Irresistible Mekong Food You Need To Try At Least Once

28 Sep, 2023 | Amazing Bite

Mekong food is something very bold and unique with its special local ingredients and cooking methods. Follow our food steps to explore this area's cuisine.

If you are a foodie planning a trip to Vietnam, there should be one destination I don’t want you to miss: Mekong Delta. Vietnamese called this area Dong Bang Song Cuu Long, or Mien Tay, in short. Here is a fact that may cause you to go there immediately: many of food dishes in Saigon - one of Vietnam’s biggest food havens actually originated from the Mekong Delta area. With its abundance of rice production, the Mekong Delta is the destination for foodies to explore yummy dishes, all of which have rice as a main component but in various forms. As a food lover, Tham - our trip writer, couldn't hold back her excitement for Mekong cuisine on her trip last month. She already made a trip review with her amazing experience here. However, in this blog, I want to focus more on the cuisine by noting down 10 particular Mekong foods that you need to taste when visiting this exotic part of Vietnam.

1. Hủ tiếu mực - Southern style noodle with squid 

Other than “phở”, ‘Hu tieu’ is one of the most delicious noodle dishes to try in Vietnam.  However, different from ‘pho’, ‘hu tieu’ noodles are chewier, more translucent, and manufactured from rice starch. 

You can find many options of ‘hu tieu’ noodle soup when you come to Mekong Delta based on regional styles of cooking. Hu tieu Nam Vang, hu tieu My Tho, dried hu tieu  … are popular names you may hear… However, with the nice source of seafood there, it is hard to skip ‘hu tieu muc’ (‘hu tieu’ with squid). The clear broth cooked for hours from pork bone, dried shrimp, dried squid and vegetables, is the soul of ‘hu tieu muc’. Have a sip of hot soup first, to adjust the taste to your liking and have a bite with soft noodles, well-cooked squid, and shrimp. I swear this is a perfect start to your adventure in the Mekong Delta.

2. Bánh Canh Ghẹ - Soft Shell crab tapioca thick noodle soup

When you translate ‘bánh canh’ into English, it means ‘cake soup’. The ‘cake’ here refers to the thick dough made from tapioca flour, from which the noodles are cut. Regarding its texture, it will remind you of Japanese udon but honestly, I would prefer a bowl of ‘banh canh ghe’ for just $1.5.

The most important part of ‘bánh canh ghẹ’ is the thickened broth. Pork bones and soft shell crab bones are simmered in the pan for hours to extract the umami flavor. A signature ‘bánh canh ghẹ’ broth is bright orange from the crab roe, shell and annatto oil. 

When you taste ‘bánh canh ghẹ’, you cannot resist because it looks like a masterpiece with so many yummy components: noodles, shrimp, soft-shell crab meat, quail eggs, floating rice dough and spring onion. Since the soup the thick, it can get hotter in your mouth, be careful with that.

3. Cơm tấm - Broken rice with toppings

This is one of my most satisfying discoveries. And guess what, Long Xuyen is actually the true heaven of ‘cơm tấm’, not Saigon at all.  Here, people call it ‘cơm tấm nhuyễn’’ or tiny-grained broken rice whose seeds are broken as small as the tip of a toothpick. Therefore, to prevent it from getting mushy, rice has to be cooked with a perfect amount of water and constant observation.

To harmonize with the tiny broken rice, the accompanying toppings are also chopped. Grilled ribs are cut into small strips. So as the pork skin and pickled stems vegetables. Shredded stew pork and eggs, especially without grilled ribs, are the differences of Long Xuyen's broken rice plate compared to other versions. Finally, the last thing drizzled on top is Mekong cuisine magical condiment: spring onion oil (mỡ hành) and a separate bowl of sweet and sour chili fish sauce dressing to enhance the flavor

Because everything is chopped, it is normal to see restaurants only serve spoons without forks or chopsticks. Pour the tangy fish sauce over the ‘cơm tấm’ plate and mix it well. When you put the rice in your mouth, it feels like the rice grains melt on the tip of your tongue. Each topping combines perfectly well with the rice and the fish sauce. I wish my stomach was bigger for 2 portions of ‘com tam’.

4. Bánh tầm cay - Spicy silkworm rice cake 

‘Bánh tầm cay' or spicy silkworm rice cake, is one of the must-try specialties when coming to the beautiful Ca Mau. Don’t worry, this dish does not contain any worms or insects, it’s just the name that was inspired by the worm-like look of the rice cake.

Although there are numerous varieties of spicy silkworm rice cake, silkworm cake with hot chicken curry is the signature version to try if you first come to the Mekong Delta. Getting inside the food shop, you will immediately smell the fragrant aroma of star anise, turmeric, and cinnamon - main ingredients in the curry sauce. The slight chewiness of the rice cake, the savory flavor of curry, paired with the fatty sweetness of chicken, and topped off with a handful of crunchy bean sprouts and herbs, carries the soul of the Ca Mau cuisine. As told from the name, the taste won't be sweet or sour, but rather fiery and bold. This Ca Mau traditional cuisine is a tasty option for any meal of the day. 

5. Canh chua điên điển - Sesbania flower sour soup

The West's flood season not only brings charming river scenery that captivates tourists but also holds people back with delicious dishes that can only be enjoyed on this occasion. One of the most rustic and unique edible flowers that grow lushly all over the Mekong Delta is the Sesbania flower or ‘bong dien dien’.

