As shameful as it is to admit, I have to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time on Quora (especially when I know I have very important things to do, because that’s just how a procrastinator is). I once stumbled upon this question, which I found equal parts amusing and bemusing: “My Vietnamese girlfriend can’t cook Pho. Does that mean that she’s not good at cooking?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Phở is the most famous Vietnamese food on Earth. Another truth is that Vietnamese restaurants have popped up in every corner around the world (thanks a lot, globalization!). The consequence of that, however, is that those restaurants, and the reputation of Pho, paints a very misleading picture about what Vietnamese people actually eat at home.
The stuff that you see on the menu at a Vietnamese restaurant, all the Pho and Pho cuon and Bun cha and Banh xeo – those are the food that we Vietnamese have when we eat out. Not everyone knows how to cook Pho, because a perfect bowl of Pho is like art. It’s something that you perfect over time, most often through generations, and it takes an immense amount of effort.
So what do Vietnamese people cook at home?
Vietnamese culture puts a heavy emphasis on balance and harmony, and that is evident in how we eat. That balance and harmony is present in the spices we use, the ingredients we pick out, the flavours of each dish. It is also present in the elements of a meal.
A complete meal should have five elements: rice, one or two savoury dishes (from meat, seafood, tofu, etc.), one vegetable dish, soup and the sauce (often fish sauce mixed with lime juice and chilly). Everything is placed at the centre of the table and is shared by everyone. Of course, people don’t have enough time and effort every day to ensure there are five dishes on the table all the time, but we at least want to make sure we are consuming rice, meat and veggies in one meal.
The rice we use are often white rice, and the most popular types are either Vietnamese-grown rice, or Thai jasmine rice. Modern knowledge about health and carbs have steered many people towards alternatives such as brown rice or black rice if they can afford it.
As for savoury dishes, the main meats that we use are chicken, pork and beef. Seafood (clams, shellfish, fishes, etc.) and river fishes are abundant and affordable. Tofu is not a vegetarian-only sort of food (as it is often regarded in the West) but just another type of protein. We Vietnamese boil, steam, stir-fry, deep-fry, stew, braise and do just about everything under the sun to our meat. A typical dinner table probably has about two or three different cooking methods going on.
Vegetables and root plants are integral parts of Vietnamese cuisine. It started out that meat was a luxury in Vietnam, a luxury that most people couldn’t afford. Vegetables, meanwhile, was plentiful and readily available. Even now, as Vietnam is on the track of developing, vegetables and root plants remain integral elements to our meals. They balance the fat and heaviness of meat, they are a great source of vitamins and fibre, and they are healthy, so what’s not to love?
The concept of soup in Vietnamese cuisine is quite different from what you normally imagine to be soup. For us, soup in everyday meal is more of a broth with vegetables and meat, or the water from boiled vegetables. Ever tried boiled water spinach soup with tomato and a squeeze of lime? You are missing out!
Then last but certainly not least, is the sauce. Or to be more precise, it’s dipping sauce (nước chấm). The central element to Vietnamese dipping sauce is fish sauce, mixed with a few cut of chillies, a bit of lemon juice and a few drops of water. Depending on the dish, you can also add sugar, pepper, garlic, vinegar, etc. The sauce is an irreplaceable part of a Vietnamese meal; in many cases, it is what makes or breaks a meal!
So you see, what Vietnamese eat at home and what are sold in Vietnamese restaurants are very different things. If you have the chance to try a home-cooked meal, take it. I am sure you will not be disappointed.