Vietnam’s blue-collar lunch culture is rooted in cheap, hearty dishes that provide much-needed fuel for the strenuous work day.
During the country’s civil war, citizens lost property, businesses and belongings. Many began selling food from corner-shops or from homes to make ends meet. These shops are still around, many run by the same families. Surrounded by colourful stools, the shops are often noisy, crowded and most specialise in serving only one dish.
Such flavourful, nostalgic fare has become popular for the working class and the affluent alike around the world. Our resident expert, Chôm Chôm’s Chef Steve Nguyen, describes some of the most prevalent dishes and where to find them in Vietnam.
Cơm Tấm, which means ‘broken rice,’ is simple dish of rice fragments and protein. Vietnam is one of the world’s top rice producers, and some grains are broken in the rice milling process making them less desirable for export and therefore cheap. Also, the smaller grains of rice are easier to digest, which avoids the lethargy that often accompanies heavy rice dishes.
The steaming hot Cơm Tấm is heaped on a plate and topped with a protein such as a grilled pork chop, meatloaf, fish patty or fried egg. In most instances, it is served with sweet and sour pickled vegetables and a side of fish sauce-based sauce.
Cơm Tấm is native to Saigon, and harder to find in other Vietnamese cities, though you do see vendors selling ‘Cơm Tấm Saigon’ from time to time.
Ho Chi Minh City
Com Tam Ba Ghien, 84 Đặng Văn Ngữ, Phường 10, Phú Nhuận, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Com Tam Thanh Rau, 119 Phùng Văn Cung, Phú Nhuận, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Com Tam 352, 352 Chu Văn An, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
‘Banh mi’ in Vietnamese translates to ‘bread,’ and the iconic sandwich is named for the crisp, airy baguettes that are a relic of the country’s French colonial days.
Wheat is hard to grow in Vietnam’s humid climate, so the French imported their own bread. Initially it was only accessible for the wealthier families and eaten in the traditional French way: with a generous swipe of butter, topped with ham or pâté.
When French control over the colony wound down towards the end of World War II, banh mi became a popular snack of the masses. The newly liberated area began adding its own twists to the classic French sandwich, with renditions such as banh mi ga with chicken making an appearance.
Banh Mi can now be found at every street corner. Packed with generous fillings of protein, pickled and fresh vegetables, herbs and fiery chilli, the sandwiches lend themselves to grab-and-go ease without sacrificing flavour.
Hanoi: Banh Mi 25, 25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City: Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Hoi An: Bánh Mì Phượng, 2B Phan Châu Trinh, Cẩm Châu, Hội An, Vietnam
A traditional breakfast food from North Vietnam, popular amongst farmers, pho is preceded by its unmistakable aroma. Pho originated when street vendors carried a pot of broth and a mobile stove, and wandered the city peddling their soup.
A light, meat-based broth is simmered for hours with a distinct and complex blend of spices, with warm primary notes of cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom. Flat, white rice flour noodles, made and sold each morning at the markets, are added to the mix and served with a myriad of garnishes that each add a different flavour profile, from tart lime to crunchy beansprouts to coriander. Condiments such as hoisin, sriracha and fish sauce should be scooped up in a spoon so noodles can be dipped directly rather than overpowering the delicate broth.
Hanoi: Pho Gio Truyen, 49 Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City: Phở Hòa Pasteur, 260C Pasteur, phường 8, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Hoi An: Pho Lien, 25 Lê Lợi, Minh An, Hội An, Vietnam