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Vietnamese Cuisine Culture

16 Dec, 2016 | Travel Blog
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One of the most effective ways to discover a culture is to start with its cuisine. In this blog, join us on the journey to explore Vietnamese Food. Vietnam - a nation with a thousand years of history and vibrant culture, promises plenty of unique and interesting things on the dining table to be explored. Here is what you need to know about the common characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine and Vietnam’s most popular dishes.

Vietnamese Cuisine Culture and elements to create it

  • Wet-rice agriculture: The thousand-year-long history of wet-rice cultivation also has a great impact on Vietnam food. The Vietnamese from generations are used to having cooked rice as the main dish for their meals.
  • The combination of Yin and Yang: Vietnamese cuisine, like many other Asian countries, emphasizes the balance between yin and yang. For instance, when the Vietnamese have seafood, which is considered “cold”, it is often served hot with chili, ginger, and lemongrass (Yang ingredients) to balance the flavors. 
  • The dominance of fresh herbs and vegetables: The use of local herbs and fresh vegetables is dominant in most regions of Vietnam. That’s also the reason why Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the whole world. 
  • The major spice - Vietnamese fish sauce: Instead of salt, the Vietnamese prefer fish sauce - a sauce made from fermented anchovies and salt, to season their dishes. Besides, it is also used to make a special dipping sauce for a variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes: such as Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Pancake)
  • The food-sharing culture: In western countries, meals are often served in portions for each person on their own dishes. But in Vietnam, everyone will enjoy the meal together while chatting about the daily basic topics. They usually give food to other to show respect and love. Sharing means caring here.
  • Tasty dishes on the sidewalks: If you want to taste the truest essence of Vietnamese cuisine, no need to head to fancy restaurants. Join the locals at the table, dive into the yummy dishes, and watch the local life passing by. That’s the most authentic dining experience for sure. 

A street food stall in Hanoi

Vietnamese Cuisine Culture by Regions

What the Vietnamese are proud of their food the most: From North, Central, to South, the dishes are never the same. As the country is divided into 3 distinctive regions with three different kinds of weather, geography, and history, the dishes also differ in ingredients, tastes, and flavors, representing the soul of each region, and the locals’ way of life. 

Northern Vietnam Cuisine

Main characteristics of Northern Vietnam Cuisine

  • Light yet exquisite taste: The Red River Delta civilization has brought a long-established food culture to the north of Vietnam. Favored by nature with pleasant weather, food in the north has an exquisite taste that is lighter than it is in other parts of the country.
  • High respect for traditional recipes: Northern dishes rarely alter the traditional recipes, but strictly follow the ancestors’ direction. The Northerners believe the recipes of the old are the best and were passed from generation to generation. So most of the local restaurants in the north are family-run restaurants, with traditional recipes none can resist.
  • Various versions for a single dish: Depending on the ingredients and cooking techniques, one single dish can have various versions. Take Vietnamese noodles as an example. With different shapes, sizes of the noodles, and the way it is served, we have various versions of noodle dishes.

6 must-try dishes of Northern Vietnam Cuisine

  • Pho (Highly recommended): Named as one of the top 50 most delicious foods on the planet according to CNN, Pho Vietnam is the most favorite breakfast here. It is basically rice noodles served with sliced beef or chicken. The star of Pho - the broth from simmered beef bones flavored with Vietnamese special spices, has an inviting smell none can resist. Even Anthony Bourdain fell in love with this “lovely bowl of goodness” during his food steps in Hanoi.

Vietnam Pho Noodle Soup - one of the most popular dishes in Hanoi

  • Bun Thang - a childhood noodle dish of many Hanoians, is chicken-based noodle soup with colorful toppings: yellow of egg, black of shiitake mushroom, brown of dry pickled radish, orange of dried shrimps, and green of chopped herbs. Add a spoon of lime juice, a bit of chili paste, you’ll have a bowl of goodness.
  • Bun Cha - The dish that captured the former US President's heart, is a flavorful creation with rice noodles as main ingredient, and charcoal grilled pork (sometimes spring rolls too) as side dishes. The smoky and aromatic flavor of the pork blends astonishingly well with the sweet-sour sauce, and fresh herbs.
  • Banh Cuon is steamed rice rolls, filled with minced ear mushrooms, and ground pork, then topped with fried shallots. The light taste of chewy, soft rice rolls makes it a go-to dish for breakfast or snacks of many Hanoians.
  • Spring Roll - Nem Ran (Cha Gio), seasoned ground meat, mushrooms, and diced vegetables, rolled up in a sheet of rice paper, then deep fried. Inside the crunchy rice papers is a juicy blend of different textures and flavors. Spring rolls are usually eaten together with sweet-sour dipping sauce, fresh herbs, and rice noodles.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo: Marinated beef is stir-fried quickly over high heat, then served atop cool noodles. Fresh herbs, crunchy peanuts, and bean sprouts add more texture to the dish, while crispy fried shallots make it more aromatic.

