Vietnamese cuisine is divided into three regions: North, heavily influenced by China; South, more influenced by the French; and Central, spicier and more complex than cooking in the northern or southern regions of Vietnam. A typical meal might include roasted meat or fish, stir-fry vegetables, rice, soup, and fish and soy sauces.
The final tastes in almost any Vietnamese meal are determined by choices made by you—the person eating. A table salad (xalach dia) of assorted fresh herbs, salad greens, and sprouts, and vinegared vegetables, comes as an accompaniment to almost every meal, and there are always condiments on hand. One of the most pleasurable aspects of eating Vietnamese food is the act of sampling, altering, and enhancing your food as you eat.
Vietnamese soups exemplify the freshness, complex flavors, and flexible do-it-yourself aspect of Vietnamese cuisine. Large bowls of pho (hot soup) are a favorite breakfast in Vietnam—filled with noodles, bean sprouts, sprigs of fresh herbs, and lean pieces of chicken, pork, or beef. You can garnish your soup with more fresh herbs or sprouts from the table salad, or with any of the many little sauces and condiments that may be set out.
Vietnamese dipping and flavoring sauces are varied and wonderful. The most common of these is known as nuoc mam or nuoc cham. It's a pale blend of salty, pungent fish sauce diluted with fresh lime juice and sometimes vinegar, spiced with garlic and chopped chiles, and sweetened with a touch of sugar. You can drizzle it over your rice, use it as a dip for spring rolls or grilled meats, or add a spoonful to your soup. Other dipping sauces include nuoc leo, a peanut sauce; tuong ot, a red hot chile sauce similar to the Thai sriracha; and mam tom, a pungent shrimp sauce. One of our favorite condiments is a simple combination: a pile of black pepper and a pile of salt placed side-by-side on a small dish and served with a wedge of lime. You squeeze a little lime juice into the dish and blend some salt and pepper with it to make a paste into which you dip bits of meat from your soup.
Roll Your Own
The other do-it-yourself element in many Vietnamese meals comes with roll-your-own rice-paper rolls. For example, grilled chunks of lemongrass beef (thit bo nuong), grilled meatballs (nem nuong), or freshly steamed shrimp (tom) all come served with a salad plate together with a stack of moist rice papers (banh trang) or fresh rice wrappers (banh uot). You lay a wrapper on your open palm, put in a piece or two of meat, several strips of pickled radish, perhaps some herbs, sprouts, or rice vermicelli, then tuck over the ends and roll it up. You now have your own unique fresh spring roll that can be dipped in nuoc cham or nuoc leo, or eaten simply on its own.
Market and Restaurant Foods
Market food is at its best, and offers the greatest selection in the morning before the day gets hot. While breakfast in the south and north is generally soup, in rural areas it can be xoi—sticky rice steamed in a leaf wrapper. Often peanuts or mung beans are steamed with the rice.
In addition to street food, you'll want to experience a Bo Bay Mon or "Beef Seven Ways" restaurant. Beef dishes include beef fondue (bo nhung dam), grilled beef-stuffed leaves (bo la lot), beef pate steamed in banana leaves (cha dum), and beef rice soup (chao thit bo). Another restaurant specialty, often eaten for lunch in the south, is banh xeo, a kind of crepe filled with finely chopped vegetables and meat.
Freshly pressed sugarcane juice is available from vendors in the afternoon and evening. Vietnamese beer is good; try Saigon Beer or 333. Vietnam grows its own tea in the region around Dalat. Tea is consumed morning to night; it's served before or after but never during a meal. For another caffeine hit, try Vietnamese coffee black and hot or iced with condensed milk, gafe suda—our favorite. The coffee is made in individual slow-drip filters and can be very strong.
Excerpt from the original Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. Reprinted by permission.
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This page modified January 2007
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