I found out this week that my maternal grandmother died at 44 years old. My mom had just turned seven the month before. Her other siblings were eleven, four, and one. They had some help from family members for a year or two, but after that my mom was in charge of cooking for the family and her oldest sister left school to work and learn and how to become a tailor.
Recently I’ve been learning about and exploring more Vietnamese dishes. Because I grew up in Nebraska, had home cooking, and went to school in Missouri & Wyoming, I did not go to a Vietnamese restaurant until I was in my early 20s. Well, ok, when we visited my aunt in southern California they took us to get pho but I don’t remember how that tasted.
I learned relatively recently that pho and banh mi’s were the chosen well-known dishes of Vietnam. They are both very good, but surprising choices to me. There are other things I might suggest you venture out and try.
first, a note on pho
First of all, pho has a much more subtle flavor compared to recent-asian-noodle-soup-dish-fav ramen. The broth is savory with tons of umami flavor, but the majority of Americans people I’ve eaten pho with (including people who say they love pho) usually just chopstick the noodles into their mouth. Listen, I am hear for noodles. Noods is life. But my mom still instructs me before I eat that you need to eat the broth. “It’s the most important part!” Not just a sip at the beginning because there is a spoon in your bowl and now just at the end when all the noodles are gone. The whole time.
- Spoon in one hand, chopsticks in the other hand.
- Spoon broth
- With the other hand, put a tiny bit of noodles+meat on spoon
- Eat perfect bite from spoon
I hope that helps you.
I also didn’t like the pho I had at restaurants, I noticed right away that the broth was sweet. I learned that most of the pho places are southern style (which has a sweeter broth and lots of herbs on top) and my family is from the north (more savory broth without as many veggies).
Pho is pronounced more like “fuh?” not “foe.”
and a note on banh mi
I got no complaints with bánh mìs. I do feel like it’s the only Vietnamese sandwich that I know of and that it’s mostly because French colonizers gave us baguettes, so maybe it’s an unfair representation of the cuisine though.
Oh wait! I’m literally just now realizing that pho is influenced by French colonizers too. French people wanted to eat cows, which was not a typical meat in Vietnam (they were needed on the fields!), but the French insisted and some industrious person made a noodle soup from the bones. So maybe it got the French stamp of approval and was waved through to other Europeans.
…That’s depressing to think about so let’s just talk about other dishes I like that you might too:
General observations about Vietnamese food
*CAVAET: I’m super American and these are based on growing up in a Vietnamese family in the midwestern suburbs, so your mileage may vary.
- Compared to American Chinese restaurant food, the Vietnamese dishes feel lighter and more herbal to me, versus the greasiness of takeout. (I have a soft spot for takeout too though)
- I feel like many of the dishes are often simple but there is a sauce you dip or pour over at the end that adds the real punch. The sauce is your friend.
- That sauce is usually nouc cham or a some other hot take on fish sauce. I know something called “fish sauce” doesn’t sound the most appealing to some, but it’s this wonderfully complex garlicy, citrusy flavor. It’s the whoa-level that balsamic vinegar might bring to something.
- Desserts tend to use mung bean instead of red bean and I’m 100% Team Mung Bean.
- I like, don’t know any vegetarian dishes. My mom sometimes eats fried tofu with rice.
- Spoiler, there’s also a lot of pork as the default (sorry, Igor). I don’t know, maybe because the sauce is the main taste vehicle you could just switch it out.
- Bonus: Fears about MSG are racist or at the very least have a racist background. Doritos and Pringles have MSG. It’s also gross to think the things people eat every day in another culture are gross.
NOTE: I haven't made any of the recipes I'm linking and can't vouch for them!
Vietnamese eggrolls are so much better than what you get at a restaurant. Like, yes it’s fried, but the first time I had a American Chinese restaurant eggroll at my friends house I was like “you like this?” It felt like mostly cabbage. Vietnamese eggrolls have more meat filling and a crispier wrapper from what I’ve had.
Spring rolls are served as appetizers but we’ve totally eaten them as a main course. It’s pretty fun to gather ’round and build your own at a big table. It can make it be more like a ‘choose your own adventure’ then as you build your own. I’ve had them with shrimp, pork, leftover barbecue, and mango.
Tip: Just dip the wrapper once in hot water and it’ll soften while you add all the other stuff to it.
Also called: “Vietnamese Crab, Pork & Tomato Noodle Soup” or “crab noodle soup”
Like, if people like pho, they probably actually would like this soup better. That’s my suspicion at least. I would like someone to try this soup (preferably while it’s hot, not old takeout) to confirm or deny. It’s a more flavorful version noodle soup so if you don’t eat the broth you still get some flavor (again: not eating/drinking the pho broth is sacrilegious). It’s not hot spice, but it feels like there are more flavors going on. My mom used a shrimp and pork blend for the meatballs.
This is not personally my favorite dish because I was a bratty/picky eater when I was little and refused to eat this based on how it looked even though my aunt & uncles all agree this is my mom’s premier dish (kids! what jerks!). I’ve had it since I’m older, but I don’t have that life-long fondness for it. This is the one I recommended to Sarah.
Speaking of, there is also a common fish soup dish, canh chua (also called “sweet and sour fish soup”) that young Jack also refused to eat that you might like too.
Also called: “Spicy Beef/Pork Noodle Soup”
It’s a hot new take on noodle soups! I get this one mixed up in my head with bun rieu. If you like spicier foods, why not get the Vietnamese dish that is spicy? (I feel like it’s not that spicy, if you’re wondering)
Also called: “Vietnamese Grilled Pork & Rice Noodles” or “Vermicelli noodles”
This is what I would actually start someone on if they were new to Vietnamese food and they weren’t that adventurous. I feel like this dish is so good and way more approachable than pho. Pho seems like a totally different format of eating (I mean, we switch hands to cut and then fork our meat). This feels as “safe” as a chicken teriyaki dish to me.
