Nestled in steamy Southeast Asia, the tiny country of Vietnam -- 1,000 miles long but just 35 miles wide -- is steeped in a culinary tradition all its own. And Vietnamese food is fast becoming one of the hottest ways to jazz up America's calorie-conscious dinner table.
"It is a naturally healthful cuisine, but also one where each dish is an explosion of flavors -- so you come away feeling as if you have eaten something truly spectacular, but you haven't consumed a lot of calories," says Mai Pham, chef and owner of Lemongrass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., and author of The Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.
Vietnam is bordered by China on the north, and Laos and Cambodia on the west. Its southernmost tip dips into the Gulf of Thailand, while its eastern shores border the South China Sea. As a result, the country has become a kind of catchall for the best of various types of Southeast Asian cooking. The end result is a style that is unique.
"Vietnam food borrows a little from each culture, but puts it together in a way that is uniquely its own," says Nancie McDermott, author of Quick and Easy Vietnamese. "It's a very individualized kind of cuisine where a lot of the dishes are blended at the table, so the exact combination of what is eaten is often left to the individual diner."
While Asian cooking generally uses lots of flavorful herbs and spices, in Vietnam there are fewer choices, but bigger flavors. The reason? Herbs are not just used to enhance the foods; they are part of the meal itself.
"The traditional Vietnam dinner table always contains a salad bowl into which we place several very flavorful herbs such as mint, Vietnam coriander (rau rum), red perilla, and green perilla [like lemon balm]," says Tham.
And that doesn't mean just a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. The typical Vietnamese meal is brimming with chunks of fresh herbs that are cut (not chopped) into every individual serving bowl.
"We cut a whole leaf in two so there are large chunks," says Tham. "When you bite into it, you get a real burst of flavor."
The herb/lettuce/vegetable combo is most often then covered with round rice noodles, known as banh pho.
"Like other Asian cultures, rice is a mainstay in Vietnamese cooking," says McDermott. "It gives a nice balance to the flavorful herbs and, in fact, the traditional 'noodle' bowl is present on almost every dinner table."
Indeed, Vietnam's national dish is the flavorful pho, a broth made with rice noodles and brimming with savory greens, including basil and bean sprouts. Pho bo is made with beef broth, while Pho ga is made with chicken broth.
But it's not just flavor that you'll find on a Vietnamese table. According to executive Chef Quoc Luong of Chicago's La Colonial restaurant, you'll also find foods chosen for their health-giving properties.
Another healthful and popular herb, he says, is red chili, which in Vietnamese tradition is considered good for the blood and the cardiovascular system.
Further, says Luong, "many Vietnamese dishes are very low-calorie and high in lots of healthful nutrients."
Vietnamese cuisine is also distinguished by the generous use of dipping sauces, which help to give the food its distinctive flavor.
A typical sauce recipe combines garlic, chilies, lime juice or vinegar, sugar, and the hallmark ingredient, fish sauce. Known in Vietnam as nuoc mam, fish sauce is made from salt-cured anchovies that are placed in the barrel raw and left to marinate over time.
"Fish sauce is the quintessential Vietnamese ingredient, and you find it not only in the dipping sauces but in almost every dish except sweets," says McDermott.
Pham says each chef adds his or her own ingredients to their sauces to give them distinctive flavor.
"You can vary the type of fish sauce and how you prepare the other ingredients," says Pham. "I like to pound chilies and garlic and use freshly squeezed lime juice instead of vinegar, and then thicken it with lime pulp -- it is like a very tasty salad dressing without the oil."
Meat Is Not the Main Attraction
Another reason Vietnamese foods tends to be lower in fat and calories: In Vietnamese cooking, meat is used more like a condiment than a main course.
"In Vietnamese restaurants here in America, we serve about 3 ounces of protein for each serving, but in Vietnam it is usually 2 ounces and no more than 2.5 ounces per serving," says Pham. "Protein is not a big part of our meal."
The preparation is also simple, she says. Meats are most often cut into thin strips or slices, soaked in a simple marinade that might contain shallots, lemongrass and some fish sauce, then grilled quickly and brought to the table in warm clay pots.
"The idea then is to pick up a piece of meat, put it in the dipping sauce, pick up some herbs and rice and put the complete bite into your mouth," says Pham. The flavors blend together and explode in your mouth, she says.
