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KNOW WHAT YOU EAT: VIETNAMESE FOOD 101

A corner of local market in Ho Chi Minh

Vietnamese food, when to begin? From the humble beginning as an unpopular country with an equally unpopular cuisine, in the last few years, Vietnamese food has emerged as the next big thing, and we have Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay to thank about it. Many food daredevils come to our country to see if the taste lives up to its reputation, only to be surprised by a plethora of dishes, not just Banhmi and Pho. I’m writing this article to give you some insight and information about these varieties of dishes, and I really hope it helps! Enough with the formalities, let’s kick off this article with:

 Some of the Broader Terms

Nuoc cham [nɨək˧˥ ʨəm˧˥]

This word literally means “dipping sauce” in Vietnamese and it is a very important part of our cuisine. Vietnamese cuisine is so varied because of this element. The components of Nuoc Cham is simple: some fish sauce acts as the base, a little water is added so as the strong smell of fish sauce doesn’t get in the way of the main dish, a pinch of sugar to balance the saltiness, and a zest of lime for freshness. Easy as it may sound, yet to add the exact amount of “some”, “a little”, “a pinch” and “a zest” is an art itself, messing it up will leave you with a multi-flavored liquid, not Nuoc Cham. Fun fact: Nuoc Cham is so important in many Vietnamese dishes that sometimes a restaurant’s success of failure rests solely on its Nuoc Cham

An everyday meal with boiled morning glory, boiled chicken, a soup, cucumber and in the spotlight, Nuoc cham. Every Vietnamese meal must have at least one type of Nuoc cham

Bánh [ɓan˧˥]

This is one tricky word, because it has so many meanings in Vietnamese. Don’t believe me?

How do you say “cake” in Vietnamese? Bánh [kem]

How to say “wheel” in Vietnamese? Bánh [xe]

What is “rice paper” in Vietnamese? Bánh [tráng]

And the list goes on and on and on. There are 3 official meanings for “Bánh” in Vietnamese, but for the sake of this article, you only need to know one, which defines “bánh” as “any sweet, salty, or savory food prepared from flour or pressed grains and cooked by steaming, baking, frying, deep-frying, or boiling; a pastry, cake, bread, dumpling, noodle, wafer, or pudding”. But remember to exclude noodles, becausenoodles are nowhere near Bánh

                                                                          Bánh bèo, a specialty of Huế in the Midlands

Bún [ɓuŋ˧˥]

Plainly speaking, it is rice vermicelli. Vietnamese cuisine houses dozens of bún dishes, all worth trying, folks! Tips: all dishes starts with bún have, well, “bún” on it, so it would be a good idea to step down from those dishes if you tried bún before, but decided it’s not your cup of tea

                                                                                           Bún bò Huế from the Midlands…
                                             …and Bún riêu from the North, two of the more famous types of Bún

Gỏi [ɣɔj˨˩˦]

Vietnamese salad. The ingredients for this dish varies, ranging from mundane vegetables like carrot, cucumber or lettuce, to tropical fruits like green papaya, mango or fig. popular proteins like chicken breast, shrimp or beef jerky is also commonly found in gỏi dishes, and of course, some exotic indigenous ingredients like lotus root, banana flower and water spinach too

                                                                                      A dish of lotus root and shrimp Gỏi

Now that you have grasped some of the broader terms, let’s come down for the fun part, which is the dishes themselves. Let’s start with the all-time classic:

Phở [fəː˨˩˦]

Just typing this word sends a tingling sensation across my body. I love phở, I really do. I love the strong aroma of its broth, the softness of its noodle, and the texture of its beef. It’s a dish made by heaven for me. Its ingredients also rather easy to list: this is a kind of noodle soup; the noodle is made from rice, bathes in a bowl of broth that is cooked for at least 4 hours, serves with either beef and chicken with a wide range of fresh herbs. Excellent!

                                                                           Nothing beats a hot Pho soup on a cold morning

Bún chả [ɓuŋ˧˥ ʨaː˨˩˦]

Remember your old lesson on Bún? Well, say hello to your first encounter! Bún chả is a very popular dish in the North, but unfortunately the situation is not so in the South. You know about Bún, right, so let’s move on to the Chả part. Chả here refers to grilled pork patties, and Bún chả literally means rice vermicelli with grilled pork patties. Serves with a wide array of herbs, some pickled vegetables and a whole lot of Nuoc Cham, this is a must eat dish, especially when you visit Hanoi. Fun fact: President Obama tried this dish on his trip to Hanoi, back in 2016.

