When it comes to Asian food, Chinese, Thai and Japanese are overwhelming favourites with the British populace. Vietnamese, on the other hand, appears to be languishing in the popularity stakes. According to recent research by CGA and Lee Kum Kee, just 2% of people consider it their favourite oriental cuisine.
Dig a little deeper, though, and there are signs that Brits are becoming interested in Vietnamese flavours, particularly pho (pronounced fuh). Around 7% of those surveyed by CGA said that the Vietnamese soup noodles were one of their favourite oriental dishes, making it one of the most popular in the category.
As consumers become more familiar with some of the less threatening options from Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, is it time to broaden out the experience?
Pho has functioned as the amuse bouche for Vietnamese cuisine. Restaurant chain Pho, for instance, now has 27 sites across the country and saw strong sales growth last year.
Co-founder Stephen Wall told Food Spark’s sister service MCA: “As we continue to sensibly grow we’ll be focusing on out of London opportunities in particular, as we continue to illustrate that Pho translates to the country as a whole. The brand is continually evolving and we remain in a strong position to take advantage of opportunities such as delivery, the growing movement to vegan and meat-free dishes, and free-from choices such as gluten-free.”
Just this month, Unilever released Vietnamese beef pho as part of its new Asian Street Style range, joining similar retail options from brands like Kabuto and Itsu, testifying to the dish’s growing presence in the supermarket aisles. Waitrose even offers a pho meal kit from Nem Viet.
At grab-and-go chain Hop, pho is one of the top sellers, alongside banh mi, the national sandwich traditionally consisting of a baguette stuffed with sliced pork, pate, coriander and pickled vegetables.
Banh mi, too, has proved popular with consumers, with stores like Bahn Mi Bay and Keu doing a brisk food-to-go trade in London.
The global view
Part of the appeal of Vietnam's specialities is that they identify so closely with the trend for street food.
In Shanghai, diners are moving past the ubiquitous pho and banh mi joints into other Hanoi street eats. Danyi Gao, who rose to national fame in China thanks to her appearance on a popular local cooking show, has just opened a restaurant dedicated to bun cha: a cold dish of rice noodles and grilled pork (both in patty form and thin slices), accompanied by fresh herbs, pickles, lime juice and sweetened fish sauce.
Over in New York, as well as getting more adventurous with the pho offering – Sai Gon Dep offers a chicken option that comes with the bird’s head and feet as a nod to beak-to-claw cooking – foodies are also dwelling on the condiments associated with the experience.
Nuoc cham, a sauce normally consisting of fish sauce, lime, hot chilli, garlic and sugar, is entering the city’s lexicon, thanks to its highly touted supporting role in some of NYC’s most popular Vietnamese establishments.
One of these hot spots, Madame Vo, branched out from pho into do-it-yourself grills at the end of last year, bringing the street meats (and veg) off the roadside and into the restaurant. The owners hope to build on the growing presence of DIY Chinese hot pots and Korean barbecues while offering punters something new to play with.
Maria Chong, MD for Lee Kum Kee Europe, previously told Food Spark that Vietnamese cuisine is an interesting area in terms of condiment NPD, but what does Sparkie think about this barbecue business?
In terms of Vietnamese BBQ, this is massive as a domestic street food movement, but the proliferation in the UK is not as big as you would expect. Korean BBQ restaurants have grown, but again, not as much as expected. We think it is the “faff factor” that inhibits the growth of the trend, as the diners’ participation is essential and that goes against the grain when choosing where to spend their pounds.
There are great flavours in Vietnamese cooking though and they will start to become a little more commonplace, though this will be more challenging outside of the M25 corridor.