For those looking to explore different world cuisines, Vietnamese food is a great place to start. It uses everything from tofu to beef to shrimp, so there is something to satisfy every taste at your table. Communal dining is a natural part of Vietnamese cuisine, so it’s always a good idea to serve the meal with a variety of sauces, fresh herbs, and sides to enhance any dining experience—large or small.
The best part is, today’s grocery stores carry more products that align with the ever-growing demand for global food. Once hard-to-find ingredients are now readily available at your local market. If you can’t find what you need in the global foods aisle, check out the health food section, where you’re bound to find specialty ingredients like rice noodles and coconut milk.
Ask an Expert! Andrea Nguyen
To learn more about exploring Vietnamese food in my own home, I turned to an expert in Vietnamese cooking, celebrated cookbook author Andrea Nguyen.
I spent some time talking with her via telephone from her California home and reading her most recent book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, where she shares her favorite ingredients, tools, and techniques to get you started cooking flavorful Vietnamese dishes in your home, too.
Essential Ingredients of Vietnamese Cooking
A key difference between Vietnamese cooking and Western cooking is assembly. Part of the dining experience is building every bite at the table—one person may add a sauce that the other person doesn’t. Another may add a bundle of fresh herbs, while someone else adds only a sprig or two. Offering variety and allowing those at your table to express their own tastes with what you’ve offered is part of the experience.
Vietnamese food is rich with chilies, fresh herbs, lemongrass, and bold umami flavors from meat, sauces, and cooking techniques.
- Chiles: Andrea recommends keeping Thai, jalapeño, Fresno or serrano chilies on hand. If you’re worried you won’t use them up in time, just freeze them!
- Fresh Herbs: Cilantro and mint are considered essentials, but if you have basil on hand—Thai or otherwise—it adds a nice touch.
- Ginger: Look for ginger with few knobby nooks and crannies—it's easier to clean. It will keep for about a month in the fridge.
- Lemongrass: Andrea recommends fresh lemongrass when available. If you do find it, get enough to freeze, so you have some on hand. It will keep for up to three months.
SPICES & CONDIMENTS
- Spices: Chinese 5 Spice Powder and Madras-style curry powder are at the top of Andrea’s list.
- Chili Garlic Sauce: You can find a recipe to make your own Chili Garlic Sauce at home in Vietnamese Food Any Day, but if you want to buy it pre-made look for one that has a nice balance of heat and tang. Andrea recommends Huy Fong.
- Fish Sauce: Fish sauce adds oomph to a dish. It’s like an umami flavor bomb. Not all fish sauces are made the same, however. Andrea’s favorite brand is Red Boat, while Three Crabs and Megachef round out her top three picks.
NOODLES & RICE
You'll find everything from wheat, rice, and bean noodles in Vietnamese cuisine. If you can’t find them in the global foods aisle of your store, then check out the gluten-free or health food section.
- Flat Rice Noodles, Rice Paper, Jasmine Rice, and Round Rice Noodles: Check out the Three Ladies brand. You can also find it at Cost Plus World Market or other Asian markets.
- Chinese Wheat Noodles: Look for Golden Dragon and Wel-Pac brands.
Vietnamese dishes span a wide range of proteins—everything from tofu to beef, pork, and shrimp can be used—sometimes interchangeably.
- Tofu: Tofu is like a flavor sponge, taking on the spices and sauces of the dish. It comes in different levels of firmness, so check the recipe to make sure you’re picking up the one you need. If you’re new to tofu, don’t worry; it’s easier to work with than you might think.
- Shrimp: Shrimp can be huge or tiny. They are generally sold by the count, and per pound. For example, when you see 36/40 on a pound of shrimp it means you will receive between 36 to 40 shrimp per pound. You can buy pre-peeled shrimp, but you will have better results if you peel and devein the shrimp yourself.
- Chicken: This is such a versatile ingredient. If you’re going to play with Vietnamese flavors and chicken, Char Siu Chicken is a great place to start.
One of my favorite things about Andrea’s book is how she makes it comfortable for the novice to experiment with Vietnamese cooking styles and flavors. The "Essential Equipment" section of her book is noticeably lacking in extravagant kitchen devices.
She recommends common kitchen tools such as a large pot, a grill pan or outdoor grill, and a skillet.
Once you cook your way through a few recipes, you might realize you’d like to upgrade some of your kitchen equipment. If that’s the case, Andrea recommends a carbon steel wok (because it’s light and conducts heat well) and a simple bamboo steamer.