Besides signature dishes such as pho, bun cha (grilled pork rice noodle), and banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) Vietnamese cuisine also offers cultural delicacies that are probably a little (or very) strange to you, but nevertheless delicious. You may call it weird food, or strange food, unique, rare, challenging food, but whatever it is, the Vietnamese love it. And not just the Vietnamese, but most countries would have a Top 10 Weird Foods list, whether it be China, India, Peru or Ghana. What we’re trying to say is, you should never judge a meal without tasting it 😉 From bugs to rats to intestines and brains, this list covers the top 10 weird food you must try when you’re in Vietnam. It starts off easy, and you’ll get to the really adventurous ones as the list progresses, so make sure to read them all!
1. Durian – Sau Rieng
There are two types of people in the world: those who love durian and those who hate it. Vietnamese people usually joke that this fruit is a secret weapon to break friendships because of its smell and taste. Durian, dubbed the king of fruits, is a seasonal tropical fruit growing from June to August in many South East Asian countries.
The fruit is big and has plenty of hard spikes on the husk. Its flesh has a beautiful bright yellow and the distinct fragrance (if you want to call it that) makes it one of the most controversial fruits in the world. When being asked to describe the smell of durian, the lovers will talk nonstop about how fascinating the scent is, that every time they smell durian somewhere they can’t help but eat until they feel sick of it. While the haters only need 4 powerful words to express all their mind: “Smell like old socks!”.
Then why should you want to give this smelly fruits a try? In fact, scientists have proved that durian is highly nutritious, and a moderate amount of this fruit can help an individual maintain a healthy blood pressure, support one’s digestive system as well as improving cardiovascular health. However, people with diabetes should be careful when consuming durian since the fruit has a high sugar element.
If you want to try durian, there are a few dessert options you can choose besides eating the fresh flesh itself. Some dishes locals usually have such as durian pie (banh pia), fried durian pie (banh sau rieng chien), and durian sweet soup (che sau rieng). The taste of sau rieng is sweet and fatty but it can cause dizziness if you can’t stand the smell. Up for the challenge?
FYI: Some people believe that they can balance the body heat by drinking salted water from the husk. They were right about drinking salt water helping reduce heat and toxins. But drinking from the durian’s hard shell is not necessary.
2. Fish sauce – Nuoc Mam
Another stinky food on the list is fish sauce. You might not realize it but almost every dish you eat in Vietnam contains fish sauce (or nuoc mam), outside or in. Nuoc mam is not just a dipping sauce but also an essential ingredient in many Vietnamese dishes. Fish sauce is made of salt, water and most important, fermented anchovies. There are 2 types of fish sauces: one is salty and the other, sweet. The salty nuoc mam is used as dipping sauces for plenty of dishes or for soups. It helps bring out the intense taste of the dishes. Sweet nuoc mam is a mixture of salty fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar. People also add ground garlic, chili, ginger and a squirt of lemon to create different flavors of nuoc mam for different dishes.
If you are still not sure about giving this sauce a shot then maybe Christine Ha, the final winner of Master Chef season 3 could convince you. Miss Ha impressed the world’s top chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich with her humble Vietnamese-inspired food using nuoc mam to enhance the flavors and won her title. Doesn’t it sound less crazy now?
Tip #2: Some Vietnamese can’t go along with it as well. You can add a few drops of lemon on your fish sauce to make the smell fade away.
3. Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste noodle – Bun Dau Mam Tom
If Bun Dau Mam Tom is not mentioned in a weird Vietnamese food list, then the list should be ignored. Mam tom plays a stable role in Northern Vietnam cuisine and bun dau mam tom is the most popular food there. The love spread to Saigon as well. People have a love/hate relationship with this dish. Those who are into bun dau mam tom will always call out its name when asked about what food to eat next. On the other hand, half of the world will just want to stay away from the stinky shrimp paste. For most people, the fermented shrimp paste smells like dirty feet.
Despite its smell, the taste of mam tom goes perfectly well with other ingredients like vermicelli, fried tofu, boiled pork, and veggies.
FYI: People usually add kumquat into the paste to make it smell better while creating a sweet and sour flavor. A few slices of chili will also add a spicy touch to the dish.
So these are the mild dishes on the list of weird foods in Vietnam. Now comes the more adventurous ones.
