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Of pho and fish sauce: in restaurants and on grocers' shelves, more U.S. consumers get a taste of Vietnamese cuisine.

A fusion in itself of Chinese, French, and other ethnic cuisines, the foods of Vietnam are growing in awareness and popularity among U.S. consumers. Indeed, according to a recent poll by the National Restaurant Association, awareness of Vietnamese cuisine has risen sharply over recent years--a full eight percentage points since 1994.

And while Vietnamese food varies from region to region, there is an authenticity to whichever version you prefer: northern Vietnamese dishes, flavored with soy and cooked with chopsticks as in neighboring China; the Viet-Thai types that are just a bit spicier; the southern Vietnamese, with the touch of chili pepper and a little more chicken than beef.

Vietnamese cuisine is distinctive, with undertones of fine French cooking methods, many fresh vegetables and fruits, and small amounts of red meat, fish, and poultry with generous quantities of rice, grains, and rice noodles. The food can be quite simple and inexpensive, of very complex and high priced. But it definitely has an identity all its own.

A Healthy Alternative

Will Vietnamese food enter the mainstream of international cuisine? According to Vietnam native Dr. Pimpa Tara, now living in Valparaiso, Ind., the foods of her childhood north of Hue aren't too far from what health conscious American's are striving for now.

"The popular Vietnamese dishes are an ideal diet for Americans who want to be healthy. The balance between fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and complex carbohydrates is good," she says. "Most of the foods are available here, except some of the exotic fruit."

Tara buys her fish sauce at a local gourmet shop and regularly shops Argyle Avenue stores in nearby Chicago. "I can get good pho (soup) bases on Argyle, and if I run out, Campbell's beef consomme can be dressed up enough with herbs, ginger, and fresh beef. The one thing I miss is the smell of food cooking, though. They'd have to do something to recreate that mouthwatering aroma. American fast food just doesn't have it!"

StockPot, a division of Campbell Soup, is among the major food processors entering the Asian food market, with soup stock, and sauces (such as peanut sauce.) "Demand is growing for Vietnamese products, and the pho base is doing nicely in non-Ethnic uses as well," says Kathleen Horner, StockPot president. "It's a clean, well-balanced formula that supports a lot of dishes," she says.

According to Mintel International Group's report, "The U.S. Emerging Ethnic Food Market," sales of easy-to-prepare ethnic product increased by 41 percent between 1996 and 2000, and Vietnamese cuisine is one of several that is acceptable across the board. Sales of packaged Asian foods in mainstream American markets totaled $651 million last year.

Whether the growing number of Vietnamese restaurants that have sprung up in large cities across the country, reflect the influx of Vietnamese immigrants in those cities--currently well over a million, including their American-born children--the interest of Americans who have spent time in Vietnam either as servicemen, or tourists who have visited the exotic country in increasing numbers; or simply sophisticated diners anxious to sample Vietnamese cuisine, these restaurants offer a wide variety of dishes as would be expected from the many influences that affect the country. Vietnam was once a possession of China; its people are closely related to Thai, Cambodians, and Laotians; and Vietnam was a colony of the French from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Two Rice Bowls by the Sea

Vietnamese describe their country as shaped like two rice bowls linked with a carrying pole, the pole being a mountain range. That general shape also describes the shape of the yoke that street vendors use, with a brazier for cooking on one side, and pots, pans, and raw foods on the other. Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) is the center of the northern portion, in which the food has more similarities to Chinese foods, with stir fries, some use of soy sauce, and food flavored with black pepper.

Thai preferences are found in the Vietnamese cuisine nearest that country, and the Southern Vietnamese prefer their food to be subtle, with fish sauce (more about that condiment later) replacing soy sauce, and more restrained use of chili peppers than found in other Asian cuisines.

Mai Pham, owner of Lemongrass restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., and the author of a number of cookbooks, notes that "the current concerns about healthiness makes Vietnamese cuisine a naturally preferred food for health-conscious Americans.

