Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Pho: The National Dish of Vietnam
Of all the mouthwatering dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, pho reigns supreme as the national dish and cultural icon. This aromatic broth filled with noodles, tender meats, and fresh herbs encapsulates the very spirit of the country.
The origins of pho trace back to northern Vietnam in the late 19th century. Beef was not widely available back then, so the broth was likely made with chicken or sometimes even fish. Once the French colonized Vietnam, the dish evolved to incorporate beef bones and other Gallic ingredients like onions and charred ginger. Over time, pho spread south and became a ubiquitous street food, with regional variations emerging.
For locals, pho is the ultimate comfort food. Its complex layers of flavor evoke nostalgia and pride. The broth simmers for hours, coaxing out essences of star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds, and charred onion. Thin slices of beef cook quickly in the hot liquid, along with chewy rice noodles. A plate of fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, and bean sprouts adds aroma and crunch. A squeeze of lime and splash of chili sauce complete the symphony.
While pho stalls were once clustered on street corners, the dish now graces the menus of upscale restaurants worldwide. Top chefs have put their own spin on it, incorporating ingredients like oxtail or short rib. At its core though, pho retains its humble roots as a soothing, nourishing meal for the masses.
For first-timers, slurping up those slippery noodles can prove challenging! But pho is meant to be enjoyed noisily. The complex layers of tastes and textures deserve your full attention. Many visitors to Vietnam consider their first steamy bowl of pho a life-changing experience.
What else is in this post?
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Pho: The National Dish of Vietnam
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Mi: French Influenced Vietnamese Sandwiches
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Bun Cha: Grilled Pork with Noodles and Herbs
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Com Tam: Broken Rice Bowls with Grilled Mea
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Goi Cuon: Fresh Spring Rolls with Herbs and Noodles
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Xeo: Savory Vietnamese Crepes
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Ca Phe Sua Da: Iced Coffee with Condensed Milk
- Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Khot: Mini Savory Coconut Pancakes
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Mi: French Influenced Vietnamese Sandwiches
Another ubiquitous and beloved street food in Vietnam is the banh mi sandwich. The banh mi embodies the complex colonial history of the country in its combination of French and Vietnamese ingredients and flavors. While pho has northern origins, the banh mi comes from the south, where French influence was strongest.
Introduced when Vietnam was part of French Indochina, banh mi means “bread” in Vietnamese. The French brought their baguette baking tradition, which the Vietnamese adapted using rice flour to create a lighter, fluffier texture. Vietnamese cooks stuffed these baguettes with a spread of pâté, mayonnaise, and pickled carrots and daikon radish. To this, they added their own ingredients like cilantro, cucumber, chili peppers, and a choice of grilled meats like chicken, pork belly, or cold cuts.
Over time, banh mi evolved from a bourgeois indulgence to an affordable, working class meal. After the French left, bread shortages in the 1960s and 1970s caused cooks to use more rice flour in their baguettes, creating an even lighter and crispier texture. Following the Vietnam War, banh mi spread worldwide with waves of immigrants, retaining its status as the ultimate Vietnamese sandwich.
Much like pho, banh mi contains sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crunchy, and soft textures in perfect harmony. The bread holds up to the bounty of fillings, with the pâté providing richness while pickles and chilies cut through with brightness. Herbs add freshness and aroma. From the Old World, there's the crackle of the French baguette and the meaty savoriness of pâté. From Vietnam, there's fiery chilies, pungent fish sauce, and cooling cucumber. Banh mi is the perfect marriage of two cuisines.
For locals, banh mi delivers quick, convenient bites on the go. Workers can grab banh mi from ubiquitous street carts, often washed down with a sweet iced coffee. The sandwiches pack flavors that provide energy for the long workday. For tourists, the banh mi makes an addictive and Instagrammable snack between sightseeing. Crunching into the crisp bread releases an explosion of tastes and textures that capture the thrilling contrasts of Vietnamese cuisine.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Bun Cha: Grilled Pork with Noodles and Herbs
Yet another quintessential Vietnamese street food worth savoring is bun cha, tender grilled pork served over vermicelli noodles with fresh herbs. What sets bun cha apart is the sweet, savory, smoky flavor imparted by the grilled meat along with the bright contrast of the herbs and lime dressing. For locals, bun cha makes a quick, satisfying lunch, with humble street-side shops dishing it up piping hot. For visitors, biting into those perfectly charred pork patties and slurping up the broth-soaked noodles offers a true taste of authentic Vietnam.