                                                                                           A set of authentic Bún chả in Hanoi

Cao lầu [kaːw˧˧ ləw˨˩]

An unique noodle dish that can only be found in the town of Hoi An in Central Vietnam. The origin and influence of this particular dish is unknown, as the Chinese denied having any credit on its creation, and though the Japanese claims that this was inspired by either their udon or soba noodle, their theory were flawed. The most special thing about this noodle is the intricate process of making the noodle itself. To make Cao lầu noodles, the rice has to be stone ground and mixed with ash and water. The ash is made with firewood from the Cham Islands, around 19 km from Hội An. The noodles are cut and then cooked three times with firewood. The water to cook the noodles is also very special because it only comes from a 1000-year-old well made by the Chams in Hội An. Serves without any kind of soup, yet Cao lầu combines various flavors in the vegetables, soy sauce and fried lard.

                                                                                                A bowl of Cao lầu in Hoian

Gỏi cuốn [ɣɔj˨˩˦ kuəŋ˧˥]

Another lesson review is needed here. Remember Gỏi? Teaming up with the word Cuốn, which means “to roll” in Vietnamese, this dish’ name literally means “rolled salad”. Easy, right? The components are also pretty simple: shrimps, rice vermicelli and some herbs, put nicely on the center of a lettuce leaf, then them all will be wrapped in a sheet of rice paper and rolled. Dip it into your Nuoc Cham, and there you have it! Tips no 1: this dish is more commonly known in English as “spring rolls”. Tips no 2: when it is fried, it is no longer Gỏi cuốn, but is called Chả giò.

                                                                                                            Gỏi cuốn…
                                                                     ….and Chả giò. Notice the difference, Chả giò is fried

Bánh xèo [ɓan˧˥ sɛw˩]

Known as Vietnamese sizzling pancakes by many foreigners (though I personally think it shares many common characteristics with crepes than pancakes), Bánh xèo is a savory dish that is stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, mushrooms, and shrimps. The batter is made with rice flour and turmeric powder (hence its special light yellow color) then poured in a very hot pan and glazed all around the pan to achieve a paper-thin layer of Bánh xèo. Fun fact: when you pour batter into a very hot pan, it sizzles. That’s the reason behind its name.

                                                             A set of rustic Bánh xèo, Midlands style

Banhmi and its varieties

Banhmi, the humble Vietnamese street food that was crowned the best street food in the world, has many meanings in Vietnamese, depending on the context. Out of nowhere, most Vietnamese people will assume the Banhmi you ask about is the mere Baguette, which is empty, and crusty, not the submarine sandwich-like treat you saw on TV. Banhmi in Vietnam is a very popular dish for breakfast for its compactness and convenience.

                                                                           A Banhmi maker with his piles of ingredients

Bò kho is another dish that requires a baguette. It is a traditional stew, made of beef and some types of veggies, marinated beforehand with oriental herbs then finally cooked for many hours until the beef is tender enough to melt in your mouth. The stew is then used to dip in your baguette. Not a poor choice for breakfast!

Rau muống [ɹaw˧˧ muəŋ˧˥]

Rau muống, or water spinach, is the most commonly eaten vegetable in Vietnam. Thanks to the brilliant housewives of Vietnam, there are dozens of ways to make this modest vegetable into something that actually tastes nice, not just boil it like the people before us used to do all the time

                                    From this humble bunch of greens…

                                                     …comes a plethora of dishes. Lo and behold, Fifty Shades of Morning Glory

Chả cá Hà Nội [ʨaː˨˩˦ kaː˧˥]

Chả cá is a kind of fish patty that is normally fried, but in this special dish, the fish patty is marinated, grilled, and then fried. Vegetables and herbs like dill and spring onion accompany the dish to bring out the delicious flavor of the fish. This dish is the specialty of Hanoi, as its name suggests. Fun fact: Though people from other regions call it Chả cá Hà Nội, in Hanoi, the dish is known as Chả cá Lã Vọng. Lã Vọng is the name that people call an unnamed yet popular restaurant that sells the dish. Later on, the street where this restaurant is situated in is called “Chả Cá Street”

                                                                                                       A pan of Chả cá Hà Nội

Cá kho tộ [kaː˧˥ kʰɔ˧˧ to˨˩˨]

This is the name for a rather mundane and rustic fish dish in Vietnamese cuisine, but is still devilishly delicious, despite its humble origin. Started out as a farmer’s dish, this is the flavor that is imprinted in the childhood of most Vietnamese. The type of fish for this platter varies by the region, while I have seen blotched snakehead in the North; people in the South prefer basa fish, for it is more prevalent here. The fish is then cook in a clay pot with lemongrass and other herbs, along with sugar, so that the caramelized sugar gives the fish a beautiful and sweet new coat. Eating with rice, this is the Vietnamese version of comfort food.

