Vietnamese 101: Get to know the essential dishes

Learn about the flavors and ingredients of five essential Vietnamese dishes, from cookbook author Andrea Nguyen.

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Should you add sriracha to pho? How many types of meat come in a bánh mì? Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen (Into the Vietnamese Kitchen) breaks down the five essential Vietnamese dishes.


Pho at Saiguette

Pho at Saiguette Photograph: Filip Wolak


Pho
Hold the sriracha: A good bowl of this vermicelli soup doesn’t require any squirts of the garlicky chili sauce. “It’s kind of like adding ketchup to a bowl of chicken noodle soup,” says Nguyen. Instead, flavor the steaming beef-bone broth—clear, delicate and slightly sweet—with fragrant add-ins like basil, lime and chopped green chilies, to your liking. Pho first-timers can stick with whisper-thin slices of cooked beef tenderloin, but offal lovers will want to order the works for a mix of tripe, tendon and other cow parts.

Bun bo Hue
Unlike pho, this noodle soup—named after the beachside city of Hue—isn’t subtle of flavor. Teeming with pork hock, sliced beef shank and rice vermicelli (resembling thick spaghetti), bun bo Hue packs a punch thanks to a fiery topping of red chili paste. “It’s very Central Vietnamese,” says Nguyen. “They can’t grow much, so what they do with their food is spicy and gutsy.”

Kho
While the translation for the term kho is “to simmer,” here it signifies plates made with nuoc màu, a bittersweet fish-sauce caramel. The hearty, stick-­to­-your-ribs sauce, a staple of home cooks throughout Vietnam, is best with seafood­—Nguyen recommends shrimp or catfish­­.

Bò kho
Nguyen calls this Southern Vietnamese beef stew an easy gateway to the country’s cuisine. The main ingredients (chunks of shank, carrots and tomato) are familiar, but the flavorings (star anise, ginger and lemongrass) are classically Vietnamese. “If you don’t want to attack a plate of herbs and a bowl full of weird beef parts, here’s a beef stew, and you can eat it with bread.”

Banh mi
This Franco-Vietnamese sandwich features four cuts of pork: headcheese, pâté, giò (a Vietnamese mortadella) and garlicky pieces of shank. And a good version doesn’t skimp on pickled daikon and carrots. A French-style baguette—with the interior scooped out—is the best vehicle for the filling. There’s a crunchy crust, but the airy crumb shouldn’t overshadow the ingredients.


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