making it the “rice bowl” of Vietnam.
The food from this region is vibrant and flavorful making liberal use of garlic, shallots and fresh herbs. It is also the area that has been most influenced by the cuisines of other nations like India and France in the form of curries, pastries and breads.
The central area of Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The climate here is also mild, therefore produce is ample in this region. The royal cuisine from this region tends to be a bit heartier and spicier than that of the Saigon region to the south.
There is a large focus on variety and intricate presentation in this area, and an imperial banquet served today would consist of at least a dozen different dishes.
Hanoi, in the northern part of the country, sits closest to the border of China and has been somewhat influenced by Chinese cuisine.
Pho, the traditional Hanoi beef and noodle soup is perhaps the most well-known of Vietnamese foods. Boiling beef stock seasoned with ginger, star anise and cinnamon is poured over fresh rice noodles and raw beef that has been sliced paper thin.
The meat is cooked immediately by the hot broth and fresh bean sprouts, onion, green chilies, lemon juice, cilantro and mint leaves are added to the bowl at the table.
Another treasure of the Vietnamese kitchen is Goi Cuon, also called the summer roll or fresh spring roll. Thin rice paper wrappers are filled with rice stick noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, grilled pork or chicken, shredded carrot, mint, cilantro and lettuce, then rolled and served with peanut dipping sauce.
The sauce is a sumptuous blend of ground peanuts, sugar, garlic, peanut oil, chili paste, hoisin sauce and fish sauce.
Nuoc Cham, a delightfully pungent dipping sauce made from fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chilies can be served with nearly everything on the Vietnamese menu.
The beverages that pair best with Vietnamese cuisine are traditional teas, light white wine such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer or an Asian beer like Vietnam's own “33.”
If you want to experiment with a lighter, more healthful alternative to Chinese or Thai food, then Vietnamese cuisine is your best bet. The layers of fresh herbs, light ingredients, delicious sauces and intriguing blends of flavors unique to Vietnamese cuisine make for a great lunch or dinner experience.