I’ve been talking with the staff at Three Seasons, my regular Vietnamese restaurant, about Vietnamese food that’s popular in this country. Two of these – spring rolls and pho — are already on offer at the restaurant, and they’re playing with the idea of a third, banh mi.
Start with spring rolls:
A gỏi cuốn, Vietnamese spring roll, summer roll, Vietnamese salad roll, cold roll or fresh roll (Vietnamese: nem cuốn (northern Vietnam), bánh tráng cuốn (central Vietnam) or gỏi cuốn (southern Vietnam); literally “salad roll”) is a Vietnamese dish consisting of pork, prawn, herbs, bún (rice vermicelli), and other ingredients wrapped in Vietnamese bánh tráng (rice paper). They are served at room temperature, and are not deep fried. It is listed at number 30 on World’s 50 most delicious foods complied by CNN Go in 2011. Summer rolls have gained popularity among Vietnam’s neighboring countries and in the West. Many Western restaurants serve Vietnamese summer rolls as an entrée. (link)
(I’ve left in the reference to the CNN Go delicious food lists, which I’ll talk about in an appendix.)
In a photo:
Three Seasons’ rolls:
Ahi Tuna Rolls: Seared ahi tuna, fresh mango and ginger soy
Marina Rolls: Smoked salmon, spicy seared ahi, ginger soy
Duck Rolls: Peking-styled duck with mango, hoisin and chili sauce
Beef Rolls: Beef, peanut, fresh pineapple, spicy vinaigrette
Summer Rolls: Dungeness crab, avocado, cucumber and ginger soy
Spider Rolls: Fried soft-shelled crab with spicy vinaigrette
Scorpion Rolls: Grilled Tiger prawns, mango and spicy vinaigrette
(I’m a big fan of the scorpion rolls.)
[Pho,] the Vietnamese soup that is classically slices of beef and rice noodles in a rich beef broth, with bean sprouts, basil leaves, lime juice, sriracha sauce, and hoisin sauce added at the last minute
[Linguistic digression, on the pronunciation of pho. In English, it's just [fo], with an offglide on the vowel, but it Vietnamese the vowel is central [ə], with an offglide, so that the word is sometimes represented for English speakers as FUH. (The etymology seems to be from French feu, as in pot-au-feu.) Vietnamese has six tones (in the Northern dialects), and phở (as the word is spelled in the Vietnamese alphabet) has a dipping (rising-falling) tone, indicated by the hook above the vowel letter. But English speakers generally Anglicize the tones away.]
And from Wikipedia:
Phở … is a Vietnamese noodle soup, usually served with beef (phở bò) or chicken (phở gà). The soup includes noodles made from rice flour and is often served with Asian basil, saw tooth herb, rau om (rice paddy herb), cilantro, thinly sliced green onion, lime juice, and bean sprouts that are added to the soup by the person who is dining. The dish is associated with the city of Hanoi, where the first pho restaurant opened in the 1920s. Phở is a popular street food, and night-food, and is, alongside gỏi cuốn, one of “the world’s 50 most delicious foods,” according to CNN.
Notes on ingredients mentioned above:
Sriracha … is a type of hot sauce, named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in the Chonburi Province of central Thailand, where it was possibly first produced for dishes served at local seafood restaurants. It is a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt.
In Thailand, Sriracha is frequently used as a dipping sauce, particularly for seafood. In Vietnamese cuisine, Sriracha appears as a condiment for phở, fried noodles, a topping for spring rolls (Chả giò), and in sauces.
Hoisin sauce is a Chinese dipping sauce. The word hoisin is a romanization of the Chinese word for seafood “海鮮” as pronounced in Cantonese.
Peking-style hoisin sauce ingredients include starches such as sweet potato, wheat or rice, and water, sugar, soybeans, white distilled vinegar, salt, garlic, red chili peppers, and sometimes preservatives or coloring agents. Traditionally, hoisin sauce is made using toasted mashed soy beans. Despite the literal meaning, hoisin sauce does not contain seafood, nor is it typically used with it.
Hoisin sauce is … a popular condiment for phở, a Vietnamese noodle soup; the sauce can be directly added into a bowl of phở by the diner, or can be used as a side dip for the meat of phở dishes.
Eryngium foetidum is a tropical perennial and annual herb in the family Apiaceae. It is native to Mexico and South America but is cultivated worldwide. In the United States, where it is not well known, the name culantro sometimes causes confusion with Coriandrum sativum (also in Apiaceae), the leaves of which are known as cilantro, and which culantro is said to taste like.
In English-speaking Caribbean Countries Eryngium foetidum is also referred to as chadon, shadon, shado beni (or shadow benny), or bandhania. Other English common names include: Recao (Puerto Rico), long, wild, or Mexican coriander, fitweed, spiritweed, duck-tongue herb, sawtooth or saw-leaf herb, sawtooth coriander.
