Vietnamese cooking without spices is like wine without the grapes. It’s just not the real thing. This article will list all the main spices that give Vietnamese cuisine its hallmark spicy footprint and invite the newcomer into this particular eastern brand of cooking.
The good news is that one needn’t go much further than the local supermarket to find these spices.
The shallot is the most popular spice in Vietnamese cooking from yesteryear as well as today. It is petite and can be confused for a small onion, used for its sweet spicy kick and grown all year round. The cooking heat releases a sweetness from shallots that tends to round off the Vietnamese dish, fried for stir fries and crushed for stews and grilled dishes. The spice can be used fresh or frozen, but is useless when it is dried or forgotten outside of the refrigerator. Onions can be used as a substitute if shallots can’t be found at the supermarket. Onions may be more bitter than shallots, but they are also frequently used.
Garlic, the old trusty favourite. In Vietnam, garlic is used fried, raw and grilled in almost every dish. Since it compliments almost every ingredient and strongly seasons the rest, one can add it to stir fries, braised or grilled dishes, as well as stews and marinades. Raw garlic is used to make dips and salads. As they tend to have a sweeter taste, small fresh cloves are more often used than the larger ones.
Annatto seeds have an earthy and peppery flavour but are used mainly for the orange to red dye it produces during the cooking process. These ground up tiny seeds are normally used with vegetable and rice dishes.
Caramelized cane sugar gives a deeper, richer taste to sauces and marinades while lightly toasted or crushed peppercorns add some bite to stir fries and braised dishes. Cinnamon is another popular spice used in Vietnamese cuisine, especially in stews, soups and desserts and is used in all its forms; dried, ground or as folded sticks.
The ginger root is important as well as popular in Vietnam. It doubles as herb and spice, providing both flavour and health benefits to poultry and seafood dishes as a marinade. Ginger sooths diarrhea and warms the body and helps to keep a person healthy during winter times. This pungent spice can be used fresh or grilled for noodle, braised dishes and herbal teas as well.
Another similar looking spice to ginger with healing properties the Vietnamese use is turmeric. Its main use is as colour giving marinade, infusing ingredients with orange and a mild acidic flavour. It can cloud unwelcome smells of seafood that tends to be too ‘fishy’ and is one of the main spices blended together to create curry powder. Curry powder’s warm colour comes from turmeric. An old Vietnamese home remedy is to apply turmeric juice to torn skin for scar-free healing.
Stewed and grilled fish, even other fried seafoods, enjoy the touch of lemongrass and galangal. Both are used to season poultry, pork and broth dishes.
Star anise tastes like licorice and like their name suggests, appears in the shape of eight-pointed stars. Ground or used whole, this spice is as versatile as can be, rounding off sweet desserts as well hitting all the right notes in main courses and soups. Star anise is one of the ingredients in the country’s strong ‘five-spice’ powder. Cloves, fennel seeds, licorice and cinnamon complete the blend that gets added in moderate amounts to meat, stews and marinades.
Chilies appear to be a matter of personal taste and choice in Vietnam. Some like it, some don’t. Those who savour the bite that chilies can bring prefer the particularly hot bird’s-eye chilies when cooking or marinating ingredients. The spice can be used dried and whole, frozen or added as flakes.
Vietnamese spices are exceptional in the sense that they are unapologetically Eastern, their flare coming not only from flavour but also their beautiful shapes and shades. Genuine Vietnamese cooking may take some getting used to for the beginner but once accepted, it will be a lifelong love affair.