Beyond pho, goi cuon & banh mi, banh xeo is often named as a must-try dish for visitors to Vietnam.
Banh xeo translates literally as “Sizzling Cake”. When reduplicated, xeo xeo (pronounced like “sell-sell”) is an effective Vietnamese onomatopoeia describing the tantalising sizzles or assortment of cracking sounds one might encounter when sauteing or frying food.
Frequently compared to crepes, pancakes and more than often agreed to be a close relative of the Japanese Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)and Korean Jeon (전), these Vietnamese pancakes are commonly filled with a generous amount of bean sprouts, shrimp and slices of pork in Ho Chi Minh City. The most ubiquitous way to eat banh xeo in Saigon is by wrapping them in softened banh trang (Vietnamese rice paper) together with seasonal raw vegetables and dipping the resultant masterpiece in a wide range of sauces that vary depending on stalls, homes and regions. Depending on the region, these sauces vary from fish sauce-based to peanut-based and at times are even made from finely blended liver.
Cô Chi from Quang Ngai demonstrates how Banh Xeo is made in her hometown.
The key to banh xeo’s sizzle-magic lies in the batter where the identity and ratios of grain powders are kept as family and vendor secrets. Depending on the desired consistency, flavour, crispiness, sponginess and texture upon cooling, banh xeo batter may be made purely from rice flour or even complicated concoctions of rice powder, wheat flour, corn starch and perhaps even tapioca powder.
In most of southern Vietnam and Saigon, banh xeo mien tay (South-western) is a crowd-pleaser with its rich taste due to the liberal use of coconut milk. This style is also universally accepted abroad as the flamboyant mascot of banh xeo.
Bánh Xèo 46A on Dinh Cong Trang Street, made famous by late Anthony Bourdain.
Depending on the skill of the maker, the edges of Bánh Xèo Miền Tây are often deliberately thinner and crispier than its centre, with every bite exuding a nice burst of coconut fragrance. A yellow hue is achieved by the addition of turmeric powder, and the use of mung beans as a filling serves as a slightly sweet and umami complement. The overwhelming richness of Bánh Xèo Miền Tây coaxes its audiences to consume it with large servings of raw vegetables. This is likely the reason why it happens to be served predominantly with a savoury, fish sauce-based dipping sauce that is often mixed with sour pickles and sometimes a dash of vinegar.
Unbeknownst to many, not every banh xeo is stereotypically folded like a taco. Hailing from Binh Dinh Province, Bánh Xèo Tôm Nhảy of Quy Nhon city is known for being open-faced.
Bánh Xèo Dư, a trending Bánh Xèo establishment in Bình Thạnh district specialising in open-faced Bánh Xèo Quy Nhơn.
Unlike its southern Vietnamese counterpart, this central Vietnamese rendition of the popular snack replaces pork with thin slices of seasoned lean beef and replaces mung beans with onions and scallions. Medium-small shrimp are preferred because of the smaller pan size. The name tôm nhảy literally translates to “jumping shrimp”, so freshness of seafood is paramount. Most makers in Quy Nhon insist on milling rice flour by hand since freshly-ground rice powder purportedly results in a crunchiness that persists for a long time even after cooling. The contrast between its crunchy crust and soft, congee-like interior makes this rendition a winner in terms of texture.
Bánh Xèo Cầu Ván, a long time establishment & local favourite in Tân Phú district.
Another style from Quang Ngai province changes the textural experience with its inclusion of eggs.Best described as crepe-like or perhaps an omelette, the banh xeo of Quang Ngai is the antithesis of other more common styles. Slightly fluffy, these are a serious treat if you are an egg-lover. One notable peculiarity is how finely chopped scallions are added to the batter before the cooking process, elevating the fragrance of the piping fresh banh xeo.
Cô Chi’s Banh Xeo Quang Ngai
The origins of these pancakes remain a mystery, but rumour has it that the southern coconut milk batter rendition hails from Khmer cooking, and the smaller and somewhat more adorable central varieties are said to be a culinary hybrid resulting from interaction between the Central Highlanders of Gia Lai Province, the ethnic Vietnamese and also the Cham citizens of Bình Định province during the days when the Champa Kingdom reigned in Central Vietnam.
