General Diet/Summary:

While the common foods and ingredients of Vietnam are similar to all the mainland Southeast Asian countries, Vietnamese food is known for its fresh herb garnishes, healthful preparation, and beautiful presentation. Rice is the staple of the diet, and rice products such as noodles, paper, flour, and vinegar are used extensively. Pho is the name of the popular rice noodle broth-based soup. Fried noodles topped with meats and vegetables is also a favorite noodle dish. Fish and poultry are widely available, and religious prohibitions may influence which meats are consumed and when. In general, the traditional Southeast Asian diet is low in protein. Fruit and vegetables make up a considerable part of the diet – cooked in stir fries, stews, soups and uncooked in salads and pickles. Greens and leaves are used to wrap foods, and an abundance of herbs and spices are used to add bright color and flavor to many dishes. Dairy is not widely used, as many Vietnamese are lactose intolerant. Thus, soy milk is a popular beverage along with other soy products such as tofu and tempeh. Vietnamese cuisine is strongly influenced by the Chinese way of cooking including such techniques as stir frying and deep frying as well as the use of chopsticks. Neighboring countries have introduced various ingredients like beef, coconut milk, spices, and chili. The French colonization of Vietnam popularized French bread (baguettes), coffee with cream, potatoes, asparagus, and green beans.

Due to climate and geography, regional variations are prominent. Soups are a specialty in the North where winters are cold and harsh. Also popular are hot pots, stir fried foods, and chao (rice gruel similar to congee). The central region of Vietnam is known for seasonal cooking, gorgeous presentation, and sophisticated gastronomy. The tropical climate of the South calls for simpler cooking and strong seasonings. Clay pot cooking is common. Curries and peanut sauces are favorites as well as the use of coconut milk and caramel flavor.

Religious holidays dictate the serving of special meals. Buddhism is widespread throughout Vietnam, and as such, many Vietnamese do not eat meat, seafood, chicken or eggs on the first and middle days of each lunar month. The most important holiday is Tet, the New Year’s celebration. Offerings of cake, chicken, tea, rice, and money are made at family gravesites, and then the family picnics on the offerings. One belief during the new year is that when a watermelon is cut open, the redder the flesh, the more luck the family will have in the upcoming year. Many Vietnamese follow the yin yang theory of diet, and foods must be balanced within a meal.

Nutrition Facts:

Many traditional practices surround pregnancy, such as the avoidance ginger or the consumption of large amounts of salty foods. Vietnamese women may gain less weight during pregnancy and are careful not to overeat to have an easier birth. As such, infants are more likely to be low birth weight. Nearly all babies are breast fed for about one year, and solids are not introduced until about 8 months. Babies ages may be calculated on a lunar calendar, often starting with being one year old at birth, which means age may differ as much as two years from Western chronological age. Thus limiting the use of standardized growth curves as an assessment tool. Chronic hepatitis B is not uncommon in Southeast Asian people and may contribute to liver and renal disease. Lack of access to safe drinking water is also a health issue in Vietnam.

Possible Deficiencies:

Common Foods:

Meal Patterns:

Vietnamese people eat two or three meals a day with the amount of food consumed often based on income. Snacking between meals is uncommon, however, street vendors selling hand held snacks and “fast foods” are common in urban areas. In general, specific foods are not associated with a particular meal. For example, soup or broth may be eaten with every meal. Breakfast is typically large and may consist of soup with rice noodles topped with meat or poultry; a boiled egg with meat and pickled veggies on French bread; rice gruel with bits of meat and veggies; or boiled sweet potatoes with sugar, coconut, and chopped roasted pecans. Lunch and dinner include similar foods such as rice, fish or meat, a vegetable dish, and a broth. Fish sauce, fresh and pickled vegetables, and other condiments accompany the meal. All items are served at once and diners serve themselves whatever food they wish over a portion of rice and garnish with condiments as desired. Hot tea is the preferred beverage and is served before and after meals but not during the meal. In late afternoon, tea or coffee may be enjoyed with a sweet treat or piece of fruit.

Proper etiquette is to serve the eldest person first, wait until everyone else has been served, then ask him or her for permission to start eating. Refusing food is considered rude, but only small amounts should be taken from each dish. An empty plate or cup indicates that a diner is still hungry or thirsty, so leaving a small amount of food or beverage signals satiety and completion of the meal. Dining is done around a low table with family gathered around sitting on mats. Both hands should rest on the table during the meal and conversation should be limited. Chopsticks are the most common utensil, however, spoons and fingers are considered appropriate for certain foods. The use of forks are becoming more common in urban areas.

