What Vietnam’s Most Delicious Dishes Reveal
CNN named Vietnam’s pho (noodle soup) and goi cuon (fresh summer rolls) among the world’s 50 best dishes. Other dishes found in the bustling food stalls and city street corners include banh mi, which food celeb Anthony Bourdain described as "a symphony within a sandwich" and has been listed among the top 20 street foods in the world by Fodor’s.
Understandably, with so much deliciousness coming out of one country’s cuisine, it’s hard to choose a “best.” Visit Vietnam, and you’ll find the cheapest and perhaps tastiest places to find these dishes is at traditional open-air markets, where single-dish food stalls are run mostly by women and offer dishes passed from mother to daughter for generations. Little storefronts line the streets of most cities. In Hanoi, pho shops extend onto sidewalks with little tables and milk crates for seating. And in the cities of Hue and Hoi An, you’ll find dozens of regional specialties.
Each of Vietnam’s most famous foods has a story behind it, revealing much about the culture of this fascinating place.
“Greater than the sum of its parts -- fragrant, tasty and balanced,” says CNN’s reviewer, who put pho at No. 28 in the world’s top 50 best foods. It’s a soup of soft rice noodles drowned in a complex and fragrant meaty bone broth. The broth is really the thing, often simmered for days and weeks, salty and umami flavors and often hints of peppercorn and star anise. It is eaten with fresh condiments, such as basil, peppers, bean sprouts. It is served with beef or chicken, shallots and chili and lemon to taste. The soup is considered a national dish and can be found all over the country, with great debate over where and how it originated.
Among locals, particularly in Hanoi, it’s what’s for breakfast. It’s fair to say pho is emblematic of Vietnam cuisine.
Yet in that bowl of soup, like so many other favorite Vietnamese dishes, is the story of the country’s French colonization.
Some food historians claim the name itself, pronounced fuh, may be a Vietnamese version of the French pot au feu or meat bone stew. Common meat choices for pho are beef — tripe, thinly cut raw steak, and meatballs — further suggesting European influence. Beef is uncommon in other Eastern cuisines.
By the end of the 18th century, French forces arrived to colonize the country, and French Indochine didn’t gain independence until 1954. The persistent influence of French culture in Vietnam shows up pervasively in its cuisine. Europeans brought many ingredients that did not yet exist in the East, such as asparagus and potatoes, and the Vietnamese integrated these new additions uniquely. Because of this, Vietnam cuisine is unlike any other.
Consider some of your favorite Vietnamese dishes:
Bread is not common in East Asia, and Vietnam is one of the few countries there that have a bread cuisine. When the French colonists arrived, they arrived with baguettes.
The Vietnamese adapted this bread – often using rice flour instead of wheat flour. They filled these uniquely light sandwiches – banh mi -- with combinations of grilled meat, cilantro, pickled cucumbers and radishes and other raw vegetables— and pate (tres francais!), a true amalgam of Vietnamese and French tastes. In the north, cooks stick to the basics —bread, butter, pate. In the south, your banh mi begins to get crazy: colorful combinations of cheese, meats, pickled vegetables, sausages, fried eggs, cilantro, chili sauce.
Banh pate so
Delicate, flaky puff pastry is filled with savory ground pork mixed with wood ear mushrooms, rice noodles and the classic Vietnamese spices. It’s a Vietnamese twist on Brittany’s meat pies, pate chaud. Chicken and beef are also commonly for fillings. And if the European influence wasn’t clear enough with puff pastry, the name itself sounds like pate chaud, the Breton name of the dish. And according to the blog epicureandculture, other phonetically similar names like this exist in Vietnamese culinary culture, including dam bong (jambon or ham), and xuc xich (saucisse or sausage).
The name literally translates to "sizzling pancake," named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet. The French influence, again: part omelette, part crepe, it’s usually bulging with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs that are characteristic of most authentic Vietnamese dishes. To enjoy one like a local, cut it into manageable slices, roll it up in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in whatever special sauce the chef has mixed up for you.
Coffee is another food not commonly found in East Asia, but it’s firmly part of Vietnamese cuisine. The French started drinking coffee in the 1600s when it was introduced from the Middle East and brought it with them to Vietnam 200 years later. It was quickly adapted, possibly because Vietnam has an excellent climate for growing coffee. Today, it’s the world’s second largest coffee exporter. As opposed to French coffee, which is usually served hot and black as espresso or with steamed milk as café au lait, Vietnamese coffee is usually drunk cold and sweetened with condensed milk.
Savory sticky rice comes with mix-ins of chicken or pork or eggs, but almost always topped off with a scattering of dried shallots. The tradition of glutinous rice came from China.
It’s worth mentioning that before the French arrived, Vietnam already had a diverse culinary history developed with influence from neighboring countries, particularly China. It’s hard to imagine Vietnamese cuisine without chili peppers, but how did they get those New World vegetables? Wontons and wheat noodles are found in both cuisines, as well as in the use of New World vegetables such as chili peppers and corn, which were present in the Ming Dynasty and made their way to Vietnam.
This might be the favorite lunch of the locals residents. Midday, street restaurants on Hanoi’s sidewalks start grilling up small patties of seasoned pork and slices of marinated pork belly over a charcoal fire. Charred and crispy, they’re served with a bowl of sweet-salty-savory broth, fresh herbs, and rice noodles. Bun cha is often accompanied by fried spring rolls.
The startling thing about bun cha is its beauty and its balance. Traditional Chinese medicine —and its honoring of the five elements—shows up in Vietnamese cuisine in this way. The five elements of Vietnamese cuisine used in every dish – bun cha and otherwise – are spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. In creating a dish, such as a bowl of bun cha, these tastes must be in balance. Traditional Vietnamese cooks also typically will try to use five colors – white, green, yellow, red, and black.
In CNN’s top 50 world’s best foods, goi cuon came in 30. These light and fresh summer rolls are basically bun cha rolled up into a rice paper. The translucent parcels are first packed with salad greens, a sliver of meat or seafood and a layer of coriander, before being neatly rolled and dunked in Vietnam's favorite condiment, a nuoc cham dipping sauce. CNN’s reviewer says: “It’s "meat light," with the flavors of refreshing herbs erupting in your mouth. Dipped in a slightly sweet Vietnamese sauce laced with ground peanuts, it's wholesome, easy and the very definition of ‘moreish.’”
Another dish with influences from other Asian cultures is this pork noodle dish from Hoi An. The thicker noodles are similar to Japanese udon, the crispy won-ton crackers and pork are a Chinese touch, while the broth and herbs are clearly Vietnamese. Pro tip: authentic cao lau is made only with water drawn from a local well.
Learn more about Access Culinary Trips’ 9-day trip to Vietnam, exploring culture through its cuisine.