The unique blend of cultural influences in Vietnam has created a light cuisine with its own distinctive characteristics. Although related to Chinese cuisine, Vietnamese food could never be mistaken for that of its northern neighbour. 

At the heart of Vietnamese cuisine is a salty, pale brown, fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam. Prepared by layering fresh anchovies with salt in huge wooden barrels, it is more pungent than the fish sauce from Thailand (nam pla) and other Southeast Asian countries. It is an acquired taste and initially should be used with discretion. In New Zealand it is available from Asian grocery stores and some supermarkets.

Another distinct characteristic is the extensive use of fresh leaves and herbs including several varieties of mint, basil and coriander. The use of fresh dill leaves and seeds in fish recipes is likely to have been borrowed from the French who occupied Vietnam from the late 1800s until World War 11. The most visible legacy in the country today is the French baguette often served with curries or filled with beef and sold from small food stalls everywhere.
As with western cooking, the lengthy preparation time of some of Vietnam’s traditional recipes has been shortened but the distinctive flavours are still preserved. 


Dressing: 3cm piece root ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 clove garlic. crushed
finely grated rind and juice 1 lime
1/2 long red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon palm or brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Salad: 1 bunch (70g) flat rice noodles
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 medium carrot
10cm length telegraph cucumber
1/4 cup roasted cashew nuts
1/2 cup each: mint, coriander leaves
150g hot smoked salmon, broken into chunks

Combine the dressing ingredients in a bowl.

Place the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain well. Combine with the sesame oil to prevent sticking.

Peel the carrot and cucumber. Using a sharp potato peeler, slice them lengthwise to make ribbons. Place in a large bowl.

Coarsely chop the cashew nuts. Thickly slice the mint and coriander. Add to the bowl. Drizzle with a little dressing and toss gently.

Divide the noodles between two bowls. Top with the salad and the salmon. Drizzle with more dressing. Serve diced chilli on the side if more ‘punch’ is preferred. Serves 2.


Vietnamese spicy pork meatballs.

Meatballs: 250g minced pork
1 clove garlic, crushed
2cm piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
1/2 long red chilli, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Salad: 1 cup mung bean sprouts
50g sugar snap peas
50g rice vermicelli noodles
2 cups coarsely shredded cabbage or crisp lettuce
1 carrot, julienned
1/2 cup each: mint, basil leaves, coarsely sliced
Dressing: finely grated rind and juice of 1 large lime
1 tablespoon each: brown sugar, fish sauce

Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs. Mix well. Form into 8 balls. Cover and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil. Blanch the mung bean sprouts and sugar snap peas quickly, then refresh under cold water. Drain well.

Boil the noodles for 1 minute. Drain well, refresh under cold water then drain well again.

Arrange the salad ingredients on two serving plates. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Pan-fry the meatballs in a non-stick frying pan for about 10 minutes, turning often. Serve on the salad. Drizzle with the combined dressing ingredients. Serves 2.


Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is a light Vietnamese soup. 

Stock: 5 cups chicken stock
4cm piece root ginger, peeled and sliced
5 spring onions (green part only), sliced 
1/4 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon dried dill tips
8 whole cloves
1 each: cinnamon stick, star anise, red chilli
Chicken: 500g skinned chicken thigh cutlets
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 large pak choy 
100g flat rice noodles
Garnish: red chilli (sliced crosswise), chopped spring onions (white ends), fresh basil or mint leaves, to taste

Place all the stock ingredients in a large saucepan. 

Add the chicken. Cover and simmer for about 35 minutes, until cooked. Remove the chicken. Using two forks, shred into chunks.

Strain the stock and return to the saucepan. Add the lime juice, fish sauce and chicken pieces and reheat.

Meanwhile, cut the pak choy into 3cm lengths. Cook the noodles in a large saucepan of boiling water for 2 minutes. Add the pak choy. Cook for 1 minute. Drain well and divide evenly between four bowls.

Add the chicken and stock to the bowls. Garnish to taste. Serves 4. 


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