"Vietnamese food uses rice, wheat, and legumes, not much fat, lots of vegetables and herbs, and meat as a flavor adjunct," Pham says. "It is healthy, its major flavor note is freshness, and it isn't exotic. Americans find it familiar."

Street Food in Vietnam: Fast Food in the U.S.

"Street food" sold in fish markets and floating markets of Vietnam includes rice pancakes cooked with seafood, pastries stuffed with minced pork filling (bate gan), rice cakes made from rice flour so they are sticky and not overly sweet (banh bo), and the omnipresent pho (pronounced "fer").

In Nha Trang, in Central Vietnam, the soup is made by placing a sieve of rice noodles in a bowl, adding white onion slices, chopped red chili, some shaved ginger, some bean sprouts and sliced raw beef, then beef stock, fresh lime, fish sauce, and herbs such as mint, coriander and such. Much of the food is cooked on the spot, providing a small margin of safety, which enhances the fresh nature of most of the food.

One can see the Chinese, Thai, and French influence: lots of sticky rice, fresh meat and vegetables, and light, airy puff pastry. Rice pancakes are not that different from corn flour wraps, after all, of corn crepes. Puff pastry with minced pork filling could be compared to a croissant with meat salad filling, and spring rolls that are sauteed, not deep fried and called nem ran, are a popular street food.

A major difference between street food in Vietnam, and pho shops and similar last foods in the United States is that street Foods in Vietnam come to the customer. The street cook appears in front of a prospective customer, according to Australian food writer Shannon Rogers, and sets up shop on the street. She describes one such meal of pancakes made from rice flour, cooked over pieces of squid, and served on a plate.

"They were absolutely delicious, although they were slippery. They were dipped into a dipping sauce and diced green herbs. They were probably the best meal I had in Nha Trang." Rogers goes on to point out that she had no untoward digestive effects. And while the pancakes are exotic, similar products are made and served at McDonalds every day, so the methods of manufacture are translatable.

Subtle Pho, the National Dish

The Vietnamese love pho, a broth of beef, chicken or seafood, but usually beef, over delicate rice noodles with additional garnishes. Pho--which may be a corruption of the French pot au-feu, which cooks unceasingly on the back of the stove in French households and restaurants or perhaps a corruption of the Vietnamese word for rice--resembles the French stock, made from scrappy beef and cracked bones, simmered for awhile, and ladled over rice noodles, rice, and/or vegetables and thin slices of meat.

Usual spices and herbs include star anise, cinnamon, a form of basil and mint. Onions and vegetables may be added, and are often charred or fried; much like the French would prepare vegetables in a mirepoix. Pho is more to Vietnam than hamburgers are to the United States: it's fast food sold in small huts along every road, it's eaten at all times of the day, and is even fed to babies. In the U.S., like the hamburger, the bowl of pho is about a third larger than a bowl of pho in Vietnam.

Pho is popular in major cities in the United States, introduced by Vietnamese immigrants, but now eaten by many nationalities, in various forms. When Mai Pham needed a base [or pho and other dishes that didn't take all day to prepare in her restaurant, Lemongrass, she worked with Stockpot, Campbell Soup's subsidiary, to provide a suitable stock. The stock is now used in many ma]or Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants. The Stockpot offering is chicken based, with traditional herbs and spices.

Quoc Viet Foods (Westminster, Calif.) is a two-and-a-half year old company specializing in manufacturing and distributing Vietnamese soup bases and seasonings. Traditional Vietnamese products are converted into a convenient form, processed from natural ingredients without preservatives. The products include chicken and beef pho bases; hue-style beef, hu tieu pork, tamarind and vegetarian soup bases; and beef stew seasoning. The products are shelf-stable and are offered in sizes for retail and food service.

A special demand for the company's products indicative of shifting demographics in Southern California is from four Orange County hospitals, says Brian Nguyen, a partner in the business and the firm's chief food scientist. The demand for the soup bases comes from both the patients (half of which are Vietnamese) as well as the staff (about a third of the which are Vietnamese). "The foods are popular with other patients as well," he says.

