Seasonings in Vietnamese Cooking
The Chinese seasonings of garlic, scallions and onions, fresh ginger root and soy sauce are all part of Vietnamese cookery. But what makes the cuisine most distinctive is the addition of two special condiment sauces used both in cookery and at the table : nuoc mam and nuoc cham. These two sauces represent the essence of what separates Vietnamese cookery from most other eastern cookery.
Nuoc mam is the liquid that is produced from layered slated fish which has been allowed to ferment in barrels. Almost equally important is nuoc cham. Every cook has a special recipe for the addition of fiery spices and pungent flavors to the basic nuoc mam. Garlic and onions, chili peppers, black pepper, cayenne, sugar, citrus juices, coconut juice and vinegar may all be a part of the final fiery hot combination. Both of these sauces are used as ingredients in many other dishes – almost the way westerners use salt and pepper – or as added sauces or condiments for dipping savory mouthfuls.
The delicate flavors of coconut and lemon grass also permeate many Vietnamese dishes. Roasted peanuts, crushed or chopped, add a special flavor to many sauces.
For the Vietnamese, fragrant fresh herbs are eaten in such quantities as to be considered part of the daily vegetable intake as well as seasoning prepared foods in typically Vietnamese ways: for example, mint leaves and fresh coriander accompanying grilled beef; fresh dill and green onions used in fish cookery; bean sprouts, fresh coriander, slivered hot chilies and lime added to pho bo (beef noodle soup); fresh ginger, lemon grass, garlic and green onions with a sprinkle of brown sugar added to a boned chicken dish.