Central Vietnam Cuisine

Main characteristics of Central Vietnam Cuisine

  • More spicy flavor: Central Vietnam has the most severe weather in all the country, with many storms and floods in summer; monsoon and rainfall in winter. As a result, they prefer spicy dishes to keep their body warm.
  • The Traits of Royal Delicacies: The royal cuisine can still be found in Hue - the former capital of the last dynasty of Vietnam. Prepared for royalty, these dishes are more colorful and well-decorated with sophisticated culinary techniques.
  • Served in small portions: In Central Vietnam, food is often served in small portions, in small bowls and small plates. As the local produce in this region is not as diversified as other regions, people here have been creative to create delicious dishes.

Banh Beo - one of a must-try food in Hue is served in small portion

4 must-try dishes of Central Vietnam Cuisine

Bun Bo Hue (Highly recommended): During Anthony Bourdain's stay in Hue, he stated this dish is “the greatest soup in the world”. The broth has strong flavor from lemongrass, shrimp paste, sugar and chili oil, then is poured over noodles, added with beef shank, a piece of pig’s knuckles, cubes of congealed pig blood, and crab sausage

  • Bun Bo Hue
  • My Quang: a noodle dish originated from Quang Nam Province. The yellow rice noodles are topped with shrimp, grilled pork, peanuts, hard-boiled quail eggs, and some local herbs. Then, a few spoons of flavored broth are poured into the bowl.
  • Banh Bot Loc: These yummy, chewy dumplings are made from tapioca powder, usually filled with shrimp and pork belly, served with fried shallots, then dipped with sweet-sour fish sauce. A beloved appetizer or small snacks.
  • Com Hen: This rice dish from Hue includes cooked baby river mussels, rice, peanuts, pork rinds, bean sprouts, and local herbs. Shrimp paste and chili paste are also added to boost the flavor. It is usually served together with broth from cooked mussels. 

Southern Vietnamese Cuisine

Main characteristics of Southern Vietnamese Cuisine

  • Strong flavor, dramatic taste: Southerners prefer food with stronger flavors with more salty and dramatic tastes. They use pure fish sauce, and hot chili peppers to spice up their dishes. 
  • Customized with local ingredients: People here adjusted those dishes that come from other regions to suit their taste. For example, Pho Saigon is slightly different from Pho Hanoi with sweet sauce (the special black sauce from the South) and a handful of fresh herbs and bean sprouts served aside. 
  • Influenced by French cuisine: French cuisine had an impact on the food and eating habits of the Southern people during their colonial rule in Indochina. Banh Mi, for instance, is a creative localization of French baguette with varied Vietnamese fillings.

Banh mi Saigon

  • Influenced by Chinese cuisine: Affected by Chinese from a long time ago, Southern cuisine becomes a perfect blend of Chinese and Vietnamese foods. Hu Tieu is a great sample. Each province in the South modifies this Chinese originated dish with its regional ingredients.

5 must-try dishes of Southern Vietnamese Cuisine 

  • Banh Xeo (Highly recommended): This Vietnamese savory ‘crepe’ was the first bite of Anthony Bourdain in Saigon. A plentiful mixture of stir-fried pork belly, shrimps, bean sprouts, green onion is wrapped together inside the crispy yellow crepe. You can eat it directly. But the locals prefer wrapping a piece of Banh Xeo in lectures, add fresh herbs, then dip everything in the sweet-sour sauce.

  • Banh Xeo
  • Com Tam (Broken Rice): This is the signature dish of Saigon. Steamed broken rice (fractured rice grains) are topped with grilled pork ribs, pickles, shredded pork skin, Vietnamese steamed omelet or fried eggs. Then spread the sweet-sour-spicy sauce, which is served on a side bowl, onto the dish to spice up all the flavors.
  • Banh Canh Ghe: Vietnamese thick noodle soup with spider crab, fish cakes and green onion. Different from other rice noodle dishes, the noodles of Banh Canh are made from tapioca flour, giving it a special chewy texture. Spider crab’s shells are simmered together with pork bones for a more aromatic broth.
  • My Van Than: Wonton noodles is a noodle dish originating from Cantonese. There are two main parts of the dish: the dumplings filled with juicy grounded pork/shrimp, and chewy egg noodles, all poured over with a clear, sweet broth from simmered chicken or pork bones.
  • Hu Tieu: This noodle bowl is highly regarded for its clear, soothing broth and dazzling array of herbs, aromatics, and other garnishes and condiments. What makes the dish special are the thin, chewy noodles and the sweet broth from pork bones.

Once you have a bite, breathe in the inviting smell, and savor the scrumptious taste, you’ll know why Vietnamese food is considered one of the best cuisine in the world. A gourmet always can see the balance and sophistication in the way the Vietnamese cook. Accompany Exotic Voyages on the ​Taste of Vietnam Food tours - our #1 Vietnam tour packages, to savor the best dishes of each region, while still having plenty of time to explore the vibrant culture and captivating nature this country has.

Check out the 6 irresistible street foods of Hanoi that you shouldn’t miss



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