The popularity of Vietnamese food and beverages has continued to grow in the US, alongside other Asian cuisine. Enhancing the proverbial “sweet spot” in a trending Vietnamese food by incorporating trusted ingredients can transform a traditional Vietnamese dish into a new variation.

Understanding the “why” and the “how” of form and flavor in the foods of this rich culinary culture can spark creative innovation. This moves the developer toward more successful, commercially viable products to process and package in a distributable format. Delivering on consumer expectations for new twists on old favorites also allows for creativity that does not overwhelm the cautious consumer.

For example, fermentation is an ancient technique, yet modern approaches and processes in food and beverage development allow a research chef to incorporate many fermented ingredients in new, successful variations. Making a rich, flavorful impact on a traditional Vietnamese-style dish can begin with the simple inclusion—in single-digit percentages—of a fermented ingredient to elevate the overall profile.

Such fermented ingredients will balance sweet notes, thus increasing flavor complexity while reducing the perception of bitterness and sourness. The Vietnamese pantry is packed with familiar building blocks of fermented flavor, especially from fish sauce and soy sauce, that also easily add depth and umami.

Sweet meets West

As consumers now embrace the vibrant cuisine of Vietnam, food producers can leverage trending fermented ingredients and their sweet counterparts. In this way, they are better able to develop components and resulting new product builds.

Time-tested Asian favorites of all culinary cultures, such as orange chicken, teriyaki beef, and pad Thai exemplify this American penchant for the sweet-and-salty flavor profile created by balancing fermented ingredients like soy sauce and fish sauce with various sources of sweetness. The sweet-savory hallmark of Vietnamese dishes often is enhanced with fermented foods. This combination appeals to the consumer desire for both exciting trends and comforting tradition, offering product opportunities and variations to explore.

The Vietnamese classics rely on sweet ingredients like cane sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar, sweet cooking rice wine (mirin), maltose, or honey. Another source of sweetness that is common in Asia but now making greater inroads in the West is palm sugar. It’s made by boiling down the sap of the palm tree flower. Since it’s nearly unrefined, this traditional sweetener boasts a particularly complex, slightly earthy flavor.

In Vietnam, palm sugar is cooked over a low heat to keep it light in color. This is as opposed to neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, where palm sugar typically is boiled until dark brown. Once available only in lumps or large chunks (which made it difficult for developers and manufacturers to leverage its incredible flavor and health benefit), today palm sugar is available in numerous granulated versions. This also has caused the cost per pound to keep dropping. A majority of the suppliers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand now are offering this sweetener internationally.

One technique the Vietnamese have been using for hundreds of years involves cooking cane sugar until caramelized, then deglazing with water to create a caramel sauce of sorts. Any respectable Vietnamese cook has a jar of caramelized sugar syrup at the ready. It is used in bases for stews or to stir into a dish toward the end of preparation. It also is added to marinades for grilled meat or used to infuse rich color into a stir-fry sauce.

Kho, caramel cookery

A traditional Vietnamese cooking technique currently being adopted in the West is the unique caramel cookery approach known askho. The classic process for creating this sweet/salty profile in Vietnamese cooking is to first caramelize cane sugar, then add aromatics like shallots, garlic, and black pepper.

The mixture then is deglazed with fish sauce to create a syrupy sauce used to coat pork, shrimp, or river fish. This addictively satisfying sauce is a mainstay, with early-to-market products using this technique of beginning with sugar and sometimes finishing with molasses.

Although the caramelization of sugar may not be feasible for some manufacturers, richly flavored coconut and palm sugars are now available for product developers to use in formulating lower-glycemic sauces and deliver on that genuine flavor profile without having to take the step of caramelizing the sugar themselves. For example, Viet Phu, Inc.’s Red Boat brand kho sauce combines their award-winning fish sauce with aromatics and little touch of chili to accomplish this alluring flavor balance.

Another noteworthy trend is that two main categories of Vietnamese foods built on long-standing Vietnamese restaurant favorites—banh mi sandwiches and phô noodle soups—are experiencing a renewed burst of interest.

The familiar format for banh mi is an airy baguette with a crisp exterior, split and slathered with mayo and/or butter, then filled with meats like sweet-and-salty umami-rich grilled pork, or cured charcuterie meats, or even paté. It is topped with fresh herbs such as cilantro or rau ram herb (also called Vietnamese coriander or hot mint) and pickled vegetables, then served with a fiery garlic chili pepper sauce.

While it can be challenging to deliver the typical multilayered flavor experience, prepared food makers could offer it in the form of a kit that lets the consumer assemble the parts themselves.

Noodling around

Phô, the traditional northern beef-based, umami-rich broth with noodles, is always balanced with some sugar. But recently, adventurous chefs in the US are stepping up the Vietnamese noodle bowl game with more complexly flavored dishes. A prominent example is the powerfully aromatic central Vietnamesebun bo hue, in which lemongrass-infused, annatto-tinted broth is the base.

As with phô, this soup often includes a cool, flavor-, texture-, and temperature-balancing garnish of fresh bean sprouts, basil, and lime. Bon bo hue classically is served with a table salad of shaved banana blossoms, cabbage, mint, and bean sprouts.

Another dish recently catching the attention of American consumers is a grilled pork rice noodle bowl in the southern Vietnamese style. It contains pork with a sweet-and-savory profile, plus umami-salty-sweet nuoc cham, composed of fish sauce, chili peppers, and sugar.

Regional Vietnamese foods are trending hot, but the challenge with Vietnamese cuisine is the traditional fresh garnishes. But again, product developers can deliver on the base aspects and promote or package the fresh elements that are hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine. With meal kits and “fresh-to-go” offerings in supermarkets being a major trend, combining the two is a ready answer.

Robert Danhi has worked as restaurant chef, chef-instructor for the Culinary Institute of America, and consulted for multiple Fortune 500 companies. He is an award-winning author and TV host and founded the Flavor360™ software platform, concurrently launching Flavor360 EXPLORE, a mobile app designed to capture into one database the tribal knowledge of organizations at every stage of the R&D process. Reach Chef Danhi through his company’s website,