Food is an inseparable part of any culture. A country’s cuisine doesn’t only show you what and how the locals eat but also reflects a country’s long history. For example, when mentioning Vietnamese cuisine, we can’t help but talk about the harmony in ingredients, cooking style, and the eating customs.
The Vietnamese cuisine features a fine blend of different tastes and smells. Despite some regional differences, traditional dishes share some fundamental characteristics – food is always served as fresh as possible, with herbs being an essential ingredient.
In this article, I will share with you the fundamentals of Vietnam’s savory dishes:
The philosophy behind Vietnam’s food
The Vietnamese cuisine is based on many Asian principles. One of the most outstanding features is the combination of five fundamental elements that you can find in almost every dish: spicy (representative for the wood element), sour (representative for the water element), bitter (representative for the fire element), salty (representative for the water element), and sweet (representative for the earth element).
These five elements also influence the way that the ingredients are chosen, as well as the texture, decoration, and nutritional value. The purpose is to deliver a harmonious combination of taste and health benefits.
Vietnamese eating customs
I’m sure everyone knows that Vietnamese people usually use chopsticks and spoons when eating. Besides that, there are many dishes wrapped in banana or dong leaves. But their eating customs go far beyond that.
Normally, there are three dishes in a typical Vietnamese meal, namely steamed rice, one soup dish, plus a meat or a fish dish. Vietnamese people have a routine of gathering on a mat on the floor (now many families sit on chairs and place dishes on a table). People often use one fish sauce bowl, an inseparable condiment in many Vietnamese dishes, or they divide a big fish sauce bowl into smaller bowls. All dishes are placed on one tray, then all family members use their own chopsticks to take the food into their own bowl.
If you are a guest of a Vietnamese family and are invited to their home for dinner for the first time, remember these customs:
- You should wait before being told of where to sit down and before the oldest person in the family starts eating.
- Simple saying includes “Chau moi ca nha an com,” meaning I would like to invite everyone to start enjoying the meal.
- Remember to use two hands when transferring communal dishes during the meal.
- If you don’t use your chopsticks, you should place them on the table.
- At the end of the meal, it is customary that you place your chopsticks across your bowl as a sign that you have finished eating.
Culinary traditions in Vietnam
In spite of sharing some similarities in the fundamental cuisine, each region of Vietnam has its own staple foods:
Cuisine in Northern Vietnam
Most northern Vietnamese foods feature light and well-balanced flavors, the result of the proper combinations of various ingredients. They are not too spicy yet eye-catchy, not too salty, sweet, or fatty either, and are made using mostly diluted fish sauce and prawn sauce.
Hanoi is considered the cradle of Vietnamese cuisine, with well-known dishes such as pho, bun than, bun cha, young sticky rice (com lang Vong), banh cuon Thanh Tri with the featured flavor of ca cuong. It also features herbs like basil and perilla leaves. If you wish to explore the unique culture of this 1,000-year-old capital, refer to our guide to things to do in Hanoi.
Cuisine in Central Vietnam
Geographical features influence the food in Vietnam. The central part of the country is famous for growing spices and for its fish industry, all thanks to its long coastline. Here, people often eat spicy food (representing heat) to balance the cold feature of the sea. Shrimp sauces and chili are common ingredients. Some signature dishes in the region are bun bo Hue (rice noodle in Hue) and banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake).
Cuisine in Southern Vietnam
Vietnam’s southern cuisine is influenced quite a lot by the Cambodia, Thailand, and Chinese cuisine, with many sweet and spicy flavors. This region is quite famous for its sauces (fish sauces, prawn sauces). If you have the chance, drop by Ben Thanh Market, which sells various kinds of fish sauces that can satisfy your different tastes.
Vietnamese food made from rice
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest rice exporter in the world after Thailand and the seventh-largest consumer of rice on the globe. Here are some delectable dishes made mostly from rice that you can enjoy in Vietnam:
Coming first in the list of Vietnamese foods made from rice is Pho – a well-known dish worldwide. The main ingredient to make banh pho is rice. Depending on the ingredients, Pho can significantly vary in flavor.
Similar to Pho, bun (vermicelli) uses rice as the main ingredient. Different ingredients can be used when cooking, and some famous specialties include bun bo Nam Bo (beef vermicelli in Northern Vietnam) and bun bo Hue (beef vermicelli in Hue).
Besides the rice dishes for daily use, Vietnamese people have another one for special events. This dish features sticky rice and is called xoi.
Photo credit: neverendingvoyage.com
Kralan, or bamboo tubes of sweet custardy sticky rice, may arouse curiosity among eaters. The dish consists of sticky rice in bamboo tubes with other added ingredients to boost the flavor.
Discover the unique flavors of Southeast Asia on a culinary and culture vacation in Vietnam!