Pho is usually the dish that first comes to your mind when someone mentions authentic Vietnamese food. However, besides Pho, there are many other diverse and variable dishes that should not be ignored if you want to learn about Vietnamese cuisine. The differences in geographical features, climate, weather as well as culture make all the differences in the taste of the dishes in the North, Central and South of Vietnam.
If you have the opportunity to come to Vietnam and try some dishes, you will be able to taste the differences in the combination of spices, ingredients and the way they are served in each region. Vietnamese cuisine in foreign countries has been modified to be more adaptable and suitable to local people as well as overseas-Vietnamese who may come from different regions across Vietnam.
The 10 typical dishes listed below are worth considering as the must-tried list if you love and want to explore authentic Vietnamese food.
Pho is considered an authentic Vietnamese food, favoured by tourists from all over the world as well as by Vietnamese people at homeland and abroad. In each region, the taste and the way of eating and serving Pho are different. In the North, Pho is cooked in a classic style.
The broth is sweet and clear by cooking from the beef bone. The secret to creating the special smell for Pho is to use dried sá-sùng (a kind of sea worm). Besides the sweetness from the beef bones, people also add a lot of MSG (Monosodium glutamate) in the broth. The north beef noodle soup is sometimes served with chili sauce, or just with a few kumquats.
The South-version of Pho is different from the North in many different ways. Firstly, the broth is still cooked from the beef bones with grilled onions, grilled ginger to eliminate the smell of the beef, however, more spices such as anise, cinnamon, and clove are added to the broth that make it more flavorful and tasty.
Secondly, the Southern version of Pho does not use as much MSG as Pho in the north. Thirdly, Pho in the south is served with bean sprouts and a variety of herbs such as Vietnamese basils, sawleaf, fresh lemon and fresh chili which are available on the table for diners to choose from.
2. Fried Spring rolls:
Spring rolls have different names in each regions of Vietnam: “Nem rán” in the North, “Ram” in the Central and “Chả Giò” in the South (complicated, right? :). Fried spring rolls can be served as an appetizer or as a main dish when served with vermicelli and fresh vegetables. Fried spring rolls have become so popular nowadays around the world, there are so many different versions of them across Asia, Europe and America.
However, the difference in the fried Vietnamese spring rolls is the rice paper outside. Rice paper in Vietnamese spring rolls is made entirely of rice flour and very thin, which can be found in many Asian markets or some supermarkets in the US and Europe. After frying, this outside layer is crispy yet not as hard as any other flour cover.
The filling of Vietnamese spring rolls consist of many ingredients including pork, shrimp, crab, black fungus, green bean vermicelli. The proportion of meat, shrimp and crab in the authentic Vietnamese spring rolls make up 50% of the filling, much different from the popular spring rolls sold in American, Canadian restaurants, or frozen spring rolls at Restaurant Depot in the US.
In Vietnam, except for vegetarian spring rolls, which obviously contain no meat or shrimp, the normal fried spring rolls must provide the feeling of tasty meat, shrimp, crab in the filling. In the South people also add taro to the filling to make it more flavourful.
3. Mi Quang
Quang Nam (located in the Central of Vietnam) is famous for its traditional Quang noodles that almost every tourist enjoys right at the first try. The noodles are made of ground raw brown rice, which creates a light brown color of the noodles. In case the noodles are made of ordinary rice, a little turmeric powder is added to give the noodles a yellow color.
The broth for this special dish can be cooked from the bones of pigs, chickens, crabs, shrimp, fish … The fresh vegetables layer includes young banana flowers mixed with young mustard leaves, herbs and basil.
In addition to the broth, Quang noodles are also served with fried chicken, pork belly and shrimp. To serve, people often put a layer of fresh vegetables in a bowl, spread a layer of noodles on top of the vegetables. Pour the boiling broth in the bowl of noodles so that the soup just soaks into the noodles and fresh vegetables. Then topping the dish off with a layer of grain d’annetto oil and some fillings of pork, lean chicken, shrimps, finally adding a crumbled rice paper on the top to garnish.