In conclusion, it would be safe to say that it would take an exceptionally long time if one’s mission would to be to sample all variations of this fascinatingly simple yet appetizing dish. Banh xeo authenticity is highly debatable and hundreds of variations exist even in a single city of origin. However, it is hard to deny that it is almost always consumed with raw vegetables and a regional sauce for gastronomical balance.
Such differences in preparation and cooking process illustrate the exciting contrasts in tastes and ingredients that can exist even across a span of a few hundred kilometres. Yet another reason to discover the next banh xeo surprise on your next visit to Vietnam!
Bánh Xèo Cầu Ván - 211 Lũy Bán Bích, Tân Thới Hoà, Tân Phú, Hồ Chí Minh Bánh Xèo 46A - 46A Đinh Công Tráng, Tân Định, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh Bánh Xèo Dư - 274 Nguyễn Văn Đậu, Phường 11, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh Bánh Xèo Quảng Ngãi Cô Chi - 468 Bùi Đình Túy, Phường 12, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh
With so many restaurants and hotels running Christmas specials, it’s hard to find the perfect one for your tastes. To help you along with your decision, City Pass Guide has accumulated a list of some of the tastiest venues to go for your Christmas holiday meal.
They fill up quite fast so it’s recommended to book your reservation in advance.
While Vietnam’s northern people welcome Tet with peach blossoms, green bánh chưng cakes, pickled onions and frozen meat (a tradition we covered extensively in a previous article), the people of Central Vietnam greet this time of year with a distinct meal featuring yellow apricots, fermented pork rolls and a host other traditional dishes. To borrow a colloquialism, same same but different: this region’s dishes and food cultures have a distinguished and wholly different style from North and South Vietnam.
A Hard Life Begets a Taste for Strong Flavors
Central Vietnam is known as the region with the longest coastline in the country, which suffers the most from extreme weather as a result. This combination of geography and weather conditions there have deeply shaped Central people’s custom and lifestyle. They are believed to be the hardest working and the most economizing Vietnamese.
These natural conditions have driven the region’s nutritional choices. To economize, they complete their meal with ample amounts of white rice. Also, because most central families work in fisheries, they have to preserve seafood with processes that give it with extra flavor. Because of this, Central people tend to prefer salty, spicy and fermented foods. Fermented foods are served during economic downturns and severe weather conditions, and food that are spicy and salty help them combat the numbing cold of winters.
As the Year of the Dog draws close, Vietnam’s Central families are also carefully preparing foods for the first of many days of feasting and merrymaking to come. Let's learn what a typical Central Vietnam family serves during the Lunar New Year.
Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)
When celebrating Tet with food, Vietnamese say it "ăn Tết". Maybe you don’t know Vietnamese, but the word "Tét" should sound familiar!
Like bánh chưng, bánh tét also represents heaven and the earth. It also emphasizes the importance of rice in the life of Vietnamese people. During Tet, people of Central Vietnam put a pair of Tet cakes on the altar to worship the ancestors. The first three days of the New Year are the perfect time for family and friends visit, and bánh tét is an ideal dish to serve to guests coming to the house.
Image source: st.phunuonline.com.vn
This Tet specialty is made with sticky rice and filled with pork fat and beans that are seasoned with black pepper and shallots. It’s wrapped in banana leaves giving it an appealing pale green color and a slightly leafy taste. To prevent the banana leaf from coming apart while it’s cooking, people wrap it several times with plastic ribbon before steaming.
How was bánh tét first created? Some studies have claimed that bánh tét is a different version of bánh chưng—a similar food which is also stuffed with beans and pork—but this one is presented in a cylindrical shape due to the process of southward expansion in the 17th century. According to these studies, when Vietnam expanded southward to capture the former territory of Champa Kingdom, the dish was adapted to the colonized peoples tastes. Bánh tét was thus shaped by a desire to affect the linga, a phallic-shaped post associated with the deity Siva, according to Cham belief. The culture’s artistic productions prominently feature rods and poles for this reason.
Image source: 3.bp.blogspot.com
One serving contains a small, neat and beautiful slices of bánh tét. Vietnamese are also known to enjoy the dish fried, which gives the bánh tét a delicious, chewy crispness.