In relation to Southeast Asian cooking, the Vietnamese name ngò gai or (less often) the Thai name phak chi farang are sometimes used.
Limnophila aromatica (synonym: Limnophila chinensis var. aromatica; also called rice paddy herb) is a tropical flowering plant in the plantain family, Plantaginaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia, where it flourishes in hot temperatures and grows most often in watery environments, particularly in flooded rice fields. It is called ngò om or ngổ in Vietnam and used as an herb and also cultivated for use as an aquarium plant. The plant was introduced to North America in the 1970s due to Vietnamese immigration following the Vietnam War… It is used in all traditional Cambodian soup dishes.
A photo of the main event:
No two places make and serve their pho the same way.
The broth is crucial, and will take much of a day to make. The beef must be of very high quality, carefully trimmed, and sliced very thin. The rice noodles are added to the broth and soften in it, then the beef slices are added and cook briefly in the broth, just through. That yields the basic pho.
Then, as in the photo above, you’re provided with the remaining ingredients, separate from the bowl of pho, and add whichever of these you want: sliced green chilies, bean sprouts, fresh-squeezed lime juice, herbs (especially basil — I almost always want extra basil) torn up by hand, sriracha sauce, hoisin sauce (spooned in). It’s a do-it-yourself construction project, designed to give you a soup that’s as fresh as possible. Wonderful. Eat it over the bowl, using a Chinese soup spoon; feel free to slurp the noodles.
Finally, banh mi, essentially a Vietnamese-French submarine sandwich. As I wrote recently about French dips:
The sandwich is also known as a French Dip sub, linking it to the big world of submarine sandwiches of all kinds (see postings here and here), a world that extends all the way to Vietnam, with its baguette-enclosed banh mi sandwiches.
From the Wikipedia entry linked to just above:
Bánh mì or bánh mỳ (/ˈbʌn ˌmiː/; Vietnamese pronunciation: [ɓǎɲ mî]) is a Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. Bread, or more specifically the baguette, was introduced by the French during its colonial period.
The sandwiches made from it include meat and soy fillings such as steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled pork patties, spreadable pork liver pâté, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, canned sardines in tomato sauce, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce, head cheese, fried eggs, and tofu. Accompanying vegetables include fresh cucumber slices, cilantro (leaves of the coriander plant) and pickled carrots and daikon in shredded form. Common condiments include spicy chili sauce, sliced chilis, mayonnaise, and Laughing Cow cheese.
Although the term bánh mì only means bread without any fillings, the term is used to refer to a type of meat-filled sandwich found in Vietnamese bakeries abroad, especially in US, Canadian, Australian, and French communities with substantial Vietnamese immigrant communities.
And in OED3 (March 2011):
orig. U.S. In Vietnamese cuisine: a sandwich comprising a baguette (traditionally baked using a combination of rice and wheat flour) split lengthwise and filled with a variety of ingredients, typically including pâté and/or grilled meat, pickled vegetables, sliced chilli or chilli sauce, and fresh coriander. Also occas.: a baguette loaf of the type used in such a sandwich. [cites from 1985 on]
Again, a photo:
Like spring rolls and pho, banh mi come in many many forms.The one above is heavy on pork, coriander, and cucumber.
Appendix: the CNN Go 50 Most Delicious Foods. Lists of the N Best Xs are strange, artificial objects. This case is stranger than most, since it’s totally unclear who made the picks and on what basis. What the CNN Go site (7/21/11) says is only:
We’ve scoured the planet for what we think are 50 of the most delicious foods ever created.
Giggle-evoking excerpts from the list (with the country of origin):
50. buttered popcorn, U.S.
49. masala dosa, India
48. potato chips, U.S.
47. seafood paella, Spain
44. poutine, Canada
43. tacos, Mexico
42. buttered toast with Marmite, Britain
33. fish ’n’ chips, Britain
30. goi cuon, Vietnam
28. pho, Vietnam
26. fajitas, Mexico
23. lasagna, Italy
21. croissant, France
18. (shish) kebab, Iran
14. donuts, U.S.
13. corn on the cob, global
12. shepherd’s pie, Britain
9. ice cream, U.S.
8. tom yum goong, Thailand
6. hamburger, Germany
5. Peking duck, China
4. sushi, Japan
3. chocolate, Mexico
2. Neapolitan pizza, Italy
1. massaman curry, Thailand
(There’s an understandable bias towards “people’s food” in this list, and some of the entries, like #4 sushi, cover a lot of territory. The Vietnam zone is #28 and #30; banh mi didn’t make the cut.)