5 essential ingredients in Vietnamese kitchen

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By Hang Nguyen

Welcome you all to the series ‘’Essentials in a Vietnamese kitchen’’, where you can find interesting information about Vietnamese kitchens and cooking. Vietnamese food has amazed the world with its distinctive flavour thanks to our creative combination of different ingredients, spices and seasonings. However, there are 5 ingredients that are always found in every Vietnamese house.

Fish sauce as a dipping

There are a couple of ways to use fish sauce: marinating before cooking, seasoning during cooking, and as a dipping when you eat.

We can say fish sauce is the foundation of many Vietnamese dishes and the soul of Vietnamese cuisine. Many foreigners find it uncomfortable to smell because of its pungent and salty smell. However, when it is used as condiments or seasoning, it strengthens the flavour of a dish. 

There are a couple of ways to use fish sauce: marinating before cooking, seasoning during cooking, and as a dipping when you eat.
How do we Vietnamese choose high-quality fish sauce? We’d prefer a bottle with transparent and deep golden amber color. Additionally, we also check the nitrogen content of fish sauce, most of which is in the range of 20-30N while the ‘’first-class’’ is at 40N. 

Can you name some food that use fish sauce?

2. Soy sauce (Nước tương)

Maggie is one of the most common soy sauce brands in Vietnam

Contrary to fish sauce made from fermented anchovies or fish, soy sauce is traditionally fermented soybean paste. Thanks to this, soy sauce can be used in both savour and vegetarian dishes. 

However, similar to fish sauce, soy sauce is used in a variety of ways: as a marinade, a seasoning, and also as a dipping.

The interesting feature is that dishes which are supported by fish sauce are unlikely to match with soy sauce, and vice versa. For example, you can put some fish sauce into Pho, but never soy sauce! Or Hu tieu, a different kind of noodle soup made using pork is always served with soy sauce, but not fish sauce!

3. Oyster sauce (Dầu hào)

Oyster sauce used in a stir-fry dish

As its name, this sauce is made from oyster extracts and thickened by corn starch. Unlike two condiments above, it’s commonly used as necessary seasoning in stir-fry recipes. Be noted that to some strict vegetarians, they will use mushroom oyster sauce instead. The oyster sauce will help to give a brownish, velvety coat and bring a little sweetness and umami flavour for stir-fry dishes

4. Seasoning (Hạt nêm)

Seasoning - A magic soup enhancer

Well, we know all of the items listed above are seasonings, but we Vietnamese have a different type of seasoning. It’s powder-based, extracted from chicken or pork bones and even mushroom for vegetarians. In addition to salt, this kind of seasoning will be added both before cooking (in a marinade) and while cooking. This intensifies the umami flavour of any food, especially soup.

5. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) (Bột ngọt/Mì chính)

MSG - Do you think it somehow looks like sugar?

At the first glance, MSG resembles sugar for its white and crystal-like appearance, yet it’s not sweet at all. Similar to powder seasoning, MSG is also used as a food enhancer, helping accentuate savoury and umami flavour for food. However, the most important thing is that it is only added while cooking, not pre-cooking or when you eat. In fact, MSG is not as popular and widely-used as it was in the past since the advent of seasoning. Nevertheless, in some Vietnamese families, MSG is still preferred and mixed with seasoning. Besides, there is a popular belief that MSG causes side effects such as headache, thirsty feeling, or discomfort, without concrete scientific evidence. Therefore, it’s rather used in a proper amount and with caution.

Above are 5 must-have ingredients that we Vietnamese probably use everyday to create and enhance flavours for our meals. If you are curious about how exactly we use them to complement the food, just participate in BiziVietnam Vietnamese Cuisine Cooking Class to cook and taste delicious dishes!

Interested in making delicious Viet dishes?

Getting started with Vietnamese lifestyle, culture and tradition, learning to prepare Vietnamese food and drinks in the cooking class series organized by BiziVietnam.