Top 14 Unique and Unusual Vietnamese Dishes that Challenge Every Traveler

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Unusual Vietnamese Dishes – Vietnam, a country rich in culture and culinary diversity, has earned its reputation as a food lover’s paradise. From bustling street markets to hidden alleyway eateries, this Southeast Asian nation offers a gastronomic adventure like no other. Among its treasure trove of flavors, 14 dishes stand out as truly unique and unforgettable, daring travelers to embark on a culinary journey that pushes the boundaries of taste and texture.

In this exploration, we’ll introduce you to these extraordinary Vietnamese dishes that are bound to challenge your palate and leave you craving for more.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

Top 14 Unique and Unusual Vietnamese Dishes that Challenge Every Traveler

The blood pudding (Tiet Canh)

Tiết canh is a dish that involves consuming raw animal organs, typically mixed with a little fish sauce or saline water to prevent coagulation. The process includes combining these fresh animal parts with finely chopped meat and cartilage to help solidify the mixture.

This preparation method is widely popular in Vietnamese cuisine, stretching from the northern regions to the southern parts of the country. However, it is virtually unheard of elsewhere and is also quite rare within the Vietnamese diaspora communities abroad.

Commonly, tiết canh features organs from animals such as pigs, ducks, geese, goats, or even dogs. It may include finely chopped liver, heart, or lungs, served alongside roasted peanuts, ground black pepper, fragrant herbs, and a tangy lime dipping sauce. This dish is often enjoyed during social gatherings and drinking sessions.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the government has now imposed strict regulations prohibiting the sale of this dish to ensure public health safety, especially in response to cases of food poisoning and fatalities associated with the consumption of raw tiết canh.

Ant Soup (Cháo Mối)

Bat chao moi, with its distinctive brown color and the fragrant aroma of ants, has long been a unique feature in the cuisine of the Co Tu ethnic community. It is a specialty dish of this ethnic group. The ant-hunting season typically takes place from the third to the eighth lunar month, during which the community seizes the opportunity to gather ants for roasting, after which they may soak them in fish sauce or mix them with salt.

After capturing the ants, they are gently rinsed multiple times to remove any impurities, and then cooked with rice or fresh cassava. The preparation of ant chao is relatively straightforward. The rice is boiled until it becomes soft, and when it is almost ready, the roasted ants are added to the pot.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

Seasonings are adjusted to taste, and voila, you have a bowl of ant chao with its distinct aroma, delicious taste, and nutritional benefits. There’s nothing quite as intriguing as savoring this unique dish’s rich, savory, and slightly sweet flavor during the rainy season.

Roasted beetles

When you hear the names ‘roasted beetles’ or ‘roasted grasshoppers,’ many people may think of these as bizarre dishes and dare not try them. If you happen to visit Son La during the summer, you should give this unique dish a try to understand why it’s considered a specialty of Son La.

Both beetles and grasshoppers are pests to crops and humans. However, with careful preparation, they can be turned into a delicious meal. After removing the unpleasant odor and trimming the wings and tails, they are roasted until golden brown, seasoned to taste, and then served on a plate. Every region has its own specialties and unique characteristics, and this seemingly frightening dish carries the rich flavors of the countryside.

Crispy Fried Ants

Ants have become a widely popular ingredient in insect-based cuisine today. What was once a humble rural food has now evolved into one of the sought-after delicacies for adventurous foodies. The preparation of dishes using ants has gained popularity due to the unique and delightful taste they offer. Ant-based dishes are not only exotic but also packed with high nutritional value, rich in fat, protein, and essential nutrients.

Some global research studies have shown that ants contain irreplaceable amino acids like Cysteine and Methionine in their protein composition. Additionally, mature ants boast an impressive Chitin content of 8.7%, surpassing the quality of shrimp and crab. Common ant-based dishes include crispy fried ants, and rolls, grilled ants, and spicy salt-roasted ants.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

To ensure the best flavor, it’s essential that the ants are agile, healthy, and possess all their legs and antennae. The preparation process involves soaking the ants twice in a mild saltwater solution for 3 to 5 minutes to ensure their quick death and cleanliness for safe cooking. After cleaning, the ants are marinated in a mixture of fish sauce, pepper, garlic, and MSG to infuse flavors before being deep-fried until golden brown.

Pha Lau

Pha lau is a dish made from nearly every part of the pig and chicken, but the most delicious version is made with duck. To create this dish, the meat is sliced into palm-sized pieces and marinated with five-spice powder, high-proof white wine, soy sauce, minced garlic, salt, and sugar. After seasoning to taste, the meat is left to marinate for about 60 minutes. It is then fried in hot oil until crispy and the excess oil is drained.

