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Vietnam Cuisine: 9 Things Define Vietnam Food Culture

Food is one of the necessities of life. In Vietnam, food is more important than that. It represents a close relationship with culture, tradition, and lifestyle. The connection between food and culture is very strong in our country.

In Vietnam, we rank “Eating” as one of the Four Pleasures of Life. We love eating well and eating with pleasure. Food is good when its flavor fills your taste buds and satisfies your senses, but it’s best when we share it with a soulmate.

Vietnamese people eat to enjoy the taste and aftertaste, bond with family members, and learn more about the person they share their meal with. Whenever we want to celebrate a special occasion, the first question that comes to mind is “What To Eat.”

For these reasons, food takes center stage in Vietnamese culture. But first, let’s discover nine main things that define Vietnam Food Culture.

Main Characteristics of Vietnam Food Culture

The Healthiness

Our cuisine uses more vegetables than animal meats. Our tropical climate allows the growth of diverse vegetables, which means you will not observe wrinkled, flat, old veggies in your dishes. We also use simple cooking methods such as steaming, boiling, and stir-frying, which help retain the natural flavors and nutrients and reduce the use of cooking oil. 

The Diversity

Vietnam is a long country, literally. History, living habits, climate, and terrain changed dramatically from North to South, determining the unique characteristics of each region’s cuisine. Northern cuisine is well known for its light flavors; Southern cuisine usually has the taste of sugar and coconut water. On the other hand, central cuisine is the spiciest, using many different types of fish sauce in preparation. I can’t tell which region’s cuisine I favor the most. I simply just enjoy it.

The Multi-influence

For much of our history, Vietnam has been occupied by the Chinese and then the French. Both are arguably the most excellent cuisines in the world. It’s safe to say that we learn a lot from them. And we learn very well. We have adjusted it to our tastes for hundreds of years and twisted it into what we have today. 

The Rich in Flavors

Vietnamese cuisine focuses on deliciousness instead of medicinal dishes like the Chinese or highly aesthetically pleasing dishes like the Japanese. Vietnamese cuisine is about cleverly combining various ingredients and spices to bring out the textures and flavors. 

In Vietnam food culture, a dish rarely has only one flavor. Take the spring roll, for example. In one bite, you have the sour taste of pineapple, the slightly bitter taste of green bananas, the umami taste of boiled pork or shrimp, the aromatic flavor of herbs, and the spicy taste of chili and garlic in the dipping sauce. 

The Social Pleasure

In our family meals, we place all the food on the table. A small bowl of fish sauce is in the center for everyone’s use. Dipping food into the same fish sauce presents the connection between family members through food.

Vietnamese people love sharing meals. You hardly see a Vietnamese eating alone. Food is a delicious way for us to connect. If friends visit us at mealtime, we invite them to join us no matter how simple our food is. The invitation holds a sincere sentiment that we send our friends, creating a solid relationship bonded from small, simple things like food.

Combination of Spices and Condiments in Cooking

Vietnamese cuisine is not known for its heavy use of spices compared to Indian or Thai cuisine. It’s more about balance in using spices: not too spicy, sweet, or salty. We use many different spices and condiments in food preparation to enhance the flavor. They can be plant spices (chili, pepper, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, lemon, turmeric, cinnamon) or fermented condiments (fish sauce, shrimp paste, thickened vinegar, fermented rice). Most spices are categorized as Yang, which means ‘hot.’ (I write about Yin and Yang in the section below.) Herbs are also often used to eat raw or combined when cooking. 

Vietnamese people don’t eat in any order. We eat the same way we combine ingredients. We might try the soup first, then a main course, then back to the soup. Depending on each dish, we make different dipping sauces to enhance the flavor of the food.

Vietnam Food Philosophy

The principles of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements are fundamental to Vietnam Food Culture. This concept is deeply rooted in our culture. It influences not only the ingredients we use in cooking but also the choices of food we make regarding seasonal eating to ensure our meals are in harmony with nature. 

Philosophy of Yin and Yang Balance

We divide natural foods into Yin (cooling, calming, and moistening), neutral, and Yang (warming, stimulating, and drying). Yin food ‘refreshes’ the body, while Yang food ‘warms’ it up. 

When combining ingredients, we balance Yin and Yang, Water and Fire, which is good for health. For example, when I cook fish and vegetables, which are Yin ingredients, I balance them with Yang ingredients by adding aromatic ginger and peppers. In summer, I love cooking sour soups (cool—water element) to balance the Fire element of the heat.

