Food of the World: Vietnam

By Adria Kelly-Sullenger

Flickr/Nguyen-Anh Le
Flickr/Nguyen-Anh Le

For this week’s dish sampler, we will travel to the other side of the world to Vietnam. With one of the most intricate styles of cooking, Vietnamese cuisine is definitely on the top of my favorites list. If you’ve never tried Vietnamese food, some of the most commonly used ingredients include fish sauce, shrimp paste, fresh herbs (like lemongrass, ginger, mint, bird’s eye chili and dill) and a variety of different fruits and vegetables. Crab and pork are some of the more popular meats to include in cooking as well. Soups, known as congees, are well-liked in Vietnam culture as well.

Ca Kho To

A popular dish, which many Vietnamese people say reminds them of their childhood, is Ca Kho To, or caramelized fish in a clay pot. You don’t need a specific pot to make this, although stone or clay is suggested because it enhances the flavor. A thick pan or Dutch oven will work just fine. Ideally the recipe would use catfish because the fat content is very high, but any fish that has a lot of fat will work too. Use the entire fish, bone in and skin on, and marinate it in a mixture of fish sauce, brown sugar and minced shallots and garlic for 30 minutes to one hour. In the pot, heat cooking oil and add the marinated fish and sear for two to three minutes. Add caramel sauce, which can be bought or homemade by simmering sugar and water until dark brown. With the caramel add just enough young coconut milk to cover the fish, simmer for about 25 minutes (longer if you want the fish to be on the soft side). As the dish cooks down add caramel and coconut milk accordingly. Do this until it is a thick consistency. Sample it and add fish sauce, fresh cracked pepper, green onions and chili pepper to taste.

Banh Cuon

Next is more of a palate cleanser, or you could use it as a detox food after holidays. Banh Cuon are thin crepes made out of rice and tapioca flour, salt and water. They are steamed over fabric-covered pots, which quickly cook the flour and keep the crepe moist. Like a crepe, spread the batter thinly over the cloth and after it is done cooking lift with a thick bamboo stick or the handle of a wooden spoon. An alternative way to make the crepes is to heat up a large non-stick pan, brush lightly with oil and spread the batter out until cooked through. To make the filing pan-fry thinly diced shallots and onion, chopped up Wood Ear mushrooms, fish sauce and group pork until the pork is no longer pink and the onion is translucent. Drain any excess fat or liquid and crack black pepper on top. Spread the filing out thinly in the middle of the crepe and fold the excess over to make a roll. Serve with lightly fried onions as a garnish.

Vietnamese iced coffee

A delicious drink to go on the side of any meal is Vietnamese iced coffee. Use dark roast coffee and brew to preference (if you have a French press or drip filter, these are ideal). What makes this drink so delicious is the addition of the sweetened condensed milk, about half the amount of the coffee. Mix the milk and brew together over ice and you have a sweet treat to accompany your meal.

The dishes are more complicated than the average meal but the complexity of flavor in the final product is unparalleled. Cooking Vietnamese cuisine might be out of your comfort zone, especially in a college kitchen, but try it anyways because the final result makes the effort worth it.

Adria Kelly-Sullenger can be reached at [email protected]