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Flavours of Vietnam and Thailand

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Love, love, love this topic. South East Asian flavours are so inspiring to me. Particularly the cuisine of Thailand and Vietnam. They create this Venn diagram of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami in a beautiful combination. Within each flavour category, the ingredients used, and how they are prepared, make all the difference.


Want to learn more about Thai and Vietnamese food?


This blog is organized into three sections: The foods, the flavours, and the experience (of cooking street foods in Vietnam and Thailand - with tips on how to do at home). I also have some handy recipe resource links at the end! Or you can go straight to my recipe for pad Thai (Sauce and stirfry - with instructional videos).



Part One: The Foods



Here are some examples of Thai and Vietnam Street Food!



Street Food of Thailand!

Left Column: Pad Thai street food vendor (top), Pad Krapow (bottom)

Middle Column: Pad Thai wrapped in egg (top), Pad Thai plus a lovely coconut (middle), Pad Mee Korat (Bottom - self made)

Right Column: Fresh Thai herbs and ingredients (top), Tom Yum soup and Morning Glory vegetable (middle), and Crispy pork with Thai basil and chili (bottom).



Street Food of Vietnam!


Left Column: Bun Bao street food vendor (top), Vietnamese iced Coffee (middle), Bun Cha (bottom)

Middle Column: Crab Wonton and Duck Salad Roll (top), Pho soup and quay (middle), Bahn Mi (bottom).

Right Column: Pho soup (top), Bun Cha (middle), Cao Lao (bottom)




Part Two: The Flavours


South East Asia Tastes: A Venn Diagram of Flavour Possibilities!



That is just my imagination going wild, of the mouth watering combinations...


".... the flavour possibilities are astounding!"

Street food in Vietnam and Thailand is simply, Aroy Dee ("very delicious" in Thai language). It’s great! When you are travelling through, you must experience this cultural staple of street food. The different dishes, their variations among vendors, regional nuance.... the flavour possibilities are astounding!


Let’s go through these fantastic flavour categories one by one…


Sweet is not just sugar. Traditionally using local ingredients, you will see sugars such as palm, coconut, or cane. You can also use brown or white sugar in a pinch or create your sweetness from fruits such as dates or fresh tamarind (note: canned or dried tamarind is usually quite sour, so experiment and taste as you go). Also, you can caramelize the sugar in the pan first to give an even richer, complex flavour. Heck you could even mix and match different sugars to create a bunch of new flavours. Especially for a dish like pad Thai!


Sour is not just vinegar. Sour can come from fruits, such as tamarind or lime. Or any citrus for that matter. That's the main way to go. But there are also many different Asian vinegar types you can try out, such as sushi vinegar, or mirin. In a pinch you can also play around with things like standard, red wine, or apple cider vinegar. Having a variety of vinegars in your pantry is never a bad idea!


Salty is not just salt. South East Asian food is known for it’s common use of fish sauce, which is definitely what gives many dishes, especially stir-fries, a characteristic flavour. The smell can be offensive, but depending on how its used, uncooked vs cooked, and the brand, you can surely find one variation that you will like. And there are so many varieties of fish sauce, so try a new one if you don't like the one in your pantry. Some are next level fermented. I’ve seen other videos of the process and this stuff attracts flies like crazy.


I know fish sauce and fermented fish products are not a staple for most people, but the taste and smell when it’s cooked with other ingredients is so different than how it is when not. And while some varieties you may not like, experiment with new ones to see if it can take your dish to the next level! You also get things like soy, and oyster sauce, which certainly have their place and also come in a lot of varieties. Other salt flavouring options (not necessarily Thai/Vietnamese) worth experimenting with are: mushroom soy, tamari, liquid aminos…. All liquid salt essentially, but can help round out the flavour of a dish in it’s own unique way.


Bitter is not just bitter. Herbs, herbs, herbs, and more herbs are also a foundation of Vietnamese and Thai dishes. And there are so many to choose from. Sure we have cilantro, but using sweet basil and thai basil, perilla leaf, and others you will find in an Asian supermarket give an added dimension. Pho and Bun Cha (Vietnamese specialties) use herbs as garnishes in such high amounts that it is practically a salad if you want it to be, and the soup or stirfry or grilled meat just gets mixed on your work, creating a delicious bite every time!


Umami – This is the taste category most associated with that mouth “mouth watering, can’t stop eating even though I’m full” factor aka the taste attributes given by msg or nutritional yeast or often in fermented foods.




The Experience


Here are some cooking videos and tips from my time in Vietnam and Thailand!


As I traveled South East Asia, I made well sure I got the real deal learning experiences…

Here was a time I made a Vietnamese stir-fry, Pho Xao, a stirfry that uses pho broth as flavouring ingredient, in central Vietnam.



It was the first time I tried this dish, which is primarily a central and North Vietnam specialty using the Pho soup broth in the stir-fry. I loved it so much at this restaurant, I had my Vietnamese speaking friend, a German who studies south east Asian culture, translate to the chef that I wanted to learn from him. Not a cooking school, just a family-owned restaurant we passed by. His wife taking orders while their child played in a separate room, toy-box beside the stocks of dry goods and beverages. Pictures of political and military figures, indicating the allegiances and political beliefs of this young family. I saw the meticulous nature with which the chef prepared his specialties and could tell this guy was a pro in the kitchen. I wanted to learn from him. You can tell a chef takes pride in what they do, if you just watch them. Their focus on the little things… It’s passion, it’s skill, its magic!