Philosophy of The Five Elements

The Five Elements Philosophy strongly influences Vietnam Food Culture. A well-balanced meal in Vietnamese cuisine typically includes five substances (flour, water, minerals, protein, and fat), five flavors (sour, spicy, sweet, salty, and bitter), and five colors (white, green, yellow, red, and black.)

A simple bowl of Phở that you can easily find on any street in Vietnam is a perfect example of Vietnam’s food philosophy with a combination of ingredients, colors, and flavors. Phở has the softness and light pink of medium beef, the chewy texture of while noodles, the mild spiciness of yellow ginger and black pepper, the hot spicy red chili, the gentle aroma of green herbs, and the sour taste of lemon. All combine in the Phở broth cooked from beef bones. 

The Importance of Fish Sauce

Fish sauce plays a vital role in Vietnam Food Culture. The cradle of fish sauce is from the central coast of Vietnam, the land of the ancient Champa kingdom. Livestock farming has not been developed in this area, so animal protein mainly depends on aquatic animal sources.

In our long history, we have made fish sauce by salting and fermentating whole or crushed fish, shrimp, and squid. The saltier the fish sauce, the longer it can be preserved and the stronger it tastes. A bowl of fish sauce is always the smallest yet the most important bowl on the table. It’s the tie in the family and society that binds people who share the meal as one. (We believe how people dip their food into the sauce can tell a lot about the eater’s eating manner.)

We use pure fish sauce as a condiment to add salty flavor. We create different dipping sauces from fish sauce by adding water to lighten the flavor, vinegar or lemon juice for sourness, sugar or honey for sweetness, and chili or pepper for spiciness. You, foreigners, might find its flavor too strong, but fish sauce is the soul of Vietnamese cuisine for many Vietnamese people. Hardy, a family meal does not have it.

Living and Eating

We have a saying, “Eating and drinking are daily things.” We have three meals daily, of which dinner is the most important when all the family members are home after working or schooling.  I always enjoy my family dinner when we share the laughs and stories of the day. 

Besides family meals, we have weekend meals and holiday meals. We love eating out on the weekend, especially for breakfast or dinner, so our women have a day free from cooking. Some traditional families prefer to gather generations on the weekend and cook together. They usually make more delicious and elaborate meals than daily meals. 

Most, if not all, special occasions, such as holidays, housewarmings, birthdays, and job promotions, are celebrated around a meal together. I think these occasions are just reasons to meet and chat with friends and family.

Chopsticks in Vietnam Food Culture

Chopsticks are the main eating utensil. They are made of bamboo and are equal in length. Vietnamese people use chopsticks for many functions, such as cooking, picking, tearing, mixing, and extending the arm to reach the plates far from where one sits. 

Chopsticks are also an example of the philosophy of Yin-Yang balance. When picking the food, we move one chopstick up and down (Yang) to select the food and keep one chopstick balanced (Yin) to hold the food firmly. 

We often compare chopsticks to a couple, a Yin-Yang pairing. Vietnamese people have a saying, “Husband and wife are like a pair of chopsticks,” to describe this. 

I think it’s a good idea to learn how to use chopsticks before you visit Vietnam. (It’s not difficult.) Vietnamese food is much easier to eat with chopsticks than with, say, a fork.

Popular Dishes That Vietnamese People Often Eat

Cơm (Steamed Rice)

Rice is the main staple of Vietnamese cuisine and is consumed in various forms. We boil rice and have it with main dishes and soup almost every meal.

Xôi (Sticky Rice)

Sticky rice is mainly found in the daily meals of mountain people. On holiday, they dye the rice with leaves and fruits to cook colored sticky rice. 

Xôi Xéo: Sticky Rice with Mum Bean is a popular breakfast in Hanoi, sold for only VND 10,000. 

Gỏi Cuốn (Salad Rolls)

Chewy Gỏi Cuốn is another sample of rice used. The rice flour wrapper with greens, herbs, pineapple, cucumber, carrots, pork, or shrimp adds variation in texture. When eating, you dip the rolls in the dipping sauce. 

Phở

Phở is arguably the most famous food in Vietnamese cuisine. They place Phở noodles in a big bowl, followed by slices of meat, top with chopped spring onions and herbs, then pour hot broth into it. People add lime, vinegar, and chili according to their taste. In the south, Phở is often served with sprouts and basil. 

There are many variations of Phở based on different types of meat, such as duck Phở, pork Phở, sour Phở, and char-siu Phở, but the most famous are beef Phở and chicken Phở. Regarding the ways of cooking, we have Phở soup, stir-fried Phở, smoky stir-fried Phở, and Phở rolls.

Bún (Noodles)

The wet rice civilization has been essential in shaping Vietnam Food Culture. Not surprisingly, most Vietnamese noodles are made from rice. The remaining small amounts are from wheat flour, bean flour, or seaweed power. 

