Vietnamese Cuisine: The 5 Elements

vietnam food street marketAll you need to know about the unique Vietnamese food philosophy

One of the healthiest cuisines in the world, the deliciously fresh and fiery flavours of traditional Vietnamese food are truly hard to resist. It’s a diet that relies heavily on fresh fish, vegetables, rice, and a whole host of verdant herbs and spices – from Vietnamese mint to the crisp kick of birds eye chilies.

It’s a wonderfully simple cuisine that celebrates food at its freshest, with minimal use of oil. While it may be simple in preparation, it’s certainly never boring. Lemongrass, ginger, basil and lime all play an important part in the Vietnamese diet – so if you’re looking for full on flavour, you’ve come to the right place!

And the Vietnamese have a unique approach to getting the balance of those flavours just right. When it comes to Vietnamese food, five is the magic number…

Whether you’re completely new to Vietnamese food, looking to bone up on the basics before your first trip over there, or you’re a Vietnamese food convert keen to start cooking these delicious traditional dishes for your self, here’s our simple introduction to one of the world’s most unique cuisines.

The Five Elements

Traditional Vietnamese food is governed by the Asian principles of Wu Xing (the five elements) and Mahābhūta. It means that each dish is created to balance out the five fundamental taste senses:

Spicy – Metal
Sour – Wood
Bitter – Fire
Salty – Water
Sweet – Earth

To correspond to five internal organs of the body:

Gall bladder
Small intestine
Large intestine
Stomach
Urinary bladder

To include five types of nutrients:

Powder
Water or liquid
Mineral elements
Protein
Fat

To try to contain five colours:

White – Metal
Green – Wood
Yellow – Earth
Fire – Red
Black – Water

And to appeal to the five senses:

Arrangement attracts – Sight
Crisp sounds – Hearing
Five spices – Taste
Aromatic ingredients (mainly from herbs) – Smell
Finger foods – Touch

Yin and Yang

The philosophy behind Vietnam food means that wherever you travel in the country, dishes may vary, but you can always rely on that all-important balance of five elements. Heat, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and herbs are all tempered just right with the powerful and ubiquitous fish sauce.

The yin and yang of each dish is greatly valued – perfectly balancing out the spicy heat of yang with the cooling sweet and sour of yin to create dishes that are beneficial for the body.

Cultural importance

While in the West we tend to take food for granted, in Vietnam food still plays a hugely important role in cultural and religious life. You’ll find a saying in Vietnamese that sums up their attitude towards food perfectly: Trời đánh tránh bữa ăn – even God dare not disturb the Vietnamese during our meal.

Regional variation

Vietnamese food can be broadly divided into three main types based on region. In North Vietnam, where Vietnamese civilization originated, the emphasis is on truly traditional Vietnamese food. Slightly less diverse in its range of ingredients, the North is famed for dishes like phỏ – a hearty noodle soup – and the delicious rice paper bánh cuộn.

Travel to South Vietnam and you’ll find a wider variety of herbs and spices in use, and you’ll also find the dishes are a little sweeter too. Over the years, many traditional Vietnamese food dishes in the South have been influenced by Southern Chinese immigrants, and well as the French colonists.

And right in the middle, the cuisine of Central Vietnam is rather distinct. As well as being spicier, this region’s cuisine features lots and lots of small side dishes rather than larger main meals. This dates back to the days when the central Hue Province ruled over the country, with dishes their being made smaller and traditionally dedicated to the Kings.

A Taste of Vietnam

If you’re new to Vietnamese food, check out this great little taster video on Vimeo. Compiling a whole two week tour of the country’s cuisine into just 3 minutes, it’s a delightfully tasty introduction to the kind of foods you’ll find across all three regions.

Share your stories

Have you ever been to Vietnam and sampled the real thing? Or maybe the closest you’ve been to Hanoi is through your local takeaway. What are your all-time favourite Vietnamese dishes – and just what is it about traditional Vietnamese food that gets you hot under the collar?

Let us know what dishes you love to prepare – and if you have any culinary tips of your own, we’d love to hear them!