4. Cow intestine soup – Pha Lau
Cow intestine soup (pha lau bo) is a dish many locals love. This dish is a combination of the cuilinary styles of the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Instead of throwing away the inner organs of the cow, Vietnamese people use them for more dishes. To make magic happen, the cook washes all of the organs many times, using salt and lemon to remove bacteria. Then ginger and wine to remove the bad scent. Then, they will cook it with milk to make noodle soup. Finally, they will chop the kidney, stomach, intestines, lungs, and heart to serve the hungry pha lau lovers.
The smell stimulates your senses and makes you want to have more of Pha Lau. The texture and taste of the soup goes well with the sweet and sour dipping sauce, nuoc cham. The dipping sauce is a mixture of fish sauce, sugar and kumquat juice. The ratio of kumquat juice and fish sauce is 2:1 which makes the smell of fish sauce fade away, and gives it a sour flavor. Based on the ingredients of the sauce, people refer to it in different ways: nuoc mam tac or nuoc cham tac. This street food is loved by Vietnamese, especially the young people. On rainy days, a bowl of cow intestine soup with instant noodles or banh mi (Vietnamese baguette) has the magic to brighten up one’s mood.
Besides the soup, the intestine sauteed with butter and tamarind sauce (pha lau xao bo) is an evolved version of cow intestine you should go for.
FYI: Pha lau can be found in many restaurants but to enjoy it to the fullest, you should eat it on the vendor carts. Pha lau Di Nui in District 4 is where a lot of Saigonese youth gather together to enjoy this dish. They serve 2 kinds of intestine as mentioned above, and the place takes care when preparing the food, so you don’t have to worry about health. Pha lau in this place soft and chewy while the soup tastes sweet. Don’t miss out!
Frog is a “less scary” food compares to many others that will follow in the list and it is not only just a beer snack but Vietnamese also have it as a meal. The frogs used in cooking are small ones with long legs. They can usually be spotted in the Mekong Delta all year round, but the high season is in spring or during the rainy season. After skinning and gutting, it will be fried, steamed or grilled and then served on the dining table. You can enjoy it with rice or just have BBQ frog with lemon, salt, and pepper. Other than boiled or grilled, you can choose to eat frog curry, frog porridge, or sauteed frog with lemongrass and chili.
Even though it doesn’t look good, the flavor of it is delicious. Frog meat tastes like chicken and contains a lot of essential vitamins and vital minerals so it is seen as healthy food. The biggest advantage of eating frog is that it helps malnourished children gain weight.
Tip: The best part of frog is to eat the crunchy skin of it.
Rat is another food coming from the fields of the Vietnamese countryside, especially the Mekong Delta. This is another great example that anything can be turned into food in Vietnam. Nevertheless, not every rat can be turned into food. Only the rat that eats rice on the rice paddies is good for cooking. The farmer will skin it and then grill, steam, deep fry or make curry with them. I won’t describe its taste here in order to encourage you to go and try it out;)
Maybe eating rat doesn’t sound right to you but it is very tasty. The rat meat is soft yet chewy, many people claimed that it tastes better than beef, pork or chicken. If you need more motivation, check out this video of Sonny Side, the rising star from Best Ever Food Review Show eating rat in the Mekong Delta.
A few more dishes of rat meat you should consider trying are: sauteed rat with lemongrass (chuot xao xa ot), roasted rat with salt (chuot rang muoi) and simmered rat with coconut juice (chuot om nuoc dua).
FIY: Vietnam is not the only country taking advantage of rat meat. Dishes made from rat is also popular in the neighbor countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China or farther out countries like India, Ghana and so on.
Okay, the list will get a little more adventurous now.
7. Various insects – Con Trung Chien
If you don’t want to stay anywhere near smelly food but still want to challenge yourself with adventurous food, go for fried insects. In many Asian cultures, eating insects is a common thing. The types of edible insects vary from grasshoppers, bee larvae, and white crickets to scorpions.
But why insects? Are we running out of food or is there any particular reason to eat those bugs? Lately, the United Nations has recommended people to consume insects instead of meat as it is a great source of protein, fat, and vitamin. In fact, it might sound weird but very healthy to ingest.
Now if you feel like you want to have a go at eating crunchy and succulent fried insects, here are a few dishes for you to consider: cicada fried with lemon leaves; fried bee larva seasoned with dried onion, ginger, and slices of fresh lemon; sticky rice with ant eggs, deep fried scorpion and so on. Because insects remain low-fat and protein rich food, people who go on diet are advised to eat them.
