You know the delicious side of Vietnamese cuisine. Now, hang on tight to discover 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 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 smelly foods in Vietnam that we want to show you.
Sau Rieng (Durian)
We can’t end the list of smelly foods in Vietnam without an honorable mention of the infamous durian. It certainly can be a nightmare on public transportation or any enclosed space. Understandably, most public transport and hotels ban durians. Durian is an acquired taste. Some love it. Some don’t. The smell is strong but not repulsive for people who can eat durian. The taste and texture could be described as creamy and soft, like cheese and milk custard combined with whipped cream, sweet and savory at the same time.
Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce)
You might have heard of or even tried Vietnamese fish sauce. We believe many don’t have any problem with fish sauce when used as a seasoning. However, the smell of pure fish sauce might be unwelcoming for fresh noses. Fish sauce is made from fish that’s been fermented for a few months up to a year. Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet are famous Vietnamese makers of traditional fish sauces.
Another 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 appeal to 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.
Unlike Mam Tom (Shrimp Paste), Nuoc Mam would be marginally more pleasing to smell. As the name suggests, Mam Tom is made from shrimp. 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 Northern regions like Hanoi and appears in various dishes like Bun Rieu and Bun Dau Mam Tom.
Mam Ruoc is a cousin to Mam Tom since it is also made with shrimp (although a smaller type). However, the color, smell, and taste differ from Mam Tom. It smells less intense than Mam Tom (shrimp paste) but more intense than Nuoc Mam (fish sauce). The color of Mam Ruoc is red-brown. Mam Ruoc can be eaten as a dip for fruits and boiled meats or cooked with beef or pork to enhance the taste.
You can’t end without mentioning the famous Bun Mam of Southwest Vietnamese in this fermented foods section. Southwest Vietnam, or the Mekong Delta, has 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 pungent smell of fermented fish and the salty taste will be balanced with a squeeze of lime juice, herbs, and vegetables like shaved morning glory, banana flowers, and mints. The thick noodles add 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 graze for more of its savory sweetness and hearty taste.
Another sister of “Mam”, “Kho” is the product of dried fish or seafood. The smell is not as strong as fermented “Mam”; some people may love its smoky smell but also hate the fishy smell that comes with it. The most common ones you will see are dried shrimp, all kinds of fish, especially 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 typically serve them as side dishes for beer.
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 at festivals, family meetings, or fairs. 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.
The making of Thang Co is a long process. After the horse is slaughtered, its meats are cleaned and 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 they waste nothing when making authentic Thang Co. The wok contains soup made from horse bones, horse intestines, and 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 comes from the marination. Consuming Thang Co with corn wine is recommended to get over the smell and access its exotic taste. It is truly one of the many exciting and smelly foods in Vietnam.
Another staple of smelly foods in Vietnam is Nam Pia. This time, the dish is from the Thai ethnicity in the Northwest region of Vietnam. The name Nam Pia is in 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 the heart, stomach, and, most importantly, 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 emerges. Many reported the first bite to be bitter, but the second and third bites contained strange flavors. Nam Pia can be served as a soup or a dipping sauce for boiled meats.
In Conclusion on the Smelly Foods in Vietnam
Alongside conventional tasty foods, smelly foods contribute to Vietnamese cuisine’s richness. You may want to try it someday to broaden your culinary knowledge or 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 funny, but it doesn’t mean it will taste bad.
Find out more about Vietnam Classic Cuisine!