When asked to describe the flavors and aromas of Vietnamese cuisine, foodies say it's flowery, and it tastes like the sea, it's sweet, sour, and spicy hot. The simmering noodle soups, brothy fish sauces, and spring rolls or summer rolls that are popular in Vietnamese cooking are made using an abundance of lemongrass and cilantro, fish mint (aka, fish leaf), plus many other herbs and spices, like mint, perilla leaf, basil, dill, Saigon cinnamon, and cardamom…
You may have noticed that Vietnamese food is similar to traditional Chinese food, especially around Hanoi, in the north of the country, which shares a border with China. There, people enjoy their stir-fried dishes and noodle soups. In Central Vietnam, the flavors are more similar to food from Laos and Thailand, both of which share a border and are west of Vietnam. The southern region of Vietnam, where you'll find Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is extremely fertile and is known for its agricultural outputs: rice paddies, jackfruit farms, and coconut groves. People of the southern Mekong delta are also fond of growing lots of different herbs. Here, the food tends to be sweeter and more palm sugar is used to tamp down the heat in spicy dishes.
Throughout the country, you can taste the influence of Vietnam's past French colonization, like with the banh mi, a sandwich served on a crusty French baguette. Also, pho is a combination of a French-inspired meat broth with Vietnamese rice noodles. If you're a fan of the flavorful Asian cuisine and want to take a shot at making a few Vietnamese recipes, you've come to the right place.
Pho pronounced like "fun," but without the "N," is one of the easiest Vietnamese recipes for most North American home chefs to master. And if you're planning a Vietnamese-style dinner, this is a dish that your guests will be expecting. Once you get this recipe down, you shouldn't have a problem tackling other pho recipes before long.
Before you start, you may want to see if there's a Vietnamese market -- or even an Asian market -- in your neck of the woods. Those who are practiced in Vietnamese home cooking swear by buying packets of combined herbs, or you can buy them one at a time. Look for star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, and fresh mint. Asian markets are also a great place to buy the right kind of soup bones. For beef pho, look for the knuckle or leg bone. Just ask your meat counter worker at your grocery store if you're unsure what to get. You'll also want to buy onion, ginger, thinly sliced flank steak, and dried or fresh pho rice noodles. And finally, don't forget the condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha hot chili sauce, limes, and hot peppers. These are for your finished pho.
Vietnamese pho with beef, chicken, or seafood can be made on the stovetop, in a slow cooker, or a pressure cooker. But for a traditional stovetop recipe, you will lightly char the onion and ginger in the broiler. While that's going, remove impurities from the meat bones by boiling them for several minutes. Then you combine most of your ingredients in a large pot and after it boils, let sit on simmering heat uncovered for a few hours. Whenever "scum" collects on the top of your soup, scrape it off with a large spoon or spatula. Once the meat is tender, remove it from the simmering broth and refrigerate. Then allow the broth to continue simmering for a few more hours.
Here's how to prepare your pho serving bowls. First place rice noodles in the bowls, followed by slices of beef, and onion, scallions, and cilantro leaves. The traditional way to serve beef pho is also to put slices of raw beef into the bowl, and then turn the heat up on your broth, so it comes to a boil. This way, when you pour the broth over the ingredients, it cooks the raw meat. Other types of protein you can use to make pho are pork, chicken, shrimp, prawns, crab, salmon, and catfish.
Vietnamese Banh Mi
Banh mi, which are Vietnamese sandwiches, are incredibly popular around the world. They're much like subs here, but instead of ham, cheese, and mayo on a soft roll, it's fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, and chicken or pork, on a crusty baguette. One easy banh mi recipe to start with calls for carrots, white radish, onion, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and chicken breast. Boil water, rice vinegar, and sugar, and then pour over the vegetables and allow them to marinate. After broiling the chicken, build your sandwich.
You can switch up your home banh mi recipe by using lemongrass pork, sardines, pate, tofu, and many other types of protein, or combine different proteins. And then make your own nuoc cham dipping sauce, containing fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Need some heat? Toss in Thai chiles. But don't go overboard. These chilies are more than 20-times hotter than jalapeños.
Everyone loves spring rolls and summer rolls, and those made using classic Vietnamese ingredients are particularly tasty. Just like with pho and banh mi, once you master the basics, you can pretty much use any protein, or add different herbs and sauces to make your rolls sweeter, hotter, or give them a more heavily pickled taste, or a crunchier texture.
Some of the main items and ingredients you'll need are summer roll rice paper wrappers, carrots, pea greens, and a variety of fresh Vietnamese herbs (like cilantro, Thai basil, and mint). Then decide if you want crab filling, tofu, pork, prawn, shrimp, or any combination of each. There's no one way to make this straightforward Vietnamese dish, but mastering the rice paper roll may take some practice. After you julienne the carrots, place the ingredients on your rice paper, fold the bottom halfway up, and then snuggly roll the sides. You can use a variation of these with other ingredients to make lettuce wraps and Vietnamese spring rolls, which are traditionally served fried.