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Fresh and healthy from Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine shares many characteristics with Chinese cuisines, but it has its own flare and flavors and is often considered one of the world's healthiest cuisines.

Traditional Vietnamese cooking is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil and reliance on herbs such as lemongrass and ingredients such as fish sauce and shrimp paste. Since it's a coastal nation, there's plenty of seafood of all kinds.

It has a tradition incorporating yin-yang concepts as well as the five elements. The Buddhist tradition makes for a wide range of vegetarian dishes.

Vietnamese cooks also adapt baguettes from France, stuffing them as sandwiches for famous fast food. There's curry from India and mango sticky rice and hot pot from Thailand, adding their own styles and flavors to the foods.

Mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and lemongrass are popular.

The traditions in all three regions - north, south and middle - share some fundamental features, such as freshness, herbs, spices and vegetables. But they also differ.

In northern Vietnam, a relatively colder climate limits the production and availability of spices. Thus, the food is often less spicy than those elsewhere. Black pepper is used in place of chilies to produce spicy taste. Most food is light and balanced in flavor, involving subtle combinations of many different ingredients. Freshwater fish, crustaceans, and mollusks - such as prawns, squids, shrimps, crabs, clams, mussels - are widely used.

The abundance of spices produced in the central mountainous terrain makes for spicy food, setting it apart from the food of the north and south that are mostly non-spicy. Regional cooking is known for sophisticated meals of complex dishes and small portions. Chili peppers and shrimp sauce are common.

In the warm south, the fertile soil yields a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock. The food is vibrant and flavorful, with liberal use of garlic, shallots and fresh herbs. Sugar is added more than in other regions. Coconut milk is widely used.

Southern Vietnam is where foreign influences from China, India, France, Thailand and other countries are most prominent.

Shanghai has quite a few Vietnamese restaurants, many recently opened to meet growing demand. Shanghai Daily visits four Vietnamese restaurants, each serving a distinctive kind of food.

Pho Asia (Raffles City)

Cuisine: Vietnam, Thai, Asia

Ambience: Attractive and relaxing in modern Asian style. On the fifth floor of Raffles City in People's Square, it has a long table seating 10 people, which makes it suitable for family and friends. Couples can also find quiet corners.

Who to invite: Friends, business contacts, special friends.

Pros: Sister venue to Thai Loft, it offers fresh and authentic food at low prices. Good value for money.

Cons: None really. Those who are not skilled with chopsticks might have difficulty with slippery foods such as beef tendon ball noodles and stay with vermicelli.

Recommended: Deep-fried rice paper spring roll with sweet-and-sour sauce. The skin is very crisp and the inside juicy. Also good is the beef tendon ball noodles; the beef is very fresh and tender and the soup is flavorful.

Don't order: The mango pudding has a slightly salty flavor.

Drinks: Barley water lemon, lemongrass lime juice, lemon tea.

Cost: 120 yuan for two, including set lunch costing 58 yuan

Address: 5/F, 268 Xizang Rd M.

Tel: 6289-1016

Golden Bull Restaurant

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Ambience: Modern, elegant and Southeast Asian with colorful paintings. It's a branch of a well-established Hong Kong-based Vietnamese restaurant and located on the third floor of Central Plaza on Huaihai Road M.

Who to invite: Business contacts, boyfriend/girlfriend.

Pros: Service is very good, wait staff is pleasant. Dishes are said to stimulate the appetite by using ingredients in different colors. Serves northern Vietnamese cuisine such as steamed pork balls. Skip Chinese-influenced dishes for a real taste of Vietnam.

Cons: None.

Recommended: Snack platter for two includes spring rolls, minced pork and three other snacks. They are dipped in sauce and eating with lettuce and Vietnamese mint.

Don't order: The curry dishes, such as sauteed crab, are a bit too mild for those who like stronger, spicy taste.

Drinks: Rose flower tea

Cost: 300 yuan for two, including two cups of rose flower tea

Address: 3/F, Central Plaza, 381 Huaihai Rd M.

Tel: 6391-5589

Pho Sizzling

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Ambience: An extremely popular pho joint serving excellent northern cuisine, with a French twist. A new chain restaurant, it's on the second floor of standalone mall on Wujiang Road, once a popular food street. Very busy during lunch hours.

Who to invite: Friends, business contacts, boyfriend/girlfriend.

Pros: Extremely popular during lunch. Vietnamese sandwiches and vermicelli noodle dishes excellent. Prices reasonable. Main dishes range from 30-40 yuan.

Cons: Menu includes several well-prepared Western-style Vietnamese dishes. It's somewhat Vietnamese, but not entirely authentic.

Recommended: Raw beef pho. Customers cook beef slices in tasty broth; thin white noodles are excellent.

Don't order: Those who want Vietnamese cuisine may want to avoid dishes like sizzling beef steak with black peppers, which is very Western.

Cost: 120 yuan for two

Address: 2/F, 200 Wujiang Rd

Tel: 3210-0528

Pho Yummy

Cuisine: Vietnamese, especially pho

Ambience: Fun and casual. This new restaurant hails from Vancouver, Canada, and brands itself as a distinctively Vietnamese dining concept. Located in Channel One complex. Pleasant wait staff.

Who to invite: Friends who love Vietnamese food.

Pros: Authentic. Flavors are distinctive, delicate and exotic. Though emphasis is on pho noodles, restaurant serves a variety of original barbecue rice dishes, vermicelli and desserts.

Cons: Service is a bit indifferent.

Recommended: Delicious variations of pho noodles.

Don't order: We found the coffee undrinkable, diluted, bitter and tasting artificial vanilla.

Cost: 100 yuan for two, including one drink

Address: 6/F, Channel One, 155 Changshou Rd

Tel: 3131-5050

Written by Ren Canran

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