Chicken and pork are frequently bathed in a caramel sauce, while salmon can be treated to either caramel or a chili-lime sauce.
Another traditionally Vietnamese way of serving all these ingredients is to wrap them in rice paper. You end up with a dish that's similar to an egg roll, but without the frying – sort of a healthful "sandwich to go."
"The rice paper is so thin you can literally see inside, and one look will tell you that everything in there is healthy and good for you," says Pham.
One thing you generally won't find much of in Vietnamese food is fat, Pham says.
"We use lots of little pots and when we fry, we use a small wok with very little oil, as compared to Chinese cooking which requires a huge fiery hot wok filled with lots of oil," says Pham.
McDermott says Vietnamese cuisine is great for dieters because so many of the dishes are served separately, allowing you to blend the foods and dip into the sauces as much or as little as you like.
"You can really customize your meal and create it to your specific taste," says McDermott.
If you're thinking these meals don't sound very filling, McDermott and Pham say that's not the case. They say you come away from a Vietnamese meal feeling extremely satisfied – something they credit to the palate-pleasing blend of ingredients and tastes.
"Nowhere is there such comparable devotion to flavor and aroma, so that there is literally pleasure in every bite," McDermott says.
If you're intrigued by this enticing cuisine, and want to give it a try, Vietnamese restaurants are springing up around the country.
Or you can try making it yourself. Because Vietnamese food doesn't use a lot of exotic ingredients and the cooking techniques are easy to master, it's a great addition to your menu, McDermott says.
Moreover, Pham adds that most of the dishes are served room temperature, which makes it easy to cook ahead of time and serve up when you're hungry.
To help you launch a Vietnamese taste experience in your house, Pham and McDermott offer these easy–to-make and easy-to-eat dishes.
Chicken and Cabbage Salad with Fresh Mint
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as "entrée salad with meat, poultry or seafood."
The Vietnamese herb called rau ram is a perfect complement for the chicken and other seasonings in this dish, but fresh mint is lovely if you don't have rau ram. In Vietnam this salad, goi ga, is traditionally served with mien ga, a nourishing chicken dish made with the broth created by poaching chicken for this salad.
1 pound boneless chicken breast, or 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar, cider vinegar, or freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup very thinly sliced onion
2 cups finely shredded green, savoy, or napa cabbage
3/4 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, cilantro, or basil leaves
1/2 cup rau ram leaves (available at Asian markets; optional)
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted and salted peanuts (optional)
- Put chicken in a medium saucepan and add 2 to 3 cups water, enough to cover chicken by about 1/2 inch. Bring to rolling boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer. Cook until done, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and pepper in a medium bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar and mix everything well. Add sliced onion and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, until you are ready to complete the dish.
- Transfer the meat to a plate to cool, reserving the broth for another use, such as making soup or cooking rice. When the chicken is cool, tear it into long, thin shreds. Coarsely chop the mint and/or herbs. Add the shredded chicken, cabbage, carrots, mint, and herbs to the bowl of onions and seasonings, and toss to coat everything well. Mound the salad on a serving plate, and top with chopped peanuts, if using. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from Vietnamese Cooking Made Easy by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books; 2005). Reprinted with permission.
Everyday Dipping Sauce
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal 1 tablespoon as "1 teaspoon sugar or honey."
This sauce appears on the table at most Vietnamese meals. A little bit sweet, a tad salty, pleasantly tangy, and gently spicy, it makes a pleasing refrain to the music that is Vietnamese food. Add a small handful of shredded carrots and you have a vegetable relish as well as a dipping sauce.
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce or finely chopped fresh hot red chilies; or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- Combine the garlic; sugar; and chili-garlic sauce, chilies, or flakes, in the bowl of a mortar and mash to a paste. (Or combine them on your cutting board and mash to a coarse paste using a fork and the back of a spoon.)
- Scrape the paste into a small bowl and stir in the fish sauce, water, and lime juice. Stir well to dissolve sugar.
- Transfer to small serving bowls for dipping. Or transfer to a jar, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Yield: About 1/2 cup (8 1-tablespoon servings)
Recipe from Vietnamese Cooking Made Easy by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books; 2005). Reprinted with permission.
