Vietnam is a rich tapestry of densely forested highlands, sprawling river deltas, and heady tropical lowlands. Its soils produce crops of rice, corn, maize and sweet potato; and a bounty of fruit trees and strawberries compliment the typically Asian banana and coconut groves, thanks to the perfect balance of climate and fertility. For the most part, the land is gently harvested the old-fashioned way — by water buffalo and plough.
So it’s no surprise that Vietnam’s cuisine is bursting with health-giving properties and absolutely lip-smackingly delicious to boot. A haven for vegetarians, vegans and those with an aversion to gluten; this strip of South East Asia is a food lover’s paradise. There are, however, a few standout dishes when it comes to eating for good health.
No mention of Vietnam could come without reference to its national dish: Pho (pronounced “fuh”). Brimming with antioxidants from fresh lime, herbs and vegetables; potent in essential vitamins and minerals. This is a powerful elixir. The soup is traditionally served with lean beef but, at your request, it can come “ăn chay!” (vegetarian) — often with tofu. It’s a DIY affair which adds to the anticipation as you balance fresh basil, coriander, mint and beansprouts atop glossy rice noodles. The chilli in this part of the world has bite, so add with caution before stirring the potion and gulping it down. Pho is a meal for all times, but a traditional breakfast food in Vietnam. Beginning the day with an immunity boost, a full belly and balanced blood sugar.
Rau muống & brown rice (stir-fried water spinach or morning glory)
Water spinach is, like all leafy greens, incredibly nutrient-dense. Vitamins A, B, and C; phosphorus, iron, fibre, selenium, amino acids and calcium all reside in this powerful plant. And in Vietnam, as in many parts of Asia, it’s far from bland — served sauteed, spicy, and with heaping spoons of garlic. Brown rice adds a healthy dose of whole grain fibre to the dish and keeps you full until the next bowl of Pho beckons in the morning.
Green papaya salad
A firm favourite of the Northern Vietnamese — sour, sweet and hot — this fiery little salad isn’t only one of the freshest and most delicious dishes you can eat in the bustling diners of Hanoi; it’s also positively charged with enzymes and phytonutrients. Green papaya is an incredible digestive cleanser and, thanks to its vitamin and mineral content, a powerful immunity booster. Traditionally decked with strips of tender beef or prawns, ask to have it without if you are following a plant-based diet. Crunchy papaya, Thai basil, carrot and other texture-givers come topped with a sharp dressing and chopped, roasted, peanuts. For those of us living in cooler climes, an unripe mango can substitute the rather harder to come by green papaya.
Gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls)
Until you’ve tried authentic fresh spring (summer) rolls, with their tart, acidic, dipping sauce, you might think that they were no adequate substitute for their crisp, deep-fried, counterpart. Mistaken. Where spring rolls are heavy and grease-laden, summer rolls are fresh, delicate and vibrant. Bursting with cucumber, mint, Thai basil, sometimes mango and often carrot, and decked with crunchy roasted peanuts and a bit of tempeh or tofu — if you’re lucky. This is one moreish snack.
Bún chay (vegetarian noodle salad)
The complex flavours of this dish might fool you into thinking it’s more complicated than it is. Slender vermicelli rice noodles and crisp, raw, vegetables are served in a large bowl, topped with lean meat (or tofu) and crunchy peanuts. A good fist-full of herbs and, again, that tangy sauce—to bring out the brilliance of everything else. It’s a blend of pungent fish sauce, a sweetener — like honey or sugar — chilli and lime juice. Everything here, save for the protein element, is served exactly as nature intended: raw and full of health-giving essential vitamins and minerals.