Is Vietnamese Food Healthy? 12+ Dishes with Recipes (and Which to Avoid)
April 30, 2022
Have you noticed? Vietnamese cuisine is all the craze nowadays! It’s a masterful mixture of flavours, but is Vietnamese food healthy? Read on to learn the healthiest foods to pick your chopsticks up for, discover recipes and cooking tips for each, and also become savvy about which foods to avoid or limit.
As a foodie myself, I have had my fair share of indulgences in TV shows and documentaries from the finest chefs and explorers worldwide, attempting to satisfy my wanderlust and curiosity for the world’s healthiest and most delicious traditional cuisines.
When it comes to Vietnam, perhaps no one has captured and appreciated its spirit on a larger scale than the late and highly-respected chef Anthony Bourdain:
“You don’t have to go looking for great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, cafes, little storefronts, in the streets; carried in makeshift portable kitchens on yokes borne by women vendors. Your cyclo-driver will invite you to his home; your guide will want to bring you to his favorite place. Strangers will rush up and offer you a taste of something they’re proud of and think you should know about. It’s a country filled with proud cooks—and passionate eaters”.Anthony Bourdain: “Hungry for more of Vietnam”, 2005
In this post, we’re going to see just why this cuisine is so beloved, unique, and what sets it apart from others, focusing on the present and past of its traditional dishes.
Nonetheless, like all great cuisines, international influences and modern ingredients have “snuck in” and created some foods that aren’t so “good for you”. That doesn’t make the cuisine bad, or mean you can’t enjoy it. Instead, it gives a greater appreciation for the healthfulness of beneficial traditional dishes and ingredients, and serves as a guide for which dishes to limit (either cut out or simply enjoy on occasion).
Is Vietnamese Food Healthy? A Brief Look at the History
Vietnam has a rich and unique history, reflected by its incredible people, regional diversity, and masterful use of fresh ingredients of a variety beyond the scope of a single post.
Vietnam (Việt Nam) may have first been occupied by humans over 1.6 million years ago (^)! In later human history, the country has been occupied several times, and throughout colonial periods, wars, and eras of change through international trade, its cuisine has shaped up to a melting pot of regional, national tradition and foreign concepts all in one.
Such examples come from ancient ties with Cambodian, Champa, Chinese Malaysian, and Tai ethnic groups, and the introduction of new ingredients, crops, and “European” meal ideas by the French during their Indochina colonial period between 1887 and 1954.
Despite all of this, the country has always had a proud and distinct food culture. Regional variety from North to South, family dynamics, fresh food, and the “five fundamental tastes” (ngũ vị) stemming from ancient Asian philosophy and nutrients* encapsulate the cuisine in all its glory:
Overall, this makes Vietnamese food abundant in nourishing and flavourful ingredients, and the country can brag that it has no shortage of dishes with many potential health benefits.
When looking at Vietnam from a traditional and ancestral viewpoint, you’ll easily come across very nutritious and whole food dishes.
Nowadays, however, we see noticeable shifts in dietary habits. The modern influences of agriculture and foreign interactions have lead to some dishes that don’t score highly on the “healthy eating” list. Some should be ideally avoided altogether, and others best be enjoyed in limited quantities, when it comes to general guidance for most people.
Vietnamese Ingredients – The “Essentials”, “Not-so-goods”, and Healthy Swaps
Like most countries in SE Asia, Vietnam relies on starchy staple foods – especially rice. In this post, we’ll take a look at traditional Vietnamese food from a wide spectrum of dish types, including some mouth-watering low-carb Vietnamese dishes.
Remember, however, that there are plenty of low-carb swaps for many of these starches, if you’re looking to limit your carbohydrates. I almost always stand by completely cutting out refined sugars, but in the context of a healthy lifestyle, a small amount on occasion is a trivial worry.
The one big “NO-NO” is seed and vegetable oils. Please, please, please do not cook with these. Read the alternatives below.
- Rice Substitutes: Cauliflower rice, broccoli rice konjac rice (Amazon link – ‘Barenaked’ brand);
- Noodle Substitutes: Beansprouts, courgette / zucchini noodles, spiralised veggies, konjac noodles;
- Rice Paper Substitutes: Nori seaweed, lettuce, cabbage leaves, thinly sliced / grated / mandoline vegetable strips (courgette / zucchini, cucumber, konjac, daikon / mooli / radish), bell pepper cups;
- Sugar Substitutes: Remove the sugar entirely or limit the amount, use slightly sweeter vegetables, consider stevia, MSG;
- Vegetable oils / seed oils: Pork lard, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, ghee, butter, or cold-pressed peanut or sesame oil mixed with one of the others in this list.
Unfortunately, a lot of Vietnamese recipes do use a considerable amount of refined sugar. You’ll find this either as a main flavouring or as part of thick sauces. In this post, I will note where a dish might include this, and also provide thoughts for alternative options.