You can get it with or without eggrolls in it. I like grilled pork the best, but chicken exists too I’m sure. And remember: sauce is key.
Also called: “Vietnamese Crepe” or “Vietnamese pancakes” or “Sizzling crepe”
These savory “crepes” are to be eaten with your hands as god intended. The crepe part is made of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric powder (which makes it yellow). Fillings are typically shrimp and pork. Southern style restaurants will cram like 2 inches of bean sprouts inside that I usually take out. It’s so good. It’s one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes and it’s totally possible to find theses at a restaurant too. In the little Saigon over here there are whole banh xeo restaurants.
To eat: Tear a piece of the crepe off, wrap in a salad leaf, and dip in the sauce.
Also called: “pork & eggs in caramel sauce” or “Thit Kho” or similar maybe to “pork adobo”
This is probably my go-to request when I get home. It’s a heavier comfort food and I don’t often see it at restaurants (I’ve looked!). This is one is more flavor-rich and with a deep sauce. I’ve been afraid to make it because I’m worried about burning the sauce and also I’m a bad cook. To be eaten in a bowl of rice. Apparently it’s a lunar new year dish, but we definitely just had it all the time.
Also called: I have no idea. “Steamed rice rolls” apparently?
Here’s one that I didn’t think my American friends would understand, but was a hit when I let them try some my mom sent with me. It feels really simple and like if you didn’t like the sauce you might find it bland (Scott doesn’t, we’re not meant to be together). It’s minced pork and mushrooms in a giant soft rice noodle—Wow, ok, like, if you’re not behind “giant soft rice noodle” tho, maybe you just don’t like food—There’s also a version where we ate the noodles + the flat homemade meat, seen in the picture above. We generally didn’t eat the stuffed noodles and the slice meat.
You can get the noodle premade or they are actually made like a little crepe in Vietnam, my mom makes them herself!
Desserts / Snacks
An observation about Vietnamese desserts is that they’re generally not as sweet as American desserts. Some of them are just about as sweet as a Hawaiian roll.
Also called: Sesame balls
Get it with mung bean, not red bean. This is one of the few desserts I see often enough to have made several of my friends get it with me. It’s like a doughnut with a sweet paste filling. They are best fresh when they still have a crispy outer layer and a warm gooier layer. Like, you know, when you dad makes like 20 of them for no reason and they are freely at your disposal. I like to smash them before eating them.
Chè / Chè Ba Màu / Chè Khúc Bach
Also called: “Vietnamese pudding” or “Three Color Dessert” or “Panna Cotta Lychee Dessert” or “fruit cocktail” — kind of depends on what’s in it.
Is it a pudding ?? I’m learning about the alternative names as I go. Chè seems like a catch all for this cold sweet milky-to-pudding-y drink just has like, random sweet stuff also in it jello, lychee, beans(?), other puddings, fruit… It’s refreshing. It appears at the end of family gatherings. I’ve seen it in the fridge at legit banh mi places. Speaking of, real-deal salty lemonades are vey good too.
Reader, I have no idea what the American names of these desserts are and I've almost never seen most of them at a restaurant so good luck.
Also called: “Pandan sticky rice” or I called it “green coconut rice” when I was little
When I was little I would go to our churches new year party and there was a banquet of food include a giant aluminum tray of green coconut rice. I did not know it was pandan until I was looking for this recipe (in fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t based on the bright green color) but it was sweet sticky rice with coconut and basically ate a plateful of only the green rice. I told my mom how much I liked it and she would make it very occasionally.
Also called: “Pan dan rice cake with mung bean filling”?
To take it to the next level: When I was little my grandma made these once a year and they were my absolute favorite treat. Slightly sweet rice WITH coconut WITH mung bean paste? Thank you. But it was extremely labor intensive (she had a little square mold and wrapped each one in banana leaves) and she stopped making them the moment I was old enough to look forward to them so it’s been decades since I’ve eaten it. My mom does make coconut rice that she mixes mung bean into.
They do have something called Banh Da Lon (“Vietnamese Steamed Layer Cake”) that you might mistake for it at Asian stories, usually near the cash register. They’re like mildly sweet, chewy, and sticky. I don’t really like them that much though.
Also called: “fried bread” or “Vietnamese doughnut”
Slightly sweet bread, you say? It’s fried, you say? It’s kind of hittin’ all the high notes in terms of my weird dessert palette. Throw some coconuts on there and it’s a party. I was chastised me for eating so much when my mom made them, but she also made very many of them. I feel like calling it a doughnut would be kind of disappointing to most people because it was about as sweet as challah bread, at least the way my mom made it.
Banh trôi nouc
Also called:… “glutinous rice filled with mung bean”? “gooey rice balls in sweet sauce” I HAVE NO IDEA.
Scott doesn’t like mushy textures like pork belly and I suspect he’d hate this because they are just chewy soft glutinous rice balls. Like, just the outside of a mochi ice cream as a dense ball. The sweet sauce that has a really wonderful ginger kick. The bigger ones are filled with mung bean normally, but my mom would make small ones that were just chewy delights and I kind of like just the plain ones.
So that was a bunch of stuff I like and have never made. Here are the very few things I have made:
I’ve made chao (rice porridge, I’ve made it with chicken and just egg). Also called congee or jook in other Asian cuisines.
Others links from Hungry Huy I’ve just have admired from afar.
Cover image from my 2016 Valentines Day cards