Spices of Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese cooking is renowned for the variety and sophistication of spices. They produce dishes that reflect a balance of five flavours; sweet, salty, sour, hot and bitter. The result is a unique cuisine unlike any other. It is also important to note that the use of spices is different from region to region. In fact, from a culinary point of view, Vietnam may be divided into three regions – the northern, central and southern. 

In the northern region, black pepper is often used instead of chili. Black pepper is very common in Vietnamese cuisine, and in fact Vietnam is the largest exporter and producer of black pepper. Here dishes are less spicy than in the rest of the country. Desserts tend to be less sweet, but salt is used more than in the central and southern regions. The cuisine of the north has more Chinese influence than in the rest of the country. This is understandable because northern Vietnam shares a border with China.

The central region has the spiciest cuisine. Like the cuisine of Thailand, chili peppers are used extensively. Garlic and ginger are used more liberally than in the rest of the country.

In the southern region, one which enjoys a tropical climate, the food bears a combination of Cambodian and Thai influences. Food is sweeter than in the rest of the country and is often flavoured with sugar and coconut milk.

Despite the differences of the three regions of Vietnam, many spices are used similarly throughout the country. Three spices that are common to every Vietnamese kitchen are garlic, ginger and chili. Garlic is used in many vegetables dishes and also in fish sauce. Chili peppers are added to pho, a famous Vietnamese noodle soup usually served with the addition of beef or chicken. Though pho is undoubtedly one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes, it has two very different styles- the Hanoi style and the Saigon style.

The Hanoi style is found in the northern region of the country. Here pho is served with much more green onion and fewer garnishes than in the south. These garnishes are usually limited to chili sauce, fish sauce and vinegar. In the south, however, pho is a little sweeter and has more garnishes. These include bean sprouts, lime, basil, chili garlic sauce and bean sauce.

Cinnamon is also a common spice in Vietnamese cuisine. It is found not only in desserts but also in soups, stews and sauces. Vietnamese cinnamon, a variety of cinnamon that grows in the northern and central parts of the country, is unique to Vietnam. Many experts consider this the most aromatic cinnamon in the world.

All spice powder is also common in Vietnamese cuisine. A combination of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel and licorice, it is applied to many dishes. These include poultry and grilled meats. An ingredient of all spice powder, star anise is a spice often used in Vietnamese desserts.

Many other spices are used in Vietnamese cuisine such as cilantro, mint, lemongrass, perilla leaf, dill and turmeric. Vietnamese cuisine truly uses a wide variety of spices to appeal to every palate. Though there are regional differences, many spices are common to dishes served in the whole country.