An indispensable staple of Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce is made from anchovies found in the Gulf of Thailand that are fermented for several months. It is used to season dishes in the kitchen and at the table as a condiment. The strong aroma takes some getting used to, but it smells stronger than it actually tastes. A dash of fish sauce is said to add umami—the Japanese term for a savory, meaty taste—to a dish.
Good-quality fish sauce is reddish-brown and clear. Avoid anything that looks dark or inky. If you don't use fish sauce regularly, keep the bottle in the refrigerator. Otherwise, it can be stored in a cool, dry cupboard.
Vietnamese cooks use rice vinegar—made from fermented rice—in many dishes, including pickled vegetables and salads. It has a mildly sweet flavor that regular white vinegar lacks. If you can't find it, use distilled white vinegar rather than white wine vinegar, which has an entirely different flavor.
Toasted Sesame Oil
This flavorful and fragrant oil should be used sparingly, as it can mask other ingredients in a dish. It is made from pressed and toasted sesame seeds, and has a rich golden color.
Made from soybean paste, garlic and sugar, this thick sauce is used primarily to sweeten dishes. It is dark brown in color and is often used in dipping sauces.
A staple ingredient throughout Southeast Asia, lemongrass imparts a unique tangy flavor to soups, stir-fries and even desserts. It is a type of grass and the long stalks will look very dry. Before using, remove the outer leaves and dark green leafy tops. The bulb—the white lower part of the stalk—can be crushed, ground and sliced.
Dried and fresh rice vermicelli noodles are used in a wide range of Vietnamese dishes. Fresh vermicelli is called bun and is served alongside curries or grilled meats. Dried vermicelli is extra-thin and should be soaked in lukewarm water for about 20 minutes, then boiled in hot water for just a few seconds. It is often added to spring-roll fillings.
Rice: Long-Grain and Sticky (Glutinous)
Both kinds of rice are frequently used in Vietnamese cooking. Jasmine is a good choice for long-grain rice—it's flavorful and fragrant, and the grains hold their shape when cooked. Glutinous short-grain rice, also referred to as sticky or sweet rice, is often used in Vietnamese desserts. The grains should be soaked for several hours, drained and then steamed.
Thai or Holy Basil
This fragrant herb has a distinct lemony flavor and narrow green leaves with hues of purple. It is one of the traditional herbs served alongside many Vietnamese dishes, most commonly the noodle soup pho. Italian basil has a completely different flavor and should not be used as a substitute.
Kaffir lime leaves are used to flavor Southeast Asian soups and stews. They are glossy and dark green in color and can be purchased fresh, frozen or dried. If you can't find lime leaves, substitute lime peel.
Where to Find:
Check the international aisle of your local grocery store for these ingredients.
For the best selection and a cultural experience, search out an Asian market in your area.