The remaining marinade is combined with coconut water and the fried meat pieces in a pot simmered over low heat. As the liquid reduces, more coconut water is added, and it continues to simmer until the sauce thickens, and the meat becomes tender. The cooked meat is then sliced into bite-sized pieces according to preference. Pha lau is typically served with pickled cucumbers, and carrots, and is best enjoyed with a dipping sauce made from minced garlic and chili.

Over time, pha lau has undergone some variations but remains a beloved dish, especially among generations of Vietnamese students. In the past, when people mentioned pha lau, they would think of a large pot of this dish cooked over a charcoal stove and sold in front of school gates.

Nowadays, there are many clean and safe eateries offering diverse options for this dish for young people. Pha lau is an easy-to-enjoy dish at any time, and it’s budget-friendly. It will always be a dish that comes to mind when discussing Vietnamese street food, especially in Saigon.

Stone-Grilled Wild Boar

At first glance, the name ‘stone-grilled’ might puzzle and lead some to imagine a dish resembling ‘stone sprouts’ from the Trang Quynh story, or perhaps think they are about to taste something with a texture like…stones. However, this name derives from the method of preparation. When you order ‘soi mam’ (stone-grilled), you are in for a unique treat involving wild boar meat prepared specially.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

Each serving consists of 3 – 4 hot stones used to cook the wild boar meat to perfection. After marinating the wild boar meat with spices, it is placed on top of these hot stones. The intense heat from the stones grills and cooks the meat.

For the people of Hau Giang, ‘soi mam’ may not be a fancy dish, but it is an integral part of their culinary tradition. To create a complete ‘soi mam’ dish, the key ingredients are wild boar meat and the skillful hands of the chef, along with the spices used to marinate the meat.

The meat must come from wild boars raised freely on hills and mountains, with a weight ranging from 5 to 15 kg. Only such boars provide tender, flavorful meat with minimal fat, making it ideal for ‘soi mam.’

Balut

Balut, also known as ‘hột vịt lộn,’ is a dish made from duck eggs where the embryo has developed to a certain stage. Balut is a popular street food in Vietnam and is considered a nutritious snack in many East Asian countries. These eggs are often sold by vendors on the streets or at small eateries. This dish is also popular in other Asian countries such as China, the Philippines, and Cambodia, albeit with slight variations in preparation.

In Vietnam, balut eggs are typically from mature duck embryos, about 9 to 11 days old. They are commonly enjoyed with fresh herbs like Vietnamese coriander and seasoned with dry salt and pepper or a mixture of salt, pepper, and lime (called ‘tắc’). In some regions, they are served with sweet pickles.

Balut also comes in various preparations, including balut hotpot, fried balut, and balut omelets. After boiling the eggs until they are cooked, you crack open the shell, sprinkle on some seasoning, and pair it with herbs. This dish can be incredibly satisfying and flavorful. However, it’s worth noting that some foreigners find it off-putting, even repulsive.

Grilled Field Mice

Not unfamiliar to the people of Vietnam, field mice are transformed into various dishes, such as grilled field mice, stir-fried, roasted, and more. Today, field mice have become a specialty in restaurants and eateries. In district markets, you can find field mice priced between 50,000 to 70,000 VND per kilogram. Additionally, the field mouse hunting trade provides employment opportunities for rural laborers during the flood season.

The best time to enjoy field mice is after the rice harvest, typically following the winter-spring and summer-autumn rice crops. When the rice is harvested, particularly in the Mekong Delta region, locals set out to catch field mice for sale. In the past, catching field mice was relatively straightforward.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

However, with an increasing demand for field mice, they have become more elusive. Traps, nets, digging holes, and night hunting with flashlights are some of the techniques used to capture these critters.

Roasted Silk Pupae

To prepare the dish of roasted silk pupae with lime leaves, the Thai ethnic people in Son La typically select fresh silk pupae that are undamaged, not discolored, and have a glossy yellow outer shell. They are then thoroughly washed and briefly blanched in boiling water before being drained in a sieve.

The seasonings used for this dish include thinly sliced lime leaves, chopped scallions, small diced chili peppers, salt, MSG, and crushed and finely chopped purple shallots. After preparing the seasonings, the Thai people heat a pan with a bit of cooking oil and sauté the shallots until fragrant. Then, they add the silk pupae and continue to stir-fry until the pupae turn golden yellow, indicating that the dish is ready.

Silk pupae dishes, especially roasted silk pupae with lime leaves, are common in the daily meals of the Thai people, particularly in areas where silk farming is prevalent. There are two common types of silk pupae used as food: bee pupae and silkworm pupae. Silk pupae are considered a precious and highly nutritious food due to their high protein content. They are believed to have therapeutic properties, particularly in addressing issues related to male vitality and kidney health, making them particularly beneficial for men.