Image source: dukhach.net
Watch a video to show how bánh tét is packed:
Video source: Hướng Nghiệp Á Âu
Dưa Món (Pickled Vegetables)
Just as bánh chưng is typically paired with onion pickles in the North, bánh tét goes along with dưa món (vegetable pickles). It’s not the đồ chua (pickled vegetable) you have experienced in Vietnamese bánh mì before. The vegetables in dưa món carry a distinct, extra crunchy texture.
What’s the secret to this textural peculiarity?
To answer this question, start by looking at the dried vegetables. People from Central Vietnam usually dry carrots and radishes in the sun for a few days until the vegetables get perfectly dried.
Image source: jamja.vn
These dried veggies will soak up tons of flavor when cooked instead of going soggy like they otherwise would. They’ll hold texture even after sitting in the fish sauce for a few days. They remain crunchy with an al dente bite that’s truly addicting.
If it's impossible to dry your vegetables due to cloud cover or pollution, just use your oven. Set it on the lowest heat with the over door cracked open for three to four hours or if you have a gas stove give it about five to six hours with just the pilot light on. Follow these instructions and you can also achieve that same appropriate texture.
A properly executed dish of dưa món carries the aroma, flavor, and sweetness of fish sauce and sugar as well as the crunchiness of papaya. The added daikon compliments the beautiful vivid color of carrots.
Learn how to make authentic Vietnamese dưa món:
Video source: RunAwayRice
Nem chua (Fermented Pork Roll)
Nem chua is an indispensable dish of the Central Vietnamese Tet tradition. It is made from fresh pureed pork mixed with pork skin, marinated with spices, pepper, chili, all of which is fermented before becoming ripe for consumption.
Image source: opentour.vn
Some won’t dare to eat nem chua at first as they know this dish is made from completely raw pork. However, once you give it a try, you will slowly fall for its addictive light sourness, sweetness, crunchiness, spiciness, and the fragrance blended on their tongue.
Each province presents their sense of flavour and natural resources by using different leaves as wrapping materials. For example, Ninh Hoa’s nem chua wears gooseberry leaves, Binh Dinh’s nem chua goes with guava leaves. These wrapping materials also contribute greatly to the flavor of each fermented pork roll.
Image source: wiki-travel.com.vn
With close inspection, it’s easy to see that nem chua has two layers of wrapping. It has a layer of interior leaves, which decide the taste of nem chua mentioned above. The other is outer leaves, which are usually banana leaves. The banana leaf layer's thickness depends on how deeply fermented one would like their nem chua (more leaf means more fermentation). Normally, two layers of banana leaves are laid crisscross.
If you can’t afford to make it your own, no worry. Here are some of tips from the people of Central Vietnam to find the best nem chua. First, a well done nem chua must have dried surface. Second, it should have a slightly pink color, firm meat and reasonable sourness.
Nem chua can be eaten plain or served with wine in amongst a Tet feast. Each region has different ways to evaluate the flavor of the dish. Though North’s people prefer its original sourness, people from Central and South Vietnam usually add sugar, garlic, chili, and pepper to increase the spiciness and sweetness of nem chua.
Thịt heo ngâm mắm (Meat Soaked in Fish Sauce)
While Tet holiday could be tempting you with loads of nutritious, fatty foods, this rustic dish of meat soaked in fish sauce rolled in rice paper with various raw veggies, herbs, pickled vegetables is even more satisfying.
Meat soaked in fish sauce is a simple, flavorful yet super-easy-to-make dish. This charming treat is a traditional dish at a Tet meal in Central Vietnam. Over centuries and generations, Central Vietnam’s families still love to have a dish of meat soaked in fish sauce at their Lunar New Year feast.
Image source: jamja.vn
For locals, a roll of thịt ngâm mắm is well rounded and balanced flavour wise. The salty taste of the dish coupled with veggies dipped in sweet fish sauce play nicely against the spiciness of chili, pepper, garlic, and ginger to together create an exceptional culinary experience.
Mắm Tôm Chua (Fermented Shrimp Sauce)
If we’re going to talk about Central Vietnamese cuisine, we just can’t leave out its famous dish: mắm. And, at this time of year, mắm tôm chua is proudly in attendance in a traditional Tet meal. Unlike Mắm tôm—the well-known shrimp sauce that has dark purple color and smooth surface—sour shrimp sauce owes its appealing orange color to the shrimp.