8. Coconut worm – Duong Dua
You might have had your fair share of raw food (like the fascinating raw salmon or prawn…sushi) in the past but the coconut worm just takes the game to the next level. Do you dare to pick the live fat coconut worm swimming in a bowl of fish sauce and put it in your mouth? Coconut worm is a yellow larva with a brown head. It usually lives inside the coconut stem and eats coconut tubers. In the Mekong Delta, live coconut worm is a specialty dish.
Coconut worm is most yummy when it is still alive. It will surely be a little scary at first glance because the worm is still moving in between your chopsticks. But if you can get over the fears and eat it, you will love the flavor it brings. If you are not a big fan of fish sauce, you can have the live coconut worm with cold beer.
In case you don’t want live larva but still curious about the taste of it then go for cooked worms. Some popular dishes you can find are grilled worm, butter fried worm, worm steamed with coconut juice or coconut worm porridge.
Worms can only be found on dead palms so people have to cut down the tree to catch them. This explains why the sale of duong dua is prohibited in Vietnam
9. Blood Soup – Tiet Canh
If you’re down to try insects, live insect larvas, and other dishes mentioned in this list, then this dish would be just another tasty challenge for you: blood soup (tiet canh). Blood soup is a dish from the North of Vietnam, and it has a special ingredient. Yes, that would be raw blood. Commonly, it is duck blood, but it can even be pig or goose. The raw blood is collected in a bowl and then mixed with fish sauce. The salty fish sauce prevents the blood from premature coagulation. Now once the blood is set, like a jelly cake, minced cooked meat and organs are added into the bowl with peanuts and herbs such as coriander, mint, and pepper, along with spicy chili. These ingredients will create a really beautiful layer on the top of the jelly-like blood, just like a pizza.
Note: People used to believe that this dish is a great protein-rich breakfast. However, with the situation nowadays when it comes to food safety, it is only reliable when you know the blood is from a healthy animal.
10. Balut – Hot Vit Lon
Other than insects, balut is another weird snack or beer food that Vietnamese enjoy. Hot vit lon is a developing duck embryo which is usually boiled or steamed and eaten from the shell with laksa leaves, salt, pepper, and lemon or kumquat. Northern people usually peel the egg, put it in a bowl and eat it while Southern people usually mix salt, pepper and chilies with some lemon or kumquat juice first. Then they place the egg on the egg cup, tap the top of the egg and make a small hole. Next, they drink the juice. Finally, they chop off the top and use a small spoon to eat the duck in the shell.
The reason why balut freaks out the majority of Westerners is that when breaking the shell of a well-developed egg, diners will see the duck’s features clearly. You’ll probably see a face, beak, maybe feet. Let’s imagine chewing a whole soft baby duck with a full figure and even feathers, how does it feel?
Fetal duck egg is a nutrient-dense food. It contains a lot of vitamins (A, B, C) and vital minerals (protein, lipid, calcium, and phosphorus). In Vietnamese traditional medicine, balut is thought to be good food for the brain and blood. It also helps improve physiology. Hence, you should notice that eating too much balut can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood and cause an excess of vitamin A in your body. The ideal is to eat 2 eggs per week.
Balut is a popular beer food. You can find it in many vendor shops or mobile food carts in Vietnam. If you don’t dare to eat the whole egg, you can go with the yolk (yellow part) and the white hard part like many Vietnamese children do. Besides boiled and steamed balut, which tastes eggy and chewy, sizzling balut with tamarind sauce (hot vit lon xao me), and fried balut with butter are some good balut dishes that you should try.
Fun fact: Superstitious people eat an odd number of hot vit lon every time they have bad luck because the word “lộn” means “reverse” in Vietnamese so they believe it can turn bad luck into good. Sound interesting, isn’t it? 🙂
So there you have it. Those are the 10 most popular strange food Vietnamese usually eat if you ask for the real local experience. How many dishes on the list do you want to try? Or you have already eaten some adventurous food Vietnam? Is there anything we have missed in this list? Don’t forget to share your experiences with us in the comment box below. When in Vietnam, eat as the Vietnamese do! Be brave and have fun exploring Vietnamese cuisine 🙂
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