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You know the delicious side of Vietnamese cuisine. Now, hang on tight to discover with us the less than pleasant foods in Vietnam that locals still love. That is the various Vietnamese smelly foods. One might say "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’’, and food makes no exception. Foods that are repulsive and repugnant to some might be delicious and flavorful to others. After all, smelly foods are a delicacy in some regions for a reason. So here are some Vietnamese smelly foods that we would like to show you.
We can’t end the list of Vietnamese smelly foods without an honorable mention of the infamous durian. It certainly can be a nightmare on public transportations or any kind of enclosed space. Totally understandable that durian is banned on public transportations in countries like Vietnam or Singapore and at hotels. Durian is an acquired taste. Some love it, some don’t. If the smell is nothing to you, then that’s alright, but to many people, the smell is so overwhelming that it is described as either heaping garbage or smelly gym sock. For people that can eat durian, the smell is certainly strong but nowhere repulsive. To each of their own, we guess. If you are ever curious about what a durian tastes like and want to be adventurous, the taste and texture could be described as creamy, soft, like cheese and milk custard combined with whipped cream, sweet and savory at the same time.
You might have heard of or even tried fish sauce. We believe many don’t have any problem with fish sauce when it is used as a seasoning. However, when the fish sauce is presented as a dipping, the smell might be unwelcoming for fresh noses. Fish sauce is, of course, made from fish. The smell of fermented fish is terrible enough for some not to mention the extract dripping from it. The traditionally made fish sauce came from a very intensive and time-consuming process. The main ingredients are simple: anchovies and salts, with a 3 to 1 proportion. They are mixed together in a giant barrel fastened with ropes. In about under a year, through osmosis, the liquid will be extracted from the fish by the salt, creating the fish sauce. The quality of the finished product is based on the color of it. Good fish sauce will have a deep golden color. Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet are famous Vietnamese makers of traditional fish sauces.
Fish sauce extracted from a barrel
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Also a product from fermented fish, Mam Nem is a little thicker than fish sauce, and the liquid is not as clear. Its signature brownish color and fermented smell might not be appealing for some from the first impression. This sauce is usually mixed with minced pineapple, sugar, and chili to make the delicious dipping sauce for Goi Cuon (spring rolls). The original smell is pretty strong, and the taste is quite salty but balanced by the tangy and fruity pineapple, many people can enjoy and even prefer this dipping sauce to the usual hoisin or peanut sauce of Goi Cuon.
A dish of Mam Nem to go with Goi Cuon
Comparing to Mam Tom (Shrimp Paste), Nuoc Mam would be marginally more pleasing to smell. As the name suggested, Mam Tom is made from shrimp. The making of Mam Tom has the same principle as Nuoc Mam. You still keep the salt, only substitute fish for shrimp. Depend on the salt content, the viscosity of the final product will differ. The most recognizable feature (aside from the smell) of Mam Tom is its color: a mix of pastel purple and brown. Mam Tom is widely popular in the Northern region like Hanoi and it is eaten together with an assortment of dishes like Bun Rieu – a type of rice vermicelli with soup made of pounded crab paste and tomato, Bun Oc – rice vermicelli with roasted snails and Bun Dau Mam Tom – rice vermicelli with tofu, fried green rice, and fish nuggets, som moo, and of course Mam Tom, with Mam Tom in the name of the dish itself, it’s virtually impossible to separate the two.
Mam Tom as a side dish of Bun Dau Mam Tom
Mam Ruoc is a cousin to Mam Tom since it is also made with shrimps (although a smaller type of shrimp). The color, smell, and taste, however, is totally different from Mam Tom. One might say it smells less strong than Mam Tom (shrimp paste) but more than Nuoc Mam (fish sauce). The color of Mam Ruoc is red-brown. Mam Ruoc can be eaten as dipping for fruits and boiled meats or be cooked together with beef or porks to enhance to taste.
Mam Ruoc as a dipping sauce
In this fermented foods section, it can’t end without mentioning the famous Bun Mam of Southwest Vietnamese. Southwest Vietnam or Mekong Delta is blessed with an intricate system of rivers, channels, and abundant freshwater products. In Bun Mam, you can see a combination of fermented fish, fresh fish, river prawns, squids from the sea, and crispy and fatty roasted pork belly.
