What separates Vietnamese food from other Asian nations is the ingredients they use to produce iconic Eastern dishes.
In the Vietnamese kitchen, proportional balance is key and harmony is inspiration. Beef is always perfectly accompanied by carbs, which are accompanied by veggies, which is accompanied by sauce or broth.
Whether it be an hours-long cooked beef with soft rice noodles in a rich hearty broth or a colorful noodle soup enhanced by complex spices, fiery chilies and refreshingly sour citrus juice – mixing unique flavors is a Vietnamese specialty.
The trend is inspired by the Buddhist philosophy of elemental balance. Each of the elements (wood, water, earth, metal, and fire) correspond with a type of flavor (sour, salt, sweet, spice, and bitter). The result is a variety of dishes which utilize numerous palettes to form a unique experience with every bite.
Here are just a few of the ingredients frequently used to achieve the iconic Vietnamese diversity.
- Shrimp Paste
Though this incredibly sharp ingredient is rarely used in large amounts, the kick it provides in small doses is still incredibly effective and can come in handy when the dish needs a bit more life.
The paste is made through a complex process of fermenting silver shrimp and salt and is perfect for marinating meat or adding flavor to warm broth.
It’s most famous use is in the dish called bun rieu, a South Vietnamese noodle soup that utilizes tomato broth and freshwater crab.
- Jasmine Rice
By far the most well-known Southeast Asian ingredient, Jasmine Rice is served alongside virtually every Vietnamese meal.
The staple is so profound, it’s not uncommon to include a side of rice with even a bowl of pho. Noodles are great, but the Vietnamese need rice to go along with it.
It’s fragrance and warmth are perfect for resetting your palette and grounding the bountiful flavors found in many complex Vietnamese dishes.
- Sambal Oelek
What we would ordinarily recognize as sriracha, this Vietnamese variant is more powerful in a number of ways.
Not only is it stronger and spicier, ensuring that just a small dab will suffice in any dish, but the heat it provides is much more balanced and pairs well with fish sauce, rice and pickled veggies. In addition, the sauce is chunkier and more dry than its ethnic cousin, adding an extra layer of desirable texture to every bite.
- Pickled Veggies
Not only are they healthy, pickled veggies also contain wild flavors that can quickly turn a bland dish into a spirited one.
The Vietnamese people are fond of pickled veggies because it is a timeless ingredient that lasts through Winter. In the high mountains, where the cold can be fierce, hot broth is often the meal of choice, for which pickled veggies add much-appreciated flavor and substance.