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5 Essential Vietnamese Spices
Vietnamese cuisine is known for its perfectly spiced soup broths. For the best flavor, buy whole spices, which oxidize much more slowly than their ground counterparts.
- Star anise: Star anise, known as đại hồi, is a star-shaped seedpod not related to anise. Star anise has a licorice-like flavor that takes on vanilla notes when heated in water. When its flavor compounds react with meat, they reveal layers of complexity, which is why star anise is essential to the perfect phở broth.
- Black peppercorns: Black pepper, or hạt tiêu, has been cultivated in Northern Vietnam since the fourth century. It can be sprinkled on almost anything, but it’s the star of muối tiêu chanh, a dipping sauce made of salt, ground black pepper, and lime juice. Try it with seafood or chicken.
- Cardamom: Black cardamom, or thảo quả, is usually dried over open flames, which gives it a smoky flavor, while green cardamom has a more subtle flavor. You can use both in broths; the large black pods are more commonly available in Southeast Asia, while the green kind is easy to find in the U.S.
- Turmeric: Turmeric powder adds a golden hue and earthy flavor to bánh xèo (sizzling crêpe) and Hanoi-style grilled fish with noodles (cha ca la vong). Learn more about turmeric in our guide here.
- Bird’s-eye chile: Bird’s-eye chile, known as ớt hiểm (“dangerous chile” in Vietnamese) is a very small, very spicy and fragrant chile that’s one of the most popular varieties in Vietnam. It’s part of ot chung, a fermented chile paste, and tương ớt, a boiled chile sauce made with tomatoes.
6 Essential Vietnamese Herbs
Almost every meal in southern Vietnam is accompanied by a plate of herbs. Some popular components of this herb salad include:
- Rau răm: Rau răm, also known as Vietnamese cilantro or Vietnamese mint, isn’t related to cilantro or mint. Rau răm looks and smells a little like mint, but it’s actually part of the buckwheat family. Its peppery leaves are common in salads and on herb platters.
- Thai basil: Thai basil, also known as rau quế or húng quế, is a purple-tinged basil cultivar with a slight anise-like flavor.
- Culantro: Culantro, also known as sawtooth herb or ngò gai, tastes like cilantro with the volume turned up. Native to Mexico and the Caribbean, you’ll find this large, flat leaf in both Southeast Asian and Latin American markets.
- Rice paddy herb: Rice paddy herb, or ngò om, has a citrusy flavor that’s reminiscent of cumin. Its sprigs have many green, oval-shaped leaves.
- Shiso: Shiso, also known as perilla or tía tô, has an earthy flavor somewhere in between basil and mint. Its large, fan-shaped leaves are beautiful to look at, especially the purple varieties.
- Mint: Vietnam is home to dozens of edible mint varieties, including peppermint (bạc hà), spicy peppermint (hung cay), spearmint (hung lui), water mint (hung dui; not actually in the mint family), and Vietnamese balm (kinh giới).
20 Vietnamese Pantry Staples
Multiple preparations of rice are central to Vietnamese cuisine, and a meal almost always includes certain ubiquitous vegetables and condiments.
- Rice paper: Rice paper, known as bánh tráng, is traditionally made from a batter of fermented rice that is steamed and then dried on woven mats. Now, most rice paper is made by machine and with the addition of tapioca to keep the paper stretchy. You may see rice paper labeled as “spring roll skin,” since it’s typically used to wrap both gỏi cuốn (salad rolls) and chả giò (deep-fried rolls).
- Rice noodles: Thin, round rice vermicelli noodles known as bún are made fresh in Vietnam, but they are easier to find dried in the U.S. Bún are used in cold noodle salad and gỏi cuốn (salad rolls). Bánh phở are flat noodles that come in multiple widths and are used in noodle soups. Bánh hỏi are fine, bundled noodles served alongside grilled meats for special occasions. Vietnamese rice noodles are usually cooked like pasta in plenty of boiling water.
- Rice flour: Rice flour’s most famous role in Vietnamese cuisine is to make bánh xèo, or sizzling crêpe, a popular street food. The rice flour gives bánh xèo a crispy texture you wouldn’t get with all-purpose flour alone.
