I never tire of eating Vietnamese cooking. The ingredients are always so fresh, use little added fat, and the frequent combination of chiles, herbs like basil and mint, garlic, and ginger, and peanuts are so delicious and mouth watering. They also have an interesting twist of French colonial history, so it isn't weird to put carrots and tofu on a baguette or eat a puff pastry to start out your meal.
The two main things to know about Vietnamese cooking are:
1) Fish sauce-you can't be afraid of fish sauce (nuoc mam). Yes, it smells like your brother's dirty gym socks that he insisted upon wearing three days in a row. But once you have either cooked with it or combined it with other ingredients, the smell mellows and it adds such an essential part to the flavor and smell of the dishes. Without it, your dishes will only be so-so.
2) Fresh ingredients and patient prepping of foods is key. A lot of the dishes are about delicately sliced vegetables mixed with fresh herbs over rice or noodles with maybe some sort of meat and a little sauce or broth. Substitutions can be made easily, so you don't have to panic if you don't have Thai Basil, you can use regular basil or even cilantro and just move on.
Even though we like to think we are so worldly in our local grocery stores, I still find it hard to find exactly all the ingredients I want at the local Fred Meyer's or Metropolitan Markup (Market). Just under two miles from my house, up on South 38th, is a crazy good, but slightly scruffy looking East Asia Supermarket, or maybe it's called Super East Asian Market, I can't remember. OK, maybe scruffy is a little too nice, really dirty looking would be better, like maybe they actually let the chickens run around in the shop before they butcher them--I like to think of it as the poor man's Uwajimaya. (I love Uwajimaya, but the nearest one is 36 miles up the road in Seattle and is pretty damned expensive.)
But please don't be put off by my filthy description. You can find artichoke tea here and daikon the size of your thigh and super cheap herbs and coconut milk for $1 a can and rice in 50lb sacks and rice sticks and noodles in all shapes and sizes. They also have delicate looking quail eggs, interesting East Asian beers, and plastic Chinese noodle bowls complete with classic red and white designs. I still haven't gotten up the nerve to buy any meat products here, as I prefer to buy organic meats whenever possible, but I've heard from others that the meat is fine. This is where I will be buying most of my ingredients for my foray into Vietnamese cooking.
I am diving into Quick and Easy Vietnamese by Nancy McDermott. I hope you will join me. The food is delicious.
I will not be posting about these cooking experiences on this blog. Instead, you can find them on my Cooking the Whole Cookbook Blog.