culinary styles of Vietnam
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Vietnamese cuisine is one of Southeast Asia's great cuisines. Because of the large Vietnamese diaspora, Vietnamese food, in particular from cuisine the South, can be enjoyed around the world. That being said, food also has an important place in the country's culture, and there are also numerous regional Vietnamese cuisines that are not as readily available in the West, so making a trip to Vietnam would give you a chance to experience all these.

Understand edit

Gỏi cuốn fresh spring rolls, cao lầu noodles (a specialty of Hoi An), nước mắm dipping sauce and local beer

Food is at the very core of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions - food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.

Vietnamese cuisine varies from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being subtle, central Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy, while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being sweet. There is also distinctive Vietnamese-Chinese cuisine to be found in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown.

High-end restaurants tend to serve "Asian-fusion" cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and occasionally French mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at street side "restaurants" (A collection of plastic outdoor furniture placed on the footpath), with most walk-in restaurants being mainly for tourists. Distinct regional styles exist: northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes. Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles).

Ingredients edit

Many Vietnamese dishes are flavoured with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau ngò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China.

Pâté (pa-tê) was introduced to Vietnam by the French, and remains popular to this day. The most common type of pâté in Vietnam is made from pork liver, and is often used a filling for bánh mì baguette sandwiches.

Dishes edit

Saigon-style pho

Noodle dishes edit

  • Vietnam's national dish is phở (pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone), a broth soup with beef, pork, chicken or seafood and rice noodles (a form of rice linguine or fettuccine). In the south, phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs (usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilies and scalded bean sprouts which you can add according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce, while in the north, it is usually served only with fried quẩy fritters and chilli sauce on the side. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more types of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat, so is Phở thit lon with pork, Phở tom with shrimp, Phở ca with fish, and Phở chay with tofu and vegetable stock. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most phở places specialize in phở and can serve you a bowl as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It's available at any time of the day, but Phở chay is most often eaten as a breakfast. Famous phở restaurants can be found in Hanoi. The phở served at roadside stalls or informal restaurants tend to be cheaper and taste better than those served in fancier restaurants.
  • Bún riêu — North Vietnamese noodle soup, common varieties include bún riêu cua (minced crab), bún riêu cá (fish) and bún riêu ốc (snail).
  • Bún bò Huế — Soup with beef and rice vermicelli associated with Hue and the royal cuisine. In Hue itself, the dish is simply known as bún bò.
  • Hủ tiếu — Chinese-style flat rice noodles, often known as "kway teow" in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, most popular in the South. Usually served in soup with meat, offal, seafood and herbs.
  • Bún chả — grilled pork served in broth with rice vermicelli and herbs on the side, a local speciality of Hanoi. Famously eaten by former U.S. president Barack Obama and American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain during their visit to Hanoi.
  • Bún thịt nướng — rice vermicelli with grilled pork and various herbs, topped with some fish sauce and peanuts.
  • — Chinese-style wheat noodles. Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown is a good place to try some of such dishes, including mì xá xíu (char siu noodles) and mì vịt tiềm (duck noodles in herbal soup).

Rice dishes edit

  • Cơm tấm — broken rice, often served with pork and a fried egg.
  • Cơm gà — literally "chicken rice", can refer to any dish that uses a combination of rice and chicken. However, there are several types of chicken rice in Vietnam that stand out form the rest:
    • Cơm gà Hải Nam — the Vietnamese name of Hainanese chicken rice, perhaps better known as a part of Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine, though the Vietnamese version differs somewhat in its taste profile. Mostly associated with Ho Chi Minh City, which is home to Vietnam's largest ethnic Chinese community. Two versions are commonly available; the local Vietnamese version, and the Singaporean version, the latter of which will usually have a sign advertising it as such (kiều Singapore or something along those lines).
    • Cơm gà Hội An — as the name suggests, is the local style of chicken rice from Hoi An. Unlike Hainanese chicken rice, the rice is cooked with tumeric in Hoi An chicken rice, thus giving it its distinctive dark yellow color.

Seafood and fish edit

Vietnamese waters are in danger of collapse from over-fishing. Nevertheless, for the moment if you like seafood, you may find bliss in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience may be travelling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant. The food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and served in friendly surroundings often with spectacular views.