Fish Sauce: The Universal Condiment

If pho is Vietnam's hamburger, then fish sauce, or nuoc mam, is its catsup. Made from anchovies, salt, and water, and fermented, it may have added ginger, pepper, and other flavors. In one form or another, the odoriferous sauce is used all over Southeast Asia. Its first cousin, Worchestershire sauce, is used worldwide (after being calmed down significantly in the aroma department).

Fish sauce is generally a local product, made by local restaurant operators or home cooks, in small quantities, although it is bottled for use in Vietnam and for export. The success of many dishes depends on nuoc mam, which has many variations.

At least one major company sees a future in fermented fish sauce, and has filed for a patent on a sauce with a reduced fishy smell. Unilever has filed for the patent, describing a condiment that contains tamarind and ginger, gutted fish, and salt.

"The fish sauce is milder than the original, which was pretty pungent," says patent author A. Rahayu, who halls from Indonesia. "It's suitable for a wide range of Asian cuisines, including Vietnamese, and a sauce like this one could be used to add savory notes to all kinds of cuisine.".

Fine Dining Vietnam-Style

Many major American cites now boast high-end restaurants featuring upscale interpretations of Vietnamese food. At Chicago's Le Colonial, diners enjoy the sultry romance of 1920s Saigon while sampling Executive Chef Chef Quoc Luong's creations.

Even in fine restaurants, all of the dishes appear on the table simultaneously, and diners use chopsticks to mix and blend the flavors together. Generally, Vietnamese food doesn't use much milk or cheese, presumably because of a high rate of lactose-intolerance among the Vietnamese. For that reason, native foods avoid dairy ingredients, and only the most derivative of Vietnamese foods include significant amounts of dairy foods.

Vietnamese cuisine is growing more popular, and possibly, less authentic, as it spreads into the American culture. But with keynote values such as freshness, light flavors and familiar ingredients--who can resist?

The Flavors of Vietnam

The Vietnamese build their cuisine on fresh vegetables and fruits as well as a full complement of protein sources--beef, pork, poultry (primarily chicken) and especially seafood. After all, the country has some 2,000 miles of coast line. Vegetables in common use include cabbage, onions, garlic and bean sprouts, Fruit often serves as a dessert or appetizer.

In typical Vietnamese foods, the fruit, vegetables, meat and herbs are fresh; condiments are generally made at home, in local restaurants, or a few manufacturing plants. To date, one of the reasons for the slow movement of Vietnamese foods toward processed products is the emphasis on freshness.


Dipping sauces are essential to Vietnamese cuisine, and none is more ubiquitous than fish sauce (nuoc mam). The best is made of a silvery, almost translucent type of anchovy named ca com, which is layered, salted, and left to ferment for months in wood barrels. Following three months, juice is extracted and then poured back into the barrel atop the layered anchovies. Flash forward six months and juices are extracted again, the result being the first pressing, which is also the best quality. Subsequent pressings are weaker and used with every day items such as stir fries and stews.

One of the more popular dipping sauces is nuoc mare cham (also nuoc cham), a fermented fish sauce diluted with lime juice and distilled with white rice vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies and garlic. The sauce typically is made in large batches--and with good reason. It accompanies many, if not all, Vietnamese dishes, from complex meat and fish preparations to a simple bowl of steamed rice. Like salt or butter, it is always on the table.

Other Vietnamese dipping sauces are associated with specific dishes, one being nuoc leo, a peanut sauce served with grilled pork meatballs (nem nuong) or summer rolls (goi cuon). Another is mam nem, a pineapple and anchovy dip that accompanies beef dishes, notably beef fondue (bo nhung dam).

And although we tend to associate soy sauce with Chinese or Japanese cooking, Vietnamese also use it because of its distinctive flavor.

Pickled/preserved vegetables are eaten daily and relatively simple to prepare. To pickle, simply use white rice vinegar, sugar and salt. To preserve, use salted water.

