The basics of Vietnamese cooking: How to make a juicy Banh Mi sandwich and delicious pho

Oct. 27, 2022
Basics of the Vietnamese pantry, from upper left clockwise to center: fish sauce, “Thai” basil, sweetened condensed milk, ginger, galangal, daikon, mint, chile peppers, cilantro, green onions, green papaya, rice noodles and lemongrass.
Basics of the Vietnamese pantry, from upper left clockwise to center: fish sauce, “Thai” basil, sweetened condensed milk, ginger, galangal, daikon, mint, chile peppers, cilantro, green onions, green papaya, rice noodles and lemongrass. Photos: Bill St. John.

Looked at one way, the entirety of the basics of Vietnamese cooking are merely four in number: sour, salt, sweet and chile heat.

For sour, Vietnamese cooks use the acidity of several foodstuffs such as rice vinegar, lime juice, tamarind, even the tartness native to lemongrass. Salt comes by way of both soy and fish sauces and from the country’s predilection for Maggi brand seasoning. But also, liberal dustings of salt are used to cook other foods such as pork shoulder or roast chicken that bring their salty savor to things such as banh mi sandwiches or rice noodle bowls.

The sweetness in Vietnamese cooking is almost always mere palm or cane sugar—both are ubiquitous—but it also arrives via coconut milk and is the mark of the country’s famed use of sweetened condensed cow’s milk, itself used for desserts and the well-known coffee preparation. Chile heat? That fire of capsaicin oil? Exclamation points throughout Viet eating, pho sure.

But more important is the interplay of these four basics, often in a single dish. As with much of Asian cooking, what is most important are the yin and yang of salt beside sweet, acidity with saltiness, hot with cool.

Read more great articles and get cooking advice from Bill St. John.

And then there are the foods that become the playgrounds for these interactions: a vast array of vegetables, rice in a myriad of forms and turns (noodles, sticks, “paper,” steamed, fried, sticky, puffed) and many forms of animal and aquatic protein.  

Once you stock a Vietnamese pantry, you’ll also notice the influence of six decades of French colonization. One recipe here is a textbook example, with its baguette-like bread roll, liver paté, butter and mayonnaise for fat and generosity in the greens department.

A Vietnamese cook once told me that the prominent meat broth-based soup called pho (pronounced fuh, as in “fun,” but without the “n”) is both a toss to the French idea of broth-building and a corruption of the French word “feu,” as in “pot au feu.”

There is a recipe here for turkey carcass pho, something that you might make next month when you have that leftover bird from Thanksgiving dinner.

But the most basic of basics in a Vietnamese pantry are rice and fish sauce. Can’t get away from them; they’re served at every meal, except for dessert where rice often appears once again but fish sauce generally doesn’t. Vietnam, along with its neighbor Thailand, is among the top five rice-producing countries on the planet.

Tagged alongside fish sauce and rice, in whatever form, is an enviable grocery store produce section of aromatic and flavorful greens and herbs. Cilantro, basil, mint, lemongrass, green onions and ginger are nearly as everyday as rice or fish sauce. Why not? They’re delicious. And eminently healthy.

Banh Mi Sandwich

Makes 1; easily multiplied

Alongside the soup called pho, the banh mi sandwich is perhaps Vietnam’s best-known food export.
Alongside the soup called pho, the Banh Mi sandwich is perhaps Vietnam’s best-known food export.

Ingredients

6-inch section baguette, halved longways

Sprinkles of Asian fish sauce, to taste

Sprinkles of soy or tamari sauce, to taste

Squeeze of 1/4 fresh lime

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon Kewpie mayonnaise (Asian provenance; check the rear label)

2 slices prosciutto, room temperature

3 tablespoons smooth-textured pork or meat paté, room temperature

3-4 medium-to-large leaves basil

1/2 small-to-medium jalapeño, stemmed, sliced crossways into thin “coins,” seeds shaken out if desired

5 leaves fresh mint

Cilantro, a few thin stems and their leaves, to taste

3-4 tablespoons pickled vegetables (see accompanying recipe)

Directions

A few days before, make the pickled vegetables.

