The fresh, layered flavors of Vietnamese cooking

It only took one meal to convert me into a lifelong fan of Vietnamese cuisine. It was 2002, and I was just beginning a month-long tour of the country when I stepped off Hanoi 's narrow, crowded streets into a tiny noodle shop. I ordered the restaurant's namesake, and only, dish: bun bo, rice vermicelli noodles with beef. Five minutes later, an aromatic bowl, heaped with a profusion of raw greens, was placed in front of me. I dipped in my chopsticks. My first bite contained crunchy fried shallots, cool strips of lettuce, sharp mint and other fresh herbs. Dipping further, I found hot, razor-thin slices of just-cooked beef and crisp mung bean sprouts, all nestled on a bed of temperate, al dente noodles.

That one dish held an intoxicating mix of temperatures, flavors, and textures: hot and cool, meaty and vegetal, tender and crunchy. It was a lunch experience so fulfilling, I returned for breakfast the next day. Back in New York and years later, I'm still chasing that perfect bowl of bun bo in every Vietnamese restaurant I can find.

East Meets West

Of course, my love affair with Vietnamese cuisine is hardly unique. Tourism is booming, with food as much of a draw as the country's seductive landscape. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain spent an entire year there, no doubt gathering invaluable material for his next book or TV series. And in the United States, immigrants are introducing diners to their unique cooking at a growing number of authentic eateries. American palates primed by other Southeast Asian cuisines are ready to make Vietnamese as popular as Thai.

Harmonious Contrasts

Like that bowl of bun bo, Vietnamese cooking is marked by contrasts. Fresh, deceptively simple dishes are built by layering flavors -- hot, sour, salty, and sweet -- and feature copious amounts of raw herbs and the smoky, complex, fermented fish sauce known as nuoc mam. Rice and rice noodles are staples, and ingredients are often wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten with dipping sauces.

Vietnamese cuisine can be divided into three regional varieties. In the cool, mountainous north, centering on old-world Hanoi, a history of Chinese rule is evident in Cantonese-style stir-fries and simple, brothy soups. The flat, arid central region serves up heartier, more refined dishes. In the hot, steamy south, including the burgeoning metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), tropical abundance is the rule: Seafood, pork, and numerous fruits and vegetables star in bold and spicy dishes, including curries inherited from nearby India. And throughout the country, banh mi (a kind of Vietnamese po'boy with meat, pate, hot peppers, and pickled vegetables) and strong, sweet coffee serve as reminders of Vietnam's French colonial past.

Chef Mai Pham has spent nearly two decades sharing Vietnamese cooking with Americans through her cookbooks, classes, and Sacramento restaurant. For more on her traditional recipes and tips, read on.

Traditional Vietnamese Recipes and Tips

Crispy Spring Rolls

Mom's Catfish in Claypot

Table Salad

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

Vietnamese "Pho" Rice Noodle Soup with Beef


-- by Jolene Bouchon


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