Editor's Note: To non-SA Goons With Spoons visitors. This is a transcription of a forum post by Mich and others. It is presented here as a learn to cook Vietnamese food portal/guide and may grow over time. The original post is full of questions, suggestions and back and forth discussions. This kind of thing is sadly not quite as fun on the more static wiki format but I've done my best to recreate what I can here.If you're interested in keeping up with us all more often I suggest registering at forums.somethingawful.com and coming to visit us in the GoonsWithSpoons forum.
As of right now this is NOT meant as a catch all category for vietnamese recipes (see The Vietnamese Category for that)
And now, over to Mich
I grew up eating Vietnamese food so my preferences are very much biased, but it is my favorite cuisine. There is such a variety of flavors, textures, styles. There are three main regions dividing the cuisine of Vietnam. Northern Vietnam is more traditional and is the birthplace of one of the more well-known Vietnamese dishes, phở. Central Vietnam is not too familiar to me except for the city of Huế where you will find my favorite soup, bún bò Huế. Finally, there is the South where you'll find a greater variety of ingredients and spices, more use of ingredients such as curry powder and coconut milk. Who knows why I'm even mentioning these regional distinctions because I don't know where every dish comes from.
I am by far not an expert. While I did absorb some things watching my family cook when I was young, I did not develop much interest in cooking until my college years and only started cooking Vietnamese food when I realized that living away from home, if I wanted to eat the foods I love, I needed to cook them myself. Over the years I've become comfortable with making a good number of dishes but I'm still figuring out the right balance for others. Any other Vietnamese cooks here, please chime in and share.
Recipes and Guides
Ingredients & Flavors
Here is a very abbreviated list. I'll add to it as I add more recipes to the thread.
Fish sauce (Nước mắm)
Fish sauce is crucial in Vietnamese cooking and is used to season dishes when cooking as well as to make dipping sauces. It is used to add saltiness as well as a distinct umami flavor. Vegetarians wishing to cook Vietnamese food will find it difficult to find dishes that do not use fish sauce. I've used thin soy sauce as a replacement when I've cooked for vegetarians and it's resulted in tasty food but at least for me the flavor difference is very noticeable. Fish sauce is made from fermented fish in salt and Squid brand is my go-to middle tier brand because the ingredient list consists of only anchovies and salt. Three Crabs is another good brand though you'll usually find some other items on the ingredient list as are generally brands made in Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết. Like high quality olive oil is the first cold press, good quality fish sauce is the first extraction from the anchovies, so that is what you are looking for in high quality fish sauce. The fish sauce will be reddish amber in hue and clear, and not overly salty. Thai fish sauces are generally saltier than Vietnamese fish sauce.
Rice is the staple of the Vietnamese diet. Most home meals are eaten family style, consisting of rice, some sort of meat dish, one or two vegetables, and often a clear broth soup (canh) that is spooned over the rice. Long-grain jasmine rice is the everyday rice eaten with these meals. I'm not sure how widely available it is, but if you don't have an Asian grocer near you, most standard markets I've been to carry Mahatma brand which is decent. Boiled rice (in a pot or in a rice cooker) is the most common preparation method.
Rice noodles (Bún)
Rice noodles are another common starch staple and come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The most common is the vermicelli size noodle which is thin and round. To cook, add to boiling water for 3-5 minutes, though some brands do take longer to cook, so just keep testing the noodle until it is cooked. Drain and rinse with cool water. There are some thicker varieties that take longer to cook but the thin noodles are what you will use in most cases.
Hoisin sauce (Tương đen)
Chinese influence brought this soybean paste to Vietnam. It is used mainly for dipping sauces such as for rice paper rolls and for meats in phở. Standard supermarkets often carry hoisin but the ones I've tried have been bland. I like the brand pictured below.
Fine shrimp paste (Mắm tôm/Mắm ruóc)
This pungent paste is grayish-purplish in color and made from fermented shrimp and is used much like fish sauce, to flavor and season dishes. Many jars say it is fish sauce or fish paste for some reason though the ingredients clearly say shrimp.
Everyone knows this hot sauce right, or rather the Huy Fong brand?
Chili garlic sauce
Huy Fong makes another hot sauce that is not as smooth as sriracha.
Dried shrimp (Tôm khô)
Small shrimp that are dried and have a nice pungent flavor. They are bright orange and most asian groceries will have them in freeze dried packages. They may be at room temperature, in the refrigerated section, or the frozen section, depending on the store, though they are dehydrated so they do not need refrigeration. I do store mine in the freezer though, for freshness.
Chinese sausage (Lạp xưởng)
You will find a lot of Chinese influence in Vietnamese cuisine. These sausages are usually found in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores. They will be red and look wrinkly.
