The Vietnamese pantry
It’s fun and exciting eating out occasionally. But many studies suggest that home cooking encourages healthier eating. When people cooked they prefer more fibre, fewer carbohydrates, and less sugar. I believe that cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. Home cooking can help minimise risk to the obesity epidemic. Cooking from scratch not only encourages healthier eating but can also help save money, and it may be better for the environment, especially if a home chef chooses sustainable ingredients when possible. The best reasons to cook at home are simple: it’s pleasurable and the results are often delicious.
So why are people taking to the kitchen less regularly? Perhaps because it requires planning. A spin through the drive-through or stroll down the chip aisle is tempting when the cupboards are bare. Thus, a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer can help make cooking on a regular basis easier and more enjoyable. The first step is to take stock of what’s already there.
To create delicious and authentic Vietnamese food, it’s important that you have a firm grasp on the essential ingredients listed below. The building blocks of Vietnamese flavours, they’re used to make dipping sauces and season foods. You can use this list as a shopping guide for stocking your Vietnamese pantry. Fish sauce, fresh herbs and rice noodles are so integral to our cuisine that I’ve provided additional information.
You can buy all the ingredients at Asian markets and possibly in well-stocked supermarkets and speciality stores. If you have access to an Asian market but don’t live near one, consider buying extra to stock up for later use. Many items (such as fish sauce and dried rice noodles) are shelf-stable and will last for some time. Fresh ingredients such as vegetables, aromatic roots, meats and seafood should be bought nearer to cooking time as possible.
Nearly all food products can go bad, and less-than-optimal conditions can speed up the process. Take inventory by examining and smelling grains, flours, oils, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Toss anything that looks bad, smells rancid, expired, or has lost colour or potency.
Then list what needs to be replaced and what additional staples will make cooking easier. Focus on items that can be incorporated into multiple meals. Once you build up even a modest pantry, cooking any food becomes infinitely less onerous.
Note: the expiration dates are estimated assuming that a pantry meets optimal conditions. Food can have a significantly shorter shelf life in warmer, brighter, and humid environments, such as a cupboard near the stove, hot pipes, heater, or refrigerator.
The Vietnamese prefer gạo thơm, the long-grain Jasmin variety. Asian market carries dozens of brands and the best way to select rice is to just try several and stick to those you like.
Glutinous rice (gạo nếp)
Sticky rice is used extensively in desserts and breakfast dishes. More dense and starchy than regular rice, it’s typically used to make puddings and fillings for banana leaf-wrapped cakes. Sticky rice is usually soaked in water overnight, before cooking.
Rice flour (bột gạo)
This flour is produced from ground rice and is used for making rice-paper wrappers, noodles and pancakes.
Rice paper (bánh tráng)
Rice papers are thin wrappers made from rice flour (sometimes in combination with tapioca starch), salt and water and are sun-dried on bamboo trays, which give them their distinctive pattern. They’re available in round, square and triangular shapes. When purchasing rice paper, look for packages with thin, translucent sheets. Avoid the thick, opaque ones.
Phở noodles (bánh phở)
These flat rice noodles are sold fresh and are best used on the day they are purchased. They only need to be heated in hot water briefly before being served.
Rice vermicelli noodles (bún)
Usually sold dry, these noodles are made from rice flour and need to be soaked in boiled water prior to use.
Phú Quốc fish sauce (nước mắm Phú Quốc)
Two areas for fine fish sauce in Việt Nam are Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết, but the best of the best, as widely agreed among Vietnamese come from Phú Quốc.
Pickled prawns (mắm tôm chua)
These small prawns are left in their shells, pickled I rice wine and then air-dried. After drying, they are marinated in sugar, galangal, garlic and chilli, and are sold in jars in most Asian supermarkets.
Annatto seeds (hạt điều)
These small red seeds come from a tree that was originally grown in South America. They are used mainly for colouring as they have very little flavour.
Bánh xèo flour (bột bánh xèo)
A prepared mixture of rice flour, self-rising flour and turmeric. Bánh xèo flour is used for making the popular Sài Gòn pancake.
