Discover Vietnamese Cuisine
Southeast Asian cuisine is fresh, flavorful, and healthy.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Nestled in steamy Southeast Asia, the tiny country of Vietnam -- 1,000 miles long but just 35 miles wide -- is steeped in a culinary tradition all its own. And Vietnamese food is fast becoming one of the hottest ways to jazz up America's calorie-conscious dinner table.
"It is a naturally healthful cuisine, but also one where each dish is an explosion of flavors -- so you come away feeling as if you have eaten something truly spectacular, but you haven't consumed a lot of calories," says Mai Pham, chef and owner of Lemongrass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., and author of The Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.
Vietnam is bordered by China on the north, and Laos and Cambodia on the west. Its southernmost tip dips into the Gulf of Thailand, while its eastern shores border the South China Sea. As a result, the country has become a kind of catchall for the best of various types of Southeast Asian cooking. The end result is a style that is unique.
"Vietnam food borrows a little from each culture, but puts it together in a way that is uniquely its own," says Nancie McDermott, author of Quick and Easy Vietnamese. "It's a very individualized kind of cuisine where a lot of the dishes are blended at the table, so the exact combination of what is eaten is often left to the individual diner."
While Asian cooking generally uses lots of flavorful herbs and spices, in Vietnam there are fewer choices, but bigger flavors. The reason? Herbs are not just used to enhance the foods; they are part of the meal itself.
"The traditional Vietnam dinner table always contains a salad bowl into which we place several very flavorful herbs such as mint, Vietnam coriander (rau rum), red perilla, and green perilla [like lemon balm]," says Tham.
And that doesn't mean just a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. The typical Vietnamese meal is brimming with chunks of fresh herbs that are cut (not chopped) into every individual serving bowl.
"We cut a whole leaf in two so there are large chunks," says Tham. "When you bite into it, you get a real burst of flavor."
The herb/lettuce/vegetable combo is most often then covered with round rice noodles, known as banh pho.
"Like other Asian cultures, rice is a mainstay in Vietnamese cooking," says McDermott. "It gives a nice balance to the flavorful herbs and, in fact, the traditional 'noodle' bowl is present on almost every dinner table."
Indeed, Vietnam's national dish is the flavorful pho, a broth made with rice noodles and brimming with savory greens, including basil and bean sprouts. Pho bo is made with beef broth, while Pho ga is made with chicken broth.
But it's not just flavor that you'll find on a Vietnamese table. According to executive Chef Quoc Luong of Chicago's La Colonial restaurant, you'll also find foods chosen for their health-giving properties.
"Cilantro is in virtually all Vietnamese dishes, and it contains antibacterial compounds, as well as having cholesterol- lowering properties and dietary fiber and magnesium," says Luong.
Another healthful and popular herb, he says, is red chili, which in Vietnamese tradition is considered good for the blood and the cardiovascular system.
Further, says Luong, "many Vietnamese dishes are very low-calorie and high in lots of healthful nutrients."
Vietnamese cuisine is also distinguished by the generous use of dipping sauces, which help to give the food its distinctive flavor.
A typical sauce recipe combines garlic, chilies, lime juice or vinegar, sugar, and the hallmark ingredient, fish sauce. Known in Vietnam as nuoc mam, fish sauce is made from salt-cured anchovies that are placed in the barrel raw and left to marinate over time.
"Fish sauce is the quintessential Vietnamese ingredient, and you find it not only in the dipping sauces but in almost every dish except sweets," says McDermott.
Pham says each chef adds his or her own ingredients to their sauces to give them distinctive flavor.
"You can vary the type of fish sauce and how you prepare the other ingredients," says Pham. "I like to pound chilies and garlic and use freshly squeezed lime juice instead of vinegar, and then thicken it with lime pulp -- it is like a very tasty salad dressing without the oil."