When people find out that I write about the stories behind our food, they ask me the same question: what nationality of food would I most want to eat for the rest of my life if I had to choose one?
It’s a very easy choice—Vietnamese food.
My reasons are not simply that the food is delicious and flavorful, that street food figures heavily in the many available options for the national dishes, or that desserts involve a really fun mixture of coconut milk and yellow beans and fruit.
No, it’s because the Vietnamese obsession with balance within each dish means that eating even a larger meal of Vietnamese food still leaves me feeling perfectly satisfied but not overly full. The plates are bursting with fresh herbs, noodles and rice. Not to mention, these dishes put less emphasis on fried options. And, as a celiac, many of the dishes also contain foods that are safe for my stomach and immune system as they’re naturally gluten-free.
While many of us know pho, much of it brought to the West after the fall of Saigon in 1975, there are plenty of other exciting options to try at a Vietnamese restaurant. I love a good bowl of pho soup myself, but if you are looking to branch out—and I urge you to do so—here are some other delicious options for your meal.
Bun Rieu Cua
Bun rieu remains one of my favorite dishes in Vietnam, so much so that I hunted it down for my birthday when I was visiting family in Canada. Originally from north of Vietnam, the soup has migrated south; and as with other dishes that are found throughout the country, it has different varieties depending on geographic location.
Regardless of where you’re eating your bun rieu, it has a golden broth with hints of red from annatto seeds, tomatoes and the crab (cua) used to flavor it. Bun rieu is sweet, rich, tangy and unlike any other soup I have tried in the country. As with most Vietnamese dishes, the name is literal—bun refers to the rice noodles in the broth, just like pho is the name of the flatter rice noodle used in that popular soup.
Some versions of bun rieu have chunks of tofu, crab and egg meatballs; others are simpler with tofu and tomatoes. Each is extraordinarily flavorful and accompanied by a wet chili paste and a bright purple fermented shrimp paste. As with many soups in Vietnam, the broth is served with a plate of steamed split morning glory or water spinach stems as well as shredded banana flower, both for adding to the soup before eating. In North America, it’s often served with the same basil and bean sprouts that are offered with a bowl of pho.
Bun Bo Hue
Another popular soup from Vietnam, bun bo hue is a spicy beef soup from the central region and the city of Hue. Bo means beef in Vietnamese, and keeping with literal food names, this soup’s translation is simply “rice noodle beef from Hue.”
While pho’s broth sings with the flavors of char grilled ginger and spices like cinnamon and anise, bun bo hue’s lingering aroma is that of lemongrass, which is tied together in braids and lowered into the pot of broth as it cooks.
Served like pho with thin slices of beef, it’s also one of the few dishes in Vietnam that is spicy in its own right. The filling soup also tends to contain a pork knuckle, boiled pork meat, beef, cha lua (Vietnamese steamed pork sausage cake) and of course the bun noodles themselves, a poor second to the richness of what’s also in the bowl.
Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio
I know, I know, bun thit nuong cha gio is quite a mouthful. I won’t fault you if you abbreviate it to BTN for short, just as my friends and I did.
As with bun rieu and bun bo hue, the bun part of this dish is the name of the thin rice noodles. In a deep bowl these noodles are served with fresh herbs like mint and perilla, grilled marinated pork and a crispy rice paper spring roll. A popular meal in Saigon, BTN’s pork comes grilled on bamboo skewers and delicately place atop a pile of noodles, still warm.
Served with a sweet fish sauce that you pour over your bowl, bun thit nuongis a refreshing and protein-filled meal that leaves you feeling content. One of the dishes I look forward to!
Not another bun dish, don’t worry. Banh cuon translates to rolled cake, and it consists of a delicately steamed rice crepe that’s folded around wood ear mushrooms and ground pork then topped with fried shallots, bean sprouts, fresh basil and pork sausage.
This is a breakfast dish from the North, but one that’s eaten at all times of day down south in Saigon. In North America it’s found on the appetizer menu; but to me, it’s a meal unto itself. Light and airy and served with fish sauce, it’s a meal that always fills me up but never makes me feel too full.
I first discovered it in New York when I was living near a Vietnamese restaurant. I only knew it was the #7. In English it said, “steamed rice crepe”—but it wasn’t until I moved to Saigon that I realized it was a common dish on the streets. I went on a banh cuon bender, trying as many as I could.
For those seeking a lighter pick that isn’t a soup, I highly recommend this dish.