You're ready to cook Vietnamese food but where are the ingredients? They're not particularly hard to find, especially because Asian cooking is increasingly popular and there are Asian communities all over. Once you've found the foodstuffs, the equipment is usually in the market too or at a nearby shop.
If you're new to Asian markets, you'll have to stretch a bit. While many of the ingredients may be locally available, Viet cuisine has yet to become mainstreamed. Certain staples, such as high-quality fish sauce and rice noodles, will require a trip to a Chinese or Southeast Asian market.
Cooking is a fun social and human activity. Part of the experience is shopping for ingredients, which may entail going to unfamiliar neighborhoods and bridging language and cultural barriers. If you smile, are polite, and show interest, people will gladly help. During the last thirty plus years, Vietnamese people have splendidly preserved and developed their culinary traditions far away from their ancestral home. There's no reason why you can't do it too. The payoff is delicious.
Rather than present a list of stores that's bound to change and be
incomplete, this posting contains tips to help you find ingredients and
equipment. If you have tips to add, use the comment section!
Strategies for Your Search
Find a Viet enclave nearby and check the local yellow-pages for "Grocers and Markets." According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest Asian ethnic group in America. We are surprisingly in many places. While the biggest Vietnamese-American communities are in California, Texas, and Washington, D.C., there are folks in Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans, New York City, and Seattle too. Even Wichita, Kansas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, have burgeoning populations. Do an internet search for "Vietnamese community in X city or X state" and see what you find.
Don't limit yourself to Vietnamese markets. Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, and Filipino markets also sell ingredients for Vietnamese cooking. The herbs may not be available, but other essentials like fish sauce will be on the shelves. Use cultural and historic intersections as starting points. Where there's a substantial community of Asian people, there are markets that cater to their cooking needs. Chinese-owned Ranch 99 Market is a great pan-Asian chain of grocery stores with locations in California, Washington, Arizona, Hawaii, and Nevada. Mainly on the East Coast and with a super location in Niles, Illinois, H Mart (select English in upper right-hand corner) is a Korean-owned chain of great Asian markets. Other notable chains include Hong Kong Supermarket and Shun Fat Supermarket.
Pretty reliable online listings of Asian markets in America can be found at:
- Thaifoodandtravel.com: Straight listing with some commentary by Thai cookbook author and cooking teacher Kasma Loha-unchit
- New Asian Cuisine: Interactive US map from Savory productions, an Asian-food marketing company. Searchable by zip code!
- ThaiTable.com: Enter a zip code to search
- Merry's Kitchen of Indonesian Cuisine: Simple but robust listing from a food-loving, Jakarta-based florist
Explore Chinatowns. Chinese influences in Vietnamese cooking run deep, and many of the ingredients are the same. A fair number of the grocery stores are owned and run by Chinese-Vietnamese Americans. Chinatown houseware and restaurant supply shops stock steamers, dishware, and other nifty cooking tools.
Ask Viet people who are "in the know." For example:
- The folks who run your favorite Vietnamese restaurant. Where do they buy their ingredients?
- Your Vietnamese manicurist. Where does she or he shop for food and specialty equipment?
- Members of a local university's Vietnamese Student Association. An international organization with numerous chapters in the U.S., VSA sponsors cultural events and food festivals. These students know their community's culinary resources. Check the university website.
Go beyond Asian markets. Peruse non-Asian markets (such as Latino, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean), health food stores, and the international or Asian food section of mainstream supermarkets. You'll be amazed to discover what's stocked on the shelves. Good Mexican butcher counters and carniceria meat markets are treasures.
Shop farmers' markets. In a number of places in the country, Hmong and Vietnamese farmers are trucking loads of fresh Asian produce to weekly markets. Non-Southeast Asian farmers are increasingly growing Asian vegetables and herbs. Check websites such as localharvest.org for local markets and farms.
Only as a last resort should you purchase Asian ingredients and equipment online or through mail order. Because inventories and service fluctuate, check around to see what's currently available and reliable. Among the online and mail order sources worth exploring are:
The Oriental Pantry (Acton, MA)
(978) 264-4576, orientalpantry.com
Offers a broad selection of Asian ingredients. Fish sauce is in "Misc. Other Foods."
The Wok Shop (San Francisco, CA)
(415) 989-3797, wokshop.com
No food sold here, but the selection of cooking equipment is excellent, including wood moon cakes, which are listed in "Hard to Find Items."