By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
When I travel to Việt Nam, the number one highlight for me is not even seeing family — it’s being able to sample dishes and food that I cannot get here in Seattle. And that’s not a knock on my family members — I love them. It’s more to illustrate to you just how freaking good Vietnamese food is.
Here are 10 dishes that are hard to come by stateside! (And if you happen to know of a good rendition here in Seattle, please let me know. And emphasis on good. I don’t want recommendations of crap versions, okay?)
1. Hà Nội phở
I know, it’s funny that I’m starting off my list with phở, probably the most recognizable Vietnamese dish to Americans. But here in the U.S., you’ve probably have never tried Hà Nội-style phở.
Hà Nội is the second largest city in Việt Nam and also its capital. It resides in the north of the country, which is noteworthy because Việt Nam was demarcated into North and South during its civil war, which ended in 1975. Because of the complicated politics of the war and the emotions it stirs up among Vietnamese diaspora, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees from the South — we don’t see Hà Nội-style phở ever in Seattle. As my parents say, it’s communist phở, and they’re not into it.
You gotta try it at least once though, if only to compare it to what has become iconic in the States. The phở we know well in the U.S. is Saigon-style phở, or Southern-style. It’s super pimped out compared to its granddaddy, Hà Nội-style phở, which is a minimalist beef noodle soup with simple adornments. You don’t get hoisin or sriracha with it. You get limes and a chili peppers.
2. Cao lầu
Cao lầu is kind of a unicorn. You can only find it in the beautiful city-town of Hội An, which is so culturally dope it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
Cao lầu is a dry-ish noodle bowl, and I think the noodles are what makes it distinct. They are fat, chewy, but not to the point that they’re like tapioca noodles. Supposedly, the noodles are so unique because there’s something in Hội An’s water. Cao lầu is a hodgepodge of savory sauce, local fresh greens, and crispy pork belly that you mix with chopsticks before shoving into your mouth.
3. Bánh khoái
Bánh khoái literally means “likable carbs” because Vietnamese people tell it like it is. Bánh khoái hails from the central (middle) region of the country, where Huế is. Huế is the former imperial city that used to house Việt Nam’s monarchy. The food here is petite and embodies extremes — really spicy, really salty, really sweet, and really sour — all at once.
Accompanying this petite crispy rice pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp and other goodies is nước lèo, which — traditionally — is a sweet-salty sauce made from liver. Lazy people who are scared of liver have adapted this sauce using peanuts. But in Huế, you can find the original gangsta.
(If you’re familiar with bánh xèo, it might interest you to know that that popular dish is probably the direct descendant of bánh khoái.)
4. Mì quảng
Named after the Quảng Nam province, mì quảng is a noodle bowl that can’t decide if it wants to be soupy or dry, so it decided to stay staunchly middle about it. The small pool of broth on the bottom is really salty and not super sippable. This is a dish meant to be mixed.
Mì quảng’s wide, soft rice noodles are sometimes colored yellow with turmeric. (My photo shows an unassembled frog version of this — yes, frog.) An iconic part of this dish is the crush of peanuts and bánh tráng (toasted rice crackers) sprinkled over the top of this for texture.
5. Nước chanh muối
Nước chanh muối is basically a limeade drink — with a fistful of salt thrown in. (It kind of reminds me of Gatorade?) When I went to Việt Nam with my family, my siblings hated this and I loved this. This drink is made with preserved limes — limes that have been pickled for weeks in a container full of salt. After the limes lose their green and take on a yellow-y hue, they are ready. You smash slices of the preserved lime, rind and all, with sugar before adding ice and water. It is awesome and probably an acquired taste for most Americans. (So maybe I was wrong, and it’s not like Gatorade at all.)
6. Bánh ram-ít
Bánh ram-ít is a savory mochi-like ball filled with pork, shrimp, and mung beans. These balls are steamed or boiled until cooked through — and then only the bottom half are fried. After which, little salty semi-dried shrimp bits are sprinkled on top for extra flavor. Talk about gilding the lily.
I like to imagine imperial cooks brainstorming back in the day because they were bored or maybe oppressed by their boss. I like to imagine them going, “Okay, guys, we need to bring this rice ball up to next level. What should we do?”
And then another cook was like, “You know what we should do? Fry it. But only half of it.”
7. Chả cá lã vọng
There’s a restaurant in Hà Nội that is famous for this tumeric fish noodle dish, also flavored with dill and scallions, accompanied with peanuts and sesame rice crackers. Dill is a rare herb in Vietnamese cuisine, so this dish was trippy when I first tried it. You pan-fry chả cá lã vọng yourself, tableside.
The restaurant in Hà Nội is notable because they charge American prices for this dish, something like $12 USD a person, which is nuts. My mom championed this dish when we were in Việt Nam together. We griped when we learned how relatively pricey it is and warned her that it better be awesome. Guess what? It was.
8. Chả giò
Chả giò are egg rolls, for you non-Viets out there. I do not like to call them spring rolls because that translation makes no more sense to me than egg roll does. I believe a super literal translation of chả giò is something like, “minced meat sausage roll-lump.”
Anyway, so you know what egg rolls are all about — but in Việt Nam, nearly all of them are wrapped in rice paper or really fine rice noodle sheets (pictured) and then fried. They are not wrapped in the wheat wrapper like what we typically find in the U.S. The rice wrapper is crazy crunchy when done right and oftentimes, petite and adorable. I try to make this at home but what I make is always gross because I don’t have the Vietnamese mom magic.
9. Nem lụi
Vietnamese people out there can probably tell I am favoring Huế food like, by a lot. It’s because the food there is so good!
Nem lụi is a little bitty sausage wrapped around lemongrass stalks and grilled. You eat it wrapped up in rice paper, a bunch of herbs, other greens, and sometimes thinly sliced green fruit like bananas (peel and all!), star fruit, or green mango (pictured). You dip the bundle in fish sauce or liver sauce and then just go to town on it.
10. Nem chua
This one is fun and also not really for the faint of heart. Nem chua is a cured raw pork sausage wrapped in banana leaf. There’s often a fat slice of garlic, hot chilis, whole peppercorns, and pig skin mixed into the sausage. Its name basically translates into “sour sausage,” which again, proves that Vietnamese people just love the unadorned truth. The texture of the finish product is firm and not mushy. The taste is savory, sour, and different notes of spicy — from the bit of raw garlic to the searing heat of the chili to the subtle dull sting of peppercorns. It’s like someone got real creative when they invented this!
Sometimes, Vietnamese home cooks will get squeamish about raw pork and irrational fears of trichinosis and will make nem chua with raw beef. I don’t like that. Go big or go home, you know?
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.