Make sure your kitchen is stocked with these essential ingredients and fresh herbs. These will help you achieve authentic flavours in your cooking.
16 May 2013 - 2:17 PM  UPDATED 29 Apr 2015 - 3:59 PM

Pantry staples


Fish sauce

Fish sauce is the essence of Vietnamese food, a source of flavour as well as protein.  Fish sauce is made from fermenting 3 part anchovies to 1 part sea salt over a period of 12-14 months. A good fish sauce is as important as a good olive oil. Best brands are 'Phu Quoc' or 'Viet Huong'. “Nuoc mam nhi” is the first press, the equivalent of extra virgin olive oil, used for dipping sauces and salads. The second pressing is less expensive and is used for cooking.


Hoi sin

A thick, sweet Chinese barbecue sauce made from salted black beans, onions and garlic. Hoisin sauce is mainly used as a table condiment and as flavouring for meat, poultry and shellfish dishes.


Anchovy sauce

Anchovy sauce (mam nem) is widely used in Central and Southern Vietnamese food. It's a mixture of fermented salted anchovies and sold in a bottle as a condiment. It is very strong in taste and smell and is normally diluted when used to make the sauce of the same name.


Chilli sauce

Chilli sauce (tuong ot) is made of fresh pimentos, ground garlic, salt, sugar and vinegar. It is used as a table condiment and for seasoning in soups and green papaya salad.


Shrimp sauce

Shrimp sauce (mam ruoc) is widely used as a dipping sauce or marinade in Northern Cuisine. It is a mash of marinated shrimps that can be conserved for a long time in bottles.


Master stock

The master stock is a stock that has been kept alive for a great length of time – the master stock at the red lantern is now ten years old. In Vietnamese cooking it is used as a liquid for poaching or braising meat and poultry. The master stock is not to be confused with chicken, pork, beef or fish. Every morning at red lantern, the master stock pot is topped up with water and is brought to the boil twice a day. The seasonings are adjusted and the flavours are given depth.



Cassia (Que thanh) comes in a powdered form or as