I find it encouraging that a lot of online sources actually note “or adjust to taste” – meaning the use of sugar is really more of a personal choice. For those like me eating a whole-food and unprocessed diet, it’s very easy to detect and enjoy natural sweetness in foods. I highly encourage making the shift yourself, and not including any added sugars.
The Flavours of Vietnam
There are some key flavouring ingredients every novice should be familiar with when it comes to this cuisine, featuring is an incredible array of popular food choices. Here are just a few essentials:
- Nước Mắm (Traditional fermented fish sauce, often made with anchovies – Amazon link);
- Nước Chấm (Traditional dipping sauces – often made with nước mắm, with regional varieties and different flavours incorporating the “five fundamental tastes” above);
- Mắm Ruốc (Traditional fermented shrimp paste – Amazon link);
- Bitter and Sweet Herbs:
- Bitter mint
- Holy basil
- Lemon basil
- Coriander / cilantro
- Lime leaves
- Ngò om
- Shiso leaves
- Mustard leaves
- Morning glory
- Chinese chives;
- Fresh Lime;
- Ginger Root;
- Black pepper
- Birdseye chilli peppers.
Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".
12 Healthy Vietnamese Dishes (and a Bonus)
1. Phở Bò (Beef Pho / Soup)
Region of Origin: Northern Vietnam, Nam Định.
Phở (pronounced more like “fu(r)h”) is the quintessential dish of Vietnam. People from around the world have come to adore this oriental and aromatic soup, whether as a warming dish with hot spices and hearty ingredients, or a refreshing bowl of stewed aromatic herbs, vegetables, and lean protein.
Phở bò is a popular variety made even more nutritious with beef. This can include fatty cuts, beef shin, tripe, sliced steak, thin raw beef, and other varieties.
Bò / Beef is one of nature’s most nutrient-dense and non-toxic foods, packing in complete protein, zinc, iron, selenium, saturated and monounsaturated fats, CLA, and omega-3 fatty acids if you can get grass-fed beef.
Here’s where the magic happens, however: THE STOCK. Every good soup, broth, stew, in almost any traditional context, is made special by its stock. Phở bò uses a beef stock, made from simmered beef bones and typically connective-tissue rich oxtail, neck, joints, and so on. This concentrates collagen, glucosaminoglycans, and a tonne of umami flavour into this rich, mouthwatering, brothy goodness.
Check This Post Out: Why and How to Make Bone Broth – Nature’s TRUE Anti-ageing Serum
Recipe by BBC Good Food
Other types of phở are also very popular and absolutely worth trying. If you’re ordering the food out, here are two main things to ask about: Cooking oil used (if any), and added sugars. Avoid all seed and vegetable oils, and avoid / minimise added sugars.
The recipe above uses bean sprouts, but most varieties you’ll come across use rice noodles. If you’re only doing this on occasion and are generally health-conscious and avoid refined carbs, don’t over-stress eating some rice noodles, and focus on enjoying the fresh ingredients and appreciate the meal holistically.
2. Gỏi Cuốn (Vietnamese Spring Rolls)
Region of Origin: Nationwide, possibly introduced from ancient China.
The Southern Vietnamese call these famous delicacies ‘gỏi cuốn’, whereas the Northerners will call their variations ‘nem cuốn’. For the most part, these are the same food item, but with different regional ingredients, as expected.
Other English names include Summer rolls, salad rolls, and rice paper rolls.
What sets these apart on a global scale is the unique Vietnamese focus on freshness. Unlike as with other types of Spring roll you may know (for example, the battered and fried Chinese varieties), the Vietnamese delight in serving these cold, using fresh ingredients. This makes them the perfect light and satisfying “finger food” (though you can use chopsticks).
When asking “Is Vietnamese food healthy?”, you only need to look at the variety of fresh food to realise how good it can be.
Gỏi cuốn are wrapped in very thin rice paper ‘bánh tráng’, and are packed with flavourful raw and cooked ingredients. Often, the base ingredient is rice vermicelli / noodles, which ups the carbohydrate content.
Traditional fillings include:
- Pork (belly, braised cuts, sliced cuts, grilled sausages ‘nem nướng’, and more);
- Vegetables and herbs (beansprouts, spring onions, lettuce, coriander, mint, mushrooms, etc.);
- Seafood (prawns, squid, shrimp, etc.);
- Poached egg;
- Rice vermicelli noodles (you can find some without these for lower carb options, or even better, make your own rolls at home without the vermicelli or with a substitute like courgette / zucchini noodles)!
Traditional recipe including rice vermicelli by Wok and Kin
Most of the time, some form of dipping sauce accompanies these Vietnamese Spring rolls. There are many delicious choices like ginger and soy dips, sprouted / soaked peanut dips, chilli sauces, and sauces based made with fermented fish sauce or fish paste.
Recommended Dipping Sauce: Check out this easy Homemade Nước Chấm Recipe by Chihyu of I Heart Umami.
