You will always smell the fresh herbs and pungent fish sauce in just about every Vietnamese dish. No matter where you travel in Vietnam, you just can’t ignore those smells. Each dish could really have its own bottled fragrance.
The Five Flavor Philosophy
Vietnamese cuisine has taken several influences from surrounding countries, but one of the most important aspects is that the vast majority of dishes are only lightly cooked, with the emphasis placed on fresh and tasty ingredients.
One philosophy that is seen in the variety of spices used is that most meals will try and balance the sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty flavors. This idea of including five aspects to the meal also spreads to other aspects of the dishes, with top chefs looking to create meals with five colors and all five types of nutrients included in the meal.
Vietnam has a climate that is perfect for growing spices. The delicate, flavorful, colorful fresh herbs known, as a whole, as rau thơm in Vietnamese, or “fresh vegetable,” are one of Vietnamese food’s best and most distinguishing features.
Whether you’re ordering a steaming bowl of soup or a crispy, fried crab spring roll, your dish will almost always arrive with a heaping plate of aromatic fresh herbs. From basil to coriander, fresh herbs are thrown into salads, wrapped in fresh rolls, and served in piles to garnish soups. A fresh sprig of mint not only cuts the salt of a minced pork patty served on top of noodles, but also lightens the meal, bringing a bright, zingy relief.
Salty, funky, fermented fish sauce, or nước mắm in Vietnamese, is used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings, spring roll dips, and it's really hard to think of any dish where it's not used. It’s like magic when you take fish sauce, mix it with a little lime, garlic and chili. Fish sauce in its pure form then becomes a little softer, subdued and more manageable on the palette. Varying in so many degrees of sweet-ness, spicy-ness, garlicky-ness and lime-ness, each household will make claim to having “mom’s best” version.
So now you have it, the simple But yet sophisticated secrets of Vietnamese food. Make yourself an adventure story for the palate.