While Thai food has become mainstream in the U.S., we often overlook the fresh, colorful and healthful cuisine of another Southeast Asia country, Vietnam. Sure, many Americans have at least heard of or tried pho (a Vietnamese rice noodle soup) so it’s not uncharted food territory. But we’re still not fully aware of the cuisine’s staple ingredients, cooking methods, dishes and nutrition benefits. Having recently taste-tested my way through Vietnam, I discovered a refreshing food culture that’s abundant in fresh herbs and vegetables, clean flavors and light, nourishing dishes.
A Unique Food Culture
“What I like about Vietnamese food is its very clean flavors. Other cuisines in the [Southeast Asia] region may use similar ingredients, but are doing different things with them,” says Marc Lowerson, Owner of Hanoi Street Food Tours in Vietnam. Lowerson explains that it’s rare to find in a dish in Vietnam that tastes rich, too spicy or overly sweet. “The Vietnamese are not pounding their own curry pastes or using coconut milk in savory dishes like the Thais do. There is little use of dry spices: the level of hot spice in the food is rarely in the cooking process, and is most often managed by the individual with condiments on the table.”
A Model for Nourished Eating
Vietnamese lack the food, nutrition and health preoccupation that is so prevalent in the U.S. today; however, they provide an intuitive and mindful model for nourishing their bodies that is worth taking a lesson from. Lowerson tells us, “The cuisine is, in general, a very good model for moderation. While meat is part of almost every meal, it is eaten in small proportions. Vegetables — especially in home cooking — are eaten in large volume. There is little dairy, and hardly any palate for rich and/or processed foods.”
Rather than prescribe to a certain regimen for health (eat this food for this ailment), the Vietnamese use their intuition and the wisdom of their bodies to guide eating habits for health. “They are often eating or avoiding foods according to how their bodies feel. They subscribe to the yin/yang, cooling/heating properties of food, which extends to simple things like, if you’ve got a cold, don’t drink cold water, drink warm water.”
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in Vietnamese food culture right at home, try cooking one of the five staple dishes below and using their model for nourished eating. Perhaps practice asking your body which meal it needs first.
Pronounced “fuh”, pho is probably the most well known Vietnamese dish in the U.S. While the base of pho is rice noodles and a flavorful broth, accompaniments vary from beef (pho bo) to chicken (pho ga) and vegetarian options in-between. In Northern Vietnam, pho is left unadorned and the flavor of antioxidant-packed dry spices like star anise, cassia bark, black cardamom, cloves and coriander seeds shine through. In the South, pho is piled high with bean sprouts, fresh herbs like cilantro and condiments like hoisin sauce, lime and chilies.
Fresh seafood is abundant in Vietnam and this staple dish highlights it beautifully. Cha ca la vong is grilled local fish marinated in antioxidant-rich turmeric, ginger, garlic and shrimp paste and cooked tableside with a ton of fresh dill and green onion. On the table you have your choice of accompaniments: rice vermicelli, fish sauce, fresh herbs, chilies and peanuts.
Ga Tan Soup
Considered to be a medicinal dish by Vietnamese, ga tan is characterized by its dark, herbal broth made flavorful and nutritious with ingredients like antioxidant-packed goji berries, lotus seeds, angelica root (touted for its medicinal benefits), and chrysanthemum greens, which are high in vitamins A and C, iron and potassium. Add chicken for protein and you’ve got yourself a good ol’ cup of chicken soup for the soul.
This Vietnamese-style crepe made with rice flour, turmeric and scallion is traditionally filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts and served with a sweet and salty dipping sauce (nuoc cham). Banh Xeo is a perfect example of Vietnamese practices of balance and moderation. The protein-packed dish isn’t eaten alone; it’s served with fresh herbs and vegetables like mint, cilantro, Thai basil, mustard greens, sorrel and lettuce, adding extra fiber and vitamins and minerals to the meal.
Kara Lydon, R.D., L.D.N., R.Y.T., is a nutrition coach, yoga teacher and self-proclaimed foodie. She is a recipe developer, food photographer, writer and spokeswoman. Her food and healthy living blog, The Foodie Dietitian, features seasonal vegetarian recipes and simple strategies to bring more mindfulness and yoga into your life.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.