3. Hoa Quả (Fresh Fruit)
Region of Origin: Nationwide
Despite movement like the Carnivore Diet (which yes, have a very valid and valuable application), fruit can undoubtedly be part of a healthy diet. And even the likes of the famous ‘Carnivore MD: Dr. Paul Saladino’, one of the biggest proponents of the carnivore movement, now regularly consumes fruit.
In Vietnam, fruit is a national treasure. The lush natural ecosystems of rich soil, tropical heat and rain, and a population who knows how to make use of good, fresh, and local food has meant that fruit of many kinds are now a traditional part of healthy Vietnamese cuisine, with several uses.
Popular fruits in Vietnam include:
- Durian ‘Sầu Riêng’ (The spiky, sweet-tasting stink bomb in trendy online “taste test” videos – I recommend watching Brave Wildnerness’ video for some entertainment);
- Passionfruit ‘Chanh Leo’;
- Mango ‘Xoài’;
- Mangosteen ‘Măng Cụt’;
- Rambutan ‘Chôm Chôm’;
- Guava ‘Ổi’;
- Read more on vietnam.travel…
Different fruits provide different nutrient, colour, and flavour profiles, naturally. In general, they’re high in water, fibre, moderate in amounts of the sugars glucose and fructose, and they contain polyphenols like anti-inflammatory flavonoids and some vitamins and minerals.
Whole fruits and healthy for the general population in moderation. Fruit juices, on the other hand, are no better than refined sugars, especially for those with metabolic disorders like Fatty Liver Disease or Type II Diabetes Mellitus or Gout, where there’s an increased susceptibility to fructose (fruit sugar) being deleterious.
One particularly famous Vietnamese fruit recipe is the Mango Salad ‘Gỏi Xoài’:
Consider using a sugar-free or lower-sugar Nước Chấm dip, fermented soy sauce, or making a shrimp reduction with a little honey, for example; Recipe by Saba Black Sheep
4. Nộm Hoa Chuối (Banana Blossom Salad)
Across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and surrounding areas, people have unique ways of making the most of their resources. Banana’s don’t just offer sweet fruit in the harvest seasons, so people cook many recipes using their large flower pods, too!
“Mmm… Sounds sweet. Banana blossom”. But what if I told you this was actually more “meaty”?
In fact, vegans sometimes use banana blossoms as a “meat alternative” in cooking, which led to them becoming even a little trendy. However, they’re a poor substitute for meat nutritionally, being virtually devoid of fat and many of meat’s micronutrients. They do have a fairly balanced amino acid profile, however, which makes them a good source of plant protein.
Nonetheless, banana blossoms do help to pack out meals with a toothsome texture and an apparently neutral flavour. Not to mention, they add a delightful purple colour and some health benefits to the plate:
- High in Fibre (broken down into beneficial short chain fatty acids; reduces meal insulin & blood sugar response);
- Low in Calories (23 per 100g from carbohydrates and a little protein (^));
- High in Antioxidants (like anti-inflammatory and possibly medicinal flavonoids (^)(PDF Study Link*));
- High in Vitamins and Minerals (vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and some plant iron, copper, and calcium (^)(^)(*)).
You can get a hold of banana blossoms from stores like Whole Foods or a good SE Asian supermarket, an online source, or if you happen to be in a country that grows bananas (like Vietnam).
One of the easiest options to buy banana blossoms that have been preserved in brine – a common practice. Use the Amazon link below to stock up on some of Chef’s Choice Banana Blossoms. This is one of the most popular choices in the wider market and contains no sulphites or unnatural preservatives.
For you lucky nomads, travellers, holiday-takers / vacationers, expats, natives, and tourists in Vietnam, you’ll likely get the fresh deal without much difficulty.
Now, like many vegetables, banana blossoms can be cooked or eaten raw (often soaked first). Nộm Hoa Chuối is a salad using raw, thinly sliced banana blossoms, fragrant vegetables and herbs and spices, and – in this case – a traditional Vietnamese mixture of marinated pork and shrimp / prawns.
Once again, consider skipping the sugar here, or at least opting for a more natural alternative (like including some sweeter vegetables or picking from this better sweetener list in my post about healthy food swaps); Recipe by Helen
Once again, asking “Is Vietnamese food healthy” can sometimes be best answered visually. When you look at traditional Vietnamese food, you see fresh and wide-ranging ingredients, plenty of colours, and foods packed with flavour and texture. Together, these boast a resounding “yes!”.
5. Gà Chiên Sả Ớt (Spicy Lemongrass Grilled Chicken)
Ahh chicken. The quintessential poultry staple, carved up on family tables for centuries, and now one of the most popular meats worldwide. In fact, the US is famously crazy about chicken (it’s eaten A LOT over there).
But surprisingly, chicken doesn’t always make the same limelight in SE Asia as it does elsewhere. For this reason alone, I just had to seek out an authentic Vietnamese dish that truly captures the country’s cuisine and applies it to what we consider a more “classic Western” meat. Gà chiên sả ớt does just that.
Lemongrass is a citrusy and grassy herb that lays the foundation of flavour in many Vietnamese foods. Try and imagine the flavour if you can. It’s also slightly sweet.
