Southern Vietnamese food distinction can be wrapped up in 03 words: rich, flavorful, and sweet!
Diverse Natural Resources Result in Flavour Richness
We all know that regional cuisines differ according to the climate and local products. So in Southern Vietnam, the abundance of rice, fresh fruits, veggies as well as coconuts are reflected in the dishes of this region, which tend to emphasize sweeter flavors.
The warm weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing various fruits, vegetables and raising livestock. As a result, food in Southern Vietnam gets a more vibrant flavor profile with the generous use of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs.
Additionally, thanks to the widespread use of coconut and sugarcane, sugar is added to more food here than anywhere else in the country, giving the dishes a distinctly sweet taste—just like how lovely and friendly Southern people are.
Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)
If bánh chưng is an indispensable part of Northerner's Tet, bánh tét plays the same vital role in Central and South Vietnam. Year after year, during the Tet holiday, Southern families enjoy this Tet cake, the main dish of the Southern Tet celebration.
According to Southern people's belief, bánh tét symbolizes a prosperous life. That's why it is considered a New Year specialty, although it's available throughout the year. Unfortunately, the Southern version of bánh tét isn't well known by foreigners. This sweet and vegetarian dish is called bánh tét ngọt.
Bánh tét ngọt is the ordinary bánh tét but filled with vegetarian ingredients like banana, back mung bean, mung bean instead of pork.
Image source: st.phunuonline.com.vn
The process of making bánh tét is time-consuming and provides an opportunity for family members to catch up, bond, and revel in the holiday spirit. In preparing this dish, glutinous rice must be carefully chosen and washed before stir-fried with coconut milk and some salt. Then the most challenging part comes, filling the cake. The exact taste of the cake's insides is up to you. This could be savory or sweet, depending on each family's preference.
Bánh tét ngọt also differs from region to region, as locals tend to base their recipes on what natural ingredients are close at hand put their hallmark spin on bánh tét. For example, Can Tho is famous for its unique bánh tét lá cẩm (violet Tet cake). This bánh tét's sticky rice is soaked in purple watercolored by lá cẩm (magenta leaves), which gives the cake a more eye-catching, charming purple appearance. There are tasty ingredients such as mung bean, black mung bean, and sometimes salted egg yolks inside the cake. All are tightly and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves. The cake is cut into pieces, which show the dark purple of banana, the yellow of green bean, and the orange of the egg. The flavor of glutinous rice cake is tender and tasty.
Some just make Tet cakes for family consumption and gifts, some make it for businesses, and some have become artisans by elevating their Tet cake making to a craft.
Củ kiệu tôm khô (Pickled Scallion Heads Served with Dried Shrimp)
If Central's people like to savor bánh tét with dưa món (pickled vegetables), Southern people love to enrich their sense of taste with pickled scallion heads and dried shrimp. Even as early as mid-December, the housewives bought scallion heads in preparation for Tet.
This rustic yet simple-looking dish, contrary to popular belief, requires an extra meticulous cooking process.
First things first: scallion heads are soaked for hours in water. Then the roots are carefully washed and then exposed to the sun until their leaves turn dry and wilt. Next, all the scallion heads are put into a clean jar. Finally, one layer of sugar is covered with one layer of scallion heads. After placing all the ingredients together, one must leave the pot in a dry area for about ten days until the scallion heads are slowly fermented and eventually are ready to be taken out.
Finally, one serving dish of củ kiệu isn't complete without some dried shrimp on top. So make sure to prepare more dried shrimp in advance for our littlest diners. I assure you kids will be fond of this savory, sweet, and sour dish.
And there it is! Your Southern Tet feast is halfway finished!
Thịt kho Tàu / Thịt kho hột vịt (Pork Braised With Eggs and Coconut Water)
The Southern people best cook this Vietnamese dish of braised pork with egg and coconut milk. Just like other Southern homemakers, my mom, a true Southerner, would prepare a giant pot of pork braised with eggs, enough for the whole family to eat during Tết.
Two days before the Lunar New Year's Eve, my mom would go to the nearby markets early in the morning to choose the ingredients: the best meat, eggs, and some coconuts for her giant pot of thịt kho hột vịt.
Making Southern thịt kho hột vịt is not too challenging if you just follow some tips. After watching my mom make it for years, here are some excellent tips that I can offer.
To make the most delicious braised pork dish, you must choose the ingredients wisely. Pork belly must contain fat and lean meat, or it will get unsuitably dry during the long cooking storage. This meat must be cut into large pieces, marinated with spices and fish sauce for about 30 minutes. While waiting for the heart to become thoroughly soaked, boil the eggs and remove shells.
To start, heat up your pot, then boil fresh coconut water and add cold water if needed. Then put all the marinated pork into the pot, cook until the meat becomes soft. Now it's time for the next step, putting the eggs into the pot. Finally, season it to match your family's taste and simmer the food until the meat becomes super tender.
The finished dish of pork braised with egg and coconut water is considered done adequately if it has these two qualities: an eye-catching and distinct golden brown color and well-seasoned, tender meat.
This dish where cooks have some leeway to give it their style and spin. For example, some Southerners love to dry pork belly in the sun before braising, and some others like to braise their protein with scraped coconut meat. But my mom's recipe is done without either step.
This dish is best paired with pickled scallion heads and a fragrant hot bowl of rice.
Canh khổ qua dồn thịt (Bitter melon Stuffed With Meat Soup)
You might be wondering why superstitious people like the Vietnamese would choose a bitter dish for their very first start of the year. This might surprise you, but canh khổ qua dồn thịt is a significant part of Southern Vietnamese spirituality.
It may look simple outside, but bitter melon stuffed with meat contains many spiritual elements according to the Southerners' belief system. In Vietnamese, "khổ" means "hardship", and "qua" means "pass". So basically, Southern people eat this dish in the first days of the New Year, hoping that unlucky things in the old year will pass and that they will welcome a peaceful new year.
Bitter melon has a nutritious blend of bitter and sweet flavors.
Additionally, canh khổ qua dồn thịt is also suitable for health thanks to the cool-tasting broth, which is a relief amid the humid and warm weather in Southern Vietnam. This food is believed to help lower the heat inside our bodies.