(This feature was originally published at Momentum Magazine – John Brown Media. It is re published here with permission)
Across Vietnam, noodles are a staple. But how they’re prepared and what they’re served with varies according to the climate, history and personality of each region
What’s better than the moment when you receive a steaming, aromatic bowl of noodles? Is it when you add the garnishes and that squeeze of lime that somehow always ends up on your face? Or is it that blissful moment when you finally get to eat the noodles, when it’s just you and the noodles and no one else?
In Vietnam, noodles are the thread of daily life. From flat rice noodles (bánh phở) in the morning to rice vermicelli (bún) in the afternoon, from rolled noodle sheets (bánh cuốn) as a quick street snack to thick, plump cylindrical noodles (bánh canh) at the end of the night, all kinds of noodles are enjoyed as a staple. But how they’re prepared and what they’re paired with varies greatly, and often depends on what’s available within the various regions of the S-shaped country.
In the cooler north along the Chinese border, people tend to eat simpler meals with purer broths. They’re not as flamboyant with herbs, condiments and garnishes like those of the tropical south where vegetation is in abundance. Northerners prefer their food either salty or plain; southerners prefer it sweet and vivacious; and those from the center love it hot, zesty and peppery.
THE NORTH: HANOI
The world-famous phở bò (beef pho) is actually an interpretation of a French dish. Legend has it that during French colonial times (1887-1954), a street vendor just outside of Hà Nội was one of the first to gather discarded marrow-rich bones, cartilage-rich oxtail and other undesirable cuts of beef. He poached them with a concoction of spices left by the Chinese (cloves, star anise, black cardamom), essentially creating a watered-down beef casserole. But being Vietnamese, not French, he had to have it with noodles.
When the communists ruled the north after the revolution in 1954, many northerners fled south and brought the much-loved phở with them. In the south, where the land was much more fertile and the people loved to be extravagant with flavor, phở changed drastically and developed its own signature depending on where it was prepared. Southerners also like their bánh phở noodles much thinner and with more of a bite—thinner noodles let more air circulate, thus making the slurp of broth or sauce more indulgent and satisfying.
CENTRAL HIGHLANDS: HUẾ
The Central Highlands city of Huế was once the capital and is still brimming with history from its past dynasties. Here, food is meticulously prepared although the people are generally poorer and tend to make do with whatever ingredients they can get their hands on. Bun bò Huế is a famous and delicious breakfast bowl of lemongrass beef and pork noodle soup that’s served with the fattest rice vermicelli—sometimes measuring more than 1.8mm. Somehow it only tastes right with thicker noodles, which were meant to keep Huế residents fuller for longer.
In the mid-morning, afternoon or after supper, bánh canh cá lóc is a popular local snack. This humble but mouthwatering lemongrass and marrow-rich snakehead fish (similar to catfish) soup comes with hand-rolled noodles and plenty of herbs, heat and zest. Soups in this region are often served with unpeeled, whole quail eggs and chả Huế—a famous and much sought-after paste of cinnamon, pepper and steamed pork wrapped in a banana leaf.
COASTAL TOWNS: PHAN THIẾT
Drive down the coast from Huế to the southerly fish-sauce-making seaside town of Phan Thiết (my mother’s hometown) and the food takes on its own quirky personality. Instead of adding rice vermicelli to summer rolls, locals add shredded pork skin coated in roasted rice powder, which mimics noodles in its appearance and (slightly chewy) texture.
The famous street noodle soup bánh canh Phan Thiết is a great top-up after an evening meal, designed to keep hunger at bay and make for a sound sleep. The broth is either made from pork knuckles and trotters or with fish or crab, and is served with pork or dill fish cakes plus an array of seafood and condiments. It is wonderfully sweet and fresh with lime and fierce with chilies too. The dish is usually slurped from a spoon because its short, thick and transparent hand-rolled tapioca noodles fit right into it.
The Sai-Gonese prefer the non-noodle components of a dish to shine—like a piece of grilled pork, caramelized by sweet sticky sugar and smoked over charcoal with savory, pungent fish sauce. The treacle aroma of bún thịt nướng (rice noodles with chargrilled meat) hovers around Sài Gòn every afternoon as skewer after skewer sizzles then drops onto bowls of fresh fluffy bún. They are then layered with an abundance of herbs such as perilla, mint and coriander, which are used with an assortment of salad leaves and crunchy pickles for color and garnish. Finally, nước chấm: that ultimate dressing of sweet, sour, salty and hot fish sauce that makes this noodle dish the supreme fast food of Sài Gòn.
No matter where you are in the country, noodles are here, there and everywhere. In a rapidly developing world, where fast food is infiltrating from the West, Vietnamese cuisine is still very much cherished by its people: from those in the rice paddies to those in the high-rise cities and seaside resorts. Not only are noodles vital to the diet, the dishes made with them represent place, celebrate culture and preserve tradition.