Now conjure this: Hot chillies, an undertone of garlic, an umami-rich liquid (fish sauce), and juicy, tender, on-the-bone, slightly charred grilled chicken. Got it? Now sense a subtle sweetness from shallots and salt to taste…
Doesn’t just reading that make you water at the mouth? I don’t believe you if you say no!
Plus, chicken is a real good source of easily digestible nutrients (and don’t skimp on the collagen- and fat-rich skin and chewy white joint tissue).
Chicken packs in protein, some monounsaturated and saturated fats (with less polyunsaturated if you can get non-corn-fed), as well as a unique B-vitamin profile different to red meats and essential and immune-boosting minerals and electrolytes like selenium, phosphorous, zinc, and some iron and potassium. Ever wondered why chicken soup is the go-to home remedy for a cold or flu? 😉
Here’s the macronutrient data for 1 medium chicken thigh, bone in and skin on (raw weight 160g) (^):
- Calories: 213kcal
- Protein: 20.16g
- Fats: 14.72g
- Carbohydrates: null
So, is Vietnamese food healthy? Well, are nutrient-dense animal foods, natural dressings, and fresh herbs and aromatics healthy? You tell me.
Recipe by Vicky Pham, adapted from Charles Phan’s ‘Vietnamese Home Cooking’
Note: Personally, I’d skip on the granulated sugar in this recipe, or use equivalent amounts of a high-quality honey or maple syrup. That said, it really is an insignificant amount, so (generally) don’t worry about including it!
6. Cá Kho Tộ (Caramelized Braised Fish)
Vietnam is a long country with an impressive coastline along the entirety of its East and South. That means AMAZING seafood, as a fact.
As per tradition, the Vietnamese make this recipe with catfish. However, if you can’t access or purchase catfish where you are, any meaty white fish serves as a good alternative. Consider haddock, pollock, flounder, tilapia, or cod as some of the best substitutes.
Many health professionals, nutritionists, and dietitians like to hail the mighty benefits of eating fish regularly. White fish contain far fewer anti-inflammatory omega-3’s and vitamins compared to super sardines and other fatty fish, but when you want a nutritious, light, low-calorie, and very lean protein source, they definitely defend their reputation!
For example, catfish is abundant in essential B-vitamins (especially B12 and some B1, B3 / Niacin, and B5), immune-boosting vitamin D (in fact, more so than many other lean fish), and minerals like selenium and phosphorus. Meanwhile, a typical 159g fillet contains just over 150 calories and 26g of protein (^)!
See note below; Recipe by Hungry Huy
Note: Remember to use a healthy cooking oil. For this aromatic Vietnamese recipe, the author Huy makes use of a well-rounded mixture of both bright and pungent herbs and spices and a coconut juice-based liquid. Therefore, I recommend extra-virgin coconut oil to suit.
Plus, you’ll be happy to know that coconut oil has some rather impressive health benefits.
7. Nem Phùng (Fermented Pork Fig Wraps)
Region of Origin: Northern Vietnam, Hanoi.
Nem phùng is seasoned and boiled pork meat and skin, possibly including the “off-cuts” or fatty bits, which have been fermented wrapped in edible fig leaves. Banana leaves then make up a final outer layer in which the nem phùng ferment, typically for 2 days.
Remember how I said these people were resourceful? Banana fruit, leaves, and flowers all make it into Vietnamese cooking!
Imagine the umami. The savouriness. The rich, aged, juicy satisfaction. And most of all, the simplicity and beauty of the process and real ingredients.
Pork is a wonderful source of protein, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, B1 / thiamine (significantly more than many other meats), B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, selenium, phosphorous, zinc, and some iron (^). Go for a collagen- or cartilage-rich cut like the ears, skin, or even something like the knuckles, and you’re in for an even more nutrient-dense powerhouse of a treat to benefit your joints, cartilage, gut health, and skin.
Typically, the Hanoians will season the boiled pork with salt to ferment, a little pepper, and maybe some fish sauce, MSG, or thính – a toasted brown rice powder. Then, they wrap it in banana leaves, and let nature work its magic.
“The pork can range from the pork ears to pork belly meat, and the seasoning can be quite mild, sometimes only salt and a small amount of MSG”.Nguyễn Mỹ Hà: Vietnamnews.vn
With a bit of digging through the world wide web and a little luck, I came across a decent instructional post on how to make this delicacy (with serving suggestions) from the Vietnamese Government’s ‘Hanoi Tourism Department’ itself!
“Nem Phùng is a specialty of Phung Commune, Dan Phuong District, Hanoi, that can be seen no where else across the country”; Recipe by Hanoi Tourism Department
This healthy Vietnamese dish could translate to mean “swollen / bloated pork”, which I suspect would be because of the wraps expanding as the meat ferments, but it’s hard to find any sources to confirm this.
