Vietnamese Pantry Staples

Ingredients You’ll Find in Every Authentic Vietnamese Kitchen

vietnamese ingredients on woven board Vietnamese Pantry Staples

Vietnamese cooking is all about balance. It’s a harmonious blend of the Eastern cosmological principles of yin and yang, and the Buddhist principles of the five natural elements that represent a meal: a dried dish (metal), herbs and vegetables (wood), fish sauce (fire), soup (water), and rice (earth).

Many essential herbs and vegetables provide this balance in Vietnamese dishes, but just as important are the seasonings and condiments. Here are a few of our favorite Vietnamese pantry staples that are used in dishes all across the cuisine:

Vietnamese Pantry Staples

Nước Mắm (Fish Sauce)

Fish sauce is the Vietnamese secret to umami. This seasoning liquid has a rich, deeply salty flavor that’s used as a substitute for salinity in many Vietnamese dishes. Making nước mắm is a long and laborious process, which is why it’s seen as a prized ingredient in Vietnamese kitchens all around the world.

The most commonly used fish is the anchovy, which gets preserved in salt and stored in big vats for six to twelve months. Throughout the fermentation process, the liquid is stirred until solid particles sink to the bottom, leaving a pure, clear liquid at the top. The product is then strained and left under the sun to evaporate, which intensifies its flavor. The final product is left to age for several months to achieve a sweet and delicate flavor.

Nước mắm can be traced back to ancient Rome, when Europeans traded garum and fermentation recipes along the Silk Road. These cultural learnings reached the Champa Kingdom, whose history played a big role in pre-19th century Vietnam. In 1963, when the Cham culture merged with modern-day Vietnam, fish sauce developed into a core pillar of Vietnamese cuisine. Today, nước mắm is used as a main ingredient and seasoning all over Vietnamese cooking. Most famously, it’s a primary ingredient in the ubiquitous dipping sauce known as nước chắm — a thinned out dipping sauce with splashes of lime juice, chilies, sugar, and garlic.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam - July 19, 2009: A Vietnamese woman is cooking rice paper in a village Vietnamese Pantry Staples

Bánh Tráng (Rice Paper)

Bánh tráng, or thin sheets of rice paper, are made of rice and tapioca flours, salt, and water. This special blend of flours creates a sturdy consistency that’s less prone to cracking. Making this pantry essential is a delight to watch. Large ladles of rice batter are poured onto a thin cloth above a pot of boiling water, then delicately shaped in a circular motion until it’s steamed to perfection. The final sheets of rice paper are then carefully placed onto a woven bamboo griddle to dry.

Vietnamese rice paper originated in South Vietnam, and it wasn’t long before other regions adopted it as a core ingredient. The pantry staple has evolved throughout the years, and lends itself to so many popular Vietnamese recipes today — including crispy rice paper, which is baked on charcoal and paired with fresh vegetables, or mixed rice paper salad, a popular Vietnamese snack of sliced rice paper with seafood, vegetables and lime.

Fresh Vietnamese coriander plant growth in vegetable garden Vietnamese Pantry Staples

Rau Răm (Vietnamese Coriander)

Rau răm is the perfect example of Vietnamese cuisine’s emphasis on brightness and freshness. It’s reminiscent of the Western version of cilantro, only with delicate citrusy notes and peppery, bitter undertones. It thrives year round in subtropical climates, and is often used alongside other fresh aromatics like cilantro, mint, and basil.

The fresh herb is often used to elevate Vietnamese broths, including Bún Thang, a comforting noodle soup with ground pork, seasoned chicken, and eggs. It’s also often used to add freshness to salads and small Vietnamese appetizers like bánh xèo.

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