Essential Vietnamese Ingredients

For most people, a change in season also brings a change in eating habits, with a switch to leafy greens and fresh herbs for the summer months. If you’re out of inspiration for warmer weather dishes, look no further than Vietnamese cuisine. Though diverse, it has one commonality as you travel from the mountains in the North end to the coastal cities of the South: an emphasis on freshness and vibrancy with the abundant use of herbs and vegetables, balanced with the funky flavours of fish sauce.

We sat down with Le Garçon Saigon’s head chef, Bao La, to talk about his summer pantry staples. From go-to Vietnamese herbs and crunchy vegetables, to fresh fruits and punchy dips, here is what you need:

Fresh herbs are vital to Vietnamese cooking.  Most traditional recipes call for the same few herbs as garnish again and again.

Vietnamese Mint – Rau Răm  

Rau Răm is considered the king of Vietnamese herbs as it complements the cuisine’s fundamental flavours. The aromatic, elongated bright green leaf has a punchy, peppery taste and makes a fragrant addition to salads and soups. At Le Garçon Saigon, I mainly use it in salads, or on top of grilled vegetables and seafood.

Perilla/shiso – Tía Tô   

Purple on one side and green on the other, tía tô is also known as Japanese shiso. A floral and aromatic herb with hints of cumin, tía tô has a bold, earthy taste. It’s a versatile, easy to use herb, which makes it one of my favourites. It has a pleasant, peppery taste, which makes it an enjoyable addition to salads.

Sawtooth coriander – Ngo Gai

Sawtooth coriander is stronger than regular coriander, and is oniony in taste. Best consumed raw, it goes well in rice paper rolls and its strong savoury flavour complements seafood and grilled beef. Beef and sawtooth coriander are the classic Vietnamese combo, as demonstrated in pho.

The tropical climate in Vietnam, along with rich, fertile soil in the Mekong Delta provide favourable conditions for growing various vegetables and fruits. 

Horn Chilli – Ớt Sừng

The horn chillies I use at Le Garçon Saigon are from Binh Chanh district, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. This particular variety has a pleasant, fruity taste, which makes it distinctive. They still have a kick to them, so aren’t for the faint-hearted. In Vietnam, chillies are sliced and served plain in dishes or mixed into nuoc mắm dipping sauce.

Okra – Đậu bắp

My preferred okra is from Long An province in southern Vietnam. The Vietnamese okra is a lot sweeter than other varieties and the texture is crispier, too.  Vietnamese grill houses cook it simply with shrimp salt and chilli paste. Its crunchy consistency makes it a nice addition to soups and stews.

Red dragon fruit – Thanh long đỏ

This particular Vietnamese variety from Vủng Tầu is bright pink on the inside. It is extremely fragrant and has a sweet, earthy taste with a soft texture. We’re currently using it in our summer dessert and serve it with a refreshing coconut ice cream ché.

Betel Leaf –  Lá lot

At Le Garçon Saigon, I use betel leaf in a dish called, bo la lop, or bo la lot in modern Vietnamese. Minced beef is combined with chillies and herbs and wrapped in the leaf before it hits the grill. Betel leaf is bitter and grassy when raw, but extremely aromatic when grilled. You can also use the leaf to wrap fresh salads. One of my favourite dishes in the summer months is my mom’s crab salad, wrapped in betel leaves.

Fish sauce is a prized staple in Vietnam, similar to wine in France and olive oil in Italy. The most famous variety comes from a small island, Phu Quoc, just off the coast of Cambodia, though there are hundreds of brands to choose from.

 Hanh Phuc Fish Sauce – Nước Mắm

This particular brand of fish sauce is made in the heart of Saigon, right next to my aunt’s house. Fish sauce is made by pressing, salting and fermenting seafood, and the result is a dark, amber coloured liquid. It’s one of the most prominent ingredients in Vietnamese cooking and I use it to marinate several of the grilled items on our menu. It’s super versatile because you can use it to season anything from a broth to a dipping sauce. If you’re in Vietnam and want to buy a bottle, you’ll have an abundance of choice, but pick one with a higher nitrate number. The higher the number, the more protein is present in the sauce and the punchier the flavour.

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