In order to make this sauce, the shrimp must be cleaned with salt water and slightly cooked in a strong rice wine. Carefully mix the shrimp with sticky rice, sliced galangal, garlic and chili before combining the mixture into a jar. Everything is covered with guava leaves and left for five to seven days.
Image source: tholovesfood.files.wordpress.com
Mắm tôm chua is the best paired with thịt heo luộc (boiled pork), rolled in paper rice cake with loads of garnish including curly salad greens, cucumber, mint, herbs.
Wait. Did we forget something? Sauces!
Pour crushed garlic, chili, and sugar into the bowl of sour shrimp sauce, and mix them well with a spoon. Season the mixture until it matches your own sense of taste. Finally, squeeze a few drops of lemon in, and your sauce is ready.
Tết Nguyên Đán or simply Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most festive time of year in Vietnam as well as the most busy due to the amount of preparation required. You can easily get a sense Tet’s intense yet joyful atmosphere just by watching streets crowded with a continuous stream of people busy with shopping and preparing in advance for Tet. On this special occasion, everything must be prepared carefully and early.
To get ready for the holiday in accordance with Vietnamese belief, you should clean your home, replace your outdated things with new ones and—because you’re to stop all work during Tet including household work—cook all the food you’ll eat during the holiday.
There are certain dishes like bánh chưng (square meat cake) that are like unofficial Tet mascots for their close association with the holiday. If you’re in Hanoi or somewhere else in the North, expect to see typical dishes from that region there like xôi gấc (stick rice) during this time of year.
In this series, we’re going to explore the food traditions of Vietnam’s three major regions—the North, Middle and South—going from top to bottom.
An Overview of Vietnamese Tet
The Vietnamese call this time of year Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết Ta (Vietnamese New Year), Tết Âm Lịch (Lunar New Year), Tết Cổ Truyền (Traditional New Year). As the Lunar New Year is determined according to the phases of the Moon so Tet is celebrated later than Tết Dương Lịch (Western New Year).
It has many different names, but we’ll just call it “Tet” here for short.
There is an additional month added to the lunar calendar every three years, but otherwise the the Tet window remains unchanged: the first day of the Lunar New Year is never before January 21 and never after February 19 in the Gregorian calendar. It is usually held during late January to the middle of February.
In the past, the entire annual Lunar New Year celebration used to last for about 2 weeks across two separate periods: seven or eight days of the old year and 7 days of the new year (23 December to the end of January 7).
Just like other Asian countries deeply influenced by Chinese culture, Tet holds a very important, significant meaning in the life of the Vietnamese people for many reasons. For one, it’s an opportunity for a family reunion. It’s often the occasion to welcome family members returning home after working apart all year round. Second, it’s also an opportunity to visit acquaintances, relatives, and friends during the longest leisure time period of the year.
Image source: ancarat.com
Getting the Meal Ready
If you asked me which of Tet’s many activities is the most fascinating, I would doubtlessly pick preparing the traditional food.
Tet foods play a vital role in worshipping the ancestors, reuniting the family and receiving the guests during the first three days of the Lunar New Year. Preparing for these dishes requires one to be meticulous and attentive to the particular traditions of your area. As Vietnamese people are creative in the kitchen, the selection of Tet’s food is rich and diverse varying from region to region.
My grandma and mom always bought and prepared loads of food in the week before Tet’s arrival because food plays such a large part in Tet celebration. Vietnamese people always make sure that there is plenty of food for the whole family to last for at least three days since it is taboo to work or cook during the first three days of Tet. It is also bad luck to run out of food during this time.
A complete Northern Tet meal is considered the most traditional meal of all. Hanoi is said to have retained the the highest number of traditional dishes among all the other the northern provinces. A complete meal there calls for preparing a broad number of foods and a sophisticated presentation. Traditionally, the complete Northern Tet meal needs eight dishes—four bowls and four plates—which represent four pillars, four seasons and four directions.
