(from Chapter One of Authentic Vietnamese Cooking)
By Corinne Trang
Condiments are an integral part of nearly every Vietnamese dish. The cuisine assumes that they necessarily complete an item rather than optionally enhance it. Complex in flavors and well balanced in terms of sweet and savory as well as texture, they are never used to mask an ingredient. Suffice it to say that a Vietnamese table without its array of condiments is a table that has not yet been fully set.
There are four basic groupings of condiments: dipping sauces, pickles, flavorings, and garnishes. Many incorporate the most important — in fact, defining — Vietnamese dipping sauce and seasoning, nuoc mam, or fish sauce. The best version is made on the island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand in the South. It is made of a silvery, almost translucent type of anchovy called ca com. These anchovies are layered, salted, and left to ferment for months in wooden barrels. The first “juice” extraction happens after the first three months of fermentation, and it is poured back into the barrel on top of the layered anchovies. After another six months, the juices are extracted again, and it is this extraction that is considered the “first pressing,” which is also the best quality. It is used plain, as a seasoning for the table, or as a base in dipping sauces. The second and third pressings, which follow, are weaker and are used for everyday cooking, in stir-fries and stews, for example. Fish sauce is to the Vietnamese what salt is to Westerners and soy sauce is to the Chinese. It is an integral part of the cuisine, for without it, a meal would not be considered a meal.
Vietnam’s varied dipping sauces are important in all of its cuisines, and the most important of all is the indispensable nuoc mam cham (most often referred to as nuoc cham), fermented fish sauce diluted with lime juice, distilled white rice vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies, and garlic. It accompanies many, if not most, dishes, from the most elaborate meat and fish preparations to the most humble bowl of plain steamed rice. At home it is almost always on the table, and we often make batches large enough to last a few days.
Other dipping sauces are often equally interesting but are commonly served as an accompaniment to specific dishes. For example nuoc leo, peanut sauce is served with nem nuong, grilled pork meatballs, or goi cuon, summer rolls; mam nem, pineapple and anchovy dip, complements beef dishes, specifically bo nhung dam, beef fondue.
Pickled and preserved vegetables comprise the second condiment category, and they are eaten almost on a daily basis. To pickle, the Vietnamese use white rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. To preserve, they use salted water. My mother used to pickle vegetables in great quantity to accompany barbecued meats and seafood, especially during the spring and summer months. Our favorites were always carrot, cucumber, and daikon, and this tradition continues today. I’ve also included a recipe for preserved mung bean sprouts, which are delicious served with grilled meats and seafood.
The third category includes flavorings that are generally not served at the table but are used during the preparation of various dishes. Sate — peanut, garlic, and chili paste — is one of the many exotics used in Vietnam. It is often simply added to stir-fries, creating simple yet interesting meat, seafood, or vegetable dishes that can be served over steamed rice for lunch or dinner.
The fourth category is garnishes, which include fried shallots, scallion oil, and fried garlic oil. These are often drizzled over steamed pâtés, soups, and grilled meats or seafood. For example, fried shallots are often sprinkled over a bowl of pho ga, rice noodle and chicken soup, to add a crunchy texture as well as sweeten the soup. Scallion oil complements cha dum, steamed beef pâté. Fried garlic adds a pungent, uplifting note to canh ca nau dua, a sweet and sour fish and pineapple soup.
Lastly, aromatic greens called traditional herbs and table salad are generally used to add texture, flavor, and freshness to cooked dishes brought to the table. Traditional herbs include such exotics as holy basil, rau ram, saw leaves, la lot leaves, cilantro, and mint, which are among the most commonly used. The table salad can include cooked rice vermicelli, lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, unripe star fruit, fresh chilies, shredded carrot, and lime or lemon wedges. Traditional herbs are served generally with the table salad to complement cha gio, spring rolls, and nem nuong, grilled pork meatballs, for example, and specifically with pho, rice noodle and chicken, beef, or pork soups.
When preparing the table salad, make individual piles of each ingredient on one platter; traditional herbs are similarly arranged. With regard to the herbs, be sure to leave the stems intact, as it is up to each diner to pick the leaves off and use them as they prefer. The leaves are always freshly torn. You can find most of the exotics in Asian markets. If not, do not be discouraged. I always find that the problem goes away as long as you have cilantro, an herb that today is available in any supermarket.