Charmaine Solomon
34 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


While the food of Vietnam has been undeniably influenced by the cooking of China, it could not be mistaken for Chinese food, for authentic Vietnamese food has a very distinctive character. Fish sauce, nước mấm, replaces soy sauce where saltiness is required, and is added both during cooking and as an accompaniment. Nước mấm sauce (or nước chấm), which is served as an accompaniment with practically everything, is based on nước mấm with the addition of fresh chillies, garlic, sugar, lime or lemon and vinegar. The flavour is sharper and more pungent than any of the sauces you’d come across in Chinese cuisine.

Rice and noodles are the staple starches in the Vietnamese diet, but they have also cultivated a taste for French bread and I’m sure the Vietnamese bakeries in this country turn out the lightest, crunchiest baguettes outside of France. For a quick snack, they’re turned into tasty treats with beef, cooked Vietnamese-style, pâté or pressed pork sausage, chilli, fresh coriander and, of course, fish sauce. A delicious meal on the run.

Serving and eating a Vietnamese meal

Together with rice, soup is a basic item in a Vietnamese meal. Sometimes the meal is only a soup — but with the addition of a number of substantial ingredients. Like the Burmese with their national soup dish, moh hin gha, the Vietnamese will stop at any time of day or night to partake of a bowl of pho (pronounced ‘far-uh’ with a rising inflection and a glottal stop at the end), a delicate beef soup that most Westerners would enjoy. The long simmering gives a strong, nourishing stock and the inclusion of star anise gives it a fragrant aroma. Serve pho together with cooked rice noodles, a wedge of lemon, raw vegetables and zesty fresh herbs, along with your choice of raw or slightly cooked thinly sliced beef, although I have also tasted versions with chicken, which are just as tasty.

Rice is cooked by the absorption method, without salt. It is meant to be firm and separate, the grains having just enough cling so they can be picked up easily with chopsticks. Pot-roasted rice, a simple variation, has a flavour all its own and is considered a treat. It is easy to prepare and this method of cooking rice results in a drier and fluffier consistency. A fluffy consistency is desirable in Vietnamese cooking.

Chicken, fish, poultry and beef are all used in Vietnam, but not mutton (or lamb). Beef too is something of a luxury, for cattle are working animals. Pork is the most common meat. Chickens and ducks are reared and considered good investments because they produce eggs and provide meat. Fish and shellfish are common and cheap, for they are found in great abundance, even in the flooded rice paddies. They are used in many ways, but the most important use is in the making of nước mấm, for which a tiny fish called ‘rice fish’ is used. These fish are so small that they are likened to grains of rice.

Salads are popular in Vietnam. Simple combinations such as cooked chicken and shredded cabbage are given an exotic touch by the addition of chopped mint and fresh coriander leaves.

Vietnamese food includes a lot of fresh, uncooked vegetables and fruit, and food is more often cooked in water than oil — two reasons why a Vietnamese meal does not bring on a feeling of surfeit. Bowls and chopsticks are used to set the table and all the food is served at one time.

Desserts are not served at the end of a Vietnamese meal, but sweets and cakes are served as between-meal snacks, and offered to guests.


To cook Vietnamese-style, a wok is fundamental. You could invest in a heavy stone mortar and pestle, but for most grinding a food processor prepares ingredients with much less time and effort. The one recipe I feel needs a mortar and pestle is nước chấm. The liquid becomes too frothy when a blender is used, so depending on how enthusiastic you are and how authentic you want the food to be, choose your method of pulverising chillies and garlic accordingly. Wooden chopsticks are used for stirring and mixing. A large, heavy frying pan, a steamer and a large pot will equip you for any of these recipes.

Your Vietnamese shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Vietnamese cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

—bamboo shoots, tinned

—black pepper, whole and freshly ground

—cellophane (bean starch) noodles

—cinnamon sticks

—coconut milk and cream


—daun salam leaves

—dried shrimp paste

—fish cakes, Chinese-style

—fish sauce

—lily buds, dried

—lotus root, frozen

—oyster sauce

—peanut oil

—peanuts, raw unsalted

—rice paper wrappers

—rice, medium-grain

—rice, toasted ground

—rice wine or dry sherry

—sesame oil

—sesame sauce or paste

—sesame seeds

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—spring roll wrappers

—star anise

—turmeric, ground

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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