Vietnamese dishes are loved for their healthy and flavorful taste. Almost anyone who has tasted Vietnamese food commended the perfect seasoning, and this delicate, impeccable seasoning is also why Vietnamese often find it hard to adjust to the bland seasoning style of western cuisine or the strong spiciness or sourness of Thai and Indian taste.
So what are the secrets of Vietnamese cooking and what is special about Vietnam's food culture? Let’s find out with our blog.
The use of spices and fresh herbs is certainly one of the factors that set one cuisine apart from another. Besides salt and sugar - the worldwide spices, in a Vietnamese kitchen you will very likely see the following: shallot, scallion, garlic, ground pepper, onion, lime, scallion, lemongrass, ginger, and very popular Vietnamese herbs like perilla, basil, cilantro, culantro, chives, and peppermint (hung que). Fish sauce is another must. Without these ingredients (especially the fish sauce, shallot, scallion, and garlic), it is almost an impossible job for a cook to create the authentic Vietnamese taste. Neither the aroma nor the taste will be quite Vietnamese.
Shallot and garlic are a must in Vietnamese kitchens
It is easy to notice that Vietnamese use fresh, rather than the juice or powder form of spices and herbs in their cooking. Take shallot and garlic for example; these two are often used in fried and sauteed dishes. Cooks simply wash them carefully with water, chop them into small pieces, fry them in a hot pan with a little oil for the aroma, then add the main vegetables or meat, then done, a good dish for a family meal.
But this is not to say that Vietnamese don’t use processed or packaged spices and seasoning. The common products they use are turmeric powder, chili powder, (rice) vinegar, fermented rice powder, and shrimp paste (more popular in North Vietnam).
Another conspicuous feature in Vietnam food culture is the domineering presence of vegetables, in almost every dish. Common proteins just revolve around pork, beef, fish, and chicken, but common vegetables are abundant: morning glory (rau muong), Malabar spinach (rau mong toi), amaranth (rau den), mustard greens (cai xanh), bok choy (cai thia), sweet potato greens (rau lang), cabbage, bitter melon (muop dang), to name but a few. The Vietnamese love for greens and natural local ingredients, in general, can explain why you don’t see any kind of cream or cheese in a Vietnamese food recipe.
Learn more about Vietnamese vegetables.
Marinating is the key here, but we want to make it clear about Vietnamese marinating here so that you don’t mistake it with the concept of marinating in English. In Vietnamese, we call it “uop gia vi”. Wine and beer are rarely involved in the process, and we don’t essentially soak meat or vegetable in a lot of seasoned liquid. Fish sauce, chopped shallot, and garlic are the recurrent components in Vietnamese marination. But note that we never soak food in a bowl of fish sauce, just simply add 2 to 3 spoonfuls, depending on the amount of meat. Then come to some more ingredients, depending on the type of meat. For example, the chicken goes well with lemongrass and ginger, beef with onion, fish with turmeric powder.
Vietnamese marination often features chopped shallot, garlic, ground pepper, and fish sauce
An interesting case we would like to bring up here is Vietnamese dressing. It is used both for a simple salad (just greens) and for Vietnamese savory salad “goi”, featuring both greens and protein like pork and shrimp. The dressing is based on fish sauce, balanced by water, sugar, a bit of lime juice, chopped garlic and slices of chili, then crushed peanuts are added on top. Simple and tasty.
The simplest way to make a Vietnamese dish is boiling. A dish of boiled morning glory or boiled pork picnic cut served with fine dipping sauce (fish sauce and garlic) is enough to make one happy eating their bowl of rice, really. The best part about boiling is the water after meat or greens are boiled. Seasoned a bit more and it becomes a simple but much loved “canh” (Vietnamese clear broth soup) - a norm of every Vietnamese meal.
Sauteing is another popular way to deal with vegetables. The key is that you have to fry chopped shallot or garlic before adding the greens, or else your dish will have no aroma. Sauteing is not just for vegetables, and it is, in fact, the most popular method in Vietnamese cooking. Vietnamese add different types of vegetables (chopped) and one or more kinds of protein (shrimp, pork, beef, pig organs) in the pan and saute them together to make a dish of mouthwatering diversity.
