Outside cultures have had a strong influence, from the Chinese and Khmer dynasties and the Indian empire to the (short lived) Japanese occupation and, in particular, the French colonial rulers. A classic example of a Vietnamese dish that mixes historical cultural influences with the native cuisine is the ever-popular bánh mì or bánh mỳ, a crusty baguette filled with thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, chillies, pate, mayonnaise and various meat fillings or tofu. The contrasting flavours and textures of this sandwich combined with its low cost make this a popular everyday dish.
Another classic Vietnamese dish is the much-loved pho, which is found all over Vietnam and, indeed, anywhere in the world with a Vietnamese immigrant population. It is a fragrant, rich rice noodle soup typically made with beef or chicken and served with Vietnamese basil, lime, bean sprouts and chillies. Although it is a quintessentially Vietnamese dish it has Chinese and French influences in its use of spices and stock technique.
Vietnam is made up of over 50 provinces. In terms of food, there are three distinct areas – the North, the Central Highlands and the South – each of which has its own climate, culture and food traditions. Broadly speaking, the North is more influenced by neighbouring China and the food tends to reflect its colder climate; the South draws more upon Khmer and Thai influences and its hotter climate means more emphasis on salads, grilled meats and so-called "cooling foods"; whereas Central Vietnam is more of a blend of the two styles.
The key ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking (along them fish sauce, sugar and rice) are very similar to its closest neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia; yet Vietnamese cooking has a distinct style all of its own. It tends to be less spicy, lighter, fragrant and fresh. Meals are leisurely affairs, with many shared dishes served all at once. A typical meal may include a soup, rice, grilled or steamed meats, a vegetable dish, fresh fruit and salad, all placed on the table at once.
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This refreshing recipe for Vietnamese beef noodle salad (bun bo xao) is a wonderful combination of different textures, as well as hot and cold ingredients. It makes great summertime comfort food.
Nuoc cham is the key dipping sauce in Vietnamese cuisine and it accompanies salads as well as many other dishes - search our website for a range of Vietnamese recipes. The main ingredient is fish sauce.
"Bun" is the vermicelli noodles, "bo" is the beef and "xao" means to stir-fry – the beef is quickly marinated and charred in a hot wok and served on top of cold noodles, cucumber, beansprouts and herbs.
The secret to this recipe lies in the quality of the stock – along with the beautiful spices.
For Nhut and his seven brothers and sisters, this braised pork dish with coconut and egg was looked forward to all year - his beloved mother used to prepare it for Vietnamese New Year. He says, "In the years when we were farmers and very poor in the Vietnamese countryside, meat was hard to get so this recipe was so good. And now I love watching the silence as people discover the rich flavours of this great regional Vietnamese dish in my restaurant".
Coconut juice is the clear water from the centre of the coconut (rather than the milk or cream, which is extracted from the flesh). It imparts a sweet, mellow coconut flavour to the dish and is available frozen from Asian supermarkets.
This is a delicious, crunchy, fresh-tasting salad that is easy to make. The texture is fantastic when the green papaya and carrot are grated as finely as possible – a mandoline with a grater attachment is ideal. Hanh suggests serving the salad on Vietnamese rice crackers – traditionally they’re cooked over a flame but Hanh’s brother Peter found it works incredibly well in the microwave.