South by Southeast: Going Global - Vietnam

Originally published on

Vietnam's fresh, layered, inspiring cuisine

It only took one meal to convert me into a lifelong fan of Vietnamese cuisine. It was 2002, and I was just beginning a monthlong tour of the country when I stepped off Hanoi's narrow, crowded streets into a tiny noodle shop. I ordered the restaurant's namesake, and only, dish: bun bo, rice vermicelli noodles with beef. Five minutes later, an aromatic bowl, heaped with a profusion of raw greens, was placed in front of me. I dipped in my chopsticks. My first bite contained crunchy fried shallots, cool strips of lettuce, sharp mint and other fresh herbs. Dipping further, I found hot, razor-thin slices of just-cooked beef and crisp mung bean sprouts, all nestled on a bed of temperate, al dente noodles. 

That one dish held an intoxicating mix of temperatures, flavors, and textures: hot and cool, meaty and vegetal, tender and crunchy. It was a lunch experience so fulfilling, I returned for breakfast the next day. Back in New York and years later, I'm still chasing that perfect bowl ofbun bo in every Vietnamese restaurant I can find. 

Of course, my love affair with Vietnamese cuisine is hardly unique. Tourism is booming, with food as much of a draw as the country's seductive landscape. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain is spending an entire year there, no doubt gathering invaluable material for his next book or TV series. And in the United States, immigrants are introducing diners to their unique cooking at a growing number of authentic eateries. American palates primed by other Southeast Asian cuisines are ready to make Vietnamese as popular as Thai. 

Like that bowl of bun bo, Vietnamese cooking is marked by contrasts. Fresh, deceptively simple dishes are built by layering flavors — hot, sour, salty, and sweet — and feature copious amounts of raw herbs and the smoky, complex, fermented fish sauce known as nuoc mam. Rice and rice noodles are staples, and ingredients are often wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten with dipping sauces.

Vietnamese cuisine can be divided into three regional varieties. In the cool, mountainous north, centering on old-world Hanoi, a history of Chinese rule is evident in Cantonese-style stir-fries and simple, brothy soups. The flat, arid central region serves up heartier, more refined dishes. In the hot, steamy south, including the burgeoning metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), tropical abundance is the rule: Seafood, pork, and numerous fruits and vegetables star in bold and spicy dishes, including curries inherited from nearby India. And throughout the country, banh mi (a kind of Vietnamese po'boy with meat, pâté, hot peppers, and pickled vegetables) and strong, sweet coffee serve as reminders of Vietnam's French colonial past.

Chef Mai Pham has spent nearly two decades sharing Vietnamese cooking with Americans through her cookbooks, classes, and Sacramento restaurant. For her traditional recipes and tips, read on >.


When she opened her Sacramento restaurant Lemon Grass in 1988, Mai Pham, now one of America's leading experts on Southeast Asian cuisines, had no previous professional culinary experience. That lack of training might have inhibited some people, but not Pham. The unknown has always been familiar territory for her. 

Pham was just a teenager when her family fled the fall of Saigon, landing on American shores as refugees. Yet within a few years, she had finished a degree in journalism at the University of Maryland and had become the first Vietnamese-born television reporter in the United States. She eventually moved into public relations and wrote speeches for the governor of California. But in 1988, Pham's then-husband Trong Nguyen, owner of the California-based La Bou bakery chain, convinced her to pursue her private passion for cooking on a professional basis. 

"He talked about the incredible excitement and satisfaction of taking a simple idea and turning it into a successful business," she writes in her 1996 book The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking.With "a do-or-die commitment," they opened Lemon Grass. The restaurant proved wildly successful, as more and more loyal customers discovered the joys of Pham's authentic home cooking, learned at her mother's knee. 

As Lemon Grass's popularity has grown, Pham has used her journalism background to share her passion and knowledge with a wider audience. She has penned articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bon Appétit, and other publications, written several cookbooks, and she teaches at the Culinary Institute of America.

"Chefs are curious about new flavors from around the world and want to use different ingredients in their cooking," she says, explaining why so many professionals come to her classes looking to incorporate Southeast Asian influences into their menus. Pham notes that understanding the history, techniques, and building-block flavors behind these traditional cuisines is essential for success. "It's important to teach them the foundations of these culinary traditions, about how and why they work," she observes.

