Vietnamese food is unlike any other in Southeast Asia – so what makes it so special?
Fresh. Invigorating. Fragrant. Sweet. Sour. Fermented. These are all adjectives you might use to describe Vietnamese cooking. It’s all about the yin and yang, the perfect balance of opposites within a dish that really makes each ingredient sing.
If you’ve tried food from several different Asian countries, you’ll know that there’s nothing quite like Vietnamese cuisine. What are the elements that make the dishes of this vibrant country unique?
It’s Not All About Spiciness
Unlike some other dishes in Southeast Asia that will melt your face off with spiciness, such as Tom Yum in Thailand, Sambal in Indonesia or Vindaloo Curry in India, Vietnamese cuisine isn’t focused on being as hot as possible.
Instead, the goal is to balance all of the five taste elements of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy. This results in a more balanced, aromatic and subtle dish with a complex flavour – perhaps with a bit of a kick to it but never screaming hot.
Vietnamese chefs believe that every ingredient has “heating” or “cooling” properties. So, for example duck meat is considered cool so it should be served in the summer. Chicken is a warm food, so it is served in winter and paired with a sour sauce which is considered cool. The chef strives to create a perfect equilibrium between the different elements within each dish.
It’s Light and Fresh
If you have ever had Burmese cuisine, you’ll know how rich, heavy and oily the curries are – but this is not the case with Vietnamese dishes.
The cooking in Vietnam is done with minimal use of oil and dairy and relies more on the light, fresh flavours of herbs and vegetables. As a result, Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
Some of the yummy aromatic herbs that are commonly used include mint, cilantro, basil, lime leaf, lemongrass, green onion, perilla leaf, turmeric, ginger, Saigon cinnamon and tamarind pulp.
There’s a French Flair
No other cuisine in Southeast Asia has such a strong French influence. Although it has been more than six decades since the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam, you can still taste the French culture in every fluffy baguette. The perfect banh mi baguette is soft and airy on the inside and crusty on the outside, is smeared with pate and loaded up with fresh cucumber, meat, fried egg and other veggies. You must try one – they are available from street vendors in every major Vietnamese city.
Some of the other culinary leftovers from the French colonial era include creme caramel and coffee. In some of the chic cafes of Ho Chi Minh City you’ll even find macarons and croque monsieur for sale (at Parisian prices!). However, although coffee in France is served black and hot as an espresso or with steamed milk as cafe au lait, the coffee in Vietnam is enjoyed iced and sweetened with condensed milk.
Soups are Clear
Both the French and Southern Chinese influence on Vietnamese cuisine shows in the tendency towards clearer soups and sauces. For example, the Vietnamese signature dish Pho is made with a meaty, rich clear beef broth. In these clear soups, the simple tastes of the principal ingredients is showcased. You can taste every element distinctly, from the cilantro to the lemongrass to the long-simmered beef bones and the fish sauce.
This is different to Thai cuisine, which often strikes a balance between featuring the main ingredients and emphasizing the flavour of the broth or the sauce.