8. Nem Chua (Fermented Pork Roll / Sausage)
Region of Origin: Southern Vietnam
So you may have noticed that ‘Nem’ again – which is a Vietnamese word used for different meat dishes. ‘Chua’ (pronounced more like “qhu-a”) means sour, but is more used to refer to fermented foods in general.
Nem chua is a meat roll or sausage (most often pork), which is cured by fermenting with garlic and chillies, and traditionally eaten raw, but is also sometimes cooked – particularly grilled. European regulations typically allow only cooked nem chua to be sold, so as to mitigate pathogen risk from poor fermentation environments.
You’ll find it sliced, diced, in individual wraps, or packaged as multiple pieces, and not only in Vietnam, but across South East Asia as its popularity has spread over time (^).
Many people enjoy this cured delight on special occasions like the Vietnamese Lunar New Year ‘Têt’, or as a savoury, protein-rich snack.
Now there are two main ways to eat Nem Chua (apart from raw or cooked), and they are as a side dish or aperitif, or to use the fermented pork in pork-inclusive recipes. Below are guides on how to make it yourself, so if you do, just remember to follow the best sanitation practices you can and avoid storing the pork at temperatures more inducive of pathogens (you’ll want a dry, warm-ish location, and a very tight seal on the wraps).
YummY Vietnam’s Step-by-step Guide, including how to cook the meat
There is also a raw nem chua recipe online by ‘Spoonful of Yum’ using beef. Like some other recipes, this one adds in sugar for those with a sweet-tooth. In my opinion, it’s best to skip the added sugar, or use it sparingly and maybe don’t eat sugared nem chua very often.
If you can get banana leaves to wrap the pork in, that would be preferable to avoid plastic chemical leaching, to improve the aroma of the final result, and to stick to the traditional method.
Note: To use banana leaves instead of plastic wrap (as I recommend), soak them in warm water for about 3-5 minutes to allow them to bend and wrap well.
Why this Dish Might Help Save the Planet (Yes, Really)!
Scientists from RMIT University, Melbourne, noticed that this raw delicacy contains a specific type of bacteria called Lactiplantibacillus plantarum B21AG. This type of bacteria happens to be a powerful natural preservative because it produces compounds called bacteriocins to kill other bacteria! This makes a lot of sense from a traditional viewpoint, as the dish likely was invented as a way to preserve meat and prevent rotting.
Amazingly, this Lactiplantibacillus species also seems to have great potential to be produced in large amounts – easier so than other types, maintains food safety in hotter conditions than other bacteria, and investigations are now trying find a way to reduce global food waste by using it as a natural preservative! The scientists even mention its potential as an antibiotic agent in future medicines.
9. Ốc Xào (Stir-fried Snails)
Region of Origin: Nationwide
‘Ốc’ are snails, and they’re a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Truly, you will find all sorts of sea snails and freshwater snails cooked up by street vendors, in homes, and out in the countryside throughout the entire country.
Is Vietnamese food healthy? Yes.
Is it exotic? Heck yes!
Is it crazy? No, but it’s far more “experimental” and “inclusive”, shall we say, than many Westerners are used to – which is really a good thing! (Though, a Frenchman or Frenchwoman wouldn’t shy from this dish, having escargot as a quintessential French delight).
One of the most famous sea snail recipes hails from central Vietnam, making use of the classic combination of lemongrass and chillies, referred to as ‘Sả Ớt’ (like the chicken recipe above). Now the Vietnamese are avid spice masters like their neighbours, so don’t be surprised to “feel the burn” if you order these dishes with this name. Alternatively, make them yourself or ask for a little less chilli.
If you prefer the more fragrant and sweeter flavours typical of Southern-style Vietnamese food, don’t worry! In fact, there are plenty of options out there, and I recommend seeking out creamy coconut milk snail specialty of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City: ‘Ốc Len Xào Dừa’.
Check out both recipes below to make them yourself, but if you happen to find an authentic Vietnamese restaurant or are fortunate enough to travel to this beautiful country, do not miss the chance to try Ốc xào!
See note below; Recipe by Jannie Lam
See note below; Recipe by Vietnam Famous Destinations
*Important Tip: Use coconut oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, or a combination of one of those and a high-quality (preferably cold-pressed) sesame or peanut oil. This matches the flavour profile of these Vietnamese recipes and prevents the formation of carcinogens, TRANS fats, and other harmful compounds from the breakdown of some of the polyunsaturated fats found in the latter two options. Again, avoid toxic seed / vegetable oils.
10. Chả Trứng Chiên (Ground Pork Omelette / Fried Egg Rolls)
Region of Origin: Unkown
When I go to Vietnam one day, I would love to wake up and cook a Vietnamese omelette like this for breakfast! Nothing like a high-protein, high-fat, and nutrient-dense egg dish to start the day.
That said, you can’t go wrong frying this up for lunch, dinner, meal prep, or as a “party food”, either. When you need an all-rounder, why not try out this Vietnamese alternative to the traditional Western omelette?