This list is not complete but I think most people will only use the first four in the list anyway.
- Fresh lemongrass is a key flavor in many Vietnamese dishes. I always keep some in my freezer. I buy a few large stalks of lemongrass, peel off the outer layer, then cut off a small bit of the base and the upper two-thirds of the stalk. The upper part of the stalk is very tough, so I freeze these sections whole to add to soups to steep and flavor the soup. I roughly chop the remaining part of the lemongrass and mince finely in the food processor, then freeze so that it's ready to use.
- Cilantro is usually coarsely chopped and paired with sliced scallions to top soups.
- In Vietnamese cooking, herbs are most often eaten raw, frequently served as an accompanient to the food on a separate herbs and vegetables platter. Basil is the most common and is distinct from the sweeter basil used in Italian cuisine and can be identified by the slight anise/licorice flavor. The stalk may be purplish in color.
- Spearmint is another herb used in raw herb platters, usually with crispy spring rolls. Thai basil and mint are the two herbs that will be easiest for most people to find. Following are some more herbs that have their distinct uses and flavors but unfortunately cannot always be found.
- This herb has a stronger, earthier flavor than cilantro and I am not sure if all cilantro haters would like it but a cilantro hating friend of mine did not mind culantro. It is most commonly used in the herb platter for phở.
- This broad, serrated leaf has a lemony flavor.
- This herb is similar in shape and size to Vietnamese balm but one side is purplish red in color. It has a very strong flavor so is paired with boldly flavored dishes. There is a variation that is purple on both sides with a more delicate flavor.
- Though called Vietnamese coriander, this herb bears no resemblance to cilantro. It has a distinct spiciness. The leaves are smaller and thinner than basil.
Vietnamese Staples and Dipping Sauces
Prepared fish sauce (nước chấm)
This sauce is the sauce in Vietnamese food. Countless dishes use this sauce either to dip or to pour over the dish. Nước chấm is the quintessential Southeast Asian sauce in that it hinges on balancing salty (fish sauce), sour (lime juice), sweet (sugar), and spicy (chile peppers/garlic).
- 1 Tb fish sauce
- 1 Tb lime juice
- 1 Tb sugar
- 1 tsp garlic chili sauce (or more) or minced bird chile
- 1 garlic clove minced, optional
- water to taste
For some dishes, some people like to put very thin strips of carrot and daikon radish in the sauce. Looks pretty and also adds some crunch when you use it.
Directions: Mix to combine. I usually mix all the ingredients except for water, then add enough water to make 1 cup. You can then taste and add more of any one ingredient to adjust the balance to your taste or to better match the food the sauce is being served with.
The color of the sauce will be a light amber, a little more orange if using the prepared garlic chili sauce.
Prepared hoisin sauce/peanut sauce
There are many variations of this sauce, with the base flavor being hoisin sauce. It is used for dipping rice paper rolls.
- 3 Tb water
- 1 Tb peanut butter
- 1-2 Tb hoison sauce
- 1 tsp cornstarch in 1 Tb water
- Ground peanuts
- Garlic chili sauce to taste
Directions: Combine water, peanut butter and hoisin sauce and bring to a simmer. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until sauce is thick. Serve topped with chopped chili and peanuts. Instead of thickening with cornstarch, you can also try thickening with applesauce, which gives a nice bit of fruitiness to the peanut sauce. This is how I prefer it. You can add a bit of sugar to taste too. For a quick sauce, sometimes I just mix equal parts hoisin sauce and applesauce.
Pickled carrot and daikon radish (Đồ chua)
This condiment is served with a variety of Vietnamese dishes, particularly grilled meats. It keeps well in the fridge for several weeks so is handy to keep around to throw together a quick Vietnamese-inspired meal.
- 1 - 1.5 cups carrot, jullienned
- 1 - 1.5 cups Daikon radish, jullienned
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 cup vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1. Toss the vegetables with the 2 tsp of salt and sugar. Let it sit in a colander for 30-60 minutes for the liquid to drip out. Rinse the vegetables, then press gently to squeeze out excess water.
- 2. Mix together the 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, and 1/2 cup sugar until sugar is dissolved.
- 3. Place vegetables in a jar or your desired vessel and fill with the solution. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes before eating but at least two hours is ideal. Once you make your first batch, you can decide if you like it sweeter or more sour and adjust the vinegar and sugar accordingly.
Scallion oil (Mở hằnh)
This garnish is very simple but adds a really great flavor and richness to a number of Vietnamese dishes.
- 1/2 - 1 cup scallions, sliced
- 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola
Heat the oil until it is very hot, take off heat, and stir in the scallions. It will sizzle a lot and settle down, and the onions should be a vibrant green. Keep in the refrigerator for up to a week, just bringing back to room temperature when using.