Great food in Vietnam that you can't find in other countries
Vietnam is known for its minimalistic and healthy cuisine in South-East Asia. Many of us must have tried at least once the famous Pho noodles, but beyond that there are many gems of this cuisine that don't get enough exposure overseas.
Vietnamese restaurants around the world have the tendency to serve only the star dishes, those famous meals that will ring a bell to an international customer. But coming to Vietnam and walking on the streets of Hanoi, you ought to try what the locals have in mind when you ask about "your favourite dish". This article will showcase the best Vietnamese food that are absent from the menus of Vietnamese restaurants around the world. These are the gems that you can find only in Vietnam.
I will list down the name of the dishes and attempt to translate them as closely as possible. These meals will not be so easily tracked down on the internet so hope I will do them justice. Head with me with the rest of this article for the food that you can't find anywhere else but in Vietnam itself.
Bánh giò - Vietnamese pyramid dumpling
"Dumpling" is the closest classification to this dish, although I felt it did not do justice to the Vietnamese Bánh giò. Inherently an exotic looking Asian dish, formed in a beautiful pyramid shape inside a banana leaf, it can be unwrapped to reveal the milky white gelatinous rice paste. Dig a spoon through it and you will expose the hot minced meat and mushroom core of the Bánh giò.
The dish is usually served for breakfast at street sides. It is to be bought home or eaten on the spot, slurping off the banana leafs with a dash of hot chilli sauce. If you want to try this meal, you should hurry in the morning as by noontime you will have a hard time tracking down the last of the unsold Bánh giò in Vietnam.
Xôi xéo - Glutinous rice with corn paste
Uniquely Vietnamese and famous northern dish, Xôi xéo is my must-have every time I return to Hanoi. There are numerous varieties of Xôi - or sticky rice - in Vietnam, but Xôi xéo (pronounced like Soy Siaw) is different with the use of thin slices of corn paste with green mung bean paste and topping up with crispy fried shallots. The secret to a great Xôi xéo is the addition of chicken fat that will add that oomph tingling your taste buds.
The base of a warm bowl of this sticky rice is always the mung bean paste and shallots, but as a meal, it is usually served with Vietnamese style shredded chicken, stewed pork or ham, herbal egg, pork pâté (personal favourite), chicken floss and more. Remember, this is a not-to-be-missed dish if you ever visit northern parts of Vietnam.
Bún Riêu Cua - Crab paste noodle
Bún Riêu usually refers to a specially made style of rice vermicelli soup in Vietnam. There are several varieties of bún riêu, among which Bún riêu cua (crab paste noodle) is the most unique and delicious of them all. The white rice vermicelli is served with tomato broth and topped with crab paste. In Bún riêu cua, various freshwater paddy crabs found in Vietnam can be used. The crustaceans are pounded with the shell on to a fine brown paste that is subsequently strained and the crab liquid is used as a base for the soup. The seafood broth is infused with garlic, sweet chunks of tomato, tamarind pulp, fish sauce and crab paste. Adding to it a squeeze of lime, a dash of chilli sauce, and a few choices of herbs will liven up this dish with fresh, well-balanced ingredients loaded with a myriad of flavours.
Original Bún Riêu is a very complicated dish with multiple preparation levels that might take years to master. That is why the difference between a good and a great Bun Rieu can make Vietnamese travel across city to find their favourite bowl of this crab paste noodle.
Bánh Mì Pâté - Vietnamese baguette with Pâté
Chosen as one of the best street food in the world by National Geographic, Bánh Mì Pâté is a simple baguette dish that can be extremely easy to go wrong. Sandwiched between hot and extra crispy baguette shells are chicken liver pâté, pickled daikon and carrot, sliced cucumber and a bit of cilantro. The Bánh Mì Pâté is meant to be mostly a breakfast meal, but you can find sellers of this savoury baguette throughout the day, mostly with a station on a bicycle or a small kiosk tucked in the street corner.