Here was where I learned how to make a Pad Mee Korat

(AKA a regional variation on Pad Thai)



This was a random stopover, an unexpected delight. My last night in Korat, in Central-East Thailand. We were the only two people there at "Manro Restaurant", but my friend (a Thai dietitian) had heard great things. It could be that it was empty due to the increasing isolation due to Covid-19. But this lady could cook. This restaurant was also family owned, spanning at least a couple generations, and operated by a lady who had represented Thai street food both in Vietnam and Germany. She grew her own rice, owned a factory where she produced the famous “Korat Noodle”, and had a systematic way of preparing Pad Mee Korat. She was very passionate about teaching me, and the pride she had in her food was clear.


I can tell that for the Thai cuisine, every ingredient makes a difference. It isn’t the same if you use a different noodle, a different sugar, etc. I could see that, for example, her pad Thai ingredients didn’t get nearly the same love as the Pad Mee Korat ingredients. This dish was in my opinion very similar to pad Thai, and between the Vietnamese Pho Xao, and the Pad Mee Korat, I feel I learned two techniques of stirfry that I could adapt into my own pad Thai recipe, which I had been working on for nearly a decade.


Finally, Thai cooking wouldn’t be the same without cast iron woks, and high temperatures. I was lucky to be in a kitchen in south Thailand that had both! You are only as good as your ingredients and your equipment.



Pad Thai - The Real One!


What a treat! The recipe in the photo above is based on a Michelin star recipe I learned while in Bangkok from a former Top Chef Thailand finalist, who owns a restaurant specializing in traditional Thai cuisine. In fact, his recipes date back over 200 years (he even showed me the 200-year old family cookbook he uses).


Pad Thai sauce is crucial, and please, please, please learn to make your own sauce. Click to watch this cooking demo on how to prepare both the sauce and stirfry! Or read below for some basic tips.


I can say, it’s beauty is in it’s simplicity (of ingredients) and complexity (of technique and variations). Rarely does one pad Thai taste the same as the next in Thailand. I hope you like the version I created for you, but I encourage you to experiment with different sugars, sauces, and techniques.


For the sauce, in it’s foundation, is simply fish sauce, tamarind juice/concentrate, and sugar (cane or palm or coconut). You can add new dimensions by using different types of these ingredients, and by using other ingredients such as tomato paste (gives a red colour and certain ‘tanginess’), lime juice (sour), fermented soybean paste (as a fish sauce replacement, or in addition to fish sauce – Just be careful as it is quite concentrated and salty), and feel free to save some sugar for the first part of the cooking process. This caramelized sugar technique was a trick from the Pad Mee Korat video above.


For the stirfry, caramelize the sugar, with fresh chili and your protein. Then add the noodle (rehydrated to about 80% in lukewarm water for at least a minute, but not cooked – it will absorb the flavour of the sauce). Add the sauce, and fry, taking it on and off the heat as necessary to get the noodle to the right texture. You may need some water (or stock is a nice substitute). Near the end, after you taste a noodle to see if it’s the right chewy/sticky/tender texture, you through in the green onion and bean sprouts and fry it up. Perhaps crack an egg into the side of the pan, scramble, and flip the noodles on top. This last egg step protects the noodles from getting stuck to the pan, and if there is excess liquid, it will drain into the egg and dry up the noodles a little bit. Finally, plate the stirfry and serve with chili flakes, a lime wedge, and some extra bean sprouts and green onion on the side, or on top as a garnish.


So… aside from also being a bit of a perfectionist, you can imagine from the details above why it has taken me years to perfect this dish.


Experiment and try these dishes and ingredients at home. Be creative! And let me know how your cooking experiences are in the comment section below!

I could go on about the many Thai curry’s, soups, and stirfry. Or the Vietnamese grilled meats, rice pancakes or French-fusion sub sandwiches (Bahn Mi), but suffice to say, the flavours of these two countries make my heart sing, and I will go back again in a heartbeat to experience the sights, tastes, and smells.



Looking for more tips on cooking Thai/Vietnamese food?



Great Youtube channels to follow for Thai and Vietnamese cooking are:


Thai: Pailin's Kitchen (link goes straight to her vegetarian Pad Mee Korat recipe which is explained wonderfully)


Vietnamese: Helen's Kitchen


Both: Contact me, a registered dietitian and chef for a private cooking class or a nutrition consult to discuss how we can enjoy these fantastic flavours, while keeping it nutritious! Contact info at the bottom of this page.

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Recipes to look up (either from the talented chef's above, or on your own)


Thai Dishes: Pad Thai, Pad Mee Korat, Pad Krapow, Tom Yum, Thai Curry (Green or Yellow or Red), Papaya Salad, Thai Fried Chicken.


Vietnamese Dishes: Pho, Bahn Mi, Ban Xeo, Bun Cha, Pho Xao, Bun Bo Hue, My Quang, Cao Lao, Rose Dumplings, Papaya Salad, Salad Rolls.


And so much more.... Have fun exploring Thai and Vietnamese Foods!!

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Contact


About me: I'm Daniel Neuman, a Registered Dietitian and owner of Edmonton-based nutrition consulting company, Simplify Nutrition. I'm also a passionate foodie learning and teaching about global foods, evidence based nutrition, and practical cooking skills. If you like the content, stay connected. If you want to work with me, get in touch! I offer private cooking classes and nutrition consulting in-person and online!


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THANK YOU FOR READING!!



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