Northern Vietnamese Cuisine: Phở and Bánh Đa Cua

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Vietnamese cuisine has recently become popular across the world, renowned for balancing powerful tastes with delicate mediums. Like most countries, however, there are distinct differences across the country in both the dishes that are served and how they are prepared. A lot of restaurants outside of Vietnam offer southern-style dishes, so here are two you may not be familiar with; one, a classic dish (can you guess which?) with marked differences from north to south, and the other, a northern dish you might actually have trouble finding outside of the region.

Northern Pho, a delicate treasure

Northern Vietnamese pho is very different from its southern counterpart. While in the south the pho almost strictly uses beef as its meat, northern restaurants are likely to have a chicken soup available as well. The broths are prepared independently, the chicken broth being a bit lighter. Southern pho contains much more seasoning, making the broths of either darker. Northern dishes are more likely to have more citrus and ginger overtones, complimenting the delicate noodles and thin meat cuts. 

Vietnamese food is generally made to taste, not by the chef, but rather the individual. Regional preferences differ in this area as well; the herbs typically sprinkled on top of a pho bowl (cilantro, Thai basil, bean sprouts, culantro, to name a phew), are largely missing. Chili and hoisin sauce are also less popular in the north. Garnishes, to be used sparingly, are likely fish sauce, vinegar, and slightly pickled chilis and garlic.

Banh da cua, another side of northern tastes 

Banh da cua is another rice noodle-based soup, but with a lot of features distinguishing it from the others. The noodle is broader, harder, with a brown-red color, which comes from the use of gac fruit extract—a native south and southeast Asian fruit with high levels of beta-carotene and lycopene. 

Banh da cua originates in Hai Phong, the largest port city in northern Vietnam, so it is unsurprising that the meat included is crab. In the broth, in the flavoring paste, and in the patties that accompany it. Unlike northern pho, banh da cua is at its most prized when the flavors are strong. The noodles, crab, seasoning, and boiled greens come together to make a great, largely unknown outside of Vietnam, and distinctly northern Vietnamese soup.