This Vietnamese food guide is a comprehensive rundown of everything you should know about the cuisine. Learn how to eat, and enjoy the delicious Viet food you order.
We’ve all been in that situation where we’ve looked at the menu and thought to ourselves ‘what the hell is that?’. Then, spending the next few minutes searching the internet on our phones for a description of the dish before the waiter comes back. This food guide will take the hassle away from your next visit to your local Vietnamese deli or to Vietnam itself!
Pho is a popular noodle soup dish consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and a type of meat. The classic choices are chicken or beef. Although its spelled pho, the correct pronunciation is ‘fuh’ or ‘fur’; a bit like the fur coat. Ever so often we would also get ‘foo’ or ‘poo’ in the deli. I can’t help but have a giggle to myself inside when I hear this.
My personal favourite is the chicken pho, classic comfort food that not only satisfies all your hunger needs. It’s also a safe choice for those new to this cuisine. The chicken pho is probably the most popular pho. The broth is light, clear, and flavourful. Meanwhile, the hand-shredded chicken pieces give the dish its tender texture. The fresh herbs and garnishes; bean sprouts, chopped onions, spring onions, mint leaves, and coriander gives the dish its fragrance and freshness.
If you don’t fancy chicken pho, there’s also a huge variety you can choose from. Such as the raw beef flank, which is thinly sliced beef fillet that is soft and tender. Beef brisket is cooked in the beef soup and thinly sliced resulting in leaner slices. Alternatively, pork or beef meatballs, prawns. There’s even a vegetarian/vegan pho that consists of an array of vegetables and tofu.
For traditional Vietnamese food, look no further then Com Tam, a popular staple dish in Saigon, South Vietnam. Translated as ‘broken rice’, this rice dish consisting of a bowl of broken rice (rice is broken during the milling process). This is topped with grilled pork chop, a fried egg, flavoured shredded pork skin, pickles, fresh salads, and chilli fish sauce (nuoc cham). Although it might sound a lot in one plate, it’s about the flavours and texture combinations that this dish brings when you mix it up.
For example, the marinated pork chop when cooked over the charcoal should be juicy and charred. This gives the pork a smokey aroma. The salads (cucumbers and sliced tomatoes) and pickled veg give the dish its freshness. Meanwhile, the shredded pork skin gives the dish a nice chewy texture. Com tam is a dry dish. The side of chilli fish sauce provided will elevate the dish to the next level. This is where the sweet fishy umami flavours kick in.
Probably one of my favourite things to eat growing up is Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a traditional Hanoi dish consisting of grilled belly pork, bun vermicelli noodles, salads and herbs, and a side of the chilli fish sauce (nuoc cham). Of course, you can also have meatballs, grilled chicken, seafood, or tofu if you choose and this dish comes with a side Vietnamese spring rolls as well.
Bun Cha is one of those dishes where you can eat and eat and eat and not really get full from it. The bun noodles, in general, aren’t really filling. Having fresh salads and herbs actually makes this dish quite light and healthy to eat during lunch or dinner. Here’s a top tip for those looking to make the grilled belly pork. To get the best flavours, make sure you marinate the pork overnight. Cook the pork on a grill or BBQ to get the smokey aromatic flavour on the pork.
For me, Bun Cha is all about sharing and eating with the family. Usually, after cooking Vietnamese food, it would be laid out into big plates at the centre of the dining table. Everyone would get a small bowl for themselves. We would just dig in and help ourselves. I think that’s what a lot of Asian cuisines are all about. It’s the coming together of families and friends in eating something delicious. All while enjoying the company of one and other.
Unlike other curries out there, Vietnamese curry is light and mild in spice. The use of coconut milk typically found in Thai curries gives this curry a nice subtle and creaminess flavours to the sauce. There is also a sweet element to the curry, which comes from the carrots, potatoes, and onions cooked in the same pot. In addition, you can choose chicken, beef, or vegetable as your curry choice.
Typically this curry dish is served with steamed rice or a French baguette. It is perfect for those cold winter nights in or a comfort food classic for the family and friends to enjoy together. What I really like about this style of curry is that you can cook all your ingredients in one pot. Minimal cleaning and effort is required. If you’ve made too much next day curry tastes even better.
