Cooking the same few recipes every week can be tiring. Spaghetti, tacos, and burgers get old, and you may not know where to turn. If that sounds familiar, Vietnamese cuisine could be just the adventurous leap your taste buds are looking for. Mixing the five elements of sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty will give your dishes a Vietnamese kick to pull you out of that cooking rut.
What you’ll need in your kitchen
Because of Vietnamese adherence to the principle of five elements, there are many ingredients you’ll see used over and over again in various recipes. Lemongrass is one of the most common, being featured in the majority of Vietnamese dishes. Fish sauce is another ingredient no Vietnamese household would be without. A study done by the soy sauce brand Kikkoman showed fish sauce is the most common table sauce in Vietnam, holding 70% of the market share over any other sauce. If you’re hoping to add a Vietnamese influence to your dishes, you’ll want to stock up on ginger, mint, coriander, cinnamon, chili, lime, and Thai basil.
You might notice a theme in all these ingredients: freshness. Vietnamese recipes are known for their freshness and liberal use of herbs and vegetables. This use of particular ingredients has the interesting result of making most Vietnamese food low in sugar, gluten-free, and dairy free. Keeping things gluten-free is achieved by using rice-based items instead of their wheat-based cousins. This includes rice noodles, rice paper, and rice flour. There is also a focus on texture. You might notice recipes that pair crisp and soft elements, crunchy ingredients with watery ones, or delicate textures with a rough counterpart.
Vietnamese cuisine comes from a melting pot of influences. While it was shaped by surrounding countries like China, Cambodia, and Laos, it has been strongly influenced by French cuisine. From 1887-1954 Vietnam was occupied by France, and many French ingredients and flavors have endured. The French occupation introduced everything from vegetables to baked goods. French baguettes are still used in Banh Mi, a popular Vietnamese street food that we’ll explore next. Other ingredients, such as onions, cauliflower, asparagus, tarragon, and even coffee, can be found in Vietnamese dishes largely due to French influence.
Starting simple: How to make Banh Mi
Banh Mi may be the most recognizable Vietnamese recipe as it has filtered into worldwide cuisine. In this recipe, the French influence becomes very clear with the use of a baguette as bread for a unique sandwich. Banh Mi simply means “bread.” Almost anything can be added to the baguette. Today we’ll be focusing on roasted pork, known as “Thit Nuong,” changing our Banh Mi to a Banh Mi Thit Nuong. This is a great starter recipe to introduce Vietnamese flavors in a recognizable format.
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- 6 scallions
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1.5 pounds pork tenderloin, thinly sliced
- 2 baguettes, cut in half and split
- ½ cucumber, cut into matchsticks
- 1.5 cups cilantro
- Hoisin sauce
- Sriracha sauce
- 12 bamboo skewers
How to Cook
- Puree fish sauce, honey, sugar, pepper, scallions, and garlic in a blender. Pulse until the mixture becomes a liquefied marinade.
- Place the marinade in a bowl with the thinly sliced pork and toss it together. Refrigerate the pork for at least two hours. Remember that the more time spent in the marinade, the more flavor your pork will have.
- Once the pork has marinated, thread each slice onto a bamboo skewer.
- Slice your baguette in half and spread the inside with hoisin and sriracha.
- Brush each pork skewer with oil and grill over high heat, making sure to turn the skewers as they cook. Cooking should only take approximately 4 minutes.
- Pile your baguette with pork (being sure to remove the bamboo skewer), and top with cilantro and cucumber to taste.
Getting more adventurous: How to make Pho Bo
You would be hard-pressed to find a Vietnamese restaurant with no broth-based dishes on its menu; the broth is a critical part of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho Bo itself is the national dish of Vietnam and can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While Pho Bo may simply mean “beef soup” there are limitless variations. You can experiment with different cuts of beef, various levels of doneness, and a myriad of toppings. Before beginning, remember that this recipe is a time commitment. Expect to start early and have mouth-watering smells fill your home all day.
- 3 lbs. beef bones
- 1.25 lbs. beef brisket
- 1 lb. beef shank
- 14.5 cups water
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 2 medium yellow onions
- 2 large pieces of ginger, sliced in quarters
- 4-5 shallots
- Fish sauce to taste
- 2 tbsp. rock sugar
- 2-3 cinnamon sticks
- 6-star anise
- 6-7 cloves
- 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
- 2 tsp. fennel seeds
- 2 black cardamom pods, crushed
- 2 lbs. cooked rice noodles
- Thinly sliced steak
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 1 scallion, sliced
- Black Pepper
How to cook
- Boil beef bones for 10 minutes, transfer to cold water, then clean them.
- Add bones to 14.5 cups of simmering water with salt and 2 ginger pieces.
- Allow the mixture to boil, skimming any foam from the top. Once it boils, reduce it to a simmer and partially cover the pot. The bones need to simmer gently for a minimum of 6 hours.
- Tie brisket and shank together with kitchen twine and boil for a few minutes. Rinse the pieces before adding them to the pot containing the beef bones. Partially cover the pot again and allow it to simmer.
- Once the brisket and shank are tender (shank: 1-1.5 hours, brisket: 2.5-3 hours), remove to an ice bath. If your broth is still cooking, store these pieces in the refrigerator.
- Char onions, ginger, and shallots for 10-15 minutes. Do this approximately 2.5 hours before the broth is finished cooking.
- Toast the spice blend ingredients on medium heat until fragrant. Stir occasionally to avoid burning, then place in a spice bag. The spice bag can be anything that holds the spices but lets their flavors seep through. Cheesecloth and string will work well.
- Put your spice bag and charred vegetables in the broth and continue simmering for another 2 hours. After that time, remove from the pot.
- Season with salt, fish sauce, and rock sugar to taste before serving.
If you refrigerated the brisket and shank, remove them from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature, then slice thinly.
Add 2 cups of broth to each bowl, then top with rice noodles, beef, onions, scallions, cilantro, and pepper.
Other Vietnamese Dishes to try
If those dishes were a hit and you’re looking for others to try, here are a few we recommend:
- Looking for something you can eat any time of the day? Bahn Xeo is a savory crepe filled with meat and dipped in fish sauce. Make and freeze these ahead of time for easy meal prep.
- Spring rolls are always an on-the-go hit, but switch them up with Vietnamese flare. Fill each roll with rice noodles, lettuce, herbs, and shrimp. Have plenty of hoisin on hand for dipping.
- A dessert that will impress any group is the Banh Cam or fried sesame balls. These little treats are deep-fried and filled with a sweet mung bean paste.
These recipes are examples of new flavors in familiar vessels. Sandwiches, soups, and spring rolls may not seem adventurous, but it’s all about the new ingredients you’re incorporating into your kitchen. From here, there are countless recipes to try. Stock up on the staples and introduce Vietnamese flavors into your everyday cooking.