The legacy of French colonialism in Vietnam is perhaps most pronounced in the country’s cuisine. It can be found in the humble banh mi – a baguette filled with pork, pâté, pickles and fresh herbs; or suspected in a bowl of pho – a rich beef and noodle soup rumoured to be inspired by France’s pot-au-feu. It's also thanks to the French that unlike other South East Asians, the Vietnamese are big coffee drinkers. In the humid climate, caffeinated beverages are enjoyed with ice and condensed milk.
Gallic influences aside, Vietnamese cuisine is punctuated by freshness. Whether you’re enjoying textural bun cha (pork and spring roll noodle salad), crispy prawn pancake or steamed mussels, you’re almost guaranteed to receive a garnish of herbs, chilli and bean sprouts. Rice and rice noodles are the staple carbohydrates, while various forms of protein – seafood, tofu, pork, poultry or beef – are eaten to varying extents in each region.
Caramel sauce is a hallmark of home-style cooking, found most notably in sweet and sticky pork, along with caramel-galangal fish and coconut crème caramel (kem flan). Lemongrass, too, is an oft-used ingredient, flavouring chicken (as in this salad), pork ribs, stir-fried beef and spit-roast lamb.
In the sauces department, you’ll need: hoisin, chilli sauce and fish sauce (anchovy and shrimp sauces are handy, too). Star anise and cassia or cinnamon will make pho fantastic, while coconut juice, lemongrass, rice paper and vermicelli noodles are great to keep on hand. As for fresh herbs, grab some coriander, Asian basil and Vietnamese mint.
1. Just chillin': Prolong shelf life by placing ingredients in the freezer. It works for galangal, lemongrass, pandan leaves, coconut juice, chillies, stocks and even lime/lemon juice.
2. Top cuts: Make heavy-duty kitchen scissors your new BFF. They’ll swiftly joint chicken, slice herbs (no bruising), and chop ingredients straight into the pot.
4. Time saver: Use a mandolin to thinly slice or finely grate ingredients quickly and consistently. Great for Vietnamese salads and pickles.
5. Hey, clay: Inexpensive and available from Asian grocers, clay pots distribute heat evenly and impart dishes (like these) with an earthy, smoky flavour. Before first time use, submerge in cold water for 24 hrs. This will safeguard the pot against cracking.
"The French introduced baguettes to Vietnam, however the Vietnamese created a large variety of delicious and creative fillings to go inside them. This fish cake baguette is one of my favourites as there are great contrasts of textures – from the crisp baguette to the bouncy fish cakes." Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia
"We serve this popular street food dish at my Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney. We poach the chicken in a master stock, then baste it with a honey and maltose mixture before hanging it until the skin becomes completely dry. To then achieve a very crispy skin, we ladle very hot oil over the skin again and again until it blisters and becomes crispy. I have kept my master stock alive now for 15 years, and it develops more flavour every time I use it." Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia
This ice-cream masters the characteristic sweetness of syrupy iced coffees served in Vietnam.
Cooking in a sauce based on caramelised sugar is a hallmark of home-style Vietnamese cuisine – the (nearly burnt) sugar adds incredible depth of flavour to chicken, tofu, egg and fish. Caramelising sugar is incredibly hot so do take care not to splash any on you.