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Vietnamese pantry

Ingredients from a Vietnamese kitchen.

Vietnamese cuisine is celebrated for its fresh flavors, delicate balance of herbs and spices, and the harmonious blend of textures that create dishes both comforting and exhilarating.

Bamboo shoots: The tender, pale yellow, edible initial growths of the bamboo plant. They can be found fresh in Asian grocery stores when in season, although they are most commonly bought canned. Before using, make sure to drain and rinse them.

Bean sprouts: The young shoots of germinated beans, most commonly from mung beans or soybeans. They boast a crunchy texture and a mild, slightly nutty flavor.

Bird's eye chili (ot hiểm): Small but fiery, these chilies are used to add heat to dishes, sauces, and condiments. They can be used fresh, dried, or pickled, allowing chefs and home cooks to adjust the spice level to their preference.

Bok choi: Also known as pak choi, is a type of Chinese cabbage with crisp, white stalks and lush, dark green leaves. It offers a mild, slightly sweet flavor and is a staple in Asian cuisine, perfect for stir-fries, soups, and steamed dishes.

Coconut milk (nước cốt dừa): Extracted from the grated flesh of mature coconuts, coconut milk adds creaminess and a subtle sweetness to curries, desserts, and beverages. It's a key ingredient in creating the rich textures and flavors in Vietnamese cuisine.

Coriander (rau mùi or ngò): A herb with a fresh, citrusy flavor, cilantro is used liberally in Vietnamese cuisine as a garnish or ingredient in salads, soups, and noodle dishes. Its leaves and stems are both used to add a burst of freshness.

Garlic (tỏi): Essential for its pungent flavor, garlic is used in almost every Vietnamese dish, either minced, sliced, or as a paste. It's a foundational ingredient that adds depth and aroma to the cuisine.

Ginger (gừng): A knobby, aromatic root used fresh, dried, or powdered, ginger adds a spicy, warm flavor to soups, marinades, and tea. It's valued for both its culinary and medicinal properties in Vietnamese culture.

Fish mint (diếp cá): Also known as "heartleaf," this herb has a fishy taste and is used in salads, soups, and as a garnish. It's distinctive for its heart-shaped leaves and unique flavor, which adds an unusual twist to traditional dishes.

Fish sauce (nước mắm): A pungent, salty liquid made from fermented fish, fish sauce is indispensable in Vietnamese cooking, used as a seasoning in dishes or as a base for dipping sauces. Its umami-rich flavor adds depth and complexity to Vietnamese cuisine.

Gai lan or gai lam: Also known as Chinese broccoli, adds both texture and a distinct taste to a variety of dishes. Characterized by its long, thick stems and large, flat leaves. It has a slightly bitter taste and is often used in stir-fries, steamed dishes, or served with oyster sauce to enhance its flavor.

Galangal (riềng): Celebrated for its distinctive flavor and aromatic qualities. It is integral to a variety of dishes, from soups and curries to marinades, imparting a sharp, slightly citrusy taste that distinguishes it from its relatives like ginger.

Ginger: This versatile spice not only enhances the taste of meat, poultry, and seafood but also contributes to the overall aromatic profile of Vietnamese culinary traditions. It is used in powdered form.

Hoisin sauce: This versatile sauce (made from fermented soy beans, onions and garlic) serves as a glaze for meats, an additive to stir-fries, and a base for dipping sauces, contributing complex flavors to a wide array of dishes.

Kecap manis: Characterized by its thick, syrupy consistency and a complex flavor profile that balances sweetness with a hint of umami. It's crafted from a mixture of palm sugar and soy sauce, often enriched with various spices to enhance its depth of flavor. This versatile condiment is essential in Indonesian cuisine.

Lemongrass (sả): A fragrant herb with a lemony scent and a hint of ginger, lemongrass is used to flavor a variety of dishes, from soups and curries to grilled meats. It's typically finely chopped or bruised to release its aromatic oils.

Lime (chanh): Lime juice is used extensively in Vietnamese cuisine to add a bright, acidic touch to dishes, dressings, and drinks. It's a crucial component in creating the balance of flavors that Vietnamese food is known for.

