Vietnamese food may look plain and simple, but it’s packed with abundant flavor that you’ll never see coming until the first delicious bite. A typical meal for a family might include long-grain white rice, meat (seafood, fish, meat or tofu) that is steamed, stewed, grilled, boiled or stir-fried with vegetables, and vegetables that are fresh, pickled or steamed.
As you can see, it’s a healthy diet that does not include much dairy. Therefore, every bit of the flavor comes from adding fresh herbs and spices to the food during preparation or just before serving.
Rice is a staple in any Vietnamese kitchen. It is served as both a sweet and a savory dish. How to prepare it, well, that’s a topic for another day. But knowing how to season it is another story!
Sweet sticky rice gets its smooth, sweet taste from coconut milk, sugar, shredded coconut, and just a dash of salt to balance everything out. Savory sticky rice is often served with meats and veggies, and it can be flavored with similar spices as whatever it is being served with.
Seafood, tofu and other meats are all used in Vietnamese cooking. Stir-fry that combines meats and veggies are also common. Garlic, scallions and ginger are all common seasonings for cooking meat. Nuoc cham and nuoc mam are sauces made from fermented fish – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – and these sauces are most commonly used for dipping.
Mint and coriander are common with beef, while dill and green onions are often paired with fish. Hoisin sauce – sometimes called ‘Chinese BBQ sauce – is commonly used with stir-fries. In is thick and has a salty flavor that pairs well with meats.
With noodle soup, or pho as it’s rightly called, it’s all about the broth. Fish sauce is a main ingredient and gives pho much of its flavor. Mint is another key ingredient in pho. Vietnam boasts many varieties of mint, and not all of them have the breath-refreshing flavor that we are accustom to. Some are spicier, while others have a lemon flavor.
Sprouts, coriander, chilies, and lime are key flavors in beef noodle soup, or pho bo. Chicken pho is more commonly flavored with ginger, lemon grass, garlic and green onions.
Wraps, rolls, sandwiches and salads
French colonization brought baguettes to Vietnam. The people gave it their own flavor by filling it with pork or fish and seasoning it with a balance of sweet and spicy: namely, cilantro and chili. This sandwich, called banh mi, is a long-standing dish of Vietnam.
Salads are often seasoned with cilantro, garlic and chilies. Fish sauce is again seen as a main ingredient in Vietnamese salad dressings or in the salads themselves. Lime juice, brown sugar and shallots also give Vietnamese salads their flavor.
Spring rolls also frequently include cilantro, lemon grass and chili sauce. They also can be made with hoisin sauce, and rolls can be dipped in nuoc cham and nuoc mam like meats.