Download the recipe below and take a stab at making bún thịt nướng at home. Share your food shots with us at #momentumtravel!
Photos: Styled and photographed by Uyen Luu
– See more at: http://momentum.travel/food-drink/geography-vietnamese-noodles/#sthash.Exp6AixQ.dpuf
Mint is the must have essential ingredient in everyone’s fridge. Throw together a combination of raw vegetables, thinly sliced, with a protein such as chicken, dress with mint and a simple Vietnamese dipping sauce and you will have the most delicious and satisfying meal. What is great is that it makes you feel light and healthy. My raw vegetable salad is a major crowd pleaser and anyone hankering after the pure taste of Vietnamese cuisine does the trick. Its down to the refreshing taste of mint, green and cool to the palette. Its all wonderfully fresh, crunchy, sweet, sour and hot. The dipping sauce is bursting with zing, spiciness, sharp tanginess and syrupy ginger.
Chicken Salad with Sugar Snap Peas, Pomelo, Mint and Red Onion Pickle
Red Onion Pickle
1 red onion
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp caster sugar
pinch of salt and pepper
Whole corn fed free range/ organic chicken
400g sugar snap peas (can also be carrot, kohl rabi, daikon, courgettes, mange tout or a combination of these)
1/4 pomelo (de-skinned, separate segments) (or grapefruit)
10 radish (thinly sliced)
2 tbsp cider vinegar
10 mint sprigs
small handful of coriander
crushed peanuts, cashew or pistachios
3 birds-eye chillies (de-seeded and finely chopped)
1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
1 thumb ginger, (peeled and finely chopped)
3 tbs maple syrup
2 tbs cider vinegar
5 tbs premium quality fish sauce
5 tbs crushed/ blended salted roasted peanuts, cashew or pistachios
Prawn crackers and/ or steamed chicken rice to serve
Poach a whole chicken in a pot with a lid with 3 litres of boiling water, season with salt and cook for about 60 – 70 minutes, until the juices run clear and the chicken is cooked all the way through.
Meanwhile, slice the red onion as thinly as you can and pickle with vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper in a bowl, mixing occasionally.
Thinly slice the sugar snap peas lengthways. Slice the radishes into paper thin pieces. Tear pomelo into bite sized pieces and place in a large salad bowl.
Using cooking scissors, cut the mint into 1 cm stops and add to the bowl.
Prepare and mix all the ingredients for the dressing together in a separate bowl, tasting for the balance of sweet, sour, salty and hotness. Serve in dipping bowls.
When the chicken is cooked, leave to cool. De-bone and tear off the meat along the grain. Season with salt and pepper. Add this to the bowl of salad with the pickled onion (add the vinegar juice too). When ready to serve, toss the salad together.
Garnish with a few sprigs of coriander and mint and a sprinkle of nuts. Serve with the salad dressing as a dipping sauce, prawn crackers or steamed rice.
You can use the chicken stock to make a delicious chicken rice.
Alternatively, you can also use the dipping sauce to dress the salad.
I have just had a baby girl and I am breastfeeding. When my mother comes to visit, she prepares this very quick one pot wonder of magic which she claims what makes good milk and that women all over Vietnam are eating this to promote healthy nutrition for mother and baby. It is delicious whether you are breastfeeding or not! Daddy loves it too.
330g large oxtail chunks, ask butcher to slice into 1 inch thick
1.2 litres water
200g butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1 inch square chunks
200g winter melon, peeled, cut into 1 inch slices (or courgette, marrow, green papaya, lotus)
salt and pepper to season
2tbs premium quality fish sauce coriander to garnish (optional)
To gain a clean and clear broth, clean the oxtail pieces by boiling it for 5 minutes, then drain and clean the oxtail pieces under running water.
Clean the saucepan and fill with 1.2 litres of water and bring to the boil. Add the oxtail and a good pinch of salt and cook on a medium simmer for half an hour with a lid on.
Prepare the vegetables, add the squash and winter melon to the oxtail broth and season with fish sauce and cook for a further 20 – 30 minutes.
Serve with a sprinkling of coriander, black pepper and enjoy with a crusty baguette – with or without plenty of butter.
TIP: you can make much more by doubling up. It’s great to have over a couple of days. I’ve suggested a combination of butternut squash and winter melon but it could be a combination of this with marrow, parsnips, carrots, courgettes, lotus. You can see what you have going in the fridge. Cook softer vegetables for less time towards the end.
At home in the fridge, there are always some carrots, peas in the freezer, potatoes and onions in a cupboard. My staple ingredient is fish sauce, ginger, dried chillies (that I dry myself from fresh chillies, finely chopped and left on a plate for a few days), lemongrass and a bag of coriander or mint.
There are so many ways you can turn these ingredients into a quick one-pot, tasty, delicious and frugal meal as well as being healthy and nutritious.