                                                   There’s nothing more comforting than this glossy caramelized glaze

Canh [kan˧˧]

This is the general name for all kinds of soups in Vietnam. As expected for a generalized term, the number of soups it covers is tremendous, but in this article, we would discuss a thing or two about fish soups, or Canh cá in Vietnamese. Food in Vietnam varies by regions; with the two most prominent cuisines belong to the North and the South. The North’s version of Canh cá uses carps, doses with a considerable amount of spring onion and dill; serves while hot, as there is winter in the North. The dominant taste here is saltiness, accompanies with a touch of acidity from tomatoes and tamarind. The South version is somewhat more bountiful, using catfishes and an array of other ingredient like tomatoes, okras, bean sprouts and even pineapples. As a result, the South’s version of Canh cá emphasizes on the sweet and slightly sour flavor. I personally feel like Canh cá represents the people from these two regions perfectly: while the Northerners are serious to the point of stoic, reflecting in their salty and fairly simple Canh cá, the Southerners struck the impression as generous and open-minded to the point of flamboyance, judging from their lavish use of herbs and vegetables, and also from the vibrant flavors of their Canh cá. That is to say, food sometimes is the fastest way to get to know a territory and its people.

The Northern version of Canh cá. Simple and straighforward with little green…
…and the luscious Southern version Canh cá. Notice the abundance of vegetables in comparison with its Northern cousin

Cơm tấm [kəːm˧˧ təm˧˥] 

Tấm means broken rice in Vietnamese, so Cơm tấm basically means rice broken rice. Such a silly name for something that tastes that good. The broken rice is served with grilled sweet pork cutlet and some veggies, and Nuoc Cham. This dish is where Nuoc Cham is so important, it decides whether your Cơm tấm is a good impression, or just a forgettable encounter.

                                                                                                A standard Cơm tấm set

Cháo [ʨaːw˧˥]

Means rice porridge. Cháo is more prevalent in the North, especially in the cold of winter than in the South, where there is summer all year round. In the North, it is a popular afternoon snack. Cháo in Vietnam is usually serves with youtiao, or Chinese churros. Most commonly, Cháo is eaten along with chicken, and is meant for sick people. In Vu Lan feast, the more formal Vietnamese version of Mother’s/Father’s Day, Cháo is also used as an offering for the wandering souls in certain areas.

                                                 Rice porridge with Chinese churros

Hột vịt lộn [hok˨˩˨ jɨt˨˩˨ loŋ˨˩˨]

Fetal duck eggs. I used to like this when I was younger; I ate it as my afternoon snack every single day as a preschooler. Until one day I see the look on that duck’s eyes. Never eat it again.

Bánh cam/ Bánh rán

One of the most common sights in the small alleyways of Saigon is the image of a people who sell this kind of dessert on their modest bicycle. Bánh cam is how the people in the South call it, while Bánh rán is used in the North, but these two words refer to the same type of confectionary which is made from sticky rice flour, filled with mung bean paste then deep fried, leaving a glossy orange-brown color in the surface. Chewy yet crunchy, this is the ultimate snack, but not so good on your waist.

Chè [ʨɛ˨˩]

In short, any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage, dessert soup or pudding is Chè. The ingredients for Chè include beans, tapioca, jelly, and, especially in the South, coconut cream. A common dessert, Vietnamese people make their own Chè in certain occasions, like on the Dragon Boat Festival (also known as Pesticide Day in Vietnam), but normally one could just grab one cup of Chè from their local grocery store. Easy and convenient!

Chè selection in Huế. Chè is eaten throughout the country but in here, it has developed into a form of art

This is just a short brief of some of Vietnam’s most famous dishes. Come to our country if you want to know more! You can either go alone or go with a pro in Vietnamese cuisine here!

By Kieu Anh of Lose The Tie Team

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