The mainstream culinary traditions in all three regions of Vietnam share some fundamental features:
- Freshness of food: Most meats are only briefly cooked to preserve their original textures and colors. Vegetables are rarely cooked; if they are, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried.
- Presence of herbs and vegetables: Herbs and vegetables are used abundantly in Vietnamese cuisines. Vietnamese dishes are incomplete without herbs and vegetables.
- Broths or soup-based dishes are characteristic of all three regions.
- Presentation: The condiments that accompany Vietnamese meals are usually colorful and arranged in eye-pleasing manners.
While sharing some key features, Vietnamese culinary tradition differs from region to region.
In Northern Vietnam, colder climate limits the production and availability of spices. As a result, the foods here are often less spicy than those in other regions. Black pepper is used in place of chiles as the most popular ingredient to produce spice flavor. In general, Northern Vietnamese cuisine is not bold in any particular flavor - sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, or sour. Most Northern Vietnamese foods feature light and balanced flavors that result from subtle combinations of many different flavoring 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, shrimps, crabs, oysters, mussels - are widely used. Many notable dishes of Northern Vietnam are crab-centered (e.g., bun rieu). Fish sauce, soy sauce, prawn sauce, and lime are among the main flavoring ingredients. Being the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, Northern Vietnam produces many signature dishes of Vietnam, such as pho, bun rieu, banh cuon, which were carried to Central and Southern Vietnam through the road of 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 non-spicy. Once the capital of the last dynasty of Vietnam, Hue's culinary tradition features highly decorative and colorful food, reflecting the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine. The region's cuisine is also notable for its sophisticated meals constituted by many complex dishes served at small portions. Chili peppers and shrimp sauces are among the frequently used ingredients. Some Vietnamese signature dishes produced at this region are bun bo Hue and banh xeo.
The warm weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, and livestock. As a result, foods in Southern Vietnam are often vibrant and flavorful 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. Southern Vietnam has also been the region where influences from foreign cuisines (Chinese, Indian, French, Thai etc.) are most prominent.
Vietnamese cuisine uses a wide variety of herbs and spices to produce a vast range of subtle flavours. Items like lemongrass, garlic and coriander feature in all kinds of dishes, and while chillies are often placed on the table to add to food, few dishes include them as a main ingredient, so Vietnamese food is not as spicy as Thai food.
One key element that Vietnamese cuisine does share with Thai cuisine, however, is the copious use of fish sauce in many of the staple dishes.
Vietnamese Food Preparation
For breakfast and lunch, most working Vietnamese will settle for a single dish - perhaps a bowl of noodles or rice with a topping, but in the evening they like to eat in groups and will typically share half a dozen dishes from communal bowls on the table. These might include stir-fries, soups, roast or grilled dishes and plenty of fresh vegetables; most restaurants keep a big bowl of such vegetables and herbs for customers to add to any dish they like.
Must-try Dishes in Vietnam
The one dish that you must try is also the national dish - pho (pronounced 'fur'). Usually eaten for breakfast, it consists of noodles in a tasty broth and slithers of meat (usually beef). It's the broth that makes this dish special and every cook that makes pho guards the secret of their broth carefully. A couple of other dishes that most Western visitors enjoy are ca kho to, or caramelised fish baked in a clay pot, and chao tom - prawn meat wrapped around a stick of sugarcane.