The traditional Hanoian family’s meal has been simplified now compared to the amount of recipes in the past. Nevertheless, there are still some irreplaceable dishes that almost every Northern family will prepare on this special occasion.
Image source: murtahil.com
Bánh Chưng (Chưng cakes or Vietnamese square cakes)
This is the most well known cake of the holiday, arguably the most famous Tet dish of them all. Bánh chưng (Vietnamese square cake) is made from glutinous rice, mung beans, pork and other ingredients, which are believed to express the essence of the heaven and the earth through the skillful hands of humans, according to Vietnam’s legendary ancient chief King Hùng Vương. By this belief, making bánhchưng cake is also the ideal way to express gratitude to our ancestors and homeland. It embodies the spirit of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Image source: doanhnhanplus.vn
Vietnamese families love to pack and boil bánh chưng cake together as a household around one week before giao thừa (New Year's Eve). It is also a great chance for family members to gather and spend the night together sharing neverending stories, games and conversations while waiting for the cakes to be boiled.
Image source: 3.bp.blogspot.com
My family used to pack and boil bánh chưng years ago in a private corner right in front of our house. This is doubtlessly a precious memory to any kid growing up in the city like me. Because the making of the bánhchưng cake requires participation of all family members, each of us was involved in different parts of the process, but we shared a common joy.
Early in the morning we had to head out to market to choose lá dong (phrynium leaves). To make the cake, you must cleanse them over water, then carefully wipe up every single leaf. If you leave the leaf wet, it might ruin the whole cake.
Packing the cake is even more challenging. Bánh Chưng cake should be tightly and carefully wrapped, boiled for about 14 hours, taken out, soaked in water and squeezed using a heavy plank. That way, when bánh chưng cake is cut, it will be limber but not flabby. It will instead be fleshy and fragrant.
Nowadays, times have changed and it is hard to find a family who packs and boils bánh chưng cake by themselves in the city, but family elders still get first dibs and choose before anyone else so they get the one that’s best cooked. The cake should be made from a fragrant glutinous rice for better longevity.
Watch video of Vietnamese people making of bánh chưng cake:
Video source: Helen's Recipes (Vietnamese Food)
Xôi gấc - Red Sticky Rice
Xôi (Sticky rice) is also an indispensable part of the traditional Northern meal. There’s a selection of different xôi: xôi lạc (sticky rice with peanuts), xôi đậu xanh (sticky rice with mung bean), and my personal favorite xôi gấc (sticky rice with special gấc fruit). Among these types, xôi gấc is in my opinion the best choice thanks to its distinct red color, which signifies a good fortune, according Vietnamese belief.
Image source: media.cooky.vn
Generally, xôi gấc is usually served with giò chả (Vietnamese sausage) or boiled chicken in Tet meals. Sometimes it can be served with chè (sweet soup) like a dessert dish. Xôi gấc is a great start for the new year because this dish is believed to bring lots of luck and symbolise good things.
Image source: 3.bp.blogspot.com
Dưa hành– Pickled Onions
Fresh pickled onions are often served as a side dish alongside bánhchưng cake or high protein dishes to reduce the greasiness. Foreigners may find this dish, in a word, unfriendly as they often can not handle the alliaceous, intensely oniony smell.
But once you get along with these sweet-but-sour, slightly spicy pickled onions, you just can’t resist them. It helps elevate the flavor of Tet dishes as well as benefit our body’s digestive processes.
Image source: static1.squarespace.com
First thing’s first: in order to make standard pickled onions, you need to choose old onions with firm bulbs. Next, soak the onions in water mixed with borax and ash for two days and two nights. After that, take out the onions, cut off the roots, peel them, then put them into a large jar, cover them with salt and then put a thin layer of chopped cane on top. Cover the onions with layers of bamboo. After two weeks, you can get the onion bulbs out, soak them in sugar and vinegar. In three days, your pickled onions will be ready to rock.
Watch video of foreigner first trying dưa hành:
Video source: Zing.vn
Giò Chả, Giò Thủ – Vietnamese sausage, Pork Head Ham
Regardless of regional geography, Vietnamese Tet feast must contains a dish of giò (Vietnamese sausage), one of the most savoury of all Lunar New Year dishes.
