Five Foods to Try in Vietnam: From Crispy Prawn Pancakes to Banana-Coconut Ice Cream

Originally published on SBS.

A Vietnamese diet is a well-balanced one, and for travellers, the nature of the cuisine allows for a lighter trip when it comes to eating out. 

If there’s a trip to Vietnam in your sights, or you’re just craving the flavours from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, here are five dishes worthy of your dining company.

1. Banh khot – the savoury pancakes dreams are made of

Good things supposedly come in small packages – and that’s certainly the case when it comes to banh khot. These mini ‘pancakes’ are a street food favourite, especially in the country’s south, made using rice flour and coconut cream, and spruced up with turmeric. The petite pancakes are topped with the likes of shrimp, spring onion, mung beans, herbs and sometimes pickles.

Like much Vietnamese street food, banh khot are best enjoyed wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped into some nuoc cham (chilli, lime and fish sauce). According to Jerry Mai, Melbourne based chef and owner of Vietnamese eateries Annam and Bia Hoi, they’re even better enjoyed with a beer.

“This one is a ‘hand food’ – one hand pancake, one hand beer,” Mai tells Diana Chan on the first episode of the SBS Food series, Asia Unplated with Diana Chan.

Eat them quick; they’re certainly not as good soggy.

2. Bo la lot – chargrilled beef and betel leaf wraps  

Bo la lot are one of the healthiest Vietnamese snacks one can indulge in. Fragrant minced beef is livened with garlic and shallots, wrapped in betel leaves and then grilled to unlock a new realm of flavour. The shapes and sizes of this much-loved dish vary; some are long and wrapped like cigars, others are petite, similar to the shape of Greek dolmades or Turkish dolma.

Bo la lot can be enjoyed as they are, but are best wrapped in lettuce or a rice paper sheet. Add some fresh herbs, carrot and chilli in the mix and you’ve got a meal to remember.

3. Cha ca – pan-fried fish with turmeric and dill

If there’s one strength in Vietnamese cuisine, it’s seafood; flaunted through dishes such as cha ca. There’s an entire street in Hanoi dedicated to serving the pan-fried fish dish, seasoned in turmeric, dill and spring onion. It’s a favourite of Hanoi Hannah co-founder Simon Blacher.

“For me this dish is all about the oil. It forms the base of the flavour profile, unlike other dishes that rely on fish sauce and sugar.

“Cha ca has an earthy flavour from the turmeric that marries so well with fresh fish and dill. We do a cha ca salad at Hanoi Hannah. In addition to the fish we add lots of herbs and serve it on banh hoi – a fine vermicelli net.”

4. Bun thit nuong – decadent marinated pork

Ever tried pork neck? It may be the time for a serve of bun thit nuong. A specialty of the central Vietnamese city of Hue, this dish of marinated pork neck (sometimes other cuts are used) and rice noodles is a winner.

The pork is doused in fish sauce, brown sugar, pepper and honey, then chargrilled, smothered in herbs and laid upon a bed of noodles. “To me this dish has all the elements that make us love Vietnamese food,” says Blacher. “The sticky, fatty sweet pork paired with the freshest herbs plus all the crunchy bits on bouncy noodles.”

5. Kem chuoi – a sweet banana treat to wrap it up

Banana, coconut and peanuts – if you’ve never tried the three together, we suggest you get your hands on some kem chuoi.

The ice cream is a nostalgic Vietnamese treat for many, sold on street corners commonly near schools. Think of the bananas as the ice cream itself, flattened with a mallet or similar.

They’re topped with a mixture of coconut milk and tapioca flour, then gloriously sprinkled with desiccated coconut and earthy roasted peanuts.

Kem chuoi are then placed in the freezer for a minimum of six hours. This one is the perfect snack for a sweltering hot day. Keep your eyes peeled for peeled bananas.

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