Grilled Ant Eggs

Ant eggs are a famous delicacy in northern Vietnam, with the most renowned being the ant eggs from Tu Ky, Hai Duong province. From these ant eggs, homemakers can prepare various delicious dishes such as ant egg spring rolls, clay pot-cooked ant eggs, stir-fried ant eggs with bamboo shoots, steamed ant eggs, salted and roasted ant eggs, ant eggs cooked with bamboo shoots, and even ant egg paste. However, the most popular and traditional dish is ‘cha ruoi’ or grilled ant egg cake.

If you don’t have much time for cooking or preparing ‘cha ruoi’ from fresh ant eggs, buying ready-made ‘cha ruoi’ is a perfect idea for a family meal. It’s convenient and ensures that the dish is still delicious and nutritious. Ant eggs resemble water fleas in appearance, but they have many legs like centipedes.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

Their bodies come in various colors, which may seem intimidating. However, after being processed, ant eggs become a unique and delicious dish, with ‘cha ruoi’ being one of the most special.

Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumber – a creature that may sound strange but has always been close to the people of Vietnam, especially those in coastal areas, from ancient times to the present. Sea cucumber is a type of seafood that lives in caves and under sandy areas near the sea. They are most abundant in Quang Ninh, Nha Trang, and Con Dao.

In the places where they appear, sea cucumbers are known by various names like ‘moi,’ ‘bi bi,’ ‘dia sam,’ or ‘sea worm.’ Perhaps that’s why when mentioning the name ‘sea cucumber,’ many people don’t immediately recognize it.

This is a famous specialty of the Quang Ninh coastal region. Despite its appearance, which may surprise many with its round, soft, and seemingly enlarged earthworm-like body, sea cucumber is still processed into many incredibly appealing dishes, such as stir-fried sea cucumber with garlic or sea cucumber soup.

Sea cucumber has many beneficial uses; it is not only a delicious food source but also a valuable medicinal ingredient with various functions, such as treating cold temperaments or cooling the body. Sea cucumber contains up to 17 mineral elements and 18 types of amino acids. It is truly a dish worth trying at least once.

Am Phu Rice

The first time you come to Hue and see ‘Am Phu Rice’ on the menu, everyone is curious and eager to explore it. And then, diners will be pleasantly surprised when this uniquely named, slightly eerie dish turns out to be not only visually appealing but also incredibly delicious.

The dish includes various ingredients such as fried eggs, sour fermented pork rolls, spring rolls, grilled meat, pickled vegetables, and crispy fried shrimp… Each ingredient is finely sliced into small strips and arranged around white rice made from An Cuu rice.

To accompany ‘Am Phu Rice,’ a bowl of fish sauce mixed with garlic, sugar, and lime juice is indispensable. Pour the fish sauce over the rice and mix all the ingredients before enjoying it. It is only through this process that you can truly savor the deliciousness of this dish.

Unusual Vietnamese Dishes
Unusual Vietnamese Dishes

Nậm Pia

Nậm Pia is a distinctive dish of the Thai ethnic people in Mai Chau, Hoa Binh. Nậm Pia is a traditional and delicious dish that the Thai people in the highlands often serve on special occasions, festivals, or when hosting guests. It’s considered a specialty that travelers should try when visiting this highland region. ‘Nậm’ means ‘soup’ in Thai, while ‘Pia’ refers to the thick fluid found in the intestines of herbivorous animals such as buffalo, cattle, goats, or even referred to as ‘non-poo’ or ‘baby dung.’

The main ingredients for this dish are the internal organs of various animals, mixed and simmered with bones until it become slightly sweet. The accompanying spices include chili, garlic, and mackhen. This dish may not look very appealing, and the combination of the bitter taste of forest leaves with the strong aroma from the five organs of pigs or cattle may be off-putting to some. However, if you take your time to try it, you may find it quite delicious and intriguing.

In this article, we have explored unique and distinctive dishes that are only found in Vietnam. With a diversity of ingredients and preparation methods, Vietnamese cuisine continually challenges and delights the senses of travelers. From raw dishes like “tiết canh” or “trứng vịt lộn” to creative creations like “cơm âm phủ” or “nậm pịa,” Vietnam has composed a symphony of flavors, rich in its cultural tapestry.

Exploring cuisine is an essential part of gaining a deeper understanding of a culture and its land. Hopefully, this article has provided you with an overview of Vietnam’s unique dishes and inspired you to discover more about the country’s rich and diverse culinary traditions. If you have the opportunity, don’t hesitate to try these delicious dishes to experience Vietnam’s unparalleled flavors. Wishing you an exciting and flavorful culinary journey!

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