The reason why Vietnamese people call this Pancake “Banh xeo” is because of its sizzle sound when pouring the batter into the pan. Vietnamese pancakes are made of a rice flour mixture, which has a little bit of turmeric powder in order to create the classic yellow colour of a Banh Xeo. Pancakes of the South are cooked in a large pan, and a perfect pan cake must be thin, crispy, and not oily.
Pancake filling includes pork, onion, bean sprouts, and green beans. The Southerner often adds coconut milk to the batter to make it richer and more flavourful. The fillings can vary depending on the season and the ingredients, such as mushrooms, common sesban or sometimes duck meat. Pancakes are served with lettuce, mustard leaves and many other herbs.
Traditional ways of eating pancakes in Vietnam consist of 2 simple steps: take a piece of “Banh Xeo” and place it on the mustard leaf, then place on other fresh vegetables, then wrap, roll and dip in a sour and sweet sauce to enjoy.
The Central people make a smaller pancake, especially in Hue, where the cakes are just as small as a hand, fried with lots of oil, added eggs and served with special fermented soy sauce.
5. Cha ca la Vong
“Cha Ca La Vong” is a dish known to tourists as a unique Vietnamese cuisine. American author Patricia Schultz has put La Vong grilled fish dish in the book “1,000 places to see before you die“. Even though the La Vong grilled fish dish is quite popular in Vietnam, its unique style and identity can only be found in Hanoi.
This fish dish has been available for a long time, being inherited from generation to generation. This dish represents Hanoi’s very own culinary culture, often served on cold days. La Vong grilled fish dish has many other names such as “Cha ca Hanoi”, Cha Ca Thang Long”.
The main ingredient of “Cha Ca La Vong” is hemibagrus (a special kind of catfish), marinated with galangal, turmeric, fermented cook-rice; shrimp paste, shallots. Fish are grilled evenly on a charcoal stove, grilled and sprinkled with oil to prevent the fish from drying out. Grilled fish will then be placed on the plate, the diners will then put those grilled fish into a hot pan with a few spoons of oil, add onions and dill, mix well and eat hot with noodles and shrimp sauce. A dish is considered perfect when the fish is properly grilled, elastic yet not drying, and flavourful.
6. Hue beef noodle soup
Hue beef noodle soup or Bun Bo Hue has its name because it comes from Hue, however in Saigon or some other provinces, this dish is also very popular and favourite to many food lovers. Bun Bo Hue is a breakfast, lunch or snack between lunch and dinner. It is not the dish that people usually eat for dinner or supper.
To serve Bun Bo Hue, first noodles will be put into a bowl, place a few pieces of beef on top, sprinkled with coriander, onion and then pour the boiling broth into the bowl. Bun Bo Hue is normally served with shredded water spinach, thinly sliced banana flower, bean sprouts, coriander, basil and it is recommended to eat while it’s still hot. Originally, Hue people used to eat beef noodle soup without any fresh vegetables and bean sprout.
Nowadays, to make Bun Bo Hue more special, more toppings are added to the bowl such as Hue-pork-pie, crab-pie. A perfect bowl of beef noodle soup should have a strong, rich taste of the broth cooked with pork, beef muscle and lemongrass, and especially the strong aroma coming from Hue shrimp paste that makes the dish stand out. Shredded cooked pork rolls and beef to be placed separately when eating with the noodle soup.
A special type of vermicelli, which must be large, white and flexible to be used for Bun Bo Hue. Just like pho, before pouring the noodles into the bowl, you should put the noodles into the patch, dip in boiling water and shock, so that the hot noodles are separated and do not stick together.
