Beyond banh mi and pho, there are so many Vietnamese dishes worth knowing: noodle soups, broken rice, and claypot catfish among them. Read more about some Vietnamese classics here.
Banh xeo is Vietnam’s onomatopoeic sizzling crepe. The name comes from the sound the batter makes when it is poured into the wok: xeo xeo xeo. The dish is savory and light, made of rice flour and coconut milk and colored with turmeric powder. Banh xeo can be shared around the table as an appetizer or enjoyed as a main course. The central region version of the dish — banh khoai — is smaller, crispier, and thicker.
The crepe is typically stuffed with pork, shrimp, mung beans, and bean sprouts. Pieces of the banh xeo crepe should be enjoyed generously wrapped up in lettuce with herbs and dipped into fish sauce. A great banh xeo is judged for its crunch factor, balance of fillings, quality of fish sauce, and an aroma that does not have an overwhelming coconut scent. The lighter and crispier one can pour the banh xeo, the better. Occasionally, banh xeo is even served as a spring roll, wrapped in rice paper.
Banh xeo can be found at Quan Hue in Lion Plaza’s food court, Banh Xeo Dinh Cong Trang in Grand Century Mall’s food court, and Hue Restaurant. Find the local favorite banh xeo at Pho 909 in neighboring Milpitas.
Hailing from the former imperial capital, Hue, in central Vietnam, this noodle soup features thick cylindrical vermicelli noodles (not the thin vermicelli tucked into spring rolls) served in a rich, spicy pork-and-beef broth seasoned with lemongrass, annatto, and shrimp paste. The dish includes thin slices of marinated and boiled beef shank, oxtail, and pig knuckle, often topped with congealed pork blood and slices of cha, the Vietnamese meatloaf also commonly found in banh mi. The soup is garnished with mint, Vietnamese coriander, purple perilla, and banana blossoms or thinly sliced red cabbage. These fragrant herb accompaniments pair particularly well with an earthy, spicy soup like bun bo Hue.
Bun rieu is a vermicelli noodle soup from northern Vietnam that features broth-soaked tofu swimming among chunks of stewed tomatoes and delicate crab cakes. There are a few variations of bun rieu, including a very popular version that is served with snails, and a meatless option; however, finding a pure crab version in the U.S. is rare.
Bun rieu calls for fresh rice paddy crab, which is used to make the “rieu”, or crab cake, that floats in the soup. Because this particular ingredient cannot easily be found here, an approximation is created by combining housemade crab paste with ground pork, ground shrimp, and dried prawns, all bound together by egg.
The vermicelli noodles in bun rieu are thinner than the cylindrical ones found in bun bo Hue. Stewed tomatoes add a hint of tanginess not found in other noodle soups, a flavor perfectly balanced by bun rieu’s crucial condiment: fermented shrimp paste (mam tom).
Com tam, or broken rice, is a Saigon dish that arose from farmers’ desire to make use of the broken rice grains that they couldn’t sell, and eventually it became one of Vietnam’s favorite rice plates.
There are different versions of broken rice dishes, but a standard version might include grilled pork chops, shredded pork skin, egg cake (cha trung), crispy bean curd shrimp cake (tau hu ky), fried egg, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, along with a small bowl of fish sauce with bits of pickled daikon and carrots floating inside. Com tam turned out to be a particularly delicious way to use the unwanted rice, since broken rice absorbs the fish sauce better than regular grains. Scallion oil is brushed atop the rice as a finish, and commonly a side of clear broth will provide a soupy complement to the dry rice plate.
There are countless braised dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, and one of the most popular is ca kho to, a sweet, savory, and comforting catfish dish that is traditionally cooked in a claypot to retain heat and help in the caramelizing of the fish. The catfish comes in a thick sauce of garlic, shallot, ginger, chiles, fish sauce, and a crackling of black pepper. The head and tail of the catfish are often used to make canh chua — a sweet and sour soup of tamarind, pineapple, and veggies, often served alongside the prepared fish.
One of the key features of Vietnamese cuisine is complementary flavors. Even in claypot catfish and canh chua — two Southern Vietnamese dishes that have sweeter flavor profiles — there is still a hint of spice from the caramelized fish for balance.
These two quintessentially southern dishes are served with steamed jasmine rice, and are widely considered Vietnamese comfort classics.
Che is the term for all variations of liquid-y, gooey, and chewy Vietnamese desserts, the quintessential sweets of Vietnamese cuisine.
There are countless versions of che. Served hot, chilled, or at room temperature, different varieties feature fruits, beans, tapioca and jellies, coconut milk, and other ingredients, resulting in desserts with different flavor profiles and textures.
A hot, sweet che soup will feature tiny chewy tapioca among crunchy strands of seaweed; a dense mung-bean-paste che is eaten with sesame rice crackers; and crushed ice provides balance and texture to many cold che. Texture is king.
For something chewy, try che troi nuoc: glutinous rice balls floating in sweet ginger syrup, served warm. Suong sa hat luu, agar-agar jelly with mock pomegranate seeds, is a refreshing dessert that’s not overly sweet. Che chuoi — banana with sago pearls and coconut milk — is warm and comforting. And for a classic sweet che, try the tri-color che ba mau, with pandan jelly, mung bean paste, and adzuki beans, topped with coconut milk and shaved ice.