Sauteing meat and vegetables is the most popular cooking method
Some more characteristic cooking methods in Vietnam are “kho” (stewing or braising with ground pepper, shallots, ginger or lemongrass), “rim” (simmering, for example, shrimp with fish sauce and other seasonings to balance the taste), and “nhoi thit” (stuffing before cooking, often tofu, bitter melon, or even the snail’s shell stuffed with minced meat and spices, stir-fried with tomato sauce, cooked to make a clear broth soup, or steamed with lemongrass respectively).
Lastly, frying. It is worth mentioning only in the case of fried spring rolls (cha gio) - crispy outer layer and soft, moist filling of minced pork and grated vegetables.
Vietnamese dishes can be classified into three big groups which correspond to three styles of serving and eating: regular everyday-meal dishes, wraps and rolls, and noodle dishes.
For the first type, we simply want to refer to the norms of a Vietnamese meal. Food is cooked with an appropriate amount for the whole family, then plated on dishes, laid out on a round tray. The whole family enjoy the meal together; each member has a bowl of cooked rice and uses chopsticks to take any food they want from the tray, instead of having separate portions. On a family-meal tray, we typically have 3 to 4 dishes, a savory meat dish, a boiled or stir-fried green dish, a big bowl of “canh” (Vietnamese soup), and dipping sauce (fish sauce or soy sauce, balanced in different ways depending on the family preference; some of the ways we have mentioned in this blog).
Food is plated in dishes and enjoyed together in a family meal
For the second type, wraps and rolls, it is worth noting that Vietnamese take pleasure in the wrapping and rolling by themselves rather than having ready wraps and rolls. So for example, if a family wants to have a “wrap and roll” lunch, they’ll have on the table rice paper, vermicelli, vegetables and fresh herbs (cleaned and cut), boiled pork slices and shrimps, and most importantly dipping sauce. Each person takes the dipping sauce from the big bowl to their own small bowl and enjoys the rolls. This can always be a joyful occasion.
If you fancy this kind of experience, try customizing a tour with us!
The last type, noodle dishes, is also simple. Noodle dishes like pho, bun bo Hue, and hu tieu, are served in a big bowl for each person, with a side dish of vegetables and fresh herbs to be dipped into the hot broth and eaten with the noodles too. One may also choose to add chili sauce and thick soya sauce (tuong den) to their bowl.
Central Vietnam people love their dishes to be a bit spicier and saltier, which you can see in their famous “bun bo Hue” (Hue spicy beef noodle soup). Meanwhile, the South seems to favor sweetness in their food, which is shown in their sauteed and stewed dishes, or in their surplus varieties of “che” (Vietnamese sweet bean soup). And the North tend to go light with their seasoning and a hint of preference for sourness, with the exception of “ca phao” (fermented spicy African eggplant), or the ‘reeking’ shrimp paste and sour fermented rice in their famed specialty “bun dau mam tom” (rice vermicelli with fried tofu, boiled pork, and shrimp paste as dipping sauce).
Although this is just a generalization of each region’s cuisine, one thing you can see in any signature dish of Vietnam is an egalitarian combination between the greens and the meat, creating a pleasant feeling for diners even when they have stuffed themselves with all the Vietnamese tastiness. From the taste to the look of a dish, all comply with the 5 elements (5 tastes - salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy, and 5 colors - usually red, green, yellow, white, and black/brown). Even the texture of ingredients also showcases a harmonized combination like the softness of lean meat with crunchy vegetables.
“Canh chua ca loc” (sour soup with freshwater fish) is a southern delicacy and is an example of Vietnamese cuisine signature - combining various vegetables and protein in one dish
Join a private food tour in Ho Chi Minh City! Ho Chi Minh is a hodge-podge of culinary cultures throughout the country, and a private local tour guide can take you to the most beloved eatery spots by locals instead of the overrated touristy restaurants. Check out Vietnam food tours in Ho Chi Minh City and let's begin exploring Vietnam's exquisite dishes.
The scent and the exciting taste of Vietnamese food come from a smart combination of the fiber factor and protein factor, the use of local herbs, fish sauce, and aromatic ingredients like garlic and shallot. With flexible cooking methods and graceful seasoning styles of each region within the country, Vietnamese cuisine has been refining and developing its charming diversity.
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I completely agree, It is great. And I am always surprised when I read posts about the food. This great content.