Banh Mi (Vietnamese Baguette)
Banh mi is a French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich filled with a type of grilled or non-grilled meat. Grilled belly pork is a classic. This Viet dish will also have slices of cucumber, pickled carrots, daikon, spring onions, coriander, and sauced with sriracha sauce and mayonnaise.
What I really like about banh mi is that it’s got a bit of everything. The grilled meat is salty, the pickles add a sweet and tangy taste, the cucumbers and herbs cut through the meat, and the airy crusty baguette has a lovely crunch to it.
If you want to add a bit of heat and creaminess to the banh mi, then the sriracha sauce and garlic mayo will provide that. Don’t skip on the chicken liver pate if you’re offered, the pate will complete your banh mi experience, trust me.
Like the pho, there are many different kinds of banh mi you can choose (as your protein). For example, grilled belly pork, cold cut pork, grill lemongrass chicken, char siu, pork meatballs, fried tofu, etc. Basically, anything you get your hands on you can turn it into a banh mi. As long as you have the pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, coriander, and sauces. With these counterparts together, you’re good to go!
Banh Xeo is like a crispy savory Vietnamese crepe (translated as a sizzling pancake). The pancakes batter itself is made from a pre-made pancake mix, coconut milk, water, and turmeric. This street food is traditionally filled with pork, prawns, bean sprouts, spring onions, and mung beans. Normally it is served with lettuce leaves, mint, and coriander, which is used to wrap the banh xeo in and dipped with a side of the chili fish sauce.
This is one of many French influences into the Vietnamese cuisine history cookbooks. This is a dish that harbours a balance of taste and textures in this cuisine – fresh, fried, sweet and sour, soft and crunchy. Definitely, try Banh xeo if you want something out of the ordinary. If you have someone to share this dish with, order it as a starter or as a stand-alone main. The merging of different flavours and textures in this dish is what makes this stand out from the rest of this best Vietnamese food guide.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
With so many variations on spring rolls from different countries, Vietnamese spring rolls are special in their own way. Firstly the paper we use to make those spring rolls are actually rice-based and not egg-based. Secondly, these spring rolls are known for their crispy-ness. Its extra thin layer of rice paper and method of double frying makes these rolls a must-try for anyone who loves eating spring rolls in general. Thirdly, when you order this Viet dish in a restaurant, your spring rolls are normally served with a couple of lettuce leaves, strands of mint, and fresh coriander.
Often or not, a lot of people don’t know what to do with the side of salad. The proper way of eating those spring rolls like the banh xeo is to wrap the rolls in the lettuce leaves, mint, and coriander then dip in the chili fish sauce. The lettuce leaves and herbs cool down the heat of the spring roll as you take a bite. Trust me after you’ve had these spring rolls, you’ll be wondering how you’ve never eaten them before.
Whenever I’m invited to a friend’s party or a social gathering, I would always make summer rolls to bring over. Summer rolls are fresh, light, and healthy rice paper rolls wrapped with lettuce, cucumbers, fresh herbs, rice bun noodles, and a choice of topping. These toppings are usually boiled belly pork, prawn, or tofu. Traditional summer rolls are served with a chili fish sauce (nuoc cham) or a peanut sauce (peanut butter in a hoisin base).
The thing about summer rolls is that its pretty easy to make whilst it might take some time to prepare the ingredients. Cook the bun noodles and gather all the salads that will be going into the rolls. The process of actually rolling the rolls is very straightforward and fun to do with family, friends, and kids. The best thing about these rolls is that you don’t have to go with the traditional toppings. You can mix it up a bit! For example, prawns and avocado smoked salmon and spinach, or even a fruit salad summer roll (with strawberries, mango, apple, and melon). Let your imagination go wild!
Considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, Vietnamese food lives up to that bill, with distinctive flavours, merging textures, aromatic smells, and freshness in each and every one of the dishes mentioned in this food guide.
Based in North London, David Chu runs Carrots & Daikon which sells homemade Vietnamese food.