Vietnamese cuisine encompasses the foods and beverages of Vietnam, and features a combination of five fundamental taste elements (Vietnamese: ngũ vị) in the overall meal. Each Vietnamese dish has a distinctive flavor which reflects one or more of these elements. Common ingredients include fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, rice, fresh herbs, and fruits and vegetables. Vietnamese recipes use lemongrass, ginger, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander, Saigon cinnamon, bird’s eye chili, lime, and basil leaves. Traditional Vietnamese cooking is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil, and reliance on herbs and vegetables. With the balance between fresh herbs and meats and a selective use of spices to reach a fine taste, Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest cuisines worldwide.
Salt is used as the connection between the worlds of the living and the dead. Bánh phu thê is used to remind new couples of perfection and harmony at their weddings. Food is often placed at the ancestral altar as an offering to the dead. Cooking and eating play an extremely important role in Vietnamese culture. The word ăn (eat) is included in a great number of proverbs and has a large range of semantic extensions.
The mainstream culinary traditions in all three regions of Vietnam share some fundamental features:
- Freshness of food: Most meats are only briefly cooked. Vegetables are eaten fresh; if they are cooked, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried.
- Presence of herbs and vegetables: Herbs and vegetables are essential to many Vietnamese dishes and are often abundantly used.
- Broths or soup-based dishes are common in all three regions.
- Presentation: The condiments accompanying Vietnamese meals are usually colourful and arranged in eye-pleasing manners.
While sharing some key features, Vietnamese culinary tradition differs from region to region. In northern Vietnam, a colder climate limits the production and availability of spices. As a result, the foods there are often less spicy than those in other regions. Black pepper is used in place of chili’s as the most popular ingredient to produce spicy flavours. In general, northern Vietnamese cuisine is not bold in any particular taste — sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, or sour. Most northern Vietnamese foods feature light and balanced flavours that result from subtle combinations of many different flavouring ingredients. The use of meats such as pork, beef, and chicken were relatively limited in the past. Freshwater fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, such as prawns, squids, shrimps, crabs, clams, and mussels, are widely used. Many notable dishes of northern Vietnam are crab-centered (e.g., bún riêu). Fish sauce, soy sauce, prawn sauce, and limes are among the main flavouring ingredients. Being the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, northern Vietnam produces many signature dishes of Vietnam, such as bún riêu and bánh cuốn, which were carried to central and southern Vietnam through Vietnamese migration.
The abundance of spices produced by central Vietnam’s mountainous terrain makes this region’s cuisine notable for its spicy food, which sets it apart from the two other regions of Vietnam where foods are mostly not spicy. Once the capital of the last dynasty of Vietnam, Hue’s culinary tradition features highly decorative and colourful food, reflecting the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine. The region’s cuisine is also notable for its sophisticated meals consisting of many complex dishes served in small portions. Chilli peppers and shrimp sauces are among the frequently used ingredients. Some Vietnamese signature dishes produced in central Vietnam are bún bò Huế and bánh xèo.
The warm weather and fertile soil of southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and livestock. As a result, foods in southern Vietnam are often vibrant and flavourful, with liberal uses of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs. Sugar is added to food more than in the other regions. The preference for sweetness in southern Vietnam can also be seen through the widespread use of coconut milk in southern Vietnamese cuisine. Vast shorelines make seafood a natural staple for people in this region.
Outside of Vietnam, Vietnamese cuisine is widely available in countries with strong Vietnamese immigrant communities, such as Australia, the United States, Canada, and France. Vietnamese cuisine is also popular in Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Russia, and in areas with dense Asian populations.
Television shows featuring Vietnamese food have increased in popularity. Luke Nguyen from Australia currently features a television show, called Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, dedicated on showcasing and instructing how to cook Vietnamese dishes.
On The Great Food Truck Race, a Vietnamese sandwich truck called Nom Nom Truck received the most money in the first five episodes. Anthony Bourdain wrote for the Financial Times in 2005:
‘A year from now, I plan to live here. I will move to a small fishing village in a coastal area of Vietnam near Hoi An. I have no idea what I’m going to do there, other than write about the experience. I plan only on being a visual curiosity, the lone westerner in a Vietnamese community; to rent a house, move in with few, if any, expectations and let the experience wash over me. Whatever happens, happens.’
Food in relation to lifestyle
Vietnamese cuisine is reflective of the Vietnamese lifestyle from the preparation to how the food is served. Going through long phases of war and political conflicts, as well as cultural shifts, the vast majority of the Vietnamese people have been living in poverty. Therefore, the ingredients for Vietnamese food are often very inexpensive but nonetheless, the way they are cooked together to create a yin-yang balance make the food simple in look but rich in flavour.
Due to economic condition, maximizing the use of ingredients to save money has become a tradition in Vietnamese cooking. In earlier decades and even nowadays in rural areas, every part of a cow is used, from the tasty meat to the gamey intestines; nothing is wasted. The same goes for vegetables like scallions: the leafy part is diced into small bits which are used to add flavor to the food while the crunchy stalk and roots are replanted.
Nước mắm (fish sauce) is the most commonly used and symbolic condiment in Vietnamese cooking. It is made from fermented raw fish, and is served with most of the Vietnamese dishes. Vietnamese cuisines are not known for ingredients with top quality, but rather for the very inexpensive and simple scraps that are creatively mixed together to create dishes with bold flavor. A traditional southern Vietnamese meal usually includes cơm trắng (plain white rice), cá kho tộ (catfish in a clay pot), canh chua cá lóc (sour soup with snakehead fish) and it will not be completed without fish sauce as a condiment. Dishes are prepared not for the look, but are served family style to bring everyone together after a long day of work.
Despite being a small country in Southeast Asia, the foods from each region in Vietnam carry their distinctive and unique characteristic that portray the geographical and living condition of the people there. The traditional southern Vietnamese meal is made up of fresh ingredients that only the fertile Mekong Delta could provide, such as cá lóc, and a wide range of tropical fruit, such as mangosteen, mango), and dragon fruit. The southern style diet is very ‘green’, with vegetables, fish and tropical fruits as the main ingredients. Central Vietnam is the region in which food is prepared with the strongest, boldest flavours. This region is constantly under harsh weather conditions all throughout the year, so people there do not have as many green ingredients as others do in the north and south of Vietnam. Instead, the coastline around the central Vietnam area is known for its salt and fish sauce industries; these two condiments are central to their daily diets. Northern Vietnamese cuisine has a strong Chinese influence, and its iconic dish is phở. While rice is a staple in the southern Vietnamese diet, the north has a preference for noodles. Due to the drastic differences in climate and lifestyles throughout the three main regions of Vietnam, the foods vary. Northern Vietnamese cooking is the least bold in flavour compared to the foods from central and southern Vietnam.