Rice Paper-Wrapped Salad Rolls
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one roll as "side salad mixed" + "one slice of bread."
Similar to a salad that has been rolled up, this dish is usually eaten as a snack, although it also makes a lovely lunch. The key is to make the rolls tight, and that requires practice. You can substitute chicken, beef, or tofu and mushrooms for the filling. Grilled fish such as salmon also works well. You can serve whole or cut into smaller pieces to make them easier to serve and share. The recipe calls for untrimmed pork because the dish benefits from a little fat.
1/3 pound pork shoulder, untrimmed, cut into two pieces
12 medium-size raw shrimp, unpeeled
8 (12-inch) round rice papers (plus some extras)
1 small head red leaf lettuce, leaves separated and washed
4 ounces rice vermicelli or rice sticks, boiled 5 minutes, rinsed, and drained (find these in the Asian section of your supermarket)
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup Vietnamese Bean Dipping Sauce (recipe below)
- Cook the pork in boiling salted water until done but still firm enough for slicing, about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring another small pot of water to a boil. Add shrimp and cook until they turn pink, about 3 minutes. Rinse under running water and set aside to drain. When they're cool enough to handle, shell, de-vein, and cut in half lengthwise. Refresh in cold water and set aside.
- Remove pork from heat and drain. When cool enough to handle, slice into thin slices, about 1 by 2 1/2 inches. Place on a small plate and set aside.
- Set up a salad roll "station": Line a cutting board with a damp kitchen towel. Fill a large mixing bowl with hot water and place nearby. (Keep some boiling water handy to add to the bowl.) Arrange the ingredients in the order they will be used: pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, mint and lettuce.
- Working with 2 rice paper sheets at a time, dip 1 sheet, edge first, in the hot water and turn to wet completely, about 10 seconds. Lay it on the towel. Repeat with the second sheet and place it alongside the first. This allows you to work with one while the second is setting.
- Line the bottom third of the rice sheet with 3 shrimp halves, cut side up, then top with two slices of pork. Add 1 tablespoon rice vermicelli, 1 tablespoon bean sprouts, and 4 to 5 mint leaves. (Arrange the ingredients so the rolls end up being about 5 inches long and 1 inch wide.) Halve a lettuce leaf lengthwise along its center rib. Roll up in one piece and place on the filling. (Trim if too long.) While pressing down on the ingredients, fold over the filling, then fold in the two sides and roll into a cylinder. If paper feels thick, stop at three-quarters of the way and trim the end piece. (Too much rice paper can make the rolls chewy.) Repeat with the remaining rice papers and filling.
- To serve, cut rolls into 2 or 4 pieces and place them upright on a plate. Serve sauce on the side.
Yield: 6 appetizer servings
Per serving (not including rice paper):188 calories, 12 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 8.2 g fat, 2.4 g saturated fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 319 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 39%.
Recipe from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham (2001; Harper Collins). Reprinted with permission.
Vietnamese Bean Dipping Sauce
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal 2 tablespoons as "1 teaspoon mayonnaise."
This recipe is very simple and quite delicious, especially if you can find whole fermented soybeans. You can also embellish it with garlic, chilies, and ginger and serve it on grilled fish, chicken and beef. If you can't find soybeans, substitute 1/3 cup of hoisin sauce and omit the sugar.
1/4 cup whole fermented soybeans (look for these at an Asian market)
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup coconut milk (you may find this in cans in the Asian or cocktail mixer section of your supermarket)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ground chili paste (or to taste)
1 tablespoon chopped roasted peanuts
- Place the soybeans (or hoisin sauce), water, coconut milk, vinegar, onions, and sugar in a blender or food processor. Process just until the mixture is smooth.
- Transfer to a saucepan and bring to a boil over moderate heat. (If you don't have a food processor or blender, cook the soybean mixture first, then beat with a whisk.) Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 5 minutes. Add a little water if it's too thick. Set aside to cool.
- To serve, transfer to individual sauce bowls and garnish with chili paste and chopped peanuts. Sauce will keep up to two weeks if refrigerated.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 38 calories, 1.5 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 2.2 g fat, 1.3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .2 g fiber, 1 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 49%.
Recipe from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham (Harper Collins; 2001). Reprinted with permission