21 must try Vietnamese dishes (part 1)

21 must try Vietnamese dishes (part 1)

In Vietnam, before eating we say “Chúc ngon miệng!”- meaning 'enjoy your meal' (but of course you will.)

While Vietnamese cuisine abroad still flies under the banners of phở and bánh mì, the full spectrum of Vietnamese food is a symphony of delightfully textured, bright and piquant flavours.

The Vietnamese love their food and cooks make the most of each region's abundance produce and special ingredients to make their meals. Northern food is known for its simplicity; the dishes of central Vietnam are generous in spice and quantity; Southerners add sugar to much of their cooking -- and across the country, you're sure to eat well.

1. Phở

Anh 1

Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish, the word phở referring to the type of noodle used in the recipe. Flat rice noodles dance around with medium-rare slivers of beef or boiled chicken in a hearty beef stock. The more popular of the two widely known varieties is Phở Hanoi. Originally from the north, it is distinguished by a clear broth and dressed only with a squeeze of lemon and slices of bird’s eye chili. The southern iteration, Phở Nam, has a murkier broth and is served with a bouquet of fresh herbs like bean sprouts, basil and mint.

The secret to a good bowl of phở lies in its stock. The broth is usually infused with fragrant star anise, clove and cinnamon to lend a natural sweetness to the mix. This dish is found on almost every street corner and is actually consumed for breakfast, unbeknownst to outsiders. 

Try it: Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi or Pho Hoa, 260C Pasteur Street, District 3 in Ho Chi Minh City

2. Bánh Mì

Anh 2

Baguettes may have been adopted from the French, but bánh mì is as Vietnamese as it comes. Paté and margarine are spread swiftly across the soft, chewy interior of a baguette and later, the sandwich is loaded with pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro, pork belly, pork floss and cucumber. Sink your teeth into the crunchy crust and watch the warm roll give way to a whole scheme of textures.

Try it: Banh My Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh, Hoi An, Quang Nam

3. Cơm Tấm

Anh 3

Back in the day, Vietnamese farmers would eat the fractured rice grains they could not sell. Nowadays, “broken” rice is a food staple for the everyday working class citizen.  For a meal of humble origins, the preparations for cơm tấm can get very decadent. While it is prepared in a number of ways, the most popular is cơm tấm sườn nướng ốp la. A fried egg is paired with caramelised grilled pork chop and laid out on a generous heap of broken rice. The dish is then slathered with nước chấm, a mixture of chili, fish sauce and sugar, and a drizzle of green onion oil. The final touches include a side of shredded pickled carrots and daikon, slices of cucumbers and tomatoes, and crushed fried pork rinds and shallots for garnish.

Try it: An unnamed family-operated stall on 260 Vo Van Tan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

4. Bún Bò Huế

Anh 4

Representing the legendary royal cuisine of Huebún bò huế is a mighty demonstration of both beauty and taste. The alarmingly red broth is the first signal of its striking flavour—the result of hours spent simmering beef bones and stalks of lemongrass to produce a citrusy concoction. Flash boiled vegetables paired with tender beef shanks give this dynamic affair added vivacity. This may be a beef soup—the word  is Vietnamese for beef—but don’t be surprised when you see sausage lurking in the bowl. Chả lụa is a sausage made of ham paste that has a texture reminiscent of tofu.

Try it: Quan Bun Bo Hue, 19 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hue

5. Cao Lầu

Anh 5

A dish unique to Hoi Ancao lầu is beyond compare. Saluting the history of the coastal trading port from where it originated, this sensuous bowl of noodles is a fusion of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese influences. Slices of Chinese barbecued pork are fanned over cao lầu noodles. These thick noodles, with the same heft as Japanese udon, are then doused with a spice-laden broth and topped with fresh herbs and crushed pork cracklings. Authentic cao lầu is said to be made from the water found in the thousand-year-old Ba Le well in Hoi An, rumored to have magical properties.

Try it: Thanh Cao Lau, 24 Thai Phien St, Hoi An

6. Mì Quảng

Anh 6

Part soup, part salad, mì quảng gracefully pulls off an identity crisis. That being said, don’t let the elegance of mì quảng fool you. This light and springy noodle dish from the Quang Nam province in Central Vietnam is street food. The vibrantly yellow noodles owe their rich colour to the turmeric-infused broth made rich with peanut oil. Only a ladleful is used in the making of this “soup”, which can be topped with anything from shrimp and chicken to pork belly and snakehead fish. Eat mì quảng with sliced banana flowers, Vietnamese coriander, basil and bánh tráng me, toasted sesame rice crackers.

Try it: Quan Mi Quang Ba Mua, 95 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Chinh Gian, Thanh Khe, Da Nang

7. Bánh Xèo

Anh 7

Mekong Delta creation, bánh xèo is widely eaten around south and central Vietnam. Watching the crispy crepe being assembled is an audio-visual experience: the batter crackles loudly when it hits the hot pan - xèo meaning sizzling - and the edges gradually curl and golden as the skilled xèo maker deftly swirls the pan to evenly spread out the dense batter. The batter, traditionally made from rice flour and coconut milk, owes its yellowish hue to the addition of turmeric. Another French inspired delight, the savoury pancake is filled with slices of boiled pork, minced pork, bean sprouts and shrimp and then folded in the manner of a crepe. A bánh xèo shouldn’t be too soggy and is best appreciated fresh off the skillet.

Try it: Banh Xeo 46A, 46A D Dinh Cong Trang, District 3, Ho Chi Minh city

8. Bún Chả 

Anh 8

Bún Chả became an overnight sensation after President Obama was pictured scarfing down a bowl of these grilled pork sliders with Anthony Bourdain. But this specialty of the Old Quarter in Hanoi has always been popular among the locals. Around lunchtime, the scent of pork grilling over hot charcoal wafts down the sidewalks, filling the noses of hungry Hanoians.

This classic northern dish is comprised of cold bún (rice vermicelli); slices of seasoned pork belly; a mountain of fresh herbs and salad greens; and last but not least, medallions of minced pork swimming in a bowl brimming with a fish sauce-based broth. The go-to approach is to scoop small bundles of bún into your broth bowl and rotate between eating the noodles, the pork and the greens. 

Try it: Bun Cha Huong Lien (also known as Bun Cha Obama), 24 Le Van Huu, Pham Dinh Ho, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi

9. Xôi

Anh 9

Xôi, Vietnamese sticky rice is a departure from other sticky rice interpretations in the region. The weighted, more dense glutinous staple is comes in a savoury or a sweet option. Xôi mặn, savoury xôi, is a popular, inexpensive breakfast fix. Hankering for something sweeter? There are over 20 types of xôi ngọt; but if you’re hoping to mesmerised, you’re in luck. Xôi ngũ sắc, the five-coloured xôi, is a psychedelic swirl of purple, green, red, yellow, and white, pigmented using natural plant extracts.

10. Bánh Bèo

Anh 10

More of an appetizer, bánh bèo is a quick fix from Hue City. These steamed rice cakes come in bite-sized servings, akin to Vietnamese tapas. Each delicate, chewy disk is topped with a spoonful of creamy mung bean paste and toasted shrimps. The cakes are then trimmed with a either croutons or the more indulgent tép mỡ—crunchy fried pork fat. At the center of a good bánh bèo should be a dimple, signaling a well-steamed batch. This is paired nicely with nước chấm.

Try it: Quan Hanh, 11 Pho Duc Chinh (South Bank), Hue

 

 

 

Further readings