In addition to her other pursuits, Pham also leads culinary tours to Southeast Asia, the first of which was televised by CNN in 2000. "As an immigrant, it can be hard to communicate your culture," she says. "It's easier through food, because it's a universal language. Food opens up doors. It builds relationships."

Naturally, this cultural envoy was thrilled to share her recipes and tips with Epicurious. Click on the links below:

Crispy Spring Rolls
Mom's Catfish in Claypot
Table Salad
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
Vietnamese "Pho" Rice Noodle Soup with Beef

With the increased availability of Southeast Asian foods in the United States, Vietnamese cooking is not difficult to explore. This cuisine gets its distinctive flavors from unique composition and fresh ingredients rather than complicated techniques. Below, you'll find a rundown of some of the essential elements.


Banh mi - This popular street-food sandwich is a classic example of how the Vietnamese have incorporated culinary elements from various colonizers. In this case, an airy, fresh baguette is filled with grilled or roasted chicken or pork, creamy pâté, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, hot-pepper sauce, and sometimes mayonnaise. Other popular street foods include pho, a beef noodle soup that's eaten for breakfast, and com dia, a "daily plate" of rice, vegetables, and toppings. In fact, according to Mai Pham, most Vietnamese take their breakfast and lunch at such vendors, saving the dinner meal to eat with their families at home. 

Clay pot - This popular earthenware vessel with a glazed interior is common in south Vietnam, where it's used to make slow-simmered dishes based on proteins such as catfish, duck, and caramelized pork. "Such meals are often moderately sized and on the salty side," says Pham, "allowing these more expensive ingredients to be stretched further when paired with rice." Like the clay pot, most Vietnamese cooking equipment tends to be relatively simple, reflecting the uncomplicated techniques (such as braising, simmering, poaching, and steaming) that make up the country's culinary repertoire. According to Pham, key pieces include a mandoline, which makes quick work of preparing thinly sliced and matchstick-shaped vegetables, a mortar and pestle for crushing the garlic and ginger in the omnipresent dipping sauces, and a wok, which can serve as a pan, pot, deep fryer, and steamer. In addition, a rice cooker is "an absolute must" to turn out a perfect batch every time.

Gao thom (rice) - Because it has historically been both plentiful and affordable, rice is the bread and butter, so to speak, of Vietnamese cooking. At most meals, several small main dishes, shared among diners, are eaten over a long-grain jasmine variety and garnished with fresh herbs (see rau thom,below). Rice is also used to make noodles such as rice sticks and bun (rice vermicelli), rice papers (used to make spring and summer rolls), rice flour, rice vinegar, and even rice wine. 

Nuoc mam (fish sauce) - Whereas other Asian cuisines use soy sauce as their primary salting agent, the Vietnamese and Thais use fish sauce (called nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand). Made from fermented anchovies, this ubiquitous condiment is extremely pungent and salty if tasted straight. But when blended in small amounts with other ingredients, it lends a depth of flavor to simple dishes that might otherwise be bland. Nuoc mam is used in two ways: as a seasoning in cooked food, and as a major ingredient in dipping sauces such as nuoc cham, the popular lime, chile, garlic, and fish sauce concoction that typically accompanies cha gio (fried spring rolls). 

Rau thom - Along with the widespread use of fish sauce, the presence of fresh herbs is one of the most distinctive elements in Vietnamese cooking. Collectively called rau thom, Vietnamese herbs include mint; purplish Thai basil (also called holy or Asian basil); aniselike red perilla (also known as shiso); lemony green perilla; floral, cilantrolike saw leaf herb; and spicy, sharp Vietnamese coriander. Known as rau song (table salad), a plateful of herbs, along with lettuces, cucumbers, mung bean sprouts, and sometimes pickled vegetables, is served at every meal. Shredded raw herbs are piled atop steaming bowls of rice and noodle dishes such as bun and pho, adding bright flavors and aromas. And they're tucked inside leaves of lettuce and wrapped around grilled meats and fried spring rolls, lending a clean, crisp dimension to foods that might otherwise taste heavy in Vietnam's hot climate. 

Shallots - Like the French, Vietnamese cooks use shallots rather than onions as a major flavoring ingredient, prizing their sweeter, more aromatic quality. Shallots, along with garlic and lemongrass, are among the few seasonings that are typically cooked, rather than added to dishes raw. Fried shallots, along with crushed, roasted peanuts, also appear on the Vietnamese table as a garnish for noodle dishes and soups.