My lips are still tingling from the spicy noodles I just ate for breakfast. It’s a good burn. A belly full of noodles isn’t a bad way to start the day.
I’ve written several posts on this site about the food here in Vietnam. About the weird and wonderful things we’ve been eating. We have not had a bad meal yet in this country. From soups to stews to skewers to stir fries, the food here is varied and ever so tasty.
There are a few ingredients that pop up again and again. The basics of Vietnamese cooking you might say. And those are the tastes that sum up Vietnam for me.
Chili. The best part about food in Vietnam is that you can spice it up to your heart’s content. Most of the food arrives at your table with a very low level of spice, so don’t worry if heat isn’t your thing. They provide jars of pickled chilis, dishes of chopped raw chili, bottled chili sauce and thick dabs of chili paste. A million ways to personalise your dish to your own spice preferences.
Coriander (cilantro for you American citizens playing along at home) is bright and fresh and is liberally sprinkled over the top of almost every dish here. This herb is used to bring an aromatic finishing touch to everything from stir fried beef to rice paper rolls. In fact, the one place I haven’t seen coriander used is in the ubiquitous Vietnamese dish of pho (noodle soup.) Instead they use a very sharp herb that I’ve never seen before but tastes of aniseed. Weird.
Finally, pork. I know that some people don’t like pork, but it’s really hard to get away from the piggy pig here in Vietnam. Pretty much all the local favourites contain pork in some way, whether it’s grilled strips on top of noodles, skewers wrapped in rice paper or a nice layer of pork crackling served over a plate of greens. I happen to love pork, so all this hog suits me just fine, but I pity the vegetarians trying to navigate the menus of ‘Nam.
In addition to these commonly used ingredients, there are other tastes that strongly evoke Vietnam for me. The sticky sweetness of the coffee served with condensed milk. The complexity of the long-simmering broths in the soups. The almost-no-taste-at-all of the rice noodles and rice paper wrappers. The airy, squidgy bread rolls. The light and refreshing lager-style beers. The savoury saltiness of peanuts. The funky fish sauce. The cooling cucumbers. This is a seriously tasty country.