Light, healthy dishes that celebrate vegetables, glean flavour from herbs and spices rather than relying on butter or cream, and are made with accessible, affordable, fresh ingredients, often without wheat and dairy; if there is a country whose food embodies the way we are being encouraged to eat now, Vietnam is it.
“The Vietnamese cuisine is well-balanced in so many ways. It’s naturally low in fat, many of the dishes are gluten- free and, most importantly, it’s extremely flavourful,” says Cameron Stauch, a Canadian-born chef who has just released his first Vietnamese cookbook.
Before writing Vegetarian Viet Nam – which was inspired by his young son's decision to give up meat and fish while the family were living in Hanoi – Stauch spent years travelling the country, learning about regional recipes from restaurant chefs and street food vendors, as well as nuns, monks and home cooks of all ages. Over many a shared meal, he says that he gradually built up his culinary repertoire based on these shared insights, titbits of information and family secrets. "Although the cuisine has evolved over centuries, the dishes remain healthy and simple, yet sophisticated," he explains. "Vietnamese cooks use a lot of seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs, fiery chillies, nutty sesame seeds or fried shallots and squirts of lime juice to create dishes that dance in between salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavours."
In contrast to a more European style of eating, where historically meat has been viewed as the main component of a meal and vegetables a supporting act, Vietnamese cooking has always been more egalitarian. “The essence of Vietnamese food is lean meat or seafood mixed with lots of herbs, spices and vegetables, but we also have many vegetarian options because vegetarian eating has been part of our culture for thousands of years,” says chef and restaurateur Lily Hoa Nguyen, who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City and opened Vietnamese Foodies, a small cafe in Jumeirah Lakes Towers at the start of this year.
“There is so much variety in Vietnamese food that I think everyone can find something that’s to their liking; we have grilled meat skewers, salads, fresh rolls and crispy rolls, noodle soups, wok-fried noodles, braised dishes with rice and so much more,” she adds.
Although Hoa Nguyen has always been passionate about food and cooking – by age 13 she was acknowledged as the best chef in the family – it was when she moved away, first to Istanbul, then Paris and finally the UAE, that she came to truly appreciate the food of her home country. “I realised how healthy authentic Vietnamese food really is. We rely on gluten-free rice, rice paper or rice noodles, the food is normally cooked in broth or water instead of oil, and we don’t use any dairy or MSG in our cooking,” she explains. “There are not many other cuisines where the dishes have such an abundance of textures and flavours, yet are still so light.”
All things considered, it really is time for Vietnamese cooking to shine. Read on for our primer on popular dishes, find out where to sample them in the UAE and try a recipe at home.
Popular Vietnamese dishes
The original recipe for bun cha belongs to Hanoi, and even today the very best version is likely to come from a smoke-shrouded bun cha vendor in the heart of that city. This lunchtime dish should deliver a harmony of tastes and textures: smoky depth from the grilled meat, vibrancy from the herbs, a piquant hit courtesy of the broth and textural contrast by way of a mass of thin vermicelli noodles.
Bun cha is a self-assembly dish that can be eaten in the style of a soup or a salad: the broth and grilled meat arrive together in one bowl, along with a plate of noodles, platter of fresh greens (lettuce, Thai basil, mint, coriander) and a side dish of dipping sauce. It’s up to you whether you select a large lettuce leaf and fill it with the other items before dunking in the sauce, or simply add the noodles and herbs to the broth and tuck in with a spoon.
Pho bo (beef pho)
Vietnam’s most famous dish also originated in Hanoi, but is slurped with abundance and considerable enthusiasm all over the country.
While the ingredients or component parts might sound basic, the phrase more than a sum of its parts could’ve been invented for this noodle soup. According to Lily Hoa Nguyen of Vietnamese Foodies, a good pho bo should deliver “a full-bodied flavour that offers smoky sweetness from the bones without being too beefy, soft but certainly not soggy noodles, thin, juicy slices of meat and an abundance of fresh, crunchy bean sprouts, basil leaves, a splash of lime and of course, hoisin sauce and sriracha sauce to top it off”.
Let’s just say that if chicken noodle soup is credited with soothing the soul, then the scope for properly prepared pho is boundless.
In a nod to the noise they make as they hit a hot frying pan, bánh xèo roughly translates as “sizzling cake”. These crispy savoury crêpes have a slight golden-red glow thanks to the addition of a little turmeric in the batter and are served stuffed with an abundance of fresh ingredients: sprightly herbs, lettuce leaves, crunchy beansprouts, and marinated meat, mushrooms or prawns.
