Food is a common activity in the Vietnamese culture. You share the sauce, divide the fish, put favorite pieces in each other bowls and helps where needed to intersect difficult pieces, and no one will be surprised when you walk from the table to the refrigerator to get yourself an extra chili or a beef shank from the stockpot.

Fish sauce
Fish sauce or nuoc mam is essential in Vietnamese cuisine. It is the basis of all dips and dressings and it is the binding element for meat and fish marinades. The bottle of fish sauce maybe has a penetrating fermented fish odor, but it is a rich flavor enhancer, and with sugar it provides an excellent caramelise character if necessary. Fish sauce is the main constituent of compulsory dipping sauce nuoc cham and therefore already indispensable in Vietnamese cuisine.

Fresh herbs
You always find coriander in the plate of fresh vegetables and herbs that often adorns the Vietnamese table. Besides coriander, mint and Thai basil are very popular and they always  combine very well. These herbs are often accompanied with different types of lettuce and cucumber. Depending on the scale of the main courses supplemented with Chinese chives, Vietnamese coriander, bean sprouts, water spinach, banana blossom, etc. This variation is typical of the Vietnamese cuisine. By adding and skipping you get a whole new dish. This is reflected in the naming of the dishes which makes it hard to distinguish for non-connoisseurs. The areas or toponyms are often in the dish names to tell which version you get. That sometimes can be subtle, surprising and drastic differences.

Rice and noodles
White rice is the basis for the preparation of the commonly used ingredients rice paper and rice noodles. Rice paper is used for making fried and fresh spring rolls. But also to roll meat, fish and vegetables of different hot pots. There are round and flat rice noodles variants with different sizes. These rice noodles are used as fillings in noodle soups or noodle dishes. The transparent glass noodles or cellophane noodles are used as filler in salads or spring rolls, like the Vietnamese spring rolls Cha gio.

Dried herbs play a subtle role in Vietnamese cuisine. Sugar is widely used. In addition to the harmony and balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour, the texture of the meat and vegetables is very important. Vegetables should always be fresh and have crunchy bites. Meat on the bone and meat with some fat is preferred. By sucking on marrowbones and cracking bones, the delicacy of the dish is literally sucked out. The balance in texture especially can be found in the rice tables and lots of salads. The chopped crispy vegetables melt with the sweet and sour dressing along with the soft texture of thinly sliced meat. Besides the great taste Vietnamese cuisine also spends time on presentation. Goi tom is a specialty, a salad with a cheerful color palette of orange, red and green. This salad is therefore widely used at celebrations.

The Vietnamese cuisine is rich in delicious noodle soups with their own specific broths and garnish. The herbs in the broths also play an inferior role. Because of the long cooking process the meat broth gets an intense flavor with a subtle touch of added spice(s).

Restaurantterras in Hanoi (foto: Pho Vietnam © Kim Le Cao)

Family style
The way of eating is sharing or family style. The main courses and dippings are served on plates and bowls, and placed in the center of the table. Everyone grabs meat, fish and vegetables with their own chopsticks into their individual bowl of white rice. Children, the elderly and loved ones sometimes get the best or favorite pieces placed by others in their bowl.

Serving hot pots and noodle soups, everyone has their own large bowl and dish up to their own taste. You can accentuate to spicy, sweet, sour or salty whatever is preferable to your personal taste. Thus, the same dish in one bowl looks forested by an abundance of fresh herbs, while the other is bright red of hot chili. You can always see who is eating the bowl by the personal composition. The appetizing view often encourages others to join eating.

The Vietnamese cuisine does not have many desserts and if there are, they are not necessarily eaten as dessert. After diner Vietnamese rather prefer fruit or sweet drinks and fresh fruit juices that can be consumed the whole day through. Thus, Vietnamese will not linger long after dinner.