The strong smell of fermented fish and the salty taste will be balanced with a squeeze of lime juice, a bunch of herbs and vegetables like shaved morning glory, banana flowers, and mints. The thick noodle adds another color to the hot, brown, a bit spicy bowl of Bun Mam. You may not like it at first, but like some people, you would fall and grave for more of its savory, sweetness, and hearty taste.
A full bowl of Bun Mam, a signature dish of the South
Another sister of "Mam", "Kho" is the product of dried fish or seafood. It is seasoned with salt and dried out in the sun for several days. The smell is not as strong as fermented "Mam"; some people may love its smoky smell but at the same time hate the fishy smell comes along with it. The most common ones you will see are dried shrimp, all kinds of fishes, especially those from the sea, and squids. They are usually deep-fried, grilled, or cooked in soup. But the grilled ones are chewy and hard to bite, so people usually served them as side dishes for beer.
A dish that is refreshing but may be hard for someone who is not in love with "Kho" that is "Goi kho ca sac" - cucumber salad with dried fish. The cucumber is accompanied with other carrot, herbs to create a fresh taste and crunchy texture while the grilled or fried dried fish (kho ca sac) will be shredded, mixed with vegetables, a bit of fish sauce, sugar, chili, and lime juice to balance with the saltiness.
A refreshing looking dish of Goi Kho Ca Sac
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Thang Co is a traditional dish of the Hmong ethnicity. It spreads to other ethnic minorities in the Northwest of Vietnam as well. This dish is usually eaten on various occasions like festivals, family meetings or fairs. The dish is renowned for its terrible smell. For many ethnic minorities in Vietnam who eat Thang Co, this is a dish for treating honor guests. Thang Co is traditionally made from horse meat. Nowadays, there are variances like buffalo meat, beef, and pork. Still, horse meat in Thang Co in Sapa is regarded as the best kind of Thang Co out there.
The making of Thang Co is a long process. It is prepared as follows: after the horse is being slaughtered, its meats are cleaned then chopped into smaller pieces. The pieces of meat are then marinated with various spices then dumped into a large wok. Believe us when we say when making authentic Thang Co, they waste nothing. Because the wok contains soup made from horse bones, horse intestines, horse congealed blood, together with 12 spices like black cardamom, star anise, cinnamon twig, lemongrass, ginger and an assortment of ethnic minorities’ secret spices. Many believe the intense smell comes from the "unclean intestines’’ but the smell actually comes from the spices that are used to marinate the meats. It is recommended to consume Thang Co with corn wine to get over the smell and access its exotic taste, truly one of the many interesting Vietnam smelly foods.
Cooking Thang Co
Another staple of Vietnam smelly foods is Nam Pia. This time, the dish is from the Thai ethnic in the Northwest region of Vietnam. The name Nam Pia is of the Thai language. Nam (Nậm) is soup and Pia (Pịa) is the intestinal viscosity. Again, this dish is a guest-treating dish. The main ingredient for Nam Pia is cow (or goat) organs like heart, stomach and most importantly is the small intestine with fluid and excrement still intact. Everything is seasoned with chilly, garlic, and mac khen (Zanthoxylum rhetsa seeds) then slow cooked till a viscous brown broth emerged. Many reported the first bite to be bitter, but the second and third bites contain an explosion of strange flavors. On a meal, Nam Pia can be served as a soup or a dipping sauce for boiled meats.
A bowl of Nam Pia
Alongside conventional tasty foods, smell foods exist to contribute to the richness of Vietnamese cuisine. You may want to try it someday to broaden your culinary knowledge or just be adventurous to boast about it with your friends and family at home. Either way, you know where to find them. And remember, it smells bad doesn’t mean it will taste bad.
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My local guide told me to use fish sauce instead of fermented shrimp paste for bundau. I was skeptical at first but it turned out to be so delicious. Still a bit smelly but so much nicer than the shrimp ones. I love trying adventure foods and having a local guide made the experience so much better
My local guide gave me the gut to try durian when we were visiting the market It was truly a once in lifetime experience, never eat durians again
Still haven't gathered enough courage to try the shrimp paste haha