You may think it’s unusual to add ground meat into an omelette, but it’s hard to imagine that the flavour isn’t worth every savoury bite.
As always, you don’t need to do much to eggs to make something spectacular, and this recipe therefore keeps things simple. It really contains the pork, eggs, and minimalistic Vietnamese staple flavours from alliums (like garlic and scallions) and, just for that extra boost of mouth-watering umami (as if pork and beef wasn’t enough!), a little fish sauce.
Note: The recipe author, Suzanne, specifies to use a more neutral oil. Remember to avoid cooking with seed / vegetable oils at all costs. The healthiest neutral options are: Avocado oil, refined olive oil, refined coconut oil, or any of those mixed with some unsalted butter.
11. Đồ Chua (Pickled Vegetables)
Almost every traditional culture have mastered different forms of fermentation. It makes sense. In the past, humans would have needed to ferment foods for two main reasons (and no, not to make wine and get merry!):
- To preserve food;
- To make food safe to eat.
In the case of fermenting vegetables, the effects are two-fold. You see, storing them over time allows us to add flavour and nutrition to our diets for a long time past “harvest” or “foraging” seasons. What’s more, many plant foods contain toxins and “antinutrients” (these are chemicals that block the absorption of certain nutrients like essential minerals) that can be neutralised or reduced by fermenting, making the foods much more easy to digest, preventing disease or nutrient deficiencies, and even providing the potential health benefits of probiotic bacteria, reduced carbohydrate content, and increased protein and B-vitamin levels.
Vietnam is no stranger to well-fermented foods, as I’m sure you’ve realised by now with all the delectable shrimp and fish pastes and sauces and dips, pork rolls, and even traditional soy sauce.
‘Đồ Chua’ literally means “sour thing” or “acid thing” (isn’t Vietnamese a beautifully logical language?). Đồ chua, however, is one particular type of many pickled condiments in Vietnam, and is made from traditionally brined sliced carrots and daikon radish sticks. You will see these salty veggie sticks served as a side dish, with common pork dishes, in ‘bánh mì’ (Vietnamese sandwiches), and in egg rolls, for example.
Back when I first created my guide on How to Pickle Vegetables without Vinegar for you, I conjured up and shared the delicious homemade how-to recipe below. It’s super simple and once you’ve got the hang of it, you can use practically any vegetable you’d like (how’s that as a way to boost your arsenal of cool cooking skills)!
Fun fact: The first time I actually made đồ chua was this recipe below, and I opened it up and shared it at a family Christmas-eve party. 🙂
12. Trứng Vịt Lộn (Boiled Balut)
Region of origin: China > Phillipines > Vietnam / SE Asia
Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. ‘Balut’ is actually from the Phillipines – it’s famously Filipino, in fact. Despite this, credit is given to the Chinese for its “invention”.
But before you barrage me, hear me out… Just as nem chua spread from Vietnam to become a beloved food across Southeast Asia, balut has done the same, including in Vietnam.
I think this dish is just far too spectacular to leave out of our healthy Vietnamese food list, and it is perfectly indicative of the adage that “the Vietnamese eat everything”.
“Why do you say that?”
Well, if you’re squeemish, beware… Balut is boiled duck egg *DUN DUN DUN!*!
“What?! Get outta here, I looooove eggs!”
Here’s the catch: The egg, by this point, is a foetus. So, really, it’s a boiled baby duck. Translate the Vietnamese name ‘Trứng Vịt Lộn’ you get “confused duck egg”, oddly enough, but really it’s just a fertilised egg that isn’t fully matured (maybe that’s why it’s confused – “Is it an egg or a duck?”).
“Okay, now I’m outta here! How can you eat that?!”
In reflection, it’s not too different from eating any duck at all, or any egg at all, but rather a nutritious combination of the both. At the end of the day, eating an egg is eating a potential duck (or chicken etc.), and we often eat kids like lamb in the West anyway (so even after they’re born).
Really, when you look at it through a lens of natural order, this is pretty normal, too, and many other animals across the animal kingdom will eat forming eggs before they hatch as a very valuable source of nourishment.
“EAT NOSE TO TAIL” is a rule of mankind that has stood the test of time for millions of years. It has become a pillar of the Paleo movement, ancestral health practices, the carnivore movement (often followed people to overcome chronic health problems), and is a staple piece of wisdom passed down through the generations. Just consider that many cultures serve organ meats and fatty cuts to pregnant women, people in recovery, and share these precious cuts first and foremost amongst families and friends before the more familiar muscle meats. Our ancestors did exactly this! Only recently have any of us shied away from the most nutritious foods on the planet: Organ meats, connective tissue, and “off cuts and odd bits”, including foods like balut.
Balut is typically matured for 2-3 weeks before it is boiled up and eaten straightaway or sold by street vendors and restaurants. Up to 17 days of maturation is said to be ideal, and before this time you won’t find any bones in the egg.
However, even slightly more matured eggs are preferred by some people, containing soft and edible bones, beaks, and feather (not unlike how we eat whole sardines with the bones and heads).