Garnishes include fried shallots, scallion oil and fried garlic oil, all of which are drizzled over steamed pates, soups, and grilled meats or seafood. While fried shallots bring sweetness and crunchy texture to rice noodle and chicken soup (pho ga), fried garlic adds a pungent note to sweet and sour fish and pineapple soup (canh co nau dua).


As its name suggests, the grayish green stalks of lemon grass impart a lemony flavor to dishes. Remove the outer leaves, then use about six inches of the base, discarding the top and the very bottom. It's best to cut lemongrass into large pieces that can be easily removed after the dish is cooked. Frozen lemongrass is a good substitute for fresh, but dried lemongrass (soaked in hot water) is only a fair substitute. Use powdered version (called sereh powder) only in a pinch. Equivalents: 1 small, trimmed stalk = 1 teaspoon sereh powder = 1 tablespoon dried lemon grass. Substitutes: lemon zest (zest from 1 lemon = 2 stalks lemon grass) or lemon verbena or lemon balm or lemon leaves.

Laksa leaf commonly is sprinkled on laksa soups, It has a strong, minty, peppery flavor. It's sold in bunches with lots of pointy leaves on each stem. Substitutes: mint or equal parts mint and cilantro.

Basil is widely used in Southeast Asia, where it's often stir-fried with other ingredients.

Native to Asia, coriander is mainly cultivated for its seeds, which have a fragrant aroma and aromatic taste similar to a combination of lemon peel and sage, The popular herb cilantro comes from the same plant, but it's not a good substitute for the seeds. You can buy the seeds already ground, but for better flavor and shelf life, buy coriander seeds and grind them yourself. To enhance the flavor, toast the seeds in a pan for a few minutes first. Substitutes: caraway seeds or cumin.

Vietnamese cooks use star anise to add a licorice flavor to savory dishes, particularly those with pork and poultry. It's available whole or ground. Use it sparingly--a little goes a long way. Substitutes: anise seed + pinch of allspice (weaker flavor; 1 crushed star anise = 1/2 teaspoon crushed anise seed) of Chinese five-spice powder (contains star anise and other spices) or anise extract (use just a few drops)


Bean sprouts are usually from mung beans, and produce a fleshy sprout about 1-2 in long. In Vietnam, they are purchased daily, and used very fresh, avoiding same of the bacterial problems that are typical of bean sprouts in the United States.

Jicama looks like a large turnip, has crisp, white flesh, and is used in stir-fries, salads, and soups. It is available in the U.S. market.

Lotus stems and roots are peeled and added to soups and salads. They are available in the United States, brined and jarred.

Water chestnuts, the root of the water caltrop, are actually a tuber that is crisp and white, and firm textured. Water chestnuts are available in canned form.

Pink-tipped, shiny pieces of young ginger are mild and usually don't need to be peeled. Other familiar vegetables used in Vietnamese cuisine include bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, green onions and garlic.


Fruit products are used for garnish and as a sweet dessert and as a food between meals. Many of the varieties ore not only tropical, but also very difficult to ship or process. Some are native to Southeast Asia, others were brought from Central America.

Longan and lychee are brown and brittle, and the flesh is translucent and juice and sweet. Lychee are available canned in syrup.

Mangosteen is a dark purple fruit, similar to the Japenese persimmon, with white segments of flesh. The fruit tastes somewhat like grapes or strawberries.

Rambutan, the "hairy cherry" is green to yellow in color, with white flesh

Sapodilla is an import from Central America, used in Vietnamese cuisine for its light brown fresh that is sweet and molasses, and resinous.

Sweet-sop or custard apple is similar to a pomegranate, with a lot of seeds and an edible layer covering each seed. It is syrupy and sticky.

Star fruit are elongated, bright yellow, waxy appearing fruit that is star shaped in cross section. They are rather bitter, and used primarily as a garnish. They are available in many American grocer/stores.

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Author:Katz, Frances
Publication:Food Processing
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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