Born in Saigon and raised in Los Angeles, John Nguyen has had quite the international upbringing, honing his culinary skills in New York's East Village before landing here in Hong Kong at one of the city's hottest Vietnamese kitchens. The chef now works as Vietnamese Culinary Director of Black Sheep Restaurants including Chôm Chôm, a vibrant and buzzing neighbourhood joint inspired by the Hanoi bia hoi tradition. As an ode to the many of us who have tested our chef hats to cooking a hearty phø or bun cha, we ask Chef Nguyen for his top five essential ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine. Here are the ones to add to your grocery shopping list.
This article is also available to read in Chinese (HK).
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1) Fish sauce
Fish sauce can be used in basically everything whether you're making sauces to adding it to soups. A splash of fish sauce on fruits or vegetables will add texture and an extra umami flavour to any dish. One of my favourite fish sauces has to be Son Fish Sauce, which is made in Vietnam and can be found in grocery stores almost all over the world. The picture above shows the aforementioned Son Fish Sauce that is 100% natural and obviously one of my favourite fish sauces to use.
2. Vietnamese herbs
Namely: Thai basil, mint, cilantro, Rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro, perilla)
One of the key ingredients in Vietnamese cooking are herbs, which are essential to a dish. It freshens up dishes by adding vibrant colours, flavours and textures. The use of different Vietnamese herbs can change the taste of one dish. You don’t need to add all of them but one or two of these herbs will definitely make your dishes stand out. Vietnamese herbs may be used to make different sauces. For example, laksa leaves and oil create a pesto-like sauce to add a new dimension.
3) Noodle (vermicelli)
Fresh herbal ingredients are best used in making special types of Vietnamese dishes from vegetable noodle bowls (Bún Xào) to a famous Vietnamese dish that Former President Obama ate in Hanoi called Bún Chả. You may find these herbs anywhere around the world in your local Asian supermarkets. These herbs also come in dried forms so that you may have them handy in your kitchen for when the mood calls for added spice. Above shows a picture of a famous Saigonese dish called Bun Xao that is made with vermicelli dry noodle.
4) Fried shallot
Fried shallots can be sprinkled on top of any Vietnamese dishes. It helps enhance the flavour of any Vietnamese dishes from streamed rice cakes to pho soup. It adds another dimension and texture. Homemade is preferred but if you don’t have time then just buy the ready-made fried shallots. Look for the oily fried shallots because it is crunchy and tasty.
5) Scallion oil
Scallion oil is often used to add flavour to vegetables or just any Vietnamese dry dishes. It is often used on grilled seafood with peanuts and fried shallots. This is one of the most common practices seen in Vietnamese cooking.