by Meredith Bethune
photography by Kate LeSueur
The most memorable bite from a recent trip to Vietnam was a single scallop, grilled in its shell and eaten at a low plastic table beside a street roaring with motorbikes. The vivid color and scent palette of red chili, chopped mint, salty peanuts and sour lime juice draped over the unbelievably fresh seafood created the perfect harmony to its tender sweetness. To me, this dish embodied the beguiling food of Vietnam that Pat Lee—owner of the local chain of PhoNatic restaurants—describes as simple but bold. So simple, in fact, that Vietnamese food is easy to cook in home kitchens, as long as there’s a basic understanding of the ingredients, preparation and cooking techniques.
Like much of the cuisine in Asia, Vietnamese dishes typically feature a combination of spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet notes. According to William Hong, general manager of Elizabeth Street Café, Vietnamese food is inextricably connected to the tropical environment—influenced not only by what grows there, but also by the sweltering climate. Food tends to be light, and tropical ingredients such as palm sugar, tamarind and green papaya are copious and easily found. Perhaps the most important ingredient, though, is fish sauce—a potent, salty liquid made from fermented anchovies. The fish sauce in Vietnam, however, is more understated and less salty than sauces from surrounding countries.
Thanks to Texas’ warm climes, many of the ingredients found in Vietnamese cuisine are also available here. And two popular proteins—seafood (especially shrimp) and pork—are abundant, as well. Yet, despite the worldwide fame of pho—the aromatic Vietnamese rice-noodle soup made with beef broth—dishes made with red meat are typically consumed in very small amounts. In “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,” author Andrea Nguyen writes that Vietnamese cooks developed pho in the 19th century to use beef scraps unwanted by the French colonizers. “Some of the cooking techniques are very French,” says Hong. “Like long-simmered soup stocks that are skimmed until they’re clear.” And the Chinese, who also occupied the country at one point, left a marked influence with noodles, steamed buns and simple stir-fries.
“The great thing about learning to cook Vietnamese food,” notes Lee, “is that it’s very versatile and oftentimes includes experimentation.” Basic equipment works fine—such as a large soup pot, to start. A wok is helpful for stir-fries, but a skillet will work in a pinch. Eventually, you might want to incorporate a mortar and pestle, mandoline or rice cooker. “It doesn’t hurt to be handy with a grill, either,” adds Hong.
Indeed, grilling is so popular in Vietnam that visitors practically trip over meats sizzling on low sidewalk charcoal grills. Lee says that some of his favorite street snacks are grilled sea snails and barbecued octopus. I say that if those sidewalk chefs can prepare delicacies like the grilled scallop I had on the busy streets of Saigon, surely amateur American cooks can make delicious Vietnamese dishes in the convenience of their home kitchens.
Finding Vietnamese Ingredients
Growers at local farmers markets and farm stands produce a surprising selection of vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking—including Thai chilis, lemongrass and Thai basil. The cuisine also calls for more familiar vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.
10901 N. Lamar Blvd.
Austin, Texas 78753
This Asian supermarket is owned by Pat Lee’s family and specializes in Southeast Asian and Chinese products, but also carries products from all over the world. You can find almost any Vietnamese ingredient here—including obscure herbs, vegetables and several brands of fish sauce.
755 Springdale Rd.
Austin, Texas 78702
This urban farm grows seasonal lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, Thai basil and Thai chilis. Farmstand Wednesday and Saturday.
Johnson’s Backyard Garden
Another Austin farm that grows seasonal vegetables, such as daikon, Thai chilis and cilantro. Available via farm stands at markets all over town.
This area farm sometimes grows seasonal long beans, Thai basil, daikon and Vietnamese melon. Available on Saturdays at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown, SFC Farmers’ Market–Sunset Valley and Texas Farmers Market at Cedar Park.
This Rockdale, Texas farm sells locally raised beef, pork and chicken on Wednesdays at SFC Farmers’ Market–Triangle; on Saturdays at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown, SFC Farmers’ Market–Sunset Valley and at the Barton Creek Farmers Market and on Sundays at Lone Star Farmers Market in Bee Cave.
K&S sells fresh-caught gulf seafood, such as shrimp, squid, scallops, crab, crabmeat, whole fish and fillets. Available on Saturdays at Texas Farmers Market at Cedar Park and Barton Creek Farmers Market and on Sundays at Texas Farmers Market at Mueller.
Simmons Family Farms
Thanks to several years of studying horticulture in Thailand, Harry Simmons and his family grow lemongrass, Thai eggplant, Thai basil, Thai chilis, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, mint and green papaya at their farms in Niederwald and Luling. Their products are available on Saturdays at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown and SFC Farmers’ Market–Sunset Valley.
Find more farmers markets, nurseries and growers resources at edibleaustin.com