Vietnamese sausage (Giò), usually made of pork, from meat finely milled in a stone mortar and wrapped in banana leaves to form a tube shape. It is then boiled or steamed. There’s also giò bò (beef sausage), which is made from finely milled beef, a specialty of central Vietnam. A well cut piece of giò must look neat, nice, and easy to pick up. The plating and presentation of this dish depends on the creativity of cooks.
Image source: media.static-adayroi.com
Then you have giò thủ (pork head ham), a Vietnamese sausage made from the meat of a pig’s head. For making giò thủ, pig’s ears and head meat are not milled but diced, and mixed with other ingredients like wood ear (black mushroom), fish sauce, pepper and garlic, all of which are stir fried. They are first fried in a pan, and then stirred well on low heat. Then, wrap the pies in fresh banana leaves, tie them carefully, and boil or steam them just like how we did with giò chả. A well cooked giò thủ dish gets it marble texture with the crunchy cartilage in every bite. This chewy, meaty, crunchy dish endowed with a deep, spicy, strong favour of condiments and garlic is best paired with pickled onions and a cold glass of bia hơi (Vietnamese fresh beer).
Image source: jamja.vn
Thịt đông – Frozen Meat
Thịt đông is a dish particular to the winter-spring period of the Northern Vietnam, when the outside temperature is drastically cooler. Thịt đông is made from mixed protein, sometimes from chicken as well as pork and pork skin. After the ingredients are cooked in a pot, they may be left to cool down inside the pot, or divided into small bowls, depending on your preferred serving size. Then it is covered and chilled in the open air to make what you’d agree is one wonderful dish.
Image source: baomoi-photo-2-td.zadn.vn
The complete thịt đông dish has a thin white layer of fat on top, and the smooth jelly-like layer of frozen meat underneath. A piece of frozen meat served with pickled onions and a hot bowl of rice makes the true Northern Tet flavor. Frozen meat is typically served with a hot, fragrant bowl of rice as the heat of well-cooked rice melts down the frozen fat and soup. All harmonize into one perfect taste.
Because for over 11 years, as I’ve promoted Vietnam with City Pass Guide, I’ve come to the conclusion that tourism in the country is portrayed all wrong. The essence of what makes Vietnam a special place isn’t its attractions or its monuments or its landmarks. What really makes it stand out is the people and the food. You can’t really export people too much, but you can export food, and Vietnam definitely has one of the most interesting cuisines—especially now that everyone is becoming aware of the importance of eating healthier. Green, light food, diverse food, easy, simple but fresh, which are attributes of the Vietnamese cuisine.
Image source: The Gourmet Gourmand
How will VFL change the experience of eating Vietnamese food?
I hope that we will be able to support the Vietnamese restaurants in order to ensure higher quality and safety standards, an important area in which improvement must be made. Our aim is really to make a stand for Vietnamese cuisine worldwide.
How do you plan to do that?
It’s a long-term goal that requires ample resources and time. And this is what we’re currently building. Vietnamese Food Lovers aims to recruit the best food supply chain stakeholders and to work together with them to support the promotion of Vietnamese cuisine and food, not only marketing-wise, but sales-wise. Vietnamese Food Lovers plans to be active in international trade fairs for hospitality, F&B sectors, gastronomy and other related trade fairs. The aim is to help local producers who are producing quality food-related products to export to the rest of the world. Vietnam has not yet tapped into this huge potential in this huge industry.
Image source: serenitydentalclinic.com
Why do you think Vietnamese cuisine isn’t more widely celebrated in the world?
I think it’s a combination of things. First, Vietnam has truly opened its doors to the rest of the world only for the last 25 years. And for the first 10 years, tourism was very minimal. The second reason is that to make good Vietnamese food you require some basic raw ingredients that are still not yet available in most countries around the world.
VFL now has a website. What’s the purpose of the website, and what can foodies get out of it?
We just launched the English version, with a Vietnamese version coming soon. Basically, the website aims to be a one-door portal where demand and supply can meet in order to do more Vietnamese cooking. That includes recipes, a very large database of food suppliers from around the world, a large database of restaurants and hotels that have an interest in Vietnamese cuisine, and daily news and films and data that is relevant to Vietnamese Food Lovers.
Image source: vietnamtastelondon.com
What are your goals for VFL by 2020?