- Jasmine rice: Jasmine rice, a long-grain variety that clumps together, is an ideal accompaniment to many Vietnamese dishes. Learn more about jasmine rice iin our guide here.
- Sticky rice: While most Vietnamese dishes are anchored by jasmine rice, sticky rice is used to make special dishes such as bánh chưng, rice cakes eaten during Tết (Vietnamese New Year).
- Water spinach: Water spinach, also known as water morning glory and rau muống, is often stir-fried with garlic or tossed into soups.
- Bitter melon: Bitter melon, known as khổ qua, looks like a bumpy cucumber, but it has a bitter flavor. Since it’s hollow inside, it’s often used in stuffed bitter melon soup.
- Lemongrass: Lemongrass is a perennial grass that grows in tropical climates. The tender, white core of the stalk adds a floral, citrus flavor to marinades for pork or tofu. Or, simply add minced lemongrass to a stir-fry.
- Bamboo shoots: In Vietnam, bamboo shoots are sold both fresh and dried for use in stir-fries, stews, and soups. For the best flavor, use fresh bamboo shoots and boil several times to remove any bitterness. Bamboo shoots should taste mild and earthy.
- Vine spinach: Vine spinach—also known as rau mồng tơi, Malabar spinach, and Ceylon spinach—is a tropical edible vine with heart-shaped, spinach-like leaves. Use it in soups such as canh mồng tơi nấu thịt bò bằm, or vine spinach and ground beef soup.
- Green onions: Green onions, also known as scallions, are used to make mở hành, or scallion oil, a garnish for rice noodles, rice paper rolls, and bánh xèo (sizzling crêpes).
- Mung bean sprouts: Mung bean sprouts, known as gia do, are used in bánh xèo (sizzling crêpes), rice paper rolls, soups such as phở. They have long, crunchy white tails and small yellow leaves. If you have dried mung beans, you can sprout them yourself.
- Tamarind: Tamarind is sold whole in dried blocks, or as a paste or concentrate. It adds a tangy flavor to canh chua (sweet and sour soup) and can also be served as a dipping sauce (nuoc cham me). Learn more about tamarind in our article here.
- Fish sauce: Fish sauce, called nước mắm, is made by combining fish (or shellfish) such as anchovies with sea salt; this mixture is then left to ferment in a closed container for at least one month. After fermenting, the liquid is poured off to yield first-press fish sauce. Lower-quality fish sauces are made by watering down, boiling, aging, and/or adding preservatives and flavorings (such as MSG, molasses, and caramel) to the sauce. In Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce adds saltiness and an umami kick to everything from fried rice to the dipping sauce nước chấm.
- Crispy fried shallots: Crispy fried shallots, or hành phi, are easy to make at home and can be used as a garnish for everything from soups to rice rolls to salads and rice porridge.
- Daikon and carrot pickle: Đồ chua is a condiment made from daikon radish julienned with carrots, vinegar, and sugar. It's used in bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette sandwiches), salads, and more.
- Oyster sauce: Oyster sauce is a thick, dark condiment traditionally made from an extract of boiled oysters. Most commercial versions add cornstarch as a thickening agent and MSG for umami. It's used in classic dishes like bò lúc lắc (shaking beef) and to tone down the bitterness of stir-fried greens.
- Fermented shrimp paste: Fermented shrimp paste, known as mam tom, is a pink-gray paste made from tiny shrimp that are dried and fermented with salt and sugar. Mam tom is more intense than fish sauce and is used in dishes like bún bò Huế (Hue-style beef noodle soup). It can also be made into shrimp sauce for dipping, diluted with lime juice and sweetened with sugar.
- Hoisin sauce: Hoisin sauce is a fermented soybean condiment originally from China. In Vietnam, it’s known as tương and used as a dipping sauce for pho meats and rice paper salad rolls.
- Soy sauce: Soy sauce, known as xì dầu, can be used as a seasoning or a dipping sauce for dumplings and more.
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