Bun cha emerged in northern Vietnam, where the cooler climate suits longer cooking times for tough cuts of pork shoulder. Cooks grill fatty pork patties over charcoal, allowing the fat to render slowly while the exterior gets beautifully crispy. Sometimes they grill thinly sliced pork belly instead for flaps of meat with crackling edges. A dipping sauce adds sweet notes from caramelized sugar balanced by funky fish sauce, chili heat, and tart lime juice.
With French influence, bun cha evolved to incorporate vermicelli noodles soaked in a delicate broth made from the meat drippings. This light yet deeply savory broth seeps into the noodles, adding flavor with each slurp. The French also brought pâté to the mix, lending a meaty richness to balance the lean grilled pork. Finally, a plate of fresh herbs like mint, basil, cilantro, and shredded lettuce cuts through the richness with grassy, licorice-like flavors and crisp texture.
Part of bun cha’s appeal lies in the interactive dining experience of wrapping meat and noodles in lettuce leaves along with herbs. The lettuce adds a cup shape to catch the sauce and noodles. Each bite offers sweet pork juices, nutty vermicelli, and herbal freshness in perfect proportions. Diners refill their lettuce leaf bundles until satisfied. A side of nem nuong, or spring rolls, adds crunch.
Visiting Hanoi, travelers flock to humble bun cha joints tucked away on side streets with low plastic tables and squat stools. Patrons squeeze together, sharing piping hot platters of noodle bowls and pork. The atmosphere is convivial, with families and friends chatting loudly over the sizzling meat. Servers refill noodles and herbs continuously until customers are stuffed. For the full local experience, diners wash it all down with a glass of chilled bia hoi, or fresh beer.
Alternatively, high end restaurants in Vietnam put a modern spin on bun cha, serving individually plated interpretations featuring higher quality pork and intricately crafted dipping sauces. While the street food version has more rustic charm, the refined takes speak to bun cha’s rising status in Vietnamese haute cuisine.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Com Tam: Broken Rice Bowls with Grilled Mea
Another staple Vietnamese street food is com tam, or broken rice. This hearty meal features grains of broken rice paired with sweet and savory grilled meat, crunchy toppings, and a viscous nuoc cham dipping sauce. Unlike polished white rice, the broken grains have more texture and flavor. When combined with charred pork or beef and loads of herbs and vegetables, com tam becomes a totally craveable experience for locals and visitors alike.
As Vietnamese cooks prepared rice, inevitably there would be some broken grains at the bottom of the pot. Resourceful as always, cooks found uses for these scraps, serving them with leftover grilled meats. The textural differences between fluffy white rice and chewy broken rice made for an addictive contrast. Unlike pho or banh mi, com tam comes with no colonial influences. It evolved as a hearty, home-cooked peasant dish using humble ingredients creatively.
When served in street-side shops or humble restaurants, com tam arrives piping hot on a battered metal tray or plate over a tiny charcoal grill. The smoky aroma primes diners for the burst of flavors about to hit their taste buds. First comes the sweet, salty, funky nuoc cham sauce for dipping, made from fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chili heat. Next, a tangle of rice noodles might be offered to cushion the rice. Finally, the broken rice gets crowned with charred pork chops, chicken thighs, beef tenderloin, pork belly, or even quail eggs. An array of fresh herbs, peanuts, cucumber and pickled vegetables provide crunch and brightness.
With a fork, spoon and set of chopsticks, diners combine bites of grilled meat and brittle grains of rice soaked in nuoc cham. Crunchy peanuts and cooling cucumber balance the salty, sweet and spicy flavors. The varied textures in each mouthful stave off boredom. Servers stand by, ready to refill meats and rice as needed until the diner calls it quits. Com tam is the type of dish that can be endlessly eaten without tiring of it.
For locals seeking a satisfying lunch or dinner, com tam rarely disappoints. The dish provides plenty of protein along with carbohydrate energy from the rice. Diners leave pleasantly full and satisfied. For tourists, com tam offers a slightly more healthful alternative to pho or banh mi, with less reliance on wheat and more vegetables included. The complex symphony of flavors and textures embodies the creative spirit of Vietnamese cooking.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Goi Cuon: Fresh Spring Rolls with Herbs and Noodles
A bright, refreshing alternative to fried spring rolls exists in Vietnam: goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls. These delicate rice paper rolls wrapped around noodles, herbs and vegetables encapsulate the lively essence of Vietnamese cuisine. Their transparent wrappers allow the vibrant fillings to shine through in an edible mosaic of flavors and textures. For locals, fresh spring rolls make healthy, wholesome snacks or starters for sharing. For visitors, the rolls offer a light introduction to Vietnamese flavors before moving on to heartier dishes. Either way, the interplay of tastes and mouthfeels in goi cuon captivates and delights.
Fresh spring rolls likely originated in the imperial kitchens of Hue in central Vietnam. Royals would have had access to the finest and freshest ingredients to encase in translucent rice paper and serve as elegant starters. Over time, the dish filtered down to the masses, becoming a ubiquitous snack sold by roving street vendors. Fillings evolved based on regional availability of vegetables and proteins. But the core experience of tasting bright herbs and verdant greens contrasted by chewy noodles and savory shrimp in a see-through wrapper endured.
To assemble goi cuon properly requires some skill. Cooks briefly soak the brittle rice paper wrappers in water to soften them up. Too little water and they tear, too much and they stick together. Getting the moisture level just right takes practice. Next comes the filling process, rolling up ingredients like a burrito without splitting the wrapper. Typical fillings include cooked shrimp or grilled pork along with rice vermicelli, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, basil, cilantro and mint. The roll gets a final dip in nuoc cham sauce before serving.
Part of the joy of eating goi cuon lies in the tableside assembly. A plate arrives piled high with all the components - rice paper, noodles, herbs, proteins. Diners softly moisten the wrappers and fill them following their personal preferences. There's creativity in choosing how much of each ingredient to add. The rice paper softens and sticks upon contact, allowing diners to peer at the contents within. Once wrapped, they dip the rolls into nuoc cham, letting the sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors seep in. Biting into the roll releases a burst of tastes and textures: pliant noodles, crunchy lettuce, soft herbs, rich protein. It's a flavor symphony in edible form.
While goi cuon makes for fantastic finger food, it's also highly nutritious thanks to the abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs. The rolls provide a light and energizing meal any time of day. Locals may enjoy goi cuon for breakfast with a Vietnamese iced coffee on the side. Visitors find the rolls a refreshing afternoon snack after walking around in Vietnam's tropical heat. They also work well as an elegant starter course at nicer restaurants.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Xeo: Savory Vietnamese Crepes
Among the parade of street foods in Vietnam, the savory crepes known as banh xeo stand out for their crispy, crunchy texture contrasted by tender shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. These satisfying crepes encapsulate the inventive spirit of Vietnamese cuisine. Banh xeo translates literally as “sizzling pancake” - an apt description of the dish. The batter hisses and pops when poured into hot oil or a skillet, creating lacy edges and a crispy exterior. As with most Vietnamese food, the diverse textures and bright flavors of the fillings and accompaniments are what make banh xeo so craveable. Biting into the crackly exterior reveals an interior loaded with tasty tidbits.
Originally from the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, banh xeo offers a tasty and filling meal any time of day. The pronunciation varies based on dialect, with locals saying “banh seo” in some areas. The dish likely has origins in French-influenced Vietnamese crepes, but takes on a more savory profile thanks to the addition of shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and herbs. For locals, banh xeo makes a convenient on-the-go snack or lunch, served up fresh at street food stalls. Visitors intrigued by the sizzling crepes will not be disappointed by the bursts of flavor in each satisfying bite.
At street food carts, customers pull up a squat stool to sit and watch their crepe get prepared fresh. The cook heats up an elongated pan and then expertly ladles in just enough thin batter to coat the surface, spread into a circular shape. Shrimp, thinly sliced fatty pork, and crunchy bean sprouts sprinkle over the top along with other vegetables if desired. After a quick sizzle, the crepe gets folded in half and then again into a wedge shape. This ephemeral creation then rushes right from the skillet to the diner’s awaiting plate.
Banh xeo frequently come accompanied by lettuce and various herbs to wrap the crepe in along with nuoc cham dipping sauce. The lettuce makes the perfect wrapper, adding refreshing crunch. Herbs like cilantro, basil and mint cut through the richness with bright, grassy flavors. Nuoc cham pulls it all together, the sweet funk hitting all the salty and savory notes. With each bite, the crepe provides textural contrast to the tender shrimp, meat and sprouts inside. Creative eaters can spread some crepe out with a lettuce wrap to try customizing their bite. Part of the appeal lies in eating with your hands and crafting each package of flavors.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Ca Phe Sua Da: Iced Coffee with Condensed Milk
After a steaming bowl of pho or banh mi, locals love to cool down with a quintessential Vietnamese drink - ca phe sua da, or iced coffee with condensed milk. This luxuriously smooth and creamy caffeine boost perfectly complements the fiery spices and rich flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. Once you try it, the flavor will linger in your memory along with visions of plastic stools crowded along steamy sidewalks.
In the chaotic streets of Vietnam's major cities like Hanoi or Saigon, ca phe sua da vendors can be found on every corner, expertly pouring out over-ice glasses brimming with inky black coffee, milky condensed milk and plenty of strong Vietnamese coffee ice. Customers gather around rickety tables sharing lively conversation, gossip and laughs. For just a dollar or two, they get to sip leisurely on this cooling treat while soaking in the manic energy of urban Vietnam.
While hot coffee dominates Western palates, icy ca phe sua da provides soothing relief from Vietnam's tropical climate. The French introduced coffee cultivation to Vietnam in the 19th century, and locals developed a love for potent dark roast coffee beans flavored with chicory. Vietnamese coffee gets brewed individually in a metal drip filter known as a phin placed right over the glass. The phin produces a shot of smooth yet intense coffee concentrate. Condensed milk softens coffee's bitter edge with creamy sweetness and seductive viscosity. Cubes of coffee ice ensure the drink stays chilled despite the heat.
Locals obsess over getting the ratios of coffee, milk and ice just right. Baristas carefully layer the components, with the condensed milk along the inner walls of the glass and coffee poured in after. This creates contrasting bands of dark and white that swirl artfully when stirred with a long spoon. Customers slurp their drink noisily through a fat black coffee straw, alternating between the strong dark coffee on bottom and the sweeter milky layers up top. The drink is both bitter and sweet, scorching hot and icy cold - invigorating contradictions just like Vietnam itself.
While Vietnamese coffee ice cubes would be difficult to replicate abroad, travelers longing for the cafe sua da experience can mimic it at home. Seek out dark roast Vietnamese coffee beans, preferably with chicory blended in. Brew a strong concentrate using a phin or French press. Allow it to cool. Make condensed milk by simmering regular milk with sugar until thickened. To serve, fill a tall glass with coffee ice (normal ice works too). Pour in coffee, then condensed milk, then more coffee to create contrasting stripes. Garnish with a swirly straw and invite some friends over to sip and chat the Vietnamese way. You'll be instantly transported back to those chaotic, humid streets teeming with life.
Much of Vietnam's social life takes place on sidewalks, with locals gathering for endless cups of ca phe sua da garnished with conversation. The drink fuels endless gossiping, idea sharing, complaining, laughing, and storytelling. Over creamy cups, business partners solidify deals, families bond across generations, and groups of teens flirt and chatter. Watching daily life swirl by is part of the charm. Forget air conditioned cafes - in Vietnam, the best spot for coffee is a low plastic stool on the steamy sidewalk.
Slurp Up the Flavors: A Taste of Vietnam Through Its Iconic Broths and Street Food - Banh Khot: Mini Savory Coconut Pancakes
Among the parade of Vietnamese street food, none feel quite as whimsical as banh khot, mini coconut pancakes that encapsulate the playful spirit of this inventive cuisine. These tasty little pancakes, crispy on the outside and soft within, provide sweet, savory, salty, spicy joy in just a few quick bites. For locals, banh khot make a fun morning snack on the way to work or school. For visitors, tasting these palm-sized delights offers a literal taste of Vietnamese culture, creativity and craftsmanship.
Hailing from the Mekong Delta region down south, banh khot emerged as cooks playfully experimented with tiny versions of traditional rice flour and coconut milk pancakes. The miniaturized cakes proved perfectly snackable and oh-so-adorable. Their name even sounds cute, with “banh” meaning cake and “khot” mimicking the sizzling sound they make when hitting hot skillet. Cooks mold the little cakes using special tiny pans with seven concave wells, allowing seven perfect bite-sized pieces to form at once. This takes skill and precision. Toppings get sprinkled in the center - shrimp, crunchy scallions, slivers of fatty pork. When taken fresh off the pan, the twists of steam rising up tickle your nose, hinting at the treats within.
At street carts, half the fun lies in watching the banh khot chef at work, delicately dropping spoonfuls of batter into the hot pans and then flipping the mini-cakes out with chopsticks or small spatulas. They work disturbingly fast to satisfy never-ending demand. Customers squeeze onto plastic stools and grab a stack of banh khot pancakes straight off the hot pan. A dip in nuoc cham sauce adds sweet funk before popping the whole cake in your mouth. The soft, pillowy interior soaks up the sauce, contrasting the crispy edge with an almost cake-like crumb. Each bites burst with umami richness from the pork and shrimp accentuated by nutty coconut milk in the batter. You’ll burn your tongue a little, but it’s worth it.
Beyond sheer tastiness, part of banh khot’s appeal lies in the miniature scale, which sparks joy and makes you feel a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput trying the local cuisine. There’s also communal enjoyment in sharing a platter of them with friends. Passing the plate around, you inevitably end up debating who got to eat the one with the extra-crispy edge or the juiciest shrimp. Banh khot inspires childlike wonder and playfulness in diners of all ages.