The first time I had Vietnamese food I was fourteen, living in Paris. Turns out, great Vietnamese restaurants can be found all over the city. I remember one thing only about those early forays into Vietnamese culture: crispy, deep-fried rolls and a platter of mint and lettuce. You wrap the rolls in a handful of mint and lettuce, then dip it into nuoc mam (a sweet and spicy fish sauce mixture).
I still dream about that flavor. Fresh, fried, crunchy, and sour.
Unfortunately, everywhere I look for this dish, people shrug. Vietnamese restaurants shake their heads “sorry, we don’t do that. people don’t want that here.”
But, I do!
If I could figure out what this roll preparation is called, I would find a recipe and make it every time I get the hankering for it. But, alas, I have no idea; my time in Paris was nearly twenty years ago.
This mystery reveals something I’d later learn is typical of all Vietnamese food: the prevalence of fresh herbs.
Take pho, for example, a breakfast soup made with broth and flash cooked beef or chicken. There’s almost more herbs than any other ingredient in pho. Even the salads are loaded with fresh herbs. Green papaya salad is a favorite, too, though I’m learning the most popular salad is called rau song, or table salad – simply fresh vegetables and herbs commonly served with grilled meats or with other recipes.
In general, flavors are clean and bright in Vietnam. While the soups and salads demonstrate this, so does the comfort food. Also popular is the bahn mi, a crusty sandwich layered with pickled vegetables and meats, or sometimes egg.
For sweet endings, look no further than Vietnamese coffee, sugar cane juice, and fruit smoothies. In fact, there’s a whole category of sweet drinks, soups, and puddings called che.
Chè are often prepared with one of a number of varieties of beans, tubers, and/or glutinous rice, cooked in water and sweetened with sugar. In southern Vietnam, chè are often garnished with coconut creme. (Wiki)
If, however, you have room for something more, try some mango sticky rice.
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