  • Chả cá - grilled fish dish marinated in a turmeric-based sauce, a local speciality of Hanoi. The dish is so iconic that the street on which Chả cá Lã Vọng, the restaurant which invented it, is located is called Chả Cá Street.
  • Cá kho tộ - catfish braised in a clay pot with a sauce made of fish sauce and caramelised sugar, giving it a thick a consistency and a blending of sweet and savoury flavours, typically served with white rice on the side. A speciality of the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam.

Side dishes and snacks edit

  • Gỏi cuốn (in the South) / nem cuốn (in the North) — Vietnamese spring rolls, also going by the name summer rolls. Ingredients including pork, shrimp and vegetables are wrapped into a transparent wrap of rice paper and unlike spring rolls they're served cold.
  • Chả giò (in the South) / nem rán (in the North) — the Vietnamese version of the fried spring roll encountered in some other Asian cuisines; fried and filled with pork and vegetables. Unlike Chinese spring rolls, the Vietnamese version is traditionally wrapped in rice paper, though the rice paper is often substituted with wheat flour sheets like the ones used in Chinese spring rolls at Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.
Bánh mì: French baguette stuffed with pâté, herbs and pickles
  • Bánh mì — a sandwich made with a short baguette often filled with pork (other meats and fish may be used), pâté, and vegetables.
    • Bánh mì que, also known as bánh mì cay is a local specialty of Haiphong, consisting of thin mini-baguettes stuffed with pork pâté, then dipped in a chilli, tomato and garlic sauce.
  • Bánh bao — Chinese-style steamed buns with filling, usually minced park, Chinese pork sausage, and a hard boiled egg. Originally brought to Vietnam by Cantonese immigrants, but has been significantly localized, and is now widely available and enjoyed by Vietnamese of all backgrounds.
  • Bột chiên — Fried rice cakes with egg, spring onions and perhaps other herbs.

Others edit

  • Bánh xèo — a type of savory pancake made of rice flour, water and turmeric powder, filled with beansprouts, pork, shrimp, various herbs and other ingredients, with slightly different variations in different parts of the country.
  • Bánh cuốn — steamed sheets of fermented rice batter, wrapped around a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots. A speciality of Northern Vietnam, and similar to cheong fun in Cantonese cuisine.

Vegetarian food edit

Vegetarian food is quite easy to find anywhere in Vietnam due in large part to the Mahayana Buddhist influence. These restaurants will run from upscale to street stall. Any Vietnamese dish with meat can be made vegetarian with the addition of fake meats. Besides the Buddhist influence of two vegetarian days a month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian for 16 days, and followers of the Quan Yin sect eat vegan daily. Look for any sign that says Com Chay or simply remember the phrase An Chay. Even if you are not a vegetarian, a visit to a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant will add a few new flavours that you won't find elsewhere. Also vegetarian food tends to be cheap which can help eke out the most hardened meat eaters budget. Be careful at regular stalls and restaurants though, as even dishes that seem vegetarian on the surface can sometimes make use to non-vegetarian seasonings such as fish sauce.

Places to eat edit

Most restaurants/cafes in Vietnam will have a bewildering variety of food available. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages. These will include all types of Vietnamese food, plus some token Western food, possibly some Chinese-style ribs and maybe a pad Thai as well. It is generally best to stick with the specialty of the area as this food will be the freshest and also the best-prepared. As in other South East Asian countries, the menu is often more an indication of what a restaurant can cook and not all items may be available at any given time.

In restaurants it is common practice for the wait staff to place a plastic packet (stamped with the restaurant's name) containing a moist towelette on your table. They are not free. They cost between 2,000-4,000 dong. If you open it, you will be charged for it. Also, peanuts or other nuts will be offered to you while you are browsing the menu. Those are not free, either. If you eat any, you will be charged.

Street side eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phở and cơm. Though cơm literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables. Cơm is used to indicate eating in general, even when rice is not served (i.e., An cơm chua? - Have you eaten yet) Though they may look filthy, street side eateries are generally safe so long as you eat at places popular among the locals and avoid undercooked food.

In rural and regional areas it is usually safest to eat the locally grown types of food as these are usually bought each day from the market. It is not uncommon that after you have ordered your meal a young child of the family will be seen running out the back towards the nearest market to purchase the items.

Cafés edit

Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonisers, but all three have been localised and remain popular. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost every village and on many street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches, freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. They are delicious and should be enjoyed at least once during a visit. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods.