Take out about 1/3 of the crumb from the top half of the baguette section and a few pinches from the crumb on the bottom section. Sprinkle the fish and soy sauces and squeeze the lime juice onto the opened bread halves. Evenly butter and smear the mayonnaise along the open faces of the 2 sections of baguette.

Layer all the goods: Evenly distribute the prosciutto, paté, pickled vegetables, jalapeño, basil, mint and cilantro along the 2 sections of baguette.

Close or fold up the sandwich and serve, halving the banh mi crossways, if desired, in which case using a large toothpick or skewer to secure each smaller portion, if necessary.

Pickled Banh Mi Vegetables

Fills 2-3 small jars or 1 larger jar.

Ingredients

2-3 medium-sized carrots, peeled and small-julienned (into sticks 3 inches long and 1/8-inch thick) or shredded, about 2 cups give or take

1 medium daikon radish, peeled and small-julienned (into sticks 3 inches long and 1/8-inch thick) or shredded, about 2 cups give or take

1 cup English or Persian cucumber, partially peeled, cut crossways into 1/4-inch “coins”

2 teaspoons kosher or fine sea salt

1/2 cup granulated white cane sugar

1 cup boiling water

1 cup distilled white vinegar (or rice vinegar)

Directions

Toss the carrots and daikon with the salt in a large bowl, kneading the salt into the vegetables for 2-3 minutes. Let sit for 20 minutes. Under running water and using a sieve, rinse the vegetables well and then, by handfuls, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from them. Pack them into the jar or jars, almost to the top. 

Make the brining solution: In a heat-proof bowl, add the boiling water to the sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the vinegar, stirring well. Pour the brine into the jar or jars, completely submerging the vegetables. Cap and let sit for 8-10 hours or overnight. The vegetables will become sourer with time and may be stored for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator, if desired.

Cook’s note: To prepare the vegetables, it helps to use a mandolin (such as the inexpensive brand Beriner) or a vegetable peeler that also juliennes. Also, the proportions of sweet and tart in the recipe are adjustable to your own taste.

Day After Thanksgiving Turkey Pho

By “helloooangie” on allrecipes.com; makes 4 or more servings.

Ingredients

1 whole cardamom pod

2 whole cloves

1 star anise pod

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 teaspoons coriander seed

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and smashed

1/2 onion, peeled

1 turkey carcass

8 cups water, or more as needed

1 16-ounce package dried flat rice noodles

1/4 cup fish sauce

Salt to taste

1 cup shredded leftover cooked turkey

1 tablespoon shredded fresh basil leaves (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

1/4 onion, thinly sliced (optional)

1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)

1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce (such as Sriracha), or to taste (optional)

Directions

Toast the cardamom pod, cloves, star anise, fennel, and coriander in a small skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Place the spices onto the center of an 8-inch square piece of cheesecloth. Gather together the edges of the cheesecloth, and tie with kitchen twine to secure. Sear both sides of the ginger and the 1/2 onion in the same skillet until lightly charred, about 3 minutes on each side.

Place the turkey carcass, water, spice sachet, ginger and onion in a large pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 2 hours.

Fill a large pot with lightly salted water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Once the water is boiling, stir in the rice noodles, and return to a boil. Cook the noodles uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the noodles have cooked through, but are still firm to the bite, 4-5 minutes. Drain well in a colander set in the sink.

Remove the carcass, sachet, ginger, and onion from the soup. Strain the soup to remove any meat that may have fallen off the bones, if necessary. Season with fish sauce and salt. Divide the rice noodles and turkey meat evenly into 4 large bowls. Scatter the basil, cilantro, and sliced onion on top. Ladle the soup on top. Serve with a wedge of lime and hot sauce.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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