Vietnamese cuisine is definitely one of the healthiest foods in the world. It’s made mainly from fresh ingredients, along with some herbs and spices. Most of these foods are eaten along with a whole lot of condiments. This is why when you come across a dining table in Vietnam, don’t be surprised to see a whole set of condiments arranged on one side. These condiments include sauces and sides that can help to make the dishes taste even more flavorful and pleasant to your palate.
Vietnamese condiments usually consist of four different categories, the flavorings, garnishes, pickled veggies, and dipping sauces. You’ll find a bottle of fish sauce, a basket of herbs, and several other things that might be new to you. So in order not to get overwhelmed when you dine at a local restaurant in Vietnam, here’s a guide to these condiments.
Some of the local Vietnamese flavorings are not really served on the table. Instead, they are added during the preparation of the dish. Sometimes, they are also used separately as a dipping sauce. For instance, the satay or sate, which is a mixture of ground peanuts, chili paste, and garlic, is used as a flavoring on some stir-fried dishes, but it’s also used as a dipping sauce for Vietnamese rolls. Some restaurants that serve Vietnamese rolls would often have a satay on their table condiments.
Another flavoring used in most Vietnamese dishes is lemongrass. It’s mostly added on braised meats. It is the lemongrass that adds a citrusy taste to some Vietnamese dishes, such as the Bun Ga Nuong, a Vietnamese noodle dish with lemongrass chicken. These flavorings provide rich flavor to the dishes, which is why these foods are often served with steamed white rice.
There’s a wide range of garnishes that are being added to Vietnamese dishes but these usually include chili, fried shallots, and some aromatic herbs and greens. These are usually sprinkled on top of noodle soups, fried rice, grilled meats, and some seafood dishes. In some recipes, the garnishes are being added during the preparation and cooking of the dish.
In some Vietnamese tables, you’ll find these garnishes along with the other condiments. For instance, restaurants that serve Pho would have fried shallots on the table, which customers have to sprinkle on the noodle dish in order to give it a crunchier texture and sweeter taste. Chili is usually sliced and served in a small plate and sometimes mixed in a fish sauce. Aromatic greens are also added as garnishes on some Vietnamese dishes and they are usually placed in a small basket along with the other condiments. These greens not only add flavor and texture to the dish but enhance the freshness too.
Some other ingredients used as garnishes are basil, coriander, alongside other vegetables, such as lettuce leaves, green onions, and bean sprouts. In some restaurants, you’ll also be given sliced cucumber to garnish your dish. You can throw a handful of these garnishes into your piping hot bowl of noodles and their flavor will be seeped by the steamy broth. This will make the soup even more flavorful to sip.
Pickled vegetables are locally known as Do Chua, which literally translates to sour things. These pickled and preserved veggies are usually eaten along with some grilled dishes. In fact, you’ll find it being served along with almost any dish in Vietnam. The pickles usually consist of cucumbers, cabbage, and carrots. These preserved vegetables are usually stored in a jar and placed in a table along with other condiments.
To prepare the pickles, locals would use vinegar made of white rice and mix it with sugar and salt. Due to the presence of vinegar and salt, the vegetables get preserved in the jar. The tangy and slightly sweet taste of the pickled veggies complements well with the saltiness and spiciness of most Vietnamese dishes. These pickles also go well with grilled seafood and some barbecued meats.
Fish sauce is often present in almost every Vietnamese cuisine. This condiment is also popular in some other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. To prepare the sauce, small fishes or anchovies are salted and preserved in a wooden barrel. The sauce is left to ferment for several months and exposed directly to sunlight. After a few months, the juices are then extracted and placed in a bottle. Most restaurants in Vietnam would often have a bottle of fish sauce on the table.
Fish sauce is like the olive oil in the Italian culture, which is why it’s one of the most used condiments in Vietnam. It’s also being used as an alternative to salt in some Vietnamese dishes. The sauce is also added to stir-fries, stews, and some clay pot dishes. Although it’s usually served in a bottle along with other condiments, it’s sometimes served in a small bowl. Sometimes, it is used to dilute other ingredients, such as chili, sugar, and lime.