Spices used in Vietnamese Cuisine
Not only herbs, spices are extremely important in Vietnamese cooking. If herbs are the finally touch to add hight or light notes; Spices used most in pre-cooking or/and preludes to enhance the whole symphony. A good composition where all ingredients have their voices heard. Bad use of spices therefore either spices fail to sound or sound too loud.
The good news is we utilise just few types of spices; They are available in most supermarket. You could start with garlic, shallot, black pepper, considering ginger and go from there.
Shallot is the most popular spice in Vietnamese cooking. You can use onion as substitute at the absence of shallot.
We use shallot to seasoning most dishes: broth, stir-fried, grilled, sautéd, Canh, stew, salad dishes
- in stir-fried dish and maybe Canh, we fried shallot then add other ingredients
- in grilled, sautéed and stew dishes, we marinate main ingredients with crushed shallot
- in broth, we add grilled onion/shallots to season it
If you are like us, leaving far from Asian market, you might want to slice and store it in the freeze; It works as good as fresh shallot. There are two reasons you should freeze shallot:
- Leaving the shallot in the air, it will go bad and almost useless.
- Dried shallot, in other hand, has lost its essential oil and texture during drying process; It fails to release fragrance.
In Vietnam, people seek for tỏi dé - small and fragrant garlic but any type of garlic would do.
Garlic goes with almost every main ingredients (vegetable, meat, fish, poultry) especially in stir-fried and grilled dishes where it releases fragrant and seasons the whole dish.
- For most stir-fried dishes, you would fry crushed garlic before adding any ingredients.
- For grilled dishes and other braised or stewed dishes, you marinate crushed garlic with main ingredients
Garlic left raw, is used in dipping sauce, pickle and salad. Talking about this, you might want to have a dấm ớt tỏi -pickled garlic which is very handy for marinating meat and seasoning your bowl of pho.
We use crushed peppercorn to add the last touch to stir-fried & braised dishes, and to marinate.
If possible, please use the lightly toasted corns, It makes the difference.
Ginger is very popular in Vietnamese cooking. We rarely combine it with pork and river-fish but very often chicken, duck, mustard green and seafood.
We use ginger to marinate beef and seafood, to get rid of over-pungent particular pieces of meat or bone in pre-cooking process. Ginger used fresh, and very often grilled when it comes to noodle & broth including the mighty Pho.
Apart from seasoning food, we use ginger for health effect. Ginger gives us extra heat in the winter, calm our stomach and balance cold ingredients which, eaten alone, might cause diarrhoea.
Lemongrass became more popular in Vietnamese cooking. It is used mainly in fried and grilled dish where it releases fragrant, lose it woody texture and become eatable.
Lemongrass is also used to season some broth and Canh.
We use galangal, mainly in stewed or grilled fish but also in pork and chicken dishes.
We use turmeric to colour food, to weaken fishy smell of seafood and to cure skin.
When I was small, people stored little pieces fresh turmeric at home in case someone has finger cut or else. The turmeric's juice then being applied to affected area. Like miracle, the skin in that area returned to its former state, no scare whatsoever.
Chilli is an optional spice, people from the Middle and the South would feel dis-comfortable without it but people from the North could live without it in weeks or months. I personal tend to add chilli when marinating meat or cooking some Canh. More often chilli is added to dipping sauce to flavour and add colour.
Far from Asian market, we stored chilli in freezer and it works just well.