Cooking Vietnamese food doesn’t have to be hard, all you need are these staples in your pantry. After the seeing the painful Top Chef Vietnamese challenge last week, I’m on a mission to share how simple and delicious Vietnamese food is. You would think that the cheftestants would research New Orleans’ cuisine and food history before coming on the show. They would have been better prepared for the Vietnamese food challenge.
Enough ranting about Top Chef. Here are my pantry essentials that I use almost every time I cook Vietnamese food. (Some links are affiliate links.)
1. Fish sauce (Nước mắm). This potent sauce is used sparingly, but provides the umami for most of Vietnamese dishes. It’s either added to the dishes itself during cooking or made into the ubiquitous nước chấm (a sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar) that is used for dipping egg rolls or to dress a bowl of bún, a cold noodle dish. My favorite brand is Three Crabs Brand Fish Sauce.
2. Vermicelli rice noodles (Bún). These thin round rice noodles are used in many Vietnamese dishes: Bún, the cold noodle dish topped with meats, sprouts and fresh herbs; spring rolls, where the noodles are encased in a soft rice wrapper; hot noodle soups like the spicy, beefy Bún Bò Huế. I try to buy the brown rice version when I can find it, but usually I get Dragonfly Extra Large Jiangxi Rice Vermicelli.
3. Rice (gạo). Rice is served at almost every meal. If we’re not eating rice we’re eating noodles made from rice. In fact, the Vietnamese language has different terms for rice, based on its form: uncooked, growing in the fields, cooked. My mom has always served jasmine white rice, but I’ve switched to short-grain brown rice (in my effort to eat more whole grains). I always have short-grain brown rice and sweet (sticky) rice (gạo nếp) in my pantry.
4. Hoisin sauce. If you’ve gone out for phở, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, you’ve probably squirted this thick sweet sauce into your broth. Not only is it good in soups, but it’s the base for my spring roll sauce. For some reason my friends call it “peanut sauce” because a lot of Viet restaurants blend in the crushed peanuts instead of garnishing the sauce with it. Hoisin is also great for making marinades or Asian-style BBQ sauces. Buy it in the jar because the squeeze bottles are a bit watered down. I prefer Koon Chun Hoisin Sauce.
5. Spices: five spice powder, whole star anise and cloves. Ok, so I’m cheating a little bit. While there are other spices used in the Vietnamese kitchen, these are the ones I use the most. Most of us don’t buy star anise or whole cloves unless it’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas. You’ll need those two to make a fragrant phở broth (yes, you can make phở at home). Five spice powder is also used often in Chinese cooking so now you’ve got a multi-tasker in the kitchen! (For inexpensive spices, check the international aisle in your grocery store.)
I’m also going to assume that you already have soy sauce and Sriricha in your pantry. (If you don’t, you better get on it! There might be a Sriracha shortage soon.) Years ago none of my friends had heard of Sriricha, the garlic chili sauce, but now I see the “Rooster Sauce” everywhere, even in casual dining restaurants. We’ve come a long way.
With those 5 basics, you can start cooking a repertoire of Vietnamese dishes. It’s worth the investment. You should be able to find most of these items in your Asian market or online. Need help with recipes? My go-to Vietnamese cookbooks are Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen and Authentic Vietnamese Cooking: Food from a Family Table by Corinne Trang (sadly out of print but you can buy used copies).
What are your favorite Vietnamese dishes?
If you liked this post, check out my recipe for Cold Brewed Vietnamese Ice Coffee.