Place the thinly sliced beef, and pork on top, pour broth into noodles, add chopped onions, coriander, chopped laksa leaves, served with satay peppers, lemons, fresh peppers, raw vegetables, bean sprouts and banana flower. Bun Bo Hue must have a brown broth that is clear, with a shiny red oil on top mixed with the white noodles, light brown beef, strong aroma of lemongrass and shrimp paste, spicy, and sweet to taste.
7. Bun cha
Bun Cha has been known as an authentic Vietnamese food from the North of Vietnam, its main ingredient is grilled pork, served with noodles and fresh vegetables. Bun cha is normally served on a tray which consists of vermicelli, grilled pork and a bowl of a really light sauce mixed with a few slices of green papaya and thinly grated carrots. To eat, first you put the grilled pork into the bowl filled with sauce, add some noodles, some vegetables, then mix well and enjoy.
There is a similar version of Bun Cha in Southern Vietnam, but the way to eat is slightly different, you will enjoy it all-in a large bowl which has been arranged by the chef, the taste of the dipping sauce is also more intense and slightly sweet, topping with some roasted peanuts and oiled spring onion.
8. Lettuce roll
Lettuce roll is a simple dish, but it is classified in the royal dishes of Hue. King Dong Khanh, King Khai Dinh and other kings in the Nguyen Dynasty were very fond of and often used this dish in their daily meals because they were praised as light and interesting.
In fact, Lettuce rolls are not sophisticated or expensive at all. To make a good lecture roll, all you need are silver shrimp, lean pork, noodles, lettuce, mint.
In Hue, lettuce rolls use a unique hoisin dipping sauce, which is different from the fish sauce or other fermented sauces in the South.
To make this sauce, people need soya bean, pork liver, coconut milk, lemon juice, ripe chilli, garlic and a little sugar. When dipping a lettuce roll into the sauce, you can feel the aroma and sweetness of coconut water mixing with the sourness of lemon, aroma, spicy of garlic and chilli. Minced pork liver when mixing with hoisin sauce make the sauce become thick and fleshy.
To make lettuce roll, one needs to lay a lettuce on a dish surface, put shrimp, meat and noodles, basil on top and rolled up, the size can be big and small depending on preference but it is not recommended to put too many noodles as it will dilute the shrimp and pork flavor, the roll’s taste thus will be blank.
The perfect lettuce rolls must be evenly rolled, with just-right amounts of cooked shrimp and meat inside to retain their flavour and aroma.
9. Banh mi Saigon
It is called Banh mi Saigon as it originated from Saigon since the French colonial period. In fact, Banh mi is coming from the States, as the main carbohydrate of Vietnamese people is rice, not wheat. Banh mi in Vietnam is made of western flour but customized to be a more suitable size which is small and just enough for a meal, with a thin and crispy crust.
Banh mi Saigon is a popular dish in Vietnam, especially in Saigon for more than a century, it has now been a popular dish around the world with many different brands. The methods in making banh mi has changed throughout history compared to the authentic Banh mi Saigon.
The authentic Banh mi should be hollow, with a thin and crispy crust. The filling of Banh Mi can vary from: pâté, ham, pork loaf, shredded chicken, canned fish, omelette or pork patties, barbecue.
In addition, there is also pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, other sauces such as mayonnaise, tomato sauce, chilli sauce and sweet sauce. The most popular Banh mi varieties in Saigon today are: ham Banh mi, shredded pork skin Banh mi, roasted pork Banh mi, canned fish Banh Mi, shredded chicken banh mi and many more.
10. Broken rice
Broken rice dishes originated from the South, one of the favourite dishes of the people of Saigon. One can eat broken rice as breakfast, or lunch and dinner as a main dish, and also an extra late-night snack for late-night workers. Broken rice must be cooked from broken rice, i.e. surface rice during production.
The broken rice is cooked dried, served with shredded pork skin, grilled pork, topped with oiled spring onion and some vegetables. The fish sauce served with the rice is to be made slightly sweet and spicy and will be poured evenly on the plate of broken rice. In addition, the choice of diners can eat broken rice with egg rolls, grilled ribs or omelette.