Coconut milk (nước cốt dừa)
Coconut milk is produced by soaking grated coconut flesh in hot water. The milk is then extracted by squeezing the flesh through a fine cloth. Coconut milk is creamy in appearance and readily available in tins.
(We are using coconut milk in NamNam for D1. Crispy fried banana, D3. Chè bà ba, D6 Chè sweet sticky rice coconut ice cream) Cellophane noodles (miến,bún tàu)
These thin, white noodles are made from mung beans and become translucent once prepared. They are also referred to as mung-bean noodles or glass noodles. While they are considered to be rather bland on their own, they readily take on other flavours.
(We are using cellophane noodles in NamNam for S1. Crispy vegetarian imperial rolls, S4. Crispy imperial rolls)
Dried chestnuts (hạt dẻ khô)
The wrinkly, dried chestnut needs to be reconstituted before use. Dried chestnuts are import from China and feature in northern Vietnamese soups, salads and hotpots.
Dried Shiitake mushrooms (nấm đông cô)
These mushrooms are similar to dried Chinese mushrooms but are not as pungent. It’s an excellent addition to most stir-fries.
Dried Squid (mực khô)
Dried squid should be cardboard-thin, flat, amber in colour and coated in a speck of fine, white dust. It is used for its sweet, smoky, umami flavour and chewy texture in soups, salads and stir-fries.
Fermented prawns (mắm tôm)
A strong-smelling, violet-coloured sauce can be made from fermented prawns. This sauce is a key ingredient in Chả cá Lã Vọng and Bún bò Huế, and is also presented as a dipping sauce.
Goji berries (quả kỷ tử)
Also called wolfberries, these dried fruits from the Chinese boxthorn are considered to be a medicinal food. They are used for their anti-ageing benefits and to assist the immune system. Goji berries are often infused to make a tea or added to dishes for their tartness and liquorice flavour.
Jujube (táo tàu)
Also called red dates, these dried fruits come from a small bush that grown in the mountainous regions of China. They are often featured in dishes from northern Việt Nam, particularly around the New Year (Tết), as their red colour symbolises good luck.
Lotus leaf (lá sen)
The large, fan-shaped leaf of the lotus plant is a vibrant green when fresh. When dried, the lotus leaf turns pale, with a faint aroma. Dry leaves need to be reconstituted with water before use.
Mung beans (đậu xanh)
This small bean in green husk becomes yellow once peeled and split. Bean sprouts are the shoots of the mung-bean plant.
Rice vinegar (giấm gạo)
This clear vinegar is made from fermented sticky rice. It is slightly milder than European vinegar and less sweet than Japanese rice vinegar.
Sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)
The rice crackers topped with white or black sesame seeds are commonly sold in Asian supermarkets. They should be grilled or deep-fried, prior to being served with a meal. Usually, as a condiment to salads and noodles, they also make a great snack on its own.
Tapioca flour (bột sắn)
This very fine flour is made from the root of the cassava plant. Cassava is originally from the US, but is now common throughout South-East Asia. It is favoured for its high starch content.
Wood ear mushrooms (nấm mèo)
These mild-tasting black fungi are used mainly for their crunchy and chewy texture. They can be purchased fresh or dried.
Yellow rock sugar (đường phèn)
Đường phèn can be white or golden. Yellow (golden) rock sugar is preferable and is a lumps of crystallized sugar made from unprocessed sugarcane.
It’s also one of the secret ingredients for making a phở broth beyond the ordinary. This sugar is a speciality of Quảng Ngãi province, a major sugar cane growing region. Rock sugar still has the delicate, smoky flavour from the cane, which is why it’s so good in phở. It works for Huế Beef Noodle soup and for other soups too. In the West, rock sugar can be purchased from most Asian markets. Don’t confuse it with the brown or golden discs of palm sugar. (These are made from Toddy Palms, and have a different flavour.)
Fragrant herbs (rau thơm)
The Vietnamese eat an enormous amount of fresh herbs. A family meal often consists of a table salad, which includes lettuce and different varieties of mint and sweet basil. To eat, diners just snip off the sprigs and add to their bowls or plates, creating little salads as they go. Fresh herbs are also used as garnishes and accompaniments to soup, salads, and noodles dishes.