There has been a renaissance of Vietnamese baguette abroad in recent years and the dish has been recreated around the world. However there's still a certain something missing in these recreations. Authentically sold in Vietnam for a few cents a pop, you will enjoy a poorly filled up baguette but crafted in a quality that cannot be mimicked in restaurants, where it does not belong to. Bánh Mì Pâté is in its heart a delicious street food with no fancy ingredients, no weird twists in flavour and to be enjoyed along the dusty streets of Vietnam.
Bánh Quẩy - Deep fried crispy bread
These little longish, brittle like crunchy and hollowed Bánh Quẩy can be the final pieces needed to make your Phở noodle or morning porridge a hundred percent perfect. Two parallel strips adjacent to each other in one cruller, this garnish is meant to be eaten either by itself as a snack/appertizer or with a main dish. The way I enjoy it is with Pho noodle - I soak the crullers in the broth for a minute until the bread is soft and absorbed with delicious soup like a sponge, giving an extra dimension boost to the meal.
I have longed for a Vietnamese eatery serving Bánh Quẩy in my stays in Russia, Australia, Germany and Singapore to always be met with disappointment. For reasons unknown to me, the thing that is sold in every Pho establishment in Vietnam is forgotten almost everywhere else. Be sure to order a plate of these, because they are awesome!
Cháo Lươn - Eel porridge
Moving to the central regions of Vietnam, do not pass on the chance to taste the great Cháo Lươn (eel porridge) of Nghe An province. Being the most famous dish in the region, one can find numerous roadside shops selling exclusively eel delicacies, such as roasted eel with lemon grass and steamed with laksa leaves. Among all these variations, the porridge is the single most outstanding way of preparing it. I prefer myself a warm bowl of steamed eel porridge as opposed to the fried variety where the eel is a little bit crunchy. The rich yellow colour of the porridge is an indication of a great eel porridge and makes for an unforgettable first bite.
A sweet and fatty bowl of Cháo Lươn is cool and nourishing dish that is suitable for eating even in summer. It’s also great for your heath, providing a valuable source of protein, Vitamin A and minerals that help treating diseases related to malnutrition, rheumatism, backaches and pains. Some may have problem eating eel due to the strange nature of this fish (yes, eel is a fish), just remember that the delicious Japanese unagi sushi is made with practically the same base ingredients.
Bánh trôi & Bánh chay
Bánh trôi and Bánh chay are 2 separate desserts that are meant to be served together. Bánh trôi are the balls about an inch in diameter, made of glutinous rice flour and a filling of rock sugar and to be served on a flat plate. Bánh chay, on the other hand, consists of balls slightly bigger and flatter, made from mung bean paste wrapped in a shell made of glutinous rice flour and served in a thick, sweet clear (sometimes brown in colour) liquid made of water, sugar, and grated ginger root and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
This little dessert takes a special significance during Han Thuc festival, where the Vietnamese remember the folk story of the creation of Vietnam. Legend has it that the dragon king Lac Long Quan married the beautiful fairy Au Co to lay 100 eggs that became the great ancestors of Vietnam. He took 50 children to the sea and sent 50 with his wife to the mountains to create the balance of land and sea and thus became the modern Vietnam.
Legends aside, Bánh trôi and Bánh chay are the one of the ultimate Vietnamese desserts that you can find all year long. It is highly recommended not to miss while visiting along with the rest of the food in this article.
Vú Sữa - Milk fruit
Having been introduced with the entrées, meals and desserts, let us have a look at Vu Sua, the unique fruit in Vietnam. Literally translated as "breast milk fruit", it has an appearance of a large green apple, slightly soft from the outside while having a white milky flesh. Not only extremely high in fiber, calcium and antioxidant properties while low in calories, Vu Sua is delicious as flesh dessert fruit, it is sweet and best served chilled.
The reason behind its name is due to a special way it can be eaten. Aside from cutting the top and scooping the inside with a spoon, children love to play with the fruit, lightly massaging around the fruit until it becomes tender. Afterwards, they can drill a small hole at the top of the fruit, lift it to their mouths, lean their heads backward, and drink the flow of the fragrant juice as a baby sucking milk from its mother's breast.
If you have tried some of the food described here, do leave me an opinion about it! Would love to hear your thoughts on this topic!