Despite being a small country, Vietnam’s cuisine is big in flavor. So what are the secrets of Vietnamese cooking, and what is unique about Vietnam’s food culture? Let’s find out with our blog.
Quintessential Ingredients in Vietnam Food Culture
The use of spices and fresh herbs is undoubtedly one factor that sets 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 prevalent 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 impossible for a cook to create an authentic Vietnamese taste.
It is easy to notice that Vietnamese use fresh ingredients rather than the juice or powder form of spices and herbs in their cooking.
But this is not to say that Vietnamese don’t use processed or packaged spices and seasoning. Their typical products are turmeric powder, chili powder, (rice) vinegar, fermented rice powder, and shrimp paste (more prevalent in North Vietnam).
Vietnamese Vegetables and Herbs
Another conspicuous feature in Vietnam food culture is the domineering presence of vegetables in almost every dish. Common proteins revolve around pork, beef, fish, and chicken. Still, 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 cream or cheese in a Vietnamese food recipe.
Learn more about Vietnamese vegetables
Vietnamese vegetables are cheap and easy to find
Preparation in Vietnam Food Culture
Vietnam food culture uses mainly fresh ingredients. The proteins are usually cleaned with ginger, cooking wine, salt, limes, or kumquat to remove the smell.
Marinating is the key here. 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 vegetables in seasoned liquid. Fish sauce, chopped shallot, and garlic are the recurrent components of Vietnamese marination. Then, there are some more ingredients, depending on the type of meat. For example, chicken goes well with lemongrass and ginger, beef with onion, and fish with turmeric powder. To balance the taste, the Vietnamese would some sugar, mushroom powder, or MSG.
Braised dishes are usually really salty
Additionally, Vietnamese dressing uses a fish sauce base balanced by water, sugar, a bit of lime juice. Some would add minced garlic and chili for a spicy kick. The simple and tasty dish can be for a simple salad (just greens) and the Vietnamese savory salad “goi”, featuring both greens and protein like pork and shrimp.
Fried fish and mango salad, with sweet and sour fish sauce
Common Cooking Methods in Vietnam Food Culture
The simplest way to make a Vietnamese dish is boiling. Boiled morning glory or pork picnic cut served with dipping sauce (fish sauce and garlic) is enough to pair with a bowl of rice. The remaining water in the pot after boiling when having some more seasonings becomes a simple but much loved “canh” (Vietnamese clear broth soup) – a norm of every Vietnamese meal.
Sauteing is another popular way to cook vegetables. The hot oil is infused with chopped shallot or garlic before adding the greens. Vietnamese add one or more kinds of protein (shrimp, pork, beef, pig organs) in the pan and saute them together to create a dish full of textures.
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).
Braised tofu with black pepper sauce
Vietnamese pickles and fermented foods
Lastly, frying. You might remember Vietnamese scrumptious egg rolls (cha gio). Apart from that, fried fish, fried pork, or fried tofu are also some humble Vietnamese family dish.
How Vietnamese Food is Served
Vietnamese dishes can be classified into three big groups corresponding to three serving and eating styles: regular everyday meal dishes, wraps and rolls, and noodle dishes.
Everyday Meals in Vietnam Food Culture
Typically, the family meals are plated on dishes and laid out on a round tray or on a table. Each member has a bowl of cooked rice and uses chopsticks to take food from the tray. We typically have 3 to 4 dishes in a family, usually including a savory dish, a boiled or stir-fried green dish, a big bowl of “canh” (Vietnamese soup), and dipping sauce (fish sauce or soy sauce).
Read more on manners in Vietnamese family meals
Food is plated in dishes and enjoyed together in a family meal
Wraps and Rolls in Vietnam Food Culture
It is worth noting that Vietnamese take pleasure in the process of wrapping and rolling rather than having ready-made wraps and rolls. For a “wrap and roll” lunch, for example, people will arrange rice paper, vermicelli, vegetables and fresh herbs, boiled pork slices and shrimps, and most importantly, dipping sauce on the table. Each person takes the dipping sauce from the big bowl to their own small bowl and enjoys the rolls. This is always a joyful occasion.
Though wrap-and-roll foods are available, wrapping the food yourself makes it tastes ten times better
Noodles Dishes in Vietnam Food Culture
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. You might notice that most Vietnamese like to squeeze some lime juice in the bowl, or even add some chilli slices to their bowl. One may also add chili sauce and thick soya sauce (tuong den) to their bowl.
Read more on Vietnamese Noodle Dishes
Signature Dishes in Vietnam Food Culture
Central Vietnamese people love spicier and saltier food, 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, shown in their sauteed and stewed dishes or their surplus varieties of “che” (Vietnamese sweet bean soup). The North tends to go light with their seasoning, while shrimp paste is common in their food.
Even Pho tastes different throughout the three regions
Generally speaking, one thing you can see in any signature dish of Vietnam is an egalitarian combination between the greens and the meat. Moreover, the Vietnamese comply with the five elements (5 tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy, and 5 colors – usually red, green, yellow, white, and black/brown) in their food. 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 an example of Vietnamese cuisine signature – combining various vegetables and proteins in one dish
Vietnamese banh mi is a harmony of freshness in the herbs, richness in the cold cuts and pate, the crispiness of the bread, and some acidity from the pickles
Summary of Diverse Vietnam’s Food Culture
The scent and the exciting taste of Vietnamese food come from a smart combination of fiber and protein factors, 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, Vietnamese cuisine has been refining and developing its charming diversity.