This should take about 15 minutes to prepare, which can be done earlier in the day to be set aside for dinner. (Especially great to do when your little baby is asleep)
If you don’t finish the pot in one go, its great for breakfast or lunch the next day, adding more peas or courgettes and herbs to fill it up.
Slow Poached Chicken with Ginger, Lemongrass and Chillies
Serves 3- 4
6 chicken thighs (skinned, chopped or left whole)
2 tbs rapeseed or olive oil
1 thumb ginger, peeled, coarsely chopped
I onion, coarsely chopped
3 carrots, peeled, cut into 2cm chunks
200g baby/ new potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut into bite-size if necessary
1 tsp dried chillies
1 lemongrass stalk, cut into 3 pieces
300ml homemade or good quality chicken stock
3tbs premium fish sauce
150g fresh or frozen peas
1 courgette, slice into 1 cm pieces (optional)
Some coriander or mint (optional)
black pepper to season
In a medium hot sauce pan, add oil and brown the chicken thighs for approximately 2 mins on each side for approximately 2 mins. Set aside on a plate.
Using the same pan, add the onions, dried chillies, ginger and lemongrass to slightly brown. Return the chicken to the pot, add the carrots and potatoes. Pour the chicken stock into the pan and season with fish sauce and black pepper. Place the lid on the pot and on the lowest heat setting and cook on a low simmer for 30 – 40 mins.
When ready to serve, add peas and/ or courgettes and cook for a further 5 mins. If available add chopped coriander or mint.
Serve with steamed rice, rice vermicelli, baguette or buttered toast.
Learn how to cook and eat Vietnamese in my kitchen at home with me and my mum. We would make and eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between in an afternoon. From salads, fresh rolls to broth and family style dinners.
I have grown up in London in the 80s and my mother brought us up on a strict Vietnamese diet because she believed that not only it was a connection to our home, our culture and who we are but also that she thought it was much healthier and very delicious.
I will share stories, simple techniques and eating philosophies over lots of food.
With all the rage of goodness and health benefits, coconut oil is the new black. Once deemed evil because it is one of the richest sources of saturated fat, it is now far from that with a long list of health benefits because it is high in essential fatty acids. As well as being brilliant for your body on the inside, it helps to protect and moisturise hair and skin too. Its brilliant as a make up remover and mouth wash also.
I use coconut oil all the time in my cooking as it lends itself so well to South East Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese and Thai. It has a high melting point which means it doesn’t turn itself into something harmful like vegetable oils do. I do use a variety of other oils like extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed oil, butter and animal fats as I don’t want to cut them out of my food chain and virgin coconut oil is one of my must-have kitchen staples.
Here are 4 ways to use coconut oil and to include it daily at home in the kitchen.
Fry a beautiful fresh egg with coconut oil or make an omelette with it instead of using vegetable oils. Just a teaspoon to cover the frying pan with fat. There is a nutty flavour, nothing too dominating that would subtract from the lovely flavours of egg. Its also lovely in smoothies and coffee.
2. Use As A Spread
There are so many things you can do with coconut oil. First and foremost it is simply delicious on toast just on its own. Add jam if you wish. During the colder months, the oil will be more solid like butter whereas in the summer its more like an oil. You can use coconut oil to make your own almond, cashew or peanut butter – simply blend the raw nuts with the coconut oil, add a pinch of salt to bring out the flavours. You can also use cocoa powder and hazel nuts, just add them to the blender with a big dollop of coconut oil. Its a great way of intaking the goodness of nuts and coconut oil in a healthy snack/ meal which is home made and non processed without comprising on flavour.
Try making lemon or lime curd with coconut oil instead of butter too. It is so delicious! Add some lime or lemon zest at the end of cooking after the mixture has cooled down or grate some fresh zest on top of your spread. Use unrefined sugars or maple syrup instead of caster sugar if you’re avoiding it.
Its as simple as! Sterilise some jars and keep in a cool place or refrigerated (*if you keep it refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving as the coconut oil turns it into a very hard solid)
3. Roast Vegetables
Either melt some coconut oil in an oven tray in the oven for 15 mins first or just coat coconut oil all over your lovely cleaned and cut vegetables. Season well with salt & pepper before roasting it for half an hour – forty five mins at 180c with your other trimmings and bits like a roast chicken. I always add some hardy herbs such as rosemary or thyme just 15 mins towards the end of the roast for the extra zing of flavour.
In recipes where butter or oil is used, replace it with coconut oil. Its so good. This is a Victoria sponge sandwiched with fresh fruit. I also use coconut oil in Asian cakes like chiffon cakes with pandan and coconut flavour – its excellent with blueberries too and makes the cake rise perfectly with the softest and lightest of textures.
I have been using coconut oil long before for flavour and goodness but with this post, I have partnered with Vita Coco.