Yes, you too can cook Vietnamese food! Just pick up the basics.
Looked at one way, the entirety of the basics of Vietnamese cooking are four in number: sour, salt, sweet and chile heat.
For sour, Vietnamese cooks use the acidity of several foods such as rice or white vinegar, lime juice, tamarind, even the tartness of lemongrass. Salt comes by way of both soy and fish sauces and from the country’s predilection for Maggi brand seasoning, but also after salt is used to cook other foods such as pork shoulder or roast chicken that, in turn, become players in things such as banh mi sandwiches or rice noodle bowls.
The sweetness in Vietnamese cooking is almost always mere palm or cane sugar — and it is ubiquitous — but it also arrives via coconut milk and is the mark of the country’s famed sweetened condensed cow’s milk, itself used for desserts and the well-known coffee preparation. Chile heat? That fire of capsaicin oil? Exclamation points throughout Viet eating, and pho on and pho on.
But more important is the interplay of these four basics, often in a single dish. Like much of Asian cooking, what is most important are the yin and yang of salt beside sweet, acidity with saltiness, hot with cool.
And then there are the foods that become the playgrounds for these interactions: a vast array of vegetables, rice in a myriad of forms and turns (noodles, sticks, “paper,” steamed, fried, sticky, puffed) and many forms of animal and aquatic protein.
Once you stock a Vietnamese pantry, you’ll also notice the influence of six decades of French colonization. The recipe here is a textbook example, with its baguette-like bread roll, liver pâté, butter for fat, Maggi seasoning sauce (which, in truth, is Swiss in origin) and generosity in the greens department.
A Vietnamese cook once told me that the famed meat broth-based soup called pho (pronounced fuh, as in “fun,” but without the “n”) is both a toss to the French idea of broth-building and a corruption of the French word “feu,” as in “pot au feu.”
But the most basic of basics in a Vietnamese pantry are rice and fish sauce. Can’t get away from them; they’re served at every meal, except for dessert where rice often appears once again but fish sauce generally doesn’t. Vietnam, along with its neighbor Thailand, can be counted among the top five rice-producing countries on the planet.
Tagged alongside fish sauce and rice, in whatever form, is an enviable grocery store produce section of aromatic and flavorful greens and herbs. Cilantro, basil, mint, lemongrass, green onions and ginger are nearly as everyday as rice or fish sauce. Why not? They’re delicious.
Banh Mi Sandwich
Makes 1; easily multiplied.
- 1 small baguette- or bolillo-style bread roll (not super hard-crusted but crisp-crusted nonetheless and one with a light and airy crumb)
- Splash of soy sauce (or Maggi seasoning sauce)
- Unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2-3 thin slices ripe avocado
- Liver pâté or liverwurst, to taste (see note)
- Generous helping of Vietnamese daikon and carrot pickle (do chua), drained
- 4-5 slices jalapeño chile, or to taste
- 5-6 thin slices cucumber rounds
- Cilantro leaves and thin stems, or mint leaves, or basil leaves
If the bread is not crisp-crusted, wet your hands and rub them onto the crust, then crisp in an oven or toaster oven set to 350 degrees for 2-3 minutes. Slice the bread lengthwise but maintain a hinge along one side if possible. Pick out some of the crumb to make room for the remaining ingredients.
Splash the soy or Maggi sauce onto both sides of the bread, then slather butter on the same. Layer the avocado slices over the butter and mash them in a bit. Layer the remaining ingredients evenly, on one side or both sides, as you wish, then close the sandwich and slice it crosswise and diagonally into two sections.
Cook’s note: The best-tasting ratio of meat to vegetables is 1:2; a banh mi is more a salad in a roll than a hefty meat sandwich. As for other meats or proteins to use, they are legion: shredded chicken, tofu or tempeh, sliced ham or other deli meat, headcheese, a couple fried eggs, a small can of sardines or even sliced meatballs.
Vietnamese Carrot and Daikon Pickle (Đồ Chua)
Fills 2-3 small jars or 1 larger jar.
- 2-3 medium-sized carrots, peeled and julienned into strips 3 inches long and 1/4 inch thick, about 2 cups give or take
- 1 medium daikon radish, equal to the measurement of carrots and similarly peeled and julienned
- 2 teaspoons kosher or fine sea salt
- 1/2 cup granulated cane sugar
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar (or rice vinegar)
Toss the carrots and daikon with the salt in a large bowl, kneading the salt into the vegetables for 2-3 minutes. Let sit for 20 minutes. Under running water and using a sieve, rinse the vegetables well and then, by handfuls, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from them. Pack them into the jar or jars, almost to the top.
Make the brining solution: To the sugar, add the boiling water and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the vinegar, stirring well. Pour the brine into the jar or jars, completely submerging the vegetables. Cap and let sit for 8-10 hours or overnight. The vegetables will become sourer with time (2-3 days, at room temperature) and may be stored for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator if desired.
Cook’s note: It helps to use a mandolin (such as the inexpensive brand Beriner) or a vegetable peeler that also juliennes. Also, the proportions of sweet and tart in the recipe are adjustable to your own taste.
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