There are two ways to cook Vietnamese noodles: noodle soups and stir-fried noodles. Noodles are more prevalent in the North, while Hủ Tiếu – a dish originating from Chinese cuisine is more prevalent in the South. 

Nộm (Salad)

Vietnamese salad is a popular summer dish. People make it from several vegetables and herbs, pour it with a sour, sweet, and spicy sauce, and then sprinkle it with crushed roasted peanuts to add a crunchy texture. 

Salad is usually vegetarian. Meat, if it has, is only used as a condiment. 

Mắm

Mắm is the Vietnamese term for fermented fish, shrimp, squid, or other seafood, which is then distilled to create a salty liquid called fish/ shrimp/ squid sauce. Anchovies and mackerels are considered the best fish for making sauces. In the Mekong Delta, Mắm Cá (fermented fish) is used as a main dish. Depending on the fish used to ferment, there are dozens of different kinds of Mắm Cá. 

Vegetable Dishes

Vegetables are an indispensable dish in Vietnamese people’s daily meals. We consume many vegetables, raw (lettuce and herbs), boiled or stir-fried. Depending on the type of vegetable, the accompanying dipping sauce is fish sauce, Tương Bần (a Vietnamese salty paste made from fermented soybeans), or soy sauce. 

Hot Pot

Hot Pot isn’t a traditional Vietnamese food, but it became popular, especially in the chilly winter months in the North. 

Vietnamese cook the broth by steaming ribs, onions, and mushrooms for several hours and placing it on a small stove to ensure it always boils. Then, they dip meat, seafood, and vegetables into the hot broth to cook them before eating. 

You can have a hot pot at home or a restaurant. Hot Pot is a great way to meet friends and share talks during dinner.

Popular Drinks That Vietnamese People Often Have

Green Tea

Green tea is a traditional Vietnamese drink. People pour boiling water into a teapot with green tea and fresh or dried tea leaves and let it brew for about ten minutes before serving. They add boiling water twice or three times before discarding the tea residue. 

Sidewalk stalls sell hot tea in the winter and iced tea in the summer for VND 3,000 per serving. Add sugar and lemon juice, and we have the delicious iced lemon tea.

Coffee

Oh, coffee! I can talk about Vietnamese coffee all day long. Vietnamese coffee is a big part of Vietnamese food Culture. Every street is packed with dozens of large and small cafes, each with a few signature dishes of its own.

Coffee in Vietnam has many variations. In addition to two traditional coffee cups, Cà Phê Đen (black coffee) and Cà Phê Sữa Đá (iced coffee), we have Cà Phê Trứng (egg coffee), Cà Phê Sữa Dừa (coconut coffee), Bạc Sỉu (Saigon style coffee), Cà Phê Sữa Chua (yogurt coffee), and Cà Phê Muối (salt coffee.) Vietnamese coffee shows the diverse and vibrant development of the country through coffee cups.

Smoothies

Vietnam is a tropical country with heaps of fruits. The fertile land in the Mekong Delta makes it home to coconuts, dragon fruit, longan, jackfruit, rambutan, mango, pineapple, mangosteen, star apple, orange, avocado, and so much more. Therefore, smoothies in Vietnam are a favorite fresh and delicious drink.

Vietnamese Food Proverbs

Because food is essential in Vietnamese culture, you will find many Vietnamese sayings related to food or eating. With these sayings, they subtly teach their children how to behave in family and society, care for their health, choose ingredients, and cook properly. 

Bellow, I collect some famous proverbs that Vietnamese people often use to teach:

Choose good food in regions and seasons

Good food is in the North. Good wear is in the South.

Eat freshwater fish in summer. Eat sea fish in winter.

Sardines in May. Herring in October.

Choose good food when shopping

Check the stem when buying bottle gourds

Check the leaves when buying vegetables

Check the gills when buying fish

Check the claws when buying crabs

Combine herbs with ingredients

The chicken clucks for lemon leaves

The pig grumbles for spring onions

The importance of eating well

Being able to sleep and eat well is the most wonderful.

Good social manners

Check the status of the rice pot when eating; watch where direction you are sitting

Learn how to eat, how to speak, how to open, how to close.

Do good things, or descendants will have consequences

The father eats salty food, the children become thirsty.

It’s funny to find Vietnamese food proverbs that reflect secret relationships. The Vietnamese people use these sayings to warn people who cheat on their spouses

The husband has meatballs. The wife has spring rolls – if you cheat on your wife, she could do that with you, too.

Inappetence of rice. Desire for noodles – condemn married men who look for another relationship.

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