By 2020 Vietnamese Food Lovers will have organised over eight Vietnamese Food Festivals across Vietnam. We will have received a million pledges of Vietnamese food lovers around the world. Vietnamese Food Lovers will be the largest database of food supply chain and demand contacts worldwide, so we can unite all Vietnamese food lovers under one portal. It will be the largest media agency responsible for promoting both Vietnamese cuisine and Vietnam’s finest food producers.
You’re sitting down to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant. Look around: what do you typically see? For most people, a Vietnamese meal out implies two options—a cheap meal perched on a red plastic table, or fine-dining at one of Saigon’s 4- and 5-star hotels.
Image source: wrap-roll.com
Apart from these two extremes, there are very few in between.
As the city’s F&B market becomes increasingly sophisticated, the casual-dining restaurant segment has become competitive as well. Ten years ago Saigonese likely found their daily meals at street food vendors or in small, mom-and-pop restaurants, but today Vietnamese food chains like Pho Ong Hung and Mon Hue, both owned by F&B conglomerate Huy Vietnam, are working to corner the sit-down, casual dining market.
While these chains have done well in major cities around the country, the world market beacons for the aspiring restaurateur. But can Vietnamese food, a cuisine based on fresh ingredients and homemade tastes, be franchised and replicated in other countries?
Targeting the Fresh Market
When Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh looked at Saigon’s F&B market in 2006, she spotted a glaring hole. What if a white-collar worker, either foreign or local, wanted high-quality, healthy Vietnamese food in a clean, trendy setting, without sifting through the hundreds of items on a typical Vietnamese menu?
“I wanted healthy food with good service and a very fresh and trendy atmosphere. It was something I created just for someone like me. The target customer is exactly myself.”
Every bit the professional, energetic and passionate businesswoman she sought to cater to, Oanh developed the concept for Wrap & Roll before setting off on a country-wide trip to decide what rolled cuisine was really all about. She discovered almost 100 different wrap and roll dishes, and settled on just 60 easily replicated and fresh varieties, focused on two different culinary models: the pre-made roll, and the do-it-yourself.
Image source: wrap-roll.com
After planting these curated rolls on an easy-to-understand menu, and creating a clean and inviting atmosphere on Hai Ba Trung, magic happened. The concept worked, and within a year, four Wrap & Rolls were open for business in Ho Chi Minh City, in key locations like Phu My Hung and Diamond Plaza. Oanh modestly attributes her success to her knowledge of the market, and a little help from the perfect timing.
“The customer targets were all correct, and the timing was good. In 2006, there was a food court trend in Vietnam. Timing is very important,” she said.
Expanding nationally is one thing, but franchising a Vietnamese restaurant for expansion overseas? That’s another story. At the moment, only the chain restaurant Rolld has capitalised on Vietnamese food in Australia, and soup emporium Pho Hoa Noodle Soup, which boasts to be “the only Vietnamese cuisine franchise outside of Asia”, has outlets in the US and Canada, along with several countries in Asia—but not Vietnam.
So, when the private equity firm Mekong Capital took on Wrap & Roll in 2010, for Oanh it was all about grounding the company in an Asian market before expanding elsewhere. So far diners can enjoy a Wrap & Roll dinner in Singapore and Shanghai, while Taiwan, the Philippines and Cambodia are likely to be added to the list in the coming years.
“We have been receiving a lot of offers from America and even Europe, but we want to focus on this area first to easily control the quality and brand awareness.”
Quality is a top concern, especially when dealing with a cuisine dependent on fresh herbs and vegetables that can’t be exported.
Image source: wrap-roll.com
So far, the Wrap & Roll team has maintained quality by subtly altering ingredients to fit products available locally and importing Vietnamese spices directly from Saigon.
Even more than quality concerns, Oanh also points to increased Vietnamese food competition in Asia’s F&B marketplace—a realisation that goes against the now-established narrative lamenting the lack of Vietnamese cuisine across the world. “In the region we’re focussing on, you can find a lot [of Vietnamese food] in Singapore. You also find a lot in Manila and Korea.”
With a goal to open 50 stores in five countries by 2021, it looks like Vietnam has found its first international restaurant franchise.