I find it fascinating that this one dish literally contains all of the nutrients IN and NEEDED TO SUSTAIN AND GROW a whole duck – that is amazing! They can absolutely boast as one of the highest quality, most nutrient-dense superfoods on the planet (^)(^)(^)*(^)*(^)*:
- High-quality complete proteins including joint-supporting glycine and collagen;
- Natural fats including saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats (even some omega-3 and omega-6);
- Dietary cholesterol which is by no means the heart-clogging demon it was once made out to be*, and unless you have Familial Hypercholesterolemia, cholesterol consumption is generally not a concern;
- Conjugated linoleic acid ‘CLA’ to boost the immune system and enhance metabolism;
- Minerals like calcium, zinc, iron, phosphorus and more;
- Essential vitamins and even antioxidants like vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, and E, and choline and beta-carotene;
- 188 Calories, 14g Protein, 14g Fat, and no more than 1g Carbs per typical egg.
You needn’t ever ask “is Vietnamese food healthy?” again when you see just how nutritious this rich and exotic cuisine really can be.
A complete guide from fresh egg all the way through to finished cooked delicacy by Joost Nusselder of ‘Bite My Bun’
13. BONUS: Entomophagy (Bugs, Crawlies, and Insects)!
So, before you click away or scream, I have to repeat this:
Is Vietnamese food healthy? Yes.
Is it exotic? Heck yes!
However, the fact is that entomophagy (eating bugs and insects) is very normal for humans!
You’ll know this if you’ve kept up to date with my latest email newsletters exploring human evolution and diet. (*Wink wink*, sign up below).
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You’ll find that the equator runs just below Vietnam on the world map. This places the country in the “Subequatorial Zone” to the North, and that’s important. You see, tropical equatorial zones like this are both blessed and plagued with much greater insects and bug populations, due to the hotter and wetter climates.
If you can imagine that humans originated in the heart of Africa (another hotspot for culinary wonders including a few “crawlies”), it’s easy to understand that we came to eat these foods over time. They provide incredible nutrient density of essential vitamins and minerals, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and even a type of fibre called ‘chitin’ (^)(^)(^). Plus they are essentially “easy pickings” compared to larger prey.
Recommended Reading: Healthy African Foods – 11 Authentic Dishes (and Recipes)
As it happens, insect foods like protein powders, flours, and freeze-dried bugs and insects are really picking up in popularity. In the US and UK, restaurants specialise in or offer dishes starring foods like crickets, for example (even Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants), and crickets are the most popular!
And you might like this opening line from a 2018 review in ‘Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition’:
“The traditional consumption of edible insects is common in one third of the world’s population, mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia”.Traditional consumption of and rearing edible insects in Africa, Asia and Europe
Above is a picture from Krabi, Thailand, indicative of the typical Southeast Asian market stalls selling all sorts of edible insects and bugs. They’re often grilled on skewers, fried, roasted, or even cooked into meals like curries in some places. For the most part, the Vietnamese and neighbours alike consider these foods as delicacies, and they make an awesome “finger food” or on-the-go snack! (They even make them into beloved candies or cookies, though perhaps you will want to enjoy them as a “now and then” treat).
You shouldn’t shy away. My old post on the benefits of eating insects highlights some of the reasons, but here I will share the two main ones: Flavour and nutrition.
Yep, I said it. Flavour. Believe it or not, you can enjoy both unique and pleasantly familiar flavours, with crunchy crickets and relatives often tasting “nutty”, and smooth silkworms often tasting “buttery”. Plus, the Vietnamese enjoy both of these rather abundantly. Honestly, I vouch from personal experience when I say that this food group can be pretty darn good!
Nutrition-wise, consider the nutrition of just 100g raw crickets / 35g roasted crickets (^):
- Calories: ~112 (approximation)
- Protein: 12.9g
- Fat: 5.5g
- Carbohydrates (mostly fibre): 5.5g
This comes alongside substantial B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and copper (^).
Another world-wide favourite is ants and ant eggs. For example, in Coorg, India, a red ant curry makes scene, and in Cambodia, jungle ants make a sweet and slightly acidic spiced curry. I want to share with you a slightly more adventurous dish from Vietnam using tropical red ant eggs. Here’s a link to buy some Canned Weaver Egg Ants* if you’re a wee bit of a food experimenter like myself (*Thailand Unique is a trusted store I have personally used).
Recipe by Luke Nguyen of SBS Australia from ‘Luke Nguyen’s Railway Vietnam’
Other edible Vietnamese bugs & insects: Crickets, Grasshoppers, Spiders, Coconut Beetle Larvae, Beetle Larvae, Peanut Worms, Scorpions (technically an arachnid, but close enough lol).
A Few Vietnamese Dishes to Avoid or Limit
In general, it is clear that traditional Vietnamese cuisine is abundant in nutrient-dense, fresh, and downright delicious foods.