Bánh xèo are made with rice flour, without eggs and with coconut rather than cow’s milk, meaning that they’re naturally dairy- and gluten-free. They’re also ideal for eating on the hoof, with the crêpe acting as a delectable edible wrapper for the portable salad within. Dunking in nuoc cham (see below) is also highly recommended.
Sit down or stand up to eat a Vietnamese meal, and little bowls filled with this sweet-sour, salty-spicy sauce are more than likely to appear. The complex tasting condiment is a staple in the cuisine that, at its most simple, is made from a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, water and sugar, although more often than not chillies are added and garlic often makes an appearance, too. The quantities of these ingredients can of course be tweaked to match your preference, but as a starting point, try one part fish sauce to two parts lime juice and water, then add incremental amounts of sugar, garlic and chilli, tasting as you go.
Although used primarily as a dipping sauce, nuoc cham works brilliantly as a salad dressing, seasoning and marinade, too.
As jam-packed with perky flavours and differing textures as they are ingredients, summer rolls (also referred to as fresh spring rolls) are a far cry from their deep-fried counterparts. Softened, translucent rice- paper roll wrappers tightly encase a tangle of crunchy raw vegetables alongside yielding, slightly chewy rice noodles, layers of soft lettuce, zingy, zippy herbs, and chilled and pale pink cooked prawns (other types of protein are also common).
When your tastes buds feel fatigued or your body is telling you that you’ve overdone it, these rolls are the perfect revitalising antidote.
Recipe: Cameron Stauch’s Lemongrass chilli ‘chicken’ strips stir-fry (Gà chay xào sả ớ t)
This uncomplicated dish, with its hit of aromatic lemongrass, is best made just before serving, so friends and family can enjoy the aroma as it fills the kitchen. Cubes of fried tofu would be fine (and in fact traditional) here, but I prefer using strips of moist and tender plant-based chicken alternatives. The recipe is also marvellous with fleshy mushrooms or even seitan. It’s great as part of a rice meal, but also stellar in a bánh mì sandwich, as a topping for a rice-noodle bowl, or even used as part of a filling in rice-paper rolls.
(Serves four as part of a multi-dish meal or for bánh mì)
1tbsp plus 1½tsp soy sauce
¼cup water or vegetable stock
1tbsp plus 1½tsp vegetable oil
2 lemongrass stalks, bottom 5 inches peeled and finely minced (¼ cup)
1tbsp finely minced garlic
1 fresh red Thai bird chilli, finely chopped
340g vegetarian chicken strips (plain or lightly seasoned)
4 scallions, thinly sliced (¼ cup)
1 lime quarter
2tbsp chopped coriander
Stir the soy sauce, sugar, and water together in a small bowl until the sugar is fully dissolved.
Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lemongrass and garlic and stir-fry for 1½ minutes, until fragrant and the raw garlic flavour mellows.
Add the chilli and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the vegetarian chicken strips and scallions, and stir-fry for 30 seconds.
Pour in the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for another 3 minutes, or until most of the liquid is reduced and the lemongrass, garlic and chilli moistly coat the vegetarian chicken strips. Squeeze in the lime juice, sprinkle in the coriander, and transfer to a serving dish.
Sourced from ‘Vegetarian Viet Nam’ by Cameron Stauch
Four to try in the UAE
Hoi An, Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai
Hoi An isn’t a new restaurant, nor is it a budget one, yet it remains an enduring favourite with many, which certainly says something. This small high-end spot showcases the food of Vietnam with an extensive menu that includes plenty of authentic dishes executed in refined style, often with a slight French colonial slant.
The Noodle House, various locations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai
While most are probably familiar with The Noodle House chain of restaurants, you might not know that following a recent revamp, their new pan-Asian menu now includes a number of Vietnamese dishes. For a gentle but tasty introduction to the cuisine, try the generously filled chicken bánh mì.
Vietnamese Foodies, Lake Terrace Tower, Cluster D, JLT, Dubai
Lily Hoa Nguyen’s charming little restaurant is well worth a visit. The menu has clearly been put together by someone with a real knowledge of the cuisine, and an awareness of authenticity and healthy eating, too. Prices are reasonable, the food arrives swiftly and the rice paper shrimp rolls and four varieties of pho (made from broth simmered for 14 hours) tick all the right boxes.
Hanoi Naturally, locations in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras al Khaimah
If you’re in the mood for a bowl of noodle soup that will set you up for the day, this is a good place to go; you’ll find traditional beef and chicken pho, as well as tiger prawn mien, vegetarian broth with tofu mi, and more.