Vietnamese cooking incorporates centuries of culinary influences from China (soy sauce, stir-frying, noodles), Mongolia (beef) and Southeast Asia (curries and Indian spices). The French influence in Vietnamese cuisine is visible in the French baguettes used for bánh mì (sandwiches), the use of butter, and the preference for strongly brewed coffee. Certain dishes represent Vietnam’s three regions. The most elaborate meals are served in Central Vietnam around the city of Hue. Northern Vietnamese cuisine, the food of Hanoi, features charcoal grilled meats (bún chả), noodle dishes and beef phở (noodle soup) with flat rice noodles. Southern Vietnamese cuisine, served in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), tends to be spicier, with the use of South Asian curries, and more seafood. From what I’ve sampled in this country, I’d love to try the real thing in Hue, Hanoi or Saigon.
“Cooking Vietnamese food well is difficult because of the many nuances in a well-executed dish,” says Kitty Nguyen, my expert guide on the intricacies of Vietnamese cuisine. “Every Vietnamese dish and meal should balance multiple flavors – spicy, salty, sour, bitter and sweet; and textures – raw vegetables and charred meats, for example.”
Bánh mì could be the world’s most perfect sandwich. The freshness of the bread is key. It should be baked the same day, with a cracking, light crust. Balance marks the dish. The traditional first layer is a pork pate, topped with pickled vegetables (daikon, carrots, cucumbers), sliced raw hot peppers (jalapenos), meat (ham, roast pork, or BBQ pork), cilantro stems, and a smear of butter on the top half of the baguette. The best bánh mì I’ve tasted in New Jersey I ordered to go at Hủ Tiếu Miền Tây in Atlantic County (Pleasantville).
Traditional phở (pronunciation guide) simmers – never boils – for hours, and is constantly stained and skimmed. The rich flavors emerge from the ingredients, with no shortcuts. Sweetness comes from the meat bones, never added sugar. There must be some fat, but not too much, floating on the surface. Serious phở fans consider broth clarity, flavor, and ingredients. The broth is poured over fresh rice noodles with thin slices of raw beef. A plate of fresh herbs (cilantro and mint), raw bean sprouts, green chile peppers and lemon or lime wedges come with your bowl so you can add flavors and textures to your liking. Among Vietnamese, by the way, phở is a popular breakfast dish. The most flavorful phở I’ve enjoyed, albeit for lunch, is found at South Plainfield’s Saigon, which earns EthnicNJ’s coveted #1 favorite spot for Vietnamese food.
While most of New Jersey’s ethnic enclaves are in the Northern half of the state, the Vietnamese are an exception. Philadelphia has a larger Vietnamese population (concentrated along Washington Avenue in South Philly near the Italian Market) than New York City. This may explain why Jersey’s largest Vietnamese communities are in South Jersey. There are some 20,000 New Jerseyans of Vietnamese ancestry, according to the 2010 Census. Camden and Atlantic counties have the most Vietnamese residents. Pennsauken, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township and Camden all have substantial Vietnamese populations. Look for clusters of Vietnamese restaurants and you will find them in Cherry Hill, outside Camden, and in Atlantic City.
Don’t see your favorite Vietnamese? Share yours. I’ll add the most popular to the list, and to the map.