Vietnamese Cuisine; Healthy Tips & Recipes (cont.)

"In Vietnamese restaurants here in America, we serve about 3 ounces of protein for each serving, but in Vietnam it is usually 2 ounces and no more than 2.5 ounces per serving," says Pham. "Protein is not a big part of our meal."

The preparation is also simple, she says. Meats are most often cut into thin strips or slices, soaked in a simple marinade that might contain shallots, lemongrass and some fish sauce, then grilled quickly and brought to the table in warm clay pots.

"The idea then is to pick up a piece of meat, put it in the dipping sauce, pick up some herbs and rice and put the complete bite into your mouth," says Pham. The flavors blend together and explode in your mouth, she says.

Chicken and pork are frequently bathed in a caramel sauce, while salmon can be treated to either caramel or a chili-lime sauce.

Another traditionally Vietnamese way of serving all these ingredients is to wrap them in rice paper. You end up with a dish that's similar to an egg roll, but without the frying - sort of a healthful "sandwich to go."

"The rice paper is so thin you can literally see inside, and one look will tell you that everything in there is healthy and good for you," says Pham.

One thing you generally won't find much of in Vietnamese food is fat, Pham says.

"We use lots of little pots and when we fry, we use a small wok with very little oil, as compared to Chinese cooking which requires a huge fiery hot wok filled with lots of oil," says Pham.

McDermott says Vietnamese cuisine is great for dieters because so many of the dishes are served separately, allowing you to blend the foods and dip into the sauces as much or as little as you like.

"You can really customize your meal and create it to your specific taste," says McDermott.

If you're thinking these meals don't sound very filling, McDermott and Pham say that's not the case. They say you come away from a Vietnamese meal feeling extremely satisfied - something they credit to the palate-pleasing blend of ingredients and tastes.

"Nowhere is there such comparable devotion to flavor and aroma, so that there is literally pleasure in every bite," McDermott says.

Cooking Vietnamese

If you're intrigued by this enticing cuisine, and want to give it a try, Vietnamese restaurants are springing up around the country.

Or you can try making it yourself. Because Vietnamese food doesn't use a lot of exotic ingredients and the cooking techniques are easy to master, it's a great addition to your menu, McDermott says.

Moreover, Pham adds that most of the dishes are served room temperature, which makes it easy to cook ahead of time and serve up when you're hungry.

To help you launch a Vietnamese taste experience in your house, Pham and McDermott offer these easy-to-make and easy-to-eat dishes.

Chicken and Cabbage Salad with Fresh Mint

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as "entree salad with meat, poultry or seafood."

The Vietnamese herb called rau ram is a perfect complement for the chicken and other seasonings in this dish, but fresh mint is lovely if you don't have rau ram. In Vietnam this salad, goi ga, is traditionally served with mien ga, a nourishing chicken dish made with the broth created by poaching chicken for this salad.

1 pound boneless chicken breast, or 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar, cider vinegar, or freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup very thinly sliced onion
2 cups finely shredded green, savoy, or napa cabbage
3/4 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, cilantro, or basil leaves
1/2 cup rau ram leaves (available at Asian markets; optional)
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted and salted peanuts (optional)

  • Put chicken in a medium saucepan and add 2 to 3 cups water, enough to cover chicken by about 1/2 inch. Bring to rolling boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer. Cook until done, 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, combine lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and pepper in a medium bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar and mix everything well. Add sliced onion and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, until you are ready to complete the dish.
  • Transfer the meat to a plate to cool, reserving the broth for another use, such as making soup or cooking rice. When the chicken is cool, tear it into long, thin shreds. Coarsely chop the mint and/or herbs. Add the shredded chicken, cabbage, carrots, mint, and herbs to the bowl of onions and seasonings, and toss to coat everything well. Mound the salad on a serving plate, and top with chopped peanuts, if using. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 206 calories, 29 g protein, 14 g carbohydrate, 3.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 78 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 760 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 15%.

Recipe from Vietnamese Cooking Made Easy by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books; 2005). Reprinted with permission.

Everyday Dipping Sauce

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal 1 tablespoon as "1 teaspoon sugar or honey."

This sauce appears on the table at most Vietnamese meals. A little bit sweet, a tad salty, pleasantly tangy, and gently spicy, it makes a pleasing refrain to the music that is Vietnamese food. Add a small handful of shredded carrots and you have a vegetable relish as well as a dipping sauce.

1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce or finely chopped fresh hot red chilies; or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

  • Combine the garlic; sugar; and chili-garlic sauce, chilies, or flakes, in the bowl of a mortar and mash to a paste. (Or combine them on your cutting board and mash to a coarse paste using a fork and the back of a spoon.)
  • Scrape the paste into a small bowl and stir in the fish sauce, water, and lime juice. Stir well to dissolve sugar.
  • Transfer to small serving bowls for dipping. Or transfer to a jar, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

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