Think about Vietnamese food and a comforting bowl of pho; a tasty banh mi comes to your mind. With just a few key ingredients, you can make Vietnamese food at home with ease.
The food from Vietnam differs from region to region, so does the pantry in each household. But in the list below, we share the essential ingredients that you will find in most Vietnamese kitchen.
1. Fish Sauce
Fish sauce or nuoc mam is the essential condiment in a Vietnamese kitchen. Made from salted and fermented anchovies, it has an amber color with a unique funky fragrance.
Fish sauce is the heart and soul of Vietnamese food. In almost every dish, from stir fry, braise, stew to the soup, fish sauce is used every day. It is also excellent as the base to make dipping sauces for a variety of dishes.
If you live in Vietnam, the choice of fish sauce is endless. It will take some time to test before your family stick with a favorite fish sauce brand.
Overseas, fish sauce is available in most grocery stores, especially Asian and Vietnamese markets.
Red Boat fish sauce is praised by many for its high quality. They are first-press, at 40°N; use only fish and salt without any addictive, just like how traditional fish sauces are made.
It can be a bit salty to some but once you get used to the taste, you would not want to come back to overly sweet commercialized fish sauce. If you cannot find Red Boat fish sauce, then the 3 Crabs brand is also a popular choice.
2. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is made from boiled oysters, salt, sugar, and cornstarch. It has a dark color and a thicker consistency compared with regular soy sauce.
Oyster sauce or oyster flavored sauce has both sweet and savory taste, making it ideal for stir-fry dishes. It is widely used in Chinese cuisine.
For Vietnamese food, oyster sauce is more like a flavor enhancer than the show’s main star. It is added in small quantity for stir fry vegetables or meat dishes like shaking beef – bo luc lac.
3. Chili Sauce/Hot Sauce
Apart from using the spicy bird eyes chilies, most Vietnamese pantry is stocked up with chili sauce. We use it as a dipping sauce for fried food, add spiciness to noodle dishes or Vietnamese baguettes.
Even though you find Sriracha in every Vietnamese restaurant overseas, it is not something you can easily find in Vietnam. For a taste of Vietnamese chili sauce, try Cholimex or Chinsu, both local Vietnamese brands.
You can find them in quite a few Asian or Vietnamese grocery stores in North America. They taste sweeter and less sour than Sriracha. But if you love the flavor of Sriracha, then there is no reason to change.
As basic as it sounds, no Vietnamese pantry is complete without some sugar. Sugar is used not only to make desserts but also a tablespoon here and there in a lot of savory dishes.
When talking about sugar, the difference is vast between Northern versus Southern Vietnamese cooking. In the North, people typically do not add sugar in broth, soup, and stir fry dishes. But in the South, it seems that sugar can be added in almost everything, and the food is noticeably sweeter.
In a Vietnamese kitchen, the common sugars you will find are white sugar and brown sugar. Rock sugar and palm sugar are also popular, especially in making traditional desserts.
Many Vietnamese dishes are served with wedges of fresh limes. A splash of this tantalizing ingredient can brighten up a dish immediately.
Lime is also an essential ingredient in making Vietnamese dipping sauces. When using limes, make sure you take out the seeds to avoid bitterness.
On a hot summer day, a glass of lime juice is truly refreshing. It is as simple as mixing water, sugar, and freshly squeezed lime juices. Then add in some ice for a drink that can instantly cool you down.
Rice is the staple grain in Vietnam. Almost every family eats rice daily.
As the Vietnamese cook and eat a lot of steamed white rice, most dishes are made to accompany it. Dishes like caramelized pork belly, braised beef, or salted fish all called for bowl after bowl of rice.
Besides long and short-grain rice, sticky rice is also a staple in a Vietnamese kitchen. It is used to make both sweet and savory dishes. Examples are baby jack-fruit sticky rice, mixed sausages sticky rice, or rice pudding with taro or black-eyed white beans.
In recent years, Vietnamese care more about and gravitate toward healthy eating. So more and more people start to switch white rice with brown rice or black rice.
7. Rice Paper
Vietnamese rice paper is a fundamental ingredient in making our wrap and roll dishes. From the famous fresh spring rolls, fried egg rolls or crab rolls; you cannot make any of those dishes without rice paper.
