So, let’s get down to the basics of Vietnamese cuisine before I start to overload this blog with recipes. Herbs, fruits, seasonings, nước mắm, nước tương, equipments, methods of cooking – all are essential to know for a Vietnamese cook.
Nước mắm and nước tương
So this is an easy one. Go into any Vietnamese household and you’ll find these two things (besides your absolutely essential salt, pepper, sugar, oil) in the cupboard. Nước mắm (fish sauce) and nước tương (soy sauce) are a part of our national palates. Without it, most dishes fall flat. It is the base for any good spring roll sauce, the binding ingredient for home-cooked meat dishes, and overall a Vietnamese person’s treasured hoard. When I was hungry and utterly broke, I would dash soy sauce into a bowl of rice with spam (sometimes even without spam) and that would be my meal for the day. Even in the countryside of Vietnam, you’ll find impoverished households revert to using either fish sauce or soy sauce with plain rice.
Nước mắm (fish sauce)
This literally translates into water of salted fish. Good fish sauce is worth its weigh in gold and the best are
often expensive to buy (for the Vietnamese homeland). It is an absolute staple ingredient and can now be found all over the world, even in American, Australian, French supermarkets. Its origins are truly ancient and is a great source for protein. Fish sauce, a somewhat smelly light brown liquid, is made by fermenting either dried of raw fish with water and spices. It’s a true labor of love, as a good bottle of fish sauce can take
months to produce. An ugly, smelly liquid – maybe….but its aromatic, earthy, fantastic universality makes it an 8th wonder of the world.
My favorite brand: Viet Huong Three Crabs. More information can be found on Andrea Nguyen’s blurb about fish sauce.
Nước Tương (soy sauce)
The ubiquitous soy sauce. Every good Southeast Asian and Chinese restaurant totes a bottle of soy sauce. A good cook will know to elevate this common commodity to a essential ingredient status. Soy sauce are made from fermented beans and other ingredients and can range in differing colors and thickness. Light, fresh soy sauce are commonly used as a dipping sauce while old, aged soy sauce are used as ingredients in many dishes. The taste of a great bottle of soy sauce can be quite complex, so don’t settle for just any common name brand.
Herbs or rau
Rau literally translates to greens or vegetables. Unlike Chinese cuisine, Vietnamese relies heavily on fresh herbs or rau as a part of the diet. Not only does it serve as gorgeous decoration on a plate, it’s a key essential ingredient for all things delicious. Below is a list and some discussion about the most commonly used rau. Originally posted here.
Basil (rau quế): also known as thai basil, found mostly in phở or pickled salads, a ubiquitous herb!
Lemon grass (cây xả): easily found in the markets and can be grown in your garden, used as a part of a rub for chicken or fried/grilled fish, flavors soups and stocks
Saw leaf herb (ngò gai): native to Latin cuisines, used widely in noddle soups, mostly found bunched in bags at the markets
Rice paddy herb (rau ngò ôm): used in sour soup bases, has a citrusy, slightly sour taste
Vietnamese Coriander (rau răm): uniquely spicy with a lemony taste, definitely used in noodle soups, eaten with balut or hột vịt lộn (fertilized duck eggs)
Cilantro (rau ngò or ngò rí): used as a final addition to any good meat plate
Peppermint (húng cây or rau bạc hà)
Spearmint (húng lủi)
Houttuynia cordata/fishscale mint (giấp cá or diếp cá)
Perilla (tía tô): my ALL TIME FAVORITE rau, very strong flavor, known as shiso in Japnese cuisine, also known as beefsteak, can be dark green or purple, my mother would wrap these leaves around marinated beef and put them on the grill
Dill (thì là)
Sorrel (rau chua/rau thom)
More pictures coming soon…