What do you need to get going? Very little as it turns out. Vietnamese refugees to America started with little in their kitchens to recreate the flavors of their homeland. You don't need to stretch too far either. To make delicious Vietnamese food, you should first understand and acquire these fundamental components:
For further investments in your kitchen, consider a mortar and pestle, mandolin and rice cooker.
Below is practical information on finding and purchasing these essentials.
To stock your kitchen with the bare minimum for preparing Vietnamese food, start with good quality fish sauce (nuoc mam). Though soy sauce is used in the Vietnamese kitchen, fish sauce is king. Good fish sauce is fragrant, not stinky. The name sounds horrid but the literal translation is liquid from fermented sea products. Okay, not that great either.
Many people through the ages, including the Romans and Chinese, relied upon fermented liquids similar to fish sauce to flavor their foods. Fish sauce provides wonderful savory depth -- umami, in other words, to Vietnamese foods. If the name and smell offends you in theory, sniff a container of dried porcini mushrooms and then get a whiff of good fish sauce, say a bottle of Three Crabs made by Viet Huong company. The two are remarkably similar! Still unconvinced? Realize that Vietnamese people don't drink fish sauce from the bottle. We blend it with other ingredients, such as lime, chiles, sugar, and water and cook with it in a delicate fashion so as to not overwhelm foods.
It's hard to cook Vietnamese food without fish sauce so I encourage you to purchase a bottle. Check the fish sauce buying guide for details.
As for rice, there are many varieties to choose from. For daily meals, long-grain jasmine rice from
Most Chinese and Vietnamese markets carry several brands at one time, reflecting their shoppers’ preferences—which is fickle and finicky; this is because many producers of Asian food ingredients have yet to get a handle on quality assurance, not to mention that environmental factors may vary rice production from season to season. Years ago, everyone bought "Big Buddha" but nowadays, we’re pledging our allegiances to other brands. If you find yourself standing clueless in front of a wall of rice bags, ask another shopper or someone who works at the market for their opinion.
Expect to have to buy at least ten pounds of rice at any Asian
market. Ten pounds of anything is a lot but you'll be surprised at how quickly
rice goes. If you’re lucky, an Asian market may be hip to your needs and will
have pre-packaged rice up in 5-pound plastic bags. Health food stores and mainstream
supermarkets sell jasmine rice in smaller quantities but at higher prices. They
cook up just fine. I've bought and eaten through several bags of Pacific International
rice, which comes from the Sacramento Valley in California.
However you select your rice, just remember that if you have good rice and high quality fish sauce, the combination may be addictive!
You probably have most of the necessary equipment to prepare Vietnamese food. When we first got to America, a few nonstick 8- and 10-inch skillets and some deep saucepans in various sizes were all we had and needed. However, my Mom bought an aluminum Chinese steamer as soon as she could because a Vietnamese kitchen isn't well stocked without one. When my sisters left home for college, my parents sent them off with Chinese steamers. They're used to cook many dishes such as xoi (sticky rice) and to reheat food in a flash.
Steamers come with two compartments and are sold in Asian markets. I prefer a steamer made from stainless steel, which lasts longer; some come with a handy see-through glass lid for you to monitor the cooking process.
Whatever you settle on, please select a steamer with at least one compartment that has holes about one centimeter in diameter. If the holes are bigger, your food may fall through. If the holes are smaller (about 1/2 centimeter wide, not enough steam will reach your food. The middle width is the most practical to have. Often I’m lured by the beauty of traditional bamboo steamer trays, but stop short of buying them as I remember that they are not as easy to clean as aluminum or stainless steel.
You can create a steamer by crossing two wooden chopsticks and placing them inside a wok containing some water. Food is placed on a dish and cooked on top of the well-balanced chopsticks with a lid covering the wok. However, I find this method cumbersome and think that $25 isn't too much to spend on a piece of crucial kitchen equipment.
Because Vietnamese food can require a lot of prepping, it is important to have reliable knives. A chef's knife, paring knife and cleaver are essential. Keep them sharp with a steel or electric knife sharpener. Good knives make cooking easier and faster. Besides, I've had too many accidents from using dull knives. (Read about my favorite good and cheap knives and cleavers for guidance.) Other time savers to have are a food processor, mini-chopper and spice grinder (or electric coffee grinder kept exclusively for cooking) used for blending ingredients.
If you want to get more serious, invest in a mortar and pestle. They're great for breaking down fibers in food
or mixing ingredients without risking total pulverization. I've found that the best ones are made of cast
cement or stone.
You can buy large ones inexpensively at Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai markets. However, I’ve found that most often, I reach for my small marble mortar (4½ inches wide at the top) to take care of my needs; these are widely available at cookware stores.
Another piece of equipment that you may consider purchasing is a mandolin, which has razor sharp blades to beautifully shred and slice vegetables for Vietnamese salads and pickles. You can purchase the true French mandolin, an expensive but impressive hunk of metal (about $150).
Or, do like I do, and go for the less expensive Japanese plastic version, the Benriner (about $30), at some cookware stores, Asian restaurant
supply stores, Japanese markets (e.g., Mitsuwa markets
Rice Cookers vs. Reliable Saucepan
If rice is a major part of your diet, an electric rice cooker is wonderful to have. It cooks rice to perfection, occupies little counter space, and frees up a burner on your stove. Like other modern appliances, rice cookers are now available in different colors to match you kitchen, and can perform miraculous tasks like keeping your rice warm for hours. Their high prices reflect these improvements too! Note that my mother used her basic black and white National brand rice cooker daily for over 15 years before having to replace it when it finally broke down. Rice cookers are sold at Asian supermarkets and home/kitchen appliance stores. There are online sources too.
On the other hand, a reliable heavy bottomed saucepan also makes cooking rice a snap! For our family of two adults, I regularly use a trusty 1 1/2-quart saucepan. I know how to gauge the rice and water levels in that pot. For more people, I select a bigger pan, avoiding ones that have low sides as steamed rice just doesn't cook evenly in them. If you don't want to invest in an electric rice cooker, select a saucepan (with lid) that can accommodate your regular rice cooking needs. The amount of rice that your generally eat should fill about 1/3 of the saucepan. This ensures the right balance of space needed to cook the rice to fluffy perfection. (If you cram too much rice into a pot, the grains don't expand properly because there's not enough space!)
There you have it—the basic necessities for preparing Vietnamese food. You'll find that these items can be used to make foods of any country. (I once made a chocolate cake using a bowl, a wooden rice paddle and a pair of chopsticks!) This ability to easily cross cultural borderlines is what I love most about food, cooking and eating. Food brings people together and serves as a channel through which ideas flow.