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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Hunter's Manual: A Guide to Vietnamese Food

Once a rare find, Vietnamese food seems to slowly, but surely be finding a place among the vast landscape of American restaurants. With Pho Viet becoming a solid foundation in Columbia, SC, and well... a bunch of random places serving pho in Greenville, NC, it seems like a good time to pull out a bit of a beginner's guide for a new generation of pho eaters out there. Read on to get a taste of the traditional dishes you can expect to find in a typical Vietnamese restaurant.

"Pho", more than just a cup of noodles.

Essentially Vietnam's national dish, this noodle dish is served in a delicious, savory slow cooked broth of soup bones, ginger, and various spices. Usually a choice between thinly cut slices of beef or chicken, this is definitely the dish to judge any Vietnamese restaurant on. You should look for a hot (as in fresh off the stove) sweet, savory broth. Cold broth's are an instant no-no! Garnish with fresh bean sprouts and fragrant basil for a comforting dish at any time of day. Pho, though simple in principle, easily is one of the hardest dishes to make and compare. No one person does it the same way, using different spices, seasonings, and even methods. Some even have paid thousands for an award-winning recipe for their restaurants.

Fun fact: Pho is traditionally a breakfast item in Vietnam.

"Bun Thit Nuong", pasta the Vietnamese way.

Thin slices of pork marinated in a bit of something sweet and grilled, served on top of noodles with pickled carrot/daikon (white radish), fried onion, and a sweetened fish sauce, bun thit nuong sounds like a heavy dish on paper, but is actually a wonderfully refreshing dish that fits the bill any time of the year. It comes in a ton of variations, sometimes adding shrimp or egg rolls to the mix. This is one dish that's all about the meat though. Some places are a bit heavy on the sugar, either making it burn or just too sweet. The right balance, however, makes this dish a winner. My personal favorite.

"Goi Cuon", fresh, fast, and fun.

The freshest of ingredients wrapped in rice paper, this Vietnamese appetizer is a classic starter at any restaurant. In the household, a few of these can easily become a meal any night of the week. There's a beautiful art with goi cuon, one that separates the winners from the losers. A pour wrap can spoil the whole show, leaving you in an ugly mess. A nice, tight wrap makes all the difference here. The second biggest key to this whole app is the sauce. Usually a hoisin sauce cooked down and sometimes combined with a little peanut butter and topped with chopped nuts, the sauce definitely makes this a killer app when done right (and should always be considering how easy it is to make!).

"Banh Mi", the king of sandwiches.

It's sweet, it's sour, it's salty, savory, fresh, crispy, and crunchy, a Vietnamese sandwich is just everything you look for in a great sandwich. It starts with a smear of pate on one side of a beautiful baguette, and then a slatter of butter on the other end. In goes various Asian cold cuts, including pork belly and Vietnamese ham, followed by a volley of veggies including the carrot/daikon mixture, cilantro, and a few jalapeno slices. Sometimes grilled pork is used instead in all its glory. Either way you serve this dish up, it's a real eye-catcher.

It can be a little tricky to find though. In the United States, they often are best out of sandwich shops rather than restaurants.

"Com Tam", the national rice dish.

Though it can come in a million different way, shapes, and forms, com tam is a traditional item featuring a special short grain rice served with a grilled pork chop, pickled carrots and daikons, a special baked meat/egg dish similar to a quiche, and fish sauce to tie things together. More traditional plates often include "bi", or pork skin. This is a bit of a bolder dish for those looking to try out Vietnamese food, but you'll should see it on most menus. There's so many factors that go into a great "Com Tam". The egg in particular can go wrong a million ways (I've even seen it blue on occasions. Blue!), and the pork chop can be dry in seconds if not served quickly. The fish sauce also is key in a great "Com Tam". If you want to play it safe and get a more surefire bet, try the dishes above first to make sure they get your seal of approval before venturing out for this dish.

Hopefully the next - or first - time you try out a Vietnamese restaurant, you can sink your teeth into some of these fantastic dishes. Thanks for reading!


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