Some say Vietnamese love to wrap everything with rice paper. The thin, slightly chewy rice paper is the perfect wrapper for grilled fish, pan-seared pork in coconut juice, or thinly sliced veal. Add in some fresh herbs with a good dipping sauce, and it is a meal on its own.
Rice paper is sold in all Asian markets or big supermarket chains; in a round or square shape of different sizes. It may take some time until you find the “perfect” rice paper for your taste. They may look similar, but some are easy to break; some can be tough to chew.
It is hard to imagine Vietnamese food without its noodle dishes. Pho, Bun Cha, or grilled pork noodle bowl are all made using different types of noodles.
In Vietnam, we rarely buy dry rice noodles. Rice noodles or rice vermicelli are sold fresh in the wet market; wrap between layers of banana leaves.
In terms of flavor and texture, it is hard to beat fresh rice noodles. But packaged dry noodles win when it comes to convenience. Stock up some dry noodle bags in your pantry, and it is ready in minutes whenever you want to cook some noodle dishes.
The most popular type of noodles in a Vietnamese kitchen are flat rice noodles for pho; rice vermicelli for rice noodle bowls, fresh spring rolls, and vermicelli in noodle soup and stir fry dishes.
Other types of noodles like egg noodles, super fine rice vermicelli, or tapioca noodle are mostly used in Southern Vietnamese dishes. Some famous examples are Vietnamese wonton noodle – my hoanh thanh, rice vermicelli roasted pork – banh hoi heo quay, or crab tapioca noodle soup – banh canh cua.
9. Aromatics – Garlic and Shallot
If you love Vietnamese food, you will notice that a Vietnamese food recipe often calls for garlic, shallot, or both.
We often use minced fresh garlic or shallot in marinating meat and seafood. On the other hand, crispy deep-fried shallot and garlic are added in a dish before serving for extra flavors and some texture contrast. Think about the soft Vietnamese steamed rice rolls with golden brown crispy shallots.
Apart from the usual garlic cloves you see in every supermarket, try to look for solo garlic or single clove garlic. They have good aroma and texture. The best part? It requires less time and so easy to peel off the skin.
A basket of garlic and shallot can be found in any Vietnamese kitchen. With these ingredients, we are ready to cook Vietnamese food anytime.
Vietnamese use lemongrass in many grilled or braised dishes such as grilled lemongrass chicken, pork skewer, beef stew, or goat curry. It adds a fresh scent and citrusy flavor to the plate.
Besides adding minced lemongrass in marinating and cooking food, fresh lemongrass can be served in an herb tray, eaten raw with grilled meat, or added in rice paper beef rolls.
You can find fresh lemongrass in Vietnamese and Asian markets. If not available, frozen whole lemongrass stalk or minced lemongrass jar are the next options.
A lot of Vietnamese food rely on spices to create the desired flavor. The obvious one would be pho. Combining different spices in making pho broth fills the whole house with a warm and alluring aroma.
Spices also have a warming and calming effect, which many of us find in our comfort food.
Typical spices used in making Vietnamese food are black pepper, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and coriander seeds. Five-spice powder is also used to marinade many meat dishes like beef stew, grilled chicken, or roasted pork.
The most used spice is black pepper. It pairs nicely with meat and seafood. A dash of black pepper is added toward the end for a lot of dishes. Ground black pepper is also great in congee and some noodle soups.
If you can, buy black pepper and cinnamon originated from Vietnam. You will notice that they have pronounced aroma and flavor, much different from those commonly sold at supermarkets.
12. Fresh Herbs
Vietnamese love fresh herbs, and you can see it in our food. Some essential and most popular herbs are cilantro, Thai basil, mint, Vietnamese coriander, and rice paddy herb.
In most Vietnamese dishes, herbs are chopped roughly and add in last before serving. Or they will be served fresh and eaten raw to accompany various dishes.
Depend on the dish and the region where it comes from, the number of fresh herbs served with each dish varies. It can be 2, 3 different herbs to eat along with a bowl of noodle soup, or goes up to 15 kinds when eating rice rolls with pork – banh trang thit heo.
Fresh herbs play an essential role in making Vietnamese food light and fresh, with flavor that satisfies our taste buds and makes us crave for more.