Drink edit

Drinking in a Vietnamese bar is a great experience. One of the interesting things is that during the day, it is almost impossible to see a bar anywhere. Once the sun goes down though, dozens appear on the streets out of nowhere.

Watch out for ice in drinks. Factory-made ice is generally safe, but anything else can be suspect. Factory ice has a hollow, cylindrical shape. Avoid irregular chunks of ice as it may be unclean.

Beer edit

Different Vietnamese beers

With a bottle of beer in a supermarket costing from 9,000 dong and in a bar from 20,000 dong, Vietnam is a beer-drinker's paradise. The main brews are light lagers with a strength of 4.5-4.9%. Much research is needed to decide on one's personal preference. Don't miss out on bia hơi, (literally "air beer"), or draught beer made daily. It's available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars give you the opportunity to relax, drinking in a Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveller can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying. Only 5,000 dong each. The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in metal kegs. It's a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draught or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency.

The most popular beer (draught, bottle or can) among the southern Vietnamese is Saigon Do (Red Saigon). For the northern Vietnamese Bia Hanoi (Hanoi beer) is the most popular brand, whereas central Vietnamese prefer Festival beer or Bia Huda. 333, pronounced "ba-ba-ba" is a local brand, but it's somewhat bland; for a bit more flavour, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bia Saigon is also available as little stronger export version. Expect to pay about 20,000-30,000 dong per bottle of Saigon or Hanoi, slightly more for other brands, however it is still easy to find restaurants selling Bia Saigon for 10,000 dong in many cities apart from Ho Chi Minh. 'Saigon Green' delivers the best quantity versus price. Bière Larue is also good, and you can find local brands in every larger city.

The craft beer revolution has well and truly reached Vietnam and bottled IPAs, brown beers and stouts are available in the major cities. Ho Chi Minh boasts an increasing number of brew-pubs and microbreweries. These brews are available at a fraction of the price they cost in Thailand or Singapore.

It's common for beer in Vietnam to be drunk with ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when a toast is proposed: "mot, hai, ba, do" ("one, two, three, cheers"). Saying "Trăm Phần Trăm" (100% 100) implies you will empty your glass.

Coffee edit

Another popular drink among locals and tourists alike is the coffee (cà phê). Do be careful when drinking locally-prepared coffee as the locals tend to drink it incredibly strong with about 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup. It is usually served black or with sweetened condensed milk - usually over ice; this style is known in Vietnamese as cà phê sữa đá. Ask for cà phê sữa nóng if you want your coffee hot.

Vietnamese coffee beans are fried, not roasted. If you are picky, bring your own coffee.

Soft drinks edit

Coconut water is a favourite in the hot southern part of the country. Nước mía, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst quencher is the fabulous sinh tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also have it blended in a mixer. You could place any fruit-type after the word sinh tố, e.g., sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie) or sinh tố dừa (pineapple smoothie). If you prefer to have orange juice, you won't use the word sinh tố but nước (literally: water) or nước cam if you would like to have an orange juice. Juices are usually without condensed milk or coconut milk.

Wine and liquor edit

Vietnamese "rượu đế" or rice alcohol (rượu means liquor or wine [not beer]) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It's commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don't drink much alcohol, well at least in public. It's not recommended for tourists.

Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viticulture. Dalat is its centre, and you can get red and white wine. There is a better range and better quality red wines than whites as reds seem to appeal more to the Asian palate. Most restaurant wine is Australian and you will be charged Australian prices as well, making wine comparatively expensive compared to drinking beer or spirits. Vietnamese wine has hit the mass market and is available by the glass or bottle in many restaurants. The quality ranges from the just-about-drinkable Vang Dalat Classic to the more than palatable Vang Dalat Premium. In supermarkets a bottle of Classic can be bought for around 80,000 dong whilst Premium is around 120,000. In restaurants a bottle of Classic costs 120,000 to 150,000 dong. Premium is less widely available in restaurants and where it is costs around 200,000 dong a bottle.

Imported wines, mainly Australian, French and Chilean are also available in supermarkets and in mid range and high end restaurants at far more expensive prices.

Rice spirits and local vodka is cheap in Vietnam by Western standards. Local vodkas cost about US$2-4 for a 750 ml bottle. Russian champagne is also common. When at Nha Trang, look for the all-you-can-drink boat trips for around US$10-15 for an all-day trip and party with on-board band.

See also edit

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