However, to follow a natural human diet (which is species appropriate, lacking in unnatural and processed “foods”, you’ll want to stick to some simple advice. Some of these are not hard-and-fast rules, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with making an exception now and then for healthy people.
Always consider how well your digestion, immune system, and physical fitness are to make informed decisions on how much you can “get away with”, so to speak. For the most part, these tips come down to common sense and traditional wisdom:
- Avoid or limit refined carbohydrates (e.g. too many noodle, rice, or bread dishes);
- Avoid or limit sweet dishes (many Vietnamese soups and sauces contain added syrups and sugars, which is slightly frustrating, so always ask about ingredients if you go for a sweeter dish and look out for “caremalised” meats, for example);
- Avoid or limit whatever processed foods you can (shop in fresh markets, don’t buy junk with hard-to-pronounce unnatural ingredients);
- Absolutely avoid seed oils and butter substitutes like margarine* (whenever you can, which should realistically be always);
- Ask what cooking oil or fat restaurants and street vendors use to inform your decisions*;
- Prioritise healthy (natural) proteins in the diet (and the same for fats and carbs based on your current diet);
- Try to eat seasonally**;
- Prioritise nutrient-density (animal foods of all kinds, nutritious and properly-prepared/cooked/fermented/sprouted plant foods of different colours and flavours**);
- If you eat desserts or sweet treats, don’t do it every day, and try to stick to the more natural options (e.g. fresh fruits, natural starches and sugars, more “fibrous” choices to decrease glucose spikes);
- Be mindful of food hygiene, safety, and risks (an important consideration in poorer and more polluted areas especially);
- Enjoy your food (eat mindfully, appreciate the flavours and ingredients, be a little adventurous and try something new, and don’t overdo it)!
Below are just a few examples of common Vietnamese foods that you may want to steer clear of or, if you’re on holiday and enjoying an exception, try not to go overboard on. Naturally, sweets and candy and deserts should be on the “don’t go crazy with” list any way, so I’ll cover some less obvious and savoury foods below.
1. Bánh Cam (Vietnamese Doughnut Balls)
Why? Deep fried in toxic seed oils, along with being both high-fat and high-carb, which is a risk factor for metabolic dysfunction and “insulin resistance”.
2. Bánh Mì (Vietnamese Sandwiches)
Why? A source of refined carbohydrates from the bread. Not too bad if you get healthy fillings without processed sources and fake butters. Also less of a concern if you’re physically active or walking out and about anyway.
Why? Okay, tofu is not a big “baddie”, and can be okay for most people, but is neither the health food it has made out to be… If you do eat it, it is best to enjoy with some fish broth or seafood or seaweed, which contain iodine to offset effects on the thyroid. Sadly, it is rare to see traditional tofu nowadays. It is supposed to be from fermented soybeans, which removes antinutrients, thyroid disruptors, estrogenic compounds called ‘phytoestrogens’, and other plant toxins which can cause digestive upset and other symptoms (like flaring autoimmune disorders or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in some people). Most modern commercial tofu skips the fermentation process entirely.
4. Bún and Mì (Rice and Wheat Noodles, Respectively)
Why? Same as number 2., really. Not really bad to have some, just be mindful. Lots of dish names contain the words ‘bún’ or ‘mì’, so there’s a tip for you when reading menus. Obviously I would recommend avoiding mì if you have gluten intolerance or allergies or don’t tolerate grains well, too.
5. Chè (Water- or Coconut Cream-based Custards, Puddings, Sweet Dishes like Soups, and Deserts)
Why? This one is generally more of an “occasional treat” food. Kind of a no-brainer here – these are very sweet, often containing added sugars or a high amount of natural sugars (even if they use fresh, mashed, pureed, or cooked fruits, or syrups, for example).
So, Overall, Is Vietnamese Food Healthy?
After reading through some of the mouth-watering and at some times mind-blowing foods on the list, I think we can shout a resounding “yes”.
Like any cuisine, there are exceptions and unhealthy foods that have developed over time in the agricultural and more recent modern times, so just be smart about your choices, stick to the tips above, and then pick-up your chopsticks and get out there!
Personally, this post has been a real eye-opener for me.
I’ve cooked Vietnamese dishes at home before and absolutely can’t get over their ingenious combinations of spices, herbs, and fresh ingredients. Nonetheless, it was easier to find recipes high in refined carbs or added sugars than it was not to sometimes!
By writing this, I’ve come to realise that this tropical land of orient has just as many fresh, nutrient-dense, and tasty traditional foods as any other cuisine. You just need to know where to look and how to spot the good stuff.
Also, I have had a blast learning about some of the more “whacky” and “exotic” foods (shall we say), and realise why they say the Vietnamese eat anything lol. I hope you have had just as much fun as I have by reading this.
Let me know below what your favourite item on this list is below in the comments! You know, I’m torn between quite a few, so you can help me. 😀 Thank you all for reading, you’re awesome and I hope we can raise our virtual chopsticks together and say cheers to this healthy, traditional cuisine.
Until next time, stay healthy
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Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".