The Pho-ndamentals

A beginner's guide to Vietnamese cuisine.

Com thit nuong / chargrilled pork and rice

Pronounced: gum tit noon

Com refers to rice, and the word that comes after "com" on a menu usually refers to the type of meat and other toppings that come with the rice. Again, thit nuong is common. But other favorites include ga nuong and bo nuong (chargrilled chicken and beef, respectively), as well as the ­fancier ga ro ti: a tiny roasted Cornish game hen. All rice plates also come with nuoc cham to perk up the rice and a bowl of broth laced with garlic and/or scallions to sip between bites of the sticky rice and cleanse the throat.

Blackberries are ready to pick when they're shiny and nearly black.
Blackberries are ready to pick when they're shiny and nearly black.

Bo luc lac / grilled beef with garlic, onion and bellpeppers

Pronounced: buh luke lock

Think of bo luc lac as Vietnamese fajitas. Here in Houston, the marinated beef with grilled peppers and onions is even served on a sizzling comal. Also called "shaking beef," bo luc lac — typically cuts of beef filet or tenderloin — has an instantly recognizable flavor profile of garlic and jalapeños. Served on a bed of lettuce, it's a nearly perfect ­Paleo meal if you're into that sort of thing.

Banh bot chien / rice flour cake omelet

Pronounced: bahn bot chen

Often served as a morning snack or appetizer, banh bot chien is essentially a small omelet containing rectangles of tender rice flour cake and topped with scallions and garlic. As simple as that sounds, presentation can vary widely from restaurant to restaurant and may include turnips and onions among other ingredients. Top it with nuoc mam for an addictive sweet-and-savory treat.

Banh mi bo kho / beef stew with carrots

Pronounced: bahn mee buh koh

If someone brought you a bowl of banh mi bo kho and you didn't know its origins, you might have a hard time guessing it's Vietnamese. This hearty winter stew of beef, carrots and onions in a black pepper-spiced broth could be equally at home on a French or American table, save for the hints of lemongrass and fish sauce in the background. It's served with a crusty hunk of French baguette (the banh mi part) for sopping up the broth when you've finished all the meat and veg.

Ca phe sua da / iced coffee with milk

Pronounced: caf-fay su-ah da (the final "da" is pronounced like "dad" without a "d" at the end

Called "the undisputed king of coffee" by Digest NY, Vietnamese iced coffee truly is a drink of the gods. This isn't ordinary coffee, however. Really good Vietnamese coffee starts with beans roasted in clarified butter. The finely ground beans are steeped in hot water for a slow extraction, and the resulting drink is much darker and thicker than typical American coffee. Sweetened condensed milk is poured into the hot liquid — no sugar required after that shot of creamy goodness — and the entire affair is then stirred well and poured over ice.

Soda chanh muoi / salted lemon soda

Pronounced: soda chain moo-ee

Although traditionally made with limes (chanh) pickled in salt, most soda chanh muoi found in Houston is made using lemons and amounts to something closer to a salted lemonade soda. The more conventional lemon soda — or soda chanh, made with club soda and a bunch of freshly squeezed lemons — forgoes the salt and is a safer bet, but both are refreshing on a muggy day.

Sinh to bo / avocado shake

Pronounced: sin toh boh

Unlike in Western cooking, where avocados are found in savory applications like guacamole, in Vietnam they're more often used in desserts and sweets. Avocados grow well in southern Vietnam, and sinh to bo is used to beat the heat. It's as simple as pureeing avocado and sweetened condensed milk together, then pouring the mixture over crushed ice (although you can also drink it in fluffy smoothie form, too). The avocado's flavor isn't the star here, but its silky, creamy texture.

Che ba mau / sweet bean dessert

Pronounced: chay baa mao (the last word is pronounced like "mouse" without the "se")

Like soda chanh, che ba mau is refreshing on a hot day. Like sinh to bo, it's not too sweet. But unlike most American desserts (not counting the miraculous bean pie), it's made with beans. You'll often find it listed on menus as "sweet bean combination with grass jelly and coconut milk," hinting at the dessert's tropical southern Vietnamese roots. Che ba mau means "three colours che" ("che" itself meaning a dessert drink or pudding), referring both to the three colors of the beans used in the dessert and to the lucky number three. You'll usually find mung beans, black-eyed peas, and red azuki or kidney beans in the dessert, and/or gelatin colored green with pandan extract (the "grass jelly" part). It's all mixed up with crushed ice and sometimes served with a coconut milk topping.

Garden Fresh

It's Blackberry Season
Where to find them, how to pick them, what to make with them.

Molly Dunn

Blackberry-picking season is right around the corner. In fact, in the next several weeks, blackberries will be ready for picking at several local farmers' markets. Don't be fooled by the early berries growing on the side of the road because those are dewberries, not blackberries.

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