Mint (rau menta): There are several varieties of mint used in Vietnamese cooking, each adding a cool, refreshing flavor to salads, noodle dishes, and beverages. It's a key herb that contributes to the fresh taste characteristic of the cuisine.

Mizuna: A leafy green vegetable used for its mild, slightly peppery flavor, reminiscent of mustard greens. It features slender white stems and bright or deep green, serrated leaves, making it a visually appealing addition to salads, soups, and stir-fries.

Noodles: Vietnamese cuisine uses a variety of noodles like cellophane noodles, dried rice nooclles, fresh rice noodles, hokkien noodles, rice vermicelli or Singapore noodles.

Oyster sauce: A thick, dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt, and sometimes soy sauce, thickened with cornstarch. It has a unique taste that combines the savory umami flavor of oysters with a subtle sweetness and richness, making it a staple in Asian cuisine. This sauce is commonly used to enhance the flavor of stir-fries, marinades, and as a topping for vegetables and meats, adding depth and complexity to dishes.

Palm sugar: A natural sweetener derived from the sap of various types of palm trees, including the coconut palm and the date palm. It is processed into a granular form or solid cakes, boasting a rich caramel-like flavor that is less sweet than refined white sugar, with subtle hints of smokiness. 

Rice (gạo): The foundation of Vietnamese cuisine, rice is a versatile grain used in various forms, from steamed white rice served as a side dish to rice noodles (bún) and rice paper (bánh tráng) used in rolls. It's a staple food that provides the base for many meals, symbolizing sustenance and life in Vietnamese culture.

Rice paper sheets (bahn tráng): Thin, edible wrappers made from a mixture of rice flour, water, and sometimes a hint of salt, which are spread thinly and then dried. They are rehydrated to become pliable and then filled with ingredients like shrimp, vegetables, herbs, and meats becoming spring rolls, rice rolls and other dishes.

Rice vinegar (giấm gạo): Made from fermented rice or rice wine, rice vinegar is milder than most Western vinegars and is used to add acidity to dishes, dressings, and pickles. It's essential for balancing flavors in Vietnamese cooking.

Sambal oelek: A vibrant Indonesian chili paste that serves as a foundational condiment in many Southeast Asian cuisines. It is made by crushing fresh red hot chiles into a paste, typically using a mortar and pestle, and then seasoned with a little vinegar and salt to enhance its flavor and preserve it. This simple yet flavorful mixture is celebrated for its versatility, adding depth and heat to a wide array of dishes, from soups and sauces to marinades and dips, making it a beloved ingredient for those looking to infuse their cooking with a bold, spicy kick.

Shallots (hành tím): Smaller and sweeter than onions, with a hint of garlic flavor, shallots are often used in Vietnamese cooking for their mild and aromatic qualities. They are used both fresh and caramelized to add sweetness and complexity to dishes.

Tamarind (me): Used for its sour flavor, tamarind pulp is incorporated into sauces, soups, and marinades. It adds a tangy depth to dishes and is often balanced with sugar or honey in Vietnamese recipes.

Thai basil (húng quế): Different from the sweet basil used in Western cooking, Thai basil has a spicy, anise-like flavor and is often added to soups, stir-fries, and as a garnish. Its leaves are more resilient to cooking and add a distinctive aroma.

Tofu: Also known as bean curd, is a versatile food made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks of varying softness. It is a staple ingredient in many Asian cuisines and is celebrated for its ability to absorb flavors from other ingredients.

Wombok: Also known as Chinese cabbage or Napa cabbage, is a type of leafy vegetable. It is characterized by its large, cylindrical shape, with tightly packed light green or white leaves that have a slightly sweeter flavor compared to ordinary cabbage.

Wonton wrappers: Thin sheets of dough traditionally made from a simple mixture of flour, eggs, water, and salt. They are versatile in culinary applications, allowing them to be boiled, steamed, fried, or baked, and are commonly used to encase a variety of fillings, ranging from meats and seafood to vegetables and sweets. They are essential for making wontons and other dumplings, also used to make spring rolls.

This list represents the essential ingredients that form the backbone of Vietnamese cooking, each contributing its unique flavor and character to create the complex, vibrant dishes that define this cuisine. Stock these ingredients in your pantry and you will be able to prepare many Vietnamese recipes.