Spices that sing in your mouth and aromas that trigger emotions, the flavours of Vietnam mystify by their cleverness and beguile with their sensuousness.
Phở, Bánh mì and rice-paper rolls are all familiar Vietnamese favourites, but dig a little deeper and you’ll encounter the wonderful and the strange. Pungent, fresh and bursting with flavour, Vietnamese food is just like its culture: pulsating with energy, seriously addictive and will undoubtedly seize your senses.
Intrinsically, Vietnamese cuisine has evolved from the best of their adversaries’ culinary qualities to create a cuisine that is essentially the result of both ancient and modern influences: Chinese Rule, the Japanese occupation, the conquest of Vietnam by France, and most infamously the American infiltration.
And just as calculating as its history, nothing in Vietnamese cooking happens by accident – every last nuance carries meaning. Cooking must obey the ‘Five Flavour’ concept; a harmonious balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. The dualistic philosophy of yin and yang brings a balance between hot and cold to every dish. For instance, a fish stew would be seasoned with salty fish sauce, which is yang, but balanced, by the yin of sugar.
Bún Riêu Cua
This dish alone, awakened my senses and shocked my palate into both submission and awe. The overall taste of the dish is devilishly difficult to define, but it’s definitely enough to keep me returning to Vietnam for years to come. The base of the broth for this noodle soup is made from freshwater paddy crabs, tomatoes and tamarind which adds a tart-sweet flavour to the dish. It’s served with rice noodles, a crab paste similar in texture to tofu, and don’t let this frighten you away; cubes of blood. Fried pork and tofu are common additions, and occasionally annatto seeds are added which gives the broth a lovely red hue. The bowl is served with sides of fresh herbs, shaved banana blossom and bean sprouts.
Cá Kho Tô
Cooked in a clay pot which gives the dish an earthy dimension with smoky aromas., the fish actually glistens, and the flesh is so silky and seductive it simply melts in your mouth.
This magical bowl of savoury pork and mushroom broth with thin rice noodles has not one, but, and this is where the magic happens; 5 different forms of pork pâté. Like the grace and poise of a synchronised swimming team, three different types of pork meatballs with a spring to their bite, bop along with slices of thin pork meat, slices of cha lua; pork paste wrapped in banana leaves and cha que, which is just like cha lua but with a gorgeous outer coating of cinnamon.
This popular street food literally translates to ‘sizzling’ for the sound it makes when cooking in the hot pan. The crispy and delicious rice flour crepe is believed to be a derivative of the French crepe brought to the country during the occupation.The idea is take pieces and then wrap it up in large mustard green leaves along with herbs like mint and basil and then dip it into a sweet and sour sauce called nuoc cham.
There is nothing more comforting than a big bowl of warm stew on a cold winter’s day, and while some can leave you feeling a little too heavy, Bò Kho has A LOT of lemongrass which bring a welcoming light and citrusy balance to the deep and rich flavours of the slow cooked beef and beef bones. And the best part? A warm and crispy baguette to soak up the hearty and aromatic broth.
This was by far my favourite eating experience in Vietnam, and one of the most popular things to do on a Friday night for locals before hitting the bars. You sight tight over your tables amongst the loud and raucous crowds, tiny fork in one hand, ice-cold beer in the other, ready to devour plate upon plate of snails, clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, shrimp, octopus… the list is endless. My favourites were; snails fried in a green curry and coconut sauce, clams steamed in lemongrass and chilli, and pretty much anything that came fried in chilli oil, garlic and pork rind.
Don’t turn your nose up at the words fermented fish soup just yet; this noodle soup from the Mekong Delta is surprisingly delicious. The pungent fermented fish sauce gives it a fishy flavour, that is exceptionally counterbalanced from the combination of fishcake, aubergine, squid, roast pork belly and flavourful, plump and irresistibly fresh prawns. I first read about this soup on Legal Nomads, an incredible blog written by Jodi Ettenberg who returns to Saigon again and again driven completely by her love for noodle soups, particularly Bun Mam!
Crispy, sticky, thick, starchy and dangerously addictive. One of the most popular street-snacks in Vietnam, these cubes of rice flour and tapioca starch are fried in lard, and then sizzle away harmoniously with eggs until they’re perfectly crispy and golden on the outside, but smooth and creamy on the inside.