Vietnamese Herbs and Spices

by Ramona on January 23, 2012

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Seasoning is very much appreciated in Vietnamese cooking. There are many rows of grocery shops at any market in Vietnam selling all kinds of spices, seasoning, fruits, spring onions, garlic, pepper, chilli, shiitake (agaric). This fare includes aromatic, sour, acrid, hot ones with various colorful shapes.

There are also plant seasonings that add a lot of spice and flavor such as chilli, pepper, citronella, shallot, garlic, ginger, lemon or lemon young leaves, spices for fermentation: ferment, shrimp paste, fermented distiller’s grains, wine vinegar or bitter candy, coconut milk, etc.

Ginger has warm poignancy, which is good for digestion, against nausea and can release pain.

Cinnamon is very easy to use and very tasty as we all know. It contains anti-oxidation, is very good for digestive system, and can also help regulate the amount of sugar in blood and of cholesterol in human bodies. Hmm… Aren’t we reading more about cinnamon and its powers in health articles here in the USA? And they have known about it for centuries…….

Here is an interesting thought: The specific spices of the nations in South East Asia mentioned above are used harmoniously and in accordance in cooking with the principle of “combining Yin and Yang to develop” for example, a dish which can easily cause stomach chill which has to go with a hot spice. The kinds of food which are not compatible can not be in the same dish or eaten at the same time, not only because they aren’t delicious, but sometimes they can be harmful to health. These experiences have been accumulated for many generations.

I just find all this sort of thing fascinating and statements like the above only want me to learn more.

Minced lemon leaves, salt and pepper mixture are indispensable to chicken.

Snails can’t be eaten without perilla and chili. I love snails, but my husband says they taste like pencil erasers……maybe he just needed the right spices! What’s he doing eating pencil erasers? Do I have that recipe?

Marjoram and limnophila aromatica (I replace with Cumin) is the essential spice for noodles in crab chowder.

Noodles in chicken broth has to go with shrimp paste.

Middle-autumn pastries require vanilla. Floating cake or sticky rice dumpling needs grapefruit essence. Steamed sticky rice is best with deep fried spring onion. Duck meat pairs with garlic, beef with ginger. Their food experts sound like our wine pairing experts.

From a meal to a snack, a dish must be tasty, beautiful and clean, with just enough necessary ingredients and spices. Remember, we are cooking Vietnamese food not only for a delicious dish but also for a good-looking dish. A plate of boiled kohlrabi or radish, which is immaculately white but a little pale, will be thinned out by one or two leaves so the plate is dotted green, and the broth looks nicer and daintier.

In our research, we have found there are also specific characteristics of cooking in each region of Vietnam:

Cooking in the Northern Part of Vietnam

The dishes are not so spicy, hot, greasy or sweet as those in the other regions, They mainly use thin fish sauce and shrimp paste. They also use many kinds of vegetable and easily-found aquatic products in fresh water like shrimps, crabs, fish, clams, mussels, etc. In general, the cuisine in the Northern Part traditionally originated from a poorer agriculture environment, so using meat and fish were not as prevalent as in other areas of the country.

Cooking in the Central Part:

They prefer the dishes which are warmer with stronger concentrations of flavors. The special flavors and the dishes are spicier than those in the Northern and Southern Parts. There are plentiful colors of foods mixed brightly to reflect reds and dark browns. The cooking in the Central Part is famous for sour shrimp paste and many kinds of vegetable paste. Imperial Hue area cooking with the style of royal cuisine is not only extremely hot and very colorful, but also focuses on the number of dishes provided and the garnishing on them. Seasoning is used a lot too. And in the symphony of hundreds of condiments, hot pepper remains “the conductor” with the fascinating hat. Almost all dishes in the Hue region are hot and spicy!

Cooking in the Southern Part:

Because of the influences of Chinese, Cambodia, and Thai cuisines, dishes in the Southern Part are usually inclined to be sweet and hot. Because I was born in Saigon, these tend to be my favorites. They feature many kinds of dried salty sauces like pickled gourami fish (a colorful tropical fish), fermented crabs, and … are very popular.

With the specific style of enjoyment for cooking “different dishes for different seasons” and the concept “eating to live”, to have enough nutrients for labor intensive work, Vietnamese people have proved themselves connoisseurs with the combination of the most challenging requirements of cooking: foods that are sweet-smelling, tasty, nutritious, and heathy. When guests are seated at the dining table, the host or hostess usually recommends the food saying: this dish is good for bone or used to cure malnutrition, nourishing for liver, nourishing for lungs …this medicinal wine can treat aches and pains, it is also a good remedy for virility, an effective tonic for…. What ails you in general.

Sounds like my old grandmother from Wisconsin who wanted to give the kids a dose of some medicine saying “here take this, it’s good for you.”

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