With just a basket of sesbania flowers freshly picked from the backyard combined with a mixture of water lily, mint, bean sprouts, pineapple,... along with a few pieces of fish, a bowl of attractive, fragrant steaming soup is enough for a rainy day comfort food. The type of fish to cook with Sesbania sour soup is very diverse, but the most popular and delicious this season is the combination with Linh fish - also another specialty during the floating season. Or else, tiny shrimp is another option if you don’t prefer fish.

As a component dish of the Mekong Delta family’s daily meal, you will want to couple the soup with one main course and a bowl of steamed rice to enjoy the taste fully. Take a spoonful of the sweet and sour taste of the ingredients, pick up a few Sesbania flowers, and dip them in salty fish sauce mixed with chili. It is just that simple but more delicious than many things I’ve tasted.

6. Bún bì - Pork skin noodle mix

I know many tourists when coming to the Mekong Delta often refer to vermicelli soup variations. Pork skin noodle mix is something quite strange to foreigners, but it is one of the most authentic Mekong foods that you need to taste at least once. What makes pork skin vermicelli attractive is not only in the skin, grilled spring rolls, and grilled meat, but the fact that you are likely to drink all the fish sauce to feel the delicious taste of the dish.

Each component of this noodle mix is complicated and not easy to make at all. For example, the pork skin must be carefully rinsed with alcohol, boiled with ginger to deodorize, and then chopped into thin strips. After that, it is mixed with ‘thinh’ - roasted rice powder to create flavor. 

Another important ingredient in pork skin vermicelli is the fish sauce because it is the magic that connects everything together harmoniously. The fish sauce needs to be made with a perfect ratio of sourness, sweetness, and tanginess,  so it can both elevate the ingredients and be drinkable when there’s nothing left.

A bowl of pork skin vermicelli will consist of 4 layers: vermicelli, protein (spring rolls, grilled meat, pork skin), vegetables and pickles, and crushed peanuts on top. When eating, diners mix the ingredients well, enjoy and feel how perfectly the elements work together. 

7. Bún nước lèo - Fermented fish broth vermicelli

Originating from Cambodia, ‘Bún nước lèo’ ( Fermented fish-infused vermicelli soup) is a specialty of the Khmer ethnic group in Tra Vinh. When the Khmer split into the South of Vietnam, they brought this dish along with them. The Khmer recipe consists of fish, prahok (mudfish paste), and prawns, while the Vietnamese love to add peeled shrimp and roasted pork to their plate. 

You can taste different versions of Bun Nuoc Leo and the most popular is from Soc Trang. One thing you will notice about this noodle soup is the smell of “prahok” (fermented fish paste). It is intensive, salty but authentic and has an umami ending flavor to it. Apart from the fermented fish sauce, this broth is also spiced with finger root plants in order to neutralize the fish smell of the fish sauce and add fragrance. Coconut water will then be added to further enhance the sweetness of the broth.

8. Cháo bò - Beef porridge

Beef porridge is a casual breakfast dish sold in some parts of the Mekong Delta area. Each region has a different way of preparing it but normally consists of rice, meat, tendons, tripe and accompanying spices (onions, cilantro...).

To make delicious beef porridge, the Mekong Delta people cook the rice on a red charcoal stove with beef tripe and chopped beef blood, giving the porridge a beautiful light brown color and rich flavor. In addition, there are also a few chewy, crunchy pieces of beef spleen, liver, blood sausages, and pieces of beef blood.

Sipping a spoonful of hot porridge is a unique combination of the rich, delicious sweetness of rice, meat, and beef blood mixed together, adding a little sour and aromatic flavor of local lime, spicy chili and ginger. Add a bit of fish sauce to taste if you would like some more saltiness to the porridge.

9. Bánh pía - Pia Cake

Bánh pía (Pia Cake) is the most popular during moon worship in Southern Vietnam. The origin of ‘bánh pía’ could be traced back to the Teochew refugees in Vietnam. Pia cake is structurally similar to Cantonese mooncake, yet differs in the kind of filings and crust. The flaky crust resembles a puff pastry, except the outer layers are chewier and thinner.

The fillings of ‘bánh pía’ are traditionally made of mung bean pate mixed with pork fat only. Nowadays, you can find a more elevated version of Pia cake with durian flesh and salted egg yolks added inside the filling. What is the best way to enjoy a Pia cake? Match it with a pot of hot green tea. It creates a balance against the fatty sweetness and also makes the cake melt in your mouth beautifully.

10. Bánh bò - Palm sugar honeycomb sponge cake

While baked honeycomb cake is easy to find in Vietnam, the version using palm sugar could just be best tasted in provinces of the Mekong Delta area. Going to Chau Doc, An Giang, through Tri Ton and Tinh Bien districts, etc. you can easily find ‘thốt nốt’ trees (palm trees) everywhere.

To make a perfect sweet honeycomb sponge cake, bakers have to watch out for the dough carefully since the stage of dough fermentation. If the weather is too dry, the cake will not have a spongy texture. If the dough is too wet, it will lose its softness and cannot be eaten. 

This cake has a natural yellow color with the creamy and sweet taste of coconut milk and a fragrant aroma of egg and palm sugar. There is also another version with emerald color which comes from the hue of pandan leaves. 

Mekong food is nothing similar to anywhere’s cuisine I’ve ever tasted. It is loaded with outstanding flavors, exotic ingredients, and interesting variations that cannot all explored within a couple of days. Need our support to plan your trip to Vietnam? Fill out this form to start off a hassle-free vacation.

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