Learn the lingo of this healthy, veggie-centric Eastern cuisine.
VietnameseLets Go Out For

There are more than 1.5 million Vietnamese now living in the United States — and naturally, there’s been an explosion in the number of restaurants featuring this Southeast Asian country’s cuisine over the past two decades. It’s no wonder: Vietnamese cuisine is by and large healthy and nutritious, and in many ways a better alternative to Chinese.

What are the characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine?
In Vietnamese dishes, herbs are usually not simmered or cooked with other aromatics as they are in Western and even other Asian cuisines. Instead, dishes are piled high at the table with fresh cilantro leaves, mint leaves or minced lemongrass.

Vegetables play a crucial role. No meal is complete without a platter of cucumbers, peppers, bean sprouts, bok choy and other greens. In general, Vietnamese food is vegetable-heavy — which is why it’s a great choice for healthy lifestyles.

In 90 percent of Western dishes, the aromatic base is a chopped onion and maybe some minced garlic. In Vietnamese cuisine, the base is most often a combination of lime juice, garlic, banging-hot chiles and grated palm sugar, a coarse sugar that’s like our brown sugar. Vietnamese food is thus a combo of sweet and spicy.

Almost all Vietnamese dishes include fish sauce, an upappealing-sounding mélange of fermented fish parts (bones, heads, fins) and various herbs. The bottle may have an odd odor, but it somehow — miraculously — mellows over the heat to become a subtle, salty back taste in the dish. That said, many Vietnamese pour additional fish sauce onto their food — call it the soy sauce of Vietnam.

How can I keep it healthy?
  • Avoid the fried dishes or those served over crispy noodles.
  • Look for dishes wrapped in lettuce or rice crêpes, as opposed to those in wheat pancakes.
  • Stick to the thinner, translucent dipping sauces; steer clear of most of the pasty ones, like those made with peanut butter and coconut milk (the typical satay dipping sauce).
  • If you’re sharing dishes with friends, limit your stir-fries to one for the group so everyone can share it; fill out the meal with healthier choices like the ones below.

What are the classic dishes?
Pho (aka soup). In some ways, this is the national dish. It consists of rice noodles, broth and thin strips of beef, chicken or pork, served at the table with bean sprouts, fresh herbs and hot sauce so you can doctor the soup the way you like it. There are also varieties of pho that use tofu, seafood and even organ meats. The menu will always list the choices of these sometimes exotic animal parts so you can pull an Andrew Zimmern and eat bizarre foods if you want.

Goi cuon (aka summer rolls). Made up of thin sheets of rice dough that are wrapped around anything from veggies to minced pork, diced shrimp to bean thread noodles, or a combination thereof, and always served cold or at room temperature. Goi cuon are often served with oisin sauce, a sweet pasty condiment, familiar as the stuff slathered into the pancakes for moo shoo pork. In the United States, summer rolls are an appetizer; in Vietnam, they’re a main course.

Bun (aka noodle salads). The ingredients of this dish include shredded and grilled meat or shrimp with thin rice noodles served over a bed of salad greens, topped by you at the table with the usual herb/hot sauce condiments. Bun is often sprinkled with copious chopped roasted peanuts, so ask for these on the side to make this a healthier choice.

Banh Cuon (aka rice crêpes). This is a hot dish, made from thin sheets of rice pancakes wrapped around minced pork, scallions, chiles, aromatics, herbs or a host of other fillings outlined in your menu. Sometimes, bahn cuon are topped with cha lua; a lean, smooth-textured, sliced pork sausage, but it’s always served with fish sauce and bean sprouts as the tableside condiments. In the US, it too is an appetizer; in Vietnam, it’s breakfast.

Nem nuong (aka grilled meatballs). This classic dish is made of ground pork and gobs of spices rolled into balls, skewered and grilled. At the table, you pull them off the skewers, set them in lettuce leaves, add various herbs and condiments, and roll the leaves up, like making a lettuce-wrap burrito.

Bo luc lac (aka shaky beef). A stir-fry of shredded beef, this dish also includes hoisin sauce, fish sauce, sugar and chiles. It’s a Chinese-influenced dish, so if you like Chinese food, this is a good starting point for exploring Vietnamese food.

Bo la lot (aka stuffed grape leaves). Ground beef marinated with chiles, fish sauce and other aromatics are rolled into grape leaves (or sometimes betel leaves) which are then brushed with oil and grilled on skewers.

Rau muong xao toi (aka sautéed greens). There is not much complicated about this dish of sautéed greens with tons of garlic. It’s a great side dish for any meal — but ask that the chef makes it with very little oil because it can be a slippery mess.

Armed with all this knowledge, be sure to check out the Vietnamese restaurant in your neighborhood. It’s the perfect cuisine for rounding up some friends and enjoying a group event. Dinner will be better if shared, and you can then all taste the exotic, fresh flavors of many different dishes.

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