It's a waste not, want not mentality in Vietnam, which means there are some offally good dishes to try. Claire Dodd tells you how to recreate them.
For the Vietnamese, it's all about balance which is why food from the country is regarded as some of the healthiest in the world. The country's 'head-to-tail' eating culture may leave even hardy carnivores feeling they've bitten off more than they can chew. But for every still-beating snake's heart, there's a delicious vegetable broth. Here's a guide to the most commonly used basic ingredients to get you started. No matter how brave you're feeling.
Vietnam boasts 3000km of coastline, so it's little surprise that fish and seafood are firm favourites. A strong Buddhist influence means there's also plenty of meat-free dishes packed full of flavour to keep vegetarians happy. And for those that like their fast food, the good news is nothing is cooked for very long. Vegetables are consumed raw, blanched or stir fried, and broths and soup-based dishes keep things light as texture is prized as much as a balance of flavours.
Chinese and French occupation has certainly influenced the cuisine, but Vietnam has a style all of its own. The long, narrow country has marked regional variations in cooking styles, but herbs and vegetables are generally used much more than spices to give flavour. And the final golden rule? To be authentically Vietnamese, food must be as fresh as you can get it. Though to be totally authentic it would still be breathing as you pass it through the check-out.
The first thing to stock up on is fish sauce, and you’re going to need a lot of it. Derived from fermented fish, the sauce is added to the majority of Vietnamese cooking, whether as part of a sauce, broth or marinade, to give dishes a salty sourness. It can also be used as a condiment. Oyster sauce is sometimes used alongside it, with a thick, sticky texture that makes it ideal for marinades.
Garlic, ginger and lemongrass are the key flavourings you're likely to need the most. Likewise, fresh basil and especially coriander are staple ingredients, with coriander often used as a garnish for most dishes from soups to salads. And you won't get far without either spring onions or shallots which are used as garnishes or to bulk-up and add flavour to everything from light soups to spring rolls.
Shrimp and save
Lesser used ingredients, but still worth investing in are shrimp paste and rice wine vinegar, which can be bought from most large supermarkets. Sesame oil and sesame seeds, chilli sauce, coconut cream are useful to keep handy too as is a pinch of cinnamon.
Nothing goes to waste with this style of cooking, especially bones which are prized as a source of calcium. Though in some Vietnamese dishes the bones themselves are eaten, a good way to incorporate them into your dishes is to use them as a stock or basis for a broth. Simmer with salt, fish sauce, sugar, dried shrimps and vegetables such as carrots (ref to clear pork noodle broth recipe).
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