Transition Foods

The transition diet is one you develop to help bridge the gap between your child’s native diet and what eventually will become his or her regular diet at home. The transition diet often includes recipes and foods from the native diet. A good way to start the transition process is to ask exactly what foods your child ate in the orphanage or foster home, using that as a base for your cooking at home. As one parent put it, “I would encourage all parents to adapt the foods they present to mimic what the child had at the orphanage during the first months home. It is an easy adaptation that parents can make to create a more familiar environment during what can be a hard transition.” It may also be helpful to watch the caregivers feed your child at least one meal before returning home. Simple things such as the temperature or texture of foods may be important to your child. One mother wrote, “Our daughter was on formula at the orphanage but they gave it to her very, very hot. It took us a while to realize she wanted everything HOT and would cry hysterically if it wasn’t hot.” Even if you don’t know exactly what your child ate previously, incorporating native foods into his or her diet is a great way to help your child transition to a new culture, as well as preserve traditions from his or her first culture.

Congee, a mushy rice dish, is a very common Vietnamese food served in the orphanages; however, younger children will probably only know formula. To help your Vietnamese child transition, start with simple or familiar foods such as rice and bananas. One parent offered this advice: “find a native person from the country from which you are adopting and ask them first if they have had kids and then to cook whatever they would feed their children at this age.”


Spring Rolls

A typical “lunchbox” type item in Vietnam would be spring rolls, which can be prepared in advance and wrapped in plastic wrap to be eaten out of hand later. Stuffed with fresh vegetables, spring rolls make a healthful addition to any meal. While preparation can seem somewhat labor intensive, kids will have an especially fun time helping to prep ingredients and create the rolls. Serve with nuac cham (see recipe below) for dipping.

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 pound pork tenderloin, trimmed

  • 1½ pounds medium shrimp

  • ½ pound rice vermicelli noodles (Bun noodles)

  • 2 heads Boston lettuce

  • 2 large carrots, peeled and shredded

  • 3/4 cup fresh mint leaves, shredded

  • 3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, shredded

  • 35 round rice paper wrappers (8 inch diameter)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

In a small bowl, mix together soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Place the pork tenderloin in a foil-lined baking pan. Pour the soy sauce-garlic marinade over the meat and turn to coat. Roast about 35 minutes or until the pork is throughly cooked. Allow the pork to cool then slice into 1½ inch long strips.

Poach the shrimp in boiling water until pink; then peel and slice in half lengthwise. Set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the rice vermicelli for 2-3 minutes until just tender (don’t overcook or they will become mushy). Drain the noodles and rinse under cold water. Set aside.

Separate the lettuce leaves; rinse, dry, and remove the tough center ribs.

In a large bowl, toss together the pork, rice vermicelli, carrots, mint, and cilantro.

Fill a roasting pan with hot water. Dip one rice paper wrapper into the hot water, then place it on a clean dish towel.

Arrange a lettuce leaf on the lower third of the wrapper; then put 2 tablespoons of the pork filling on the the lettuce. Fold the bottom edge of the wrapper over the the filling and tuck in the sides.

Place two shrimp halves, cut side down, on top then roll up into a tight cylinder.

As the spring rolls are completed, place them on a serving platter and cover with a damp towel to keep them from drying out. These can be prepared ahead of time and wrapped in plastic wrap until ready to eat.


Nuac Cham (Dipping Sauce)

The most popular condiment in Vietnam is nuoc cham, which is as common as ketchup is in North America. Small saucers filled with nuoc cham are present at practically every meal, and diners dip everything from spring rolls to meatballs into it. This recipe can be adjusted to suit individual tastes by using more or less red pepper and nuoc mam.

  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

  • 1/2 cup nuac mam (fish sauce)

  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice

  • 4 cloves garlic minced

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 1½ cups boiling water

In a small bowl, soak the red pepper flakes in the vinegar for 10-15 minutes.

In a second bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sugar. Carefully add in 1½ cups boiling water and the pepper-vinegar mixture. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature. Store in a jar in the refrigerator for up to 30 days.

Source for both recipes:


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