What makes Vietnamese food unique is that it uses the abundant local fresh produce and the attitude that goes along with it. Vietnamese cuisine is what Anthony Bourdain described as “Culinary Inhibition” because of its innovative cooks, passionate eaters as well as decades of foreign influences like Chinese and French, yet remaining unmistakably Vietnamese. Eating together is one of the most cherished pastimes in Vietnam and the cuisine has purposes rooted deep in traditions such as weddings, funerals and holidays. You might have heard an apple a day keeps the doctor away and in Vietnam there are similar old wives’ tales passed down from generation to generation about eating certain foods that come with the tagline “ăn cái này, tốt cho…” which translates to, eat this, it’s good for…
1. Nước mắm /nɜ:k mʌm/ or fish sauce is eaten daily with meals as an additive or a dipping sauce and usually not eaten in its pure form, but diluted with water, lemon juice, minced garlic, sugar and small slices of chili pepper. Derived from potent fermented fish, it is high in protein and iron, fish sauce is very healthy for blood circulation. As westerners are used to adding salt, pepper or condiments like ketchup, mustard and salsa; Vietnamese can’t even start to eat if there’s no fish sauce to dip their food in.
2. Đậu phụ /ðəʊ fu:/ – Rich in calcium and vitamin E, tofu it’s the vegetarian’s choice for meat substitutions. Soy and its extracts are known to prevent cancer and osteoporosis. Did you know that tofu in large quantities is also known cause impotence? This might be more than a coincidence for monks who eat it regularly and wish to avoid unwanted emotions known to be aroused by eating meat.
3. đu đủ, ổi & chuối /ðu: ðu:/ /ɔɪ/ /ʧu:i:/
Rich in fiber, many vitamins and crucial for good digestion, though locals here don’t just eat any fruit when feeling a little clogged up. Papaya is said to be a great natural laxative as are bananas that are rich in potassium and said to make you smart. However, for upset stomach that is giving you the runs Guava will help slow things down and is rich in fiber.
4. Phở /fʌ/ – Pho is Vietnam’s national dish and not only is it a favorable beef noodle soup, it also a great food when a cold is coming on. Similar to mom’s chicken soup remedy, Pho has many nutrients and vitamins, plus add a few chili peppers and you’ll get a good sweat going to shake off a cold or even a fever.
5. Cháo /ʧaʊ/ – is a rice porridge that most Vietnamese know as their first meal since it’s what all babies eat. Not only does it go down easily, but it’s also a great comfort food when sick. Similar to Pho, you can add some kick to it with sliced ginger and really get a good sweat going to heat your body temperature.
6. Rau muống /raʊ mu:ŋ/ – translates to morning glory or water spinach that grows like a weed in any swamp area. This bountiful and hearty vegetable is a common staple with meals commonly sautéed with garlic packing a lot of flavor, vitamins, and really helps your digestive track.
7. Cua & ốc /ku:ə/ & /əp/
Crab and snails are a hearty source of calcium and since Vietnam is a coastal country shellfish is abundant. Dairy hasn’t always been abundant, therefore the seas natural produce has been a well known diet and especially recommended for pregnant women who need extra calcium.
8. Cá kho tộ /kə kəʊ təʊ/ – Braised fish pot is cooked in clay pot for a high heat and caramelizing. It is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, something our body cannot produce naturally, and a good fat that is helpful for memory and reducing heart disease which can get from eating most types of fatty fish.
9. Trà xanh & Hạt sen /ʧə sæŋ/ /hæt en/
Green tea is had with most meals and commonly diluted with fresh water and ice served as a refreshment known as trà đá or iced tea in the South. It is a great way to wash down your meal and plus tea has antioxidants known to stave off cancer and is much lighter than sugar loaded soft drinks.
Lotus seed is commonly eaten as a dessert known as chè by which consists of beans or seeds are boiled with sugar and later served on ice as a cool refreshing sweet. Lotus seed is also known to have soothing benefits such as reducing anxiety and insomnia.
10. Canh bí đỏ /kæn bi: ðɒ/
Pumkin Soup or canh, is actually lighter and more like a broth and is usually eaten at the end of the meal to cleanse your system. It’s not uncommon to eat a meal wondering what else you can eat afterward and canh helps you get over the unsatisfied feeling at the end of a meal by filling your stomach with hearty nutrients. While some might go for a soft drink or a cold beer, many Vietnamese crave canh saying their meal is dry without this balance. There are many types broths the Vietnamese eat at the end of the meal, canh bí đỏ is packed with vitamins C and E, plus known to alleviate headaches.
10+ Cơm /kʌm/
Last but not least, rice is synonymous with the word meal and it’s no mistake since rice is the staple of every meal. Rice is eaten in many shapes and forms such as long grain, rice noodle and rice paper to name a few. The Vietnamese jokingly say that Pho is your girlfriend as rice is your wife signifying the sanctity of rice in this culture. I once heard my friend even say that her mom goes through withdrawal if she doesn’t eat rice for 1 day. It is certainly comforting, gives people energy by serving as the carbohydrate base of every meal.
The market capital metropolis Ho Chi Minh City has numerous international restaurants from French, Italian, Indian, Thai, to Japanese cuisine and while the locals eagerly try them, they always go back to what they know and love. Not only is Vietnamese food fresh, most meals are a variety of dishes offering flavors that are a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Listen to your stomach and you’ll feel satisfied and your body will thank you too remembering the famous wives’ tale, “eat it’s good for you. “