Vietnamese cuisine visibly reflects Buddhist philosophy, associating the five fundamental tastes (sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and sour) to the five natural elements (earth, metal, water, fire, and wood). Each also appeals to the five senses (mouth, nose, ear, tongue, and eyes), and corresponds to a color (yellow, black, white, red, and green.)
Every Vietnamese dish features a combination of these intricacies, perfectly blending them together to result in a delicious culinary balance and harmony. As such, Vietnamese cuisine remains one of the most unique cuisines in the world, ready to satisfy anyone’s palate.
If you want to taste Vietnamese dishes at home, stock all these condiments, noodles, herbs, vegetables, and spices – all essential ingredients you need to experience authentic Vietnamese cuisine. You can also learn how to give the best customer experience here.
1. Fish Sauce
Locally known as nuoc mam, fish sauce is a cardinal ingredient in Vietnamese cooking. Anchovies undergo a pressing, salting, and fermenting process, resulting in the darkish, amber liquid. It’s an incredibly versatile condiment, swashed into broths, diluted in various dipping sauces, and added into many meat dishes. Always buy a high-quality fish sauce, labeled extra virgin and first press, to create the best Vietnamese meals. Fish sauce is also a mandatory ingredient in Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai cuisine.
2. Oyster Sauce
A staple Cantonese cooking, oyster sauce is also an essential condiment in Vietnamese cuisine. It’s derived from boiling oysters in a mixture of cornstarch, sugar, and water, resulting in a thick, sweet, and savory sauce. Oyster sauce works best in sautées, toning the bitter taste from leafy vegetables and green, and in adding a hint of sweetness to Vietnamese beef dishes.
3. Shrimp Paste
Though not commonly used than fish sauce or oyster sauce, having shrimp paste in your pantry is handy when you want to cook Vietnamese recipes. Certain dishes from the country need the sharp, rich flavor and the strong smell of the pink-gray shrimp paste. While it’s more used for sautées and marinades, shrimp paste is popularly used in bún riêu, a traditional Vietnamese crab noodle soup, with tomato broth, pork neck bones, and rice noodles.
4. Jasmine Rice
As with most other Southeast Asian countries, rice is hardly in Vietnamese cuisine, being served on the table in almost every meal. The flagrant and floral Jasmine rice is the particular choice of rice, as it provides a unique flavor while also deliciously completing umami-rich Vietnamese broths, sauces, and dishes. Jasmine rice is somewhat drier and not glutinous compared to sushi rice or typical white rice.
5. Pickled Vegetables
Called do chua, which means “sour stuff” in the local language, pickled veggies is a common sight in Vietnamese households. It’s placed in jars using any type of vegetable, but more commonly carrots, cabbage, mustard greens, radish, and cauliflowers. These pickled vegetables from Vietnam are soaked in distilled vinegar, water, salt, and sugar, making them relatively sweeter compared to other ones you’ll taste in other parts of the world. It’s a perfect side dish, bringing in tang, sweetness, and brightness amidst the saltiness and spiciness of the main dishes.
6. Rock Sugar
Rock sugar is more preferred than regular granulated sugar as it adds a distinct nutty sweetness to many Vietnamese dishes. It’s commonly used in flavored broths like pho, a soup dish made of rice noodles, meat, and herbs, served in households, restaurants, and street stalls across the country. Rock sugar simply adds balance and harmony to the other tastes present in Vietnamese dishes.
7. Rice Noodles
If there’s no rice on the table, expect to see rice noodles as the substitute. Vietnamese uses two types of rice noodles: flat rice noodles and rice vermicelli. Flat rice noodles are available in varying widths and thicknesses, mainly used in noodle soups. The thinner, string-shaped, and versatile rice vermicelli can be found in cold noodle soups and spring rolls. Other noodles they used include tapioca noodles, egg noodles, and glass noodles, all used in special, delicious recipes.
8. Fresh Herbs
Vietnamese cooking won’t be complete with fresh herbs like green onions, cilantro, mink, Thai basil, perilla, and rice paddy herb. They are used as a garnish, incorporated in noodle soups, or added in a variety of appetizers. Regardless of the recipe and its originating region, expect to see every meal requiring a plate of chopped herbs adding fragrance, crunch, and unique flavors.
9. Fried Shallots
Fried shallots are a usual ingredient in many Vietnamese dishes, adding a delightful nutty, onion flavor. It’s available in local grocery stores and supermarkets, but you can quickly make them by chopping shallots and cooking them in oil in low heat until they turn golden hue. Known locally as hanh phi, fried shallots provide the crunch and savoriness and also serve as a perfect condiment to any noodle, soup, salad, or rice dish.
10. Bird’s Eye Chili
Vietnamese are not outrightly spicy compared to Thai, Korean, and Indian food. Yet, bird’s eye chile is always an option for those people who really love spicy food. It’s often sliced and placed in a small ramekin, mixed with shrimp paste or fish sauce, or used for making tuong ot (tomato garlic chili paste). Families in Vietnam usually grow bird’s eye chilies in their homes or backyards, picking them when necessary.
11. Sambal Oelek
Sambal Oelek is a special chili paste, similar to Thai sriracha. It’s made from a mixture of chili peppers, with ginger, shrimp paste, garlic, scallion, shallot, lime juice, vinegar, and palm sugar as secondary ingredients. While it provides extra spiciness, Vietnam’s sambal oelek is less sugary and vinegary, resulting in a more balanced sharpness. As such, it perfectly complements other essential ingredients like rice, pickled vegetables, and fish sauce.
Cardamom is an essential spice in numerous authentic and ethnic Vietnamese soups and broths. Locals usually dry them over open flames, giving it a unique smoky and camphoric flavor. Black cardamom is used for dishes requiring a sharp, distinctive aroma and taste, while green cardamom is intended for those looking for a subtler flavor.
Another key spice in Vietnamese cuisine is black peppercorns. Cultivated in the country since the 4th century, it’s little wonder that Vietnam is among the leading producers of black peppercorns in the world. This spice is sprinkled nearly everywhere, adding a pleasant floral and spicy aroma and a satisfying kick at the end of the mouth. It’s best enjoyed in a dipping sauce called muoi tieu chanh, where it’s blended with salt and lime juice. It’s best for chicken and seafood, providing zip, freshness, and enhancing the flavors of food.
Cinnamon from Vietnam is different from the widely exported Indonesian variety. The Vietnamese cinnamon has a bigger bark and is incredibly sweeter and spicier than the latter. It’s used in broths and soups, providing an underlying warm, sweet fruity taste. One of the best in the world, a stick of Vietnamese cinnamon is often enough to make an entire pot more flavorful.
Lemongrass is used a lot in Vietnamese cuisine. It’s either chopped finely and sprinkled into dishes for a lovely texture and fragrance, or added and simmered in stews, curries, soups, and broths for a bright, citrusy flavor and aroma, something special that will anyone tasting the dish wanting some more.
Vietnamese cuisine is more special with these essential ingredients, with each helping provide a distinct flavor to the country’s best dishes. Just make sure your kitchen is stocked with these staples, and you can quickly get authentic flavors in your meals. Happy cooking!