The Fine Art of Eating – Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese food is one of the most popular cuisines across Asia. Indeeds its complex flavours and easy appeal has made Vietnamese food a global force. With mass migration after the war with America, the Vietnamese diaspora has helped bring their healthy and tasty dishes to the world.  

Vietnamese cuisine is more than just pho
The dishes of Vietnam reflect the country’s deep traditions, their use of local ingredients and many cultural touchstones which help to define what it means to be Vietnamese.

Vietnamese cuisine always combines fragrance, taste, and colour. Vietnamese cuisine always has five elements which are known for its balance in each of these features. Many Vietnamese dishes include five fundamental taste senses (ngũ vị): spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth), corresponding to five organs (ngũ tạng): gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder.

Vietnamese dishes also include five types of nutrients (ngũ chất): powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat. Vietnamese cooks try to have five colours (ngũ sắc): white (metal), green (wood), yellow (earth), red (fire) and black (water) in their dishes.

Dishes in Vietnam appeal to gastronomes via the five senses (năm giác quan): food arrangement attracts eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, five spices are detected on the tongue, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose, and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching. Whether complex or simple, Vietnamese dishes also offer satisfying mouthfeel during the dining enjoyment.

Five-element correspondence

Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by the Asian principle of five elementsand Mahābhūta.

Correspondence Elements
Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Spices (ngũ vị) Sour Bitter Sweet Spicy Salty
Organs (ngũ tạng) Gall bladder Small intestine Stomach Large intestine Urinary bladder
Colors (ngũ sắc) Green Red Yellow White Black
Senses (ngũ giác ) Visual Taste Touch Smell Sound
Nutrients (ngũ chất) Carbohydrates Fat Protein Minerals Water

Yin-yang balance

The principle of yin and yangis applied in composing a meal in a way that provides a balance that is beneficial for the body. While contrasting texture and flavors are important, the principle primarily concerns the “heating” and “cooling” properties of ingredients. Certain dishes are served in their respective seasons to provide contrasts in temperature and spiciness of the food and environment.

Some examples are:
  • Duck meat, considered “cool”, is served during the hot summer with ginger fish sauce, which is “warm”. Conversely, chicken, which is “warm”, and pork, which is “hot”, are eaten in the winter.
  • Seafoods ranging from “cool” to “cold” are suitable to use with ginger(“warm”).
  • Spicy foods (“hot”) are typically balanced with sourness, which is considered “cool”.
  • Balut(hột vịt lộn), meaning “upside-down egg” (“cold”), must be combined with Vietnamese mint(rau răm) (“hot”).

Popular Dishes

Phở

Perhaps the best known Vietnamese dish, Phở is simply one of many noodle soups in Vietnam. Phở actually refers to the rice noodles, not the soup itself. It is usually served with various meat parts (usually beef or chicken), bean sprouts, lime wedges, the essential greens (basil, mint, cilantro, and onions), and  chili sauce and fish sauce.

Gỏi cuốn (Spring Rolls)

Gỏi cuốn are fresh rolls usually made with shrimp. The name Gỏi cuốn means “salad rolls” and as compared to the fried version which are also sometimes called spring rolls or chả giò.

Bánh cuốn

This dish is actually a number of different steamed rice cake-like dishes. 

Bánh mì

Bánh mì are now trendy across the globe as these little “sandwiches” blend French colonialism and Vietnamese ingenuity. Today they are made with just about any stuffing you like but the more typically Vietnamese styles include pork belly, fish cakes, meatballs, pickled carrots, daikon and usually chilies.

Bún chả

Rice vermicelli (“bún”) is a staple all over Vietnam.

A Final Thought

Anthony Bourdain summed up food in Vietnam perfectly, “You don’t have to go looking for great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, cafes, little storefronts, in the streets; carried in makeshift portable kitchens on yokes borne by women vendors. Your cyclo-driver will invite you to his home; your guide will want to bring you to his favourite place. Strangers will rush up and offer you a taste of something they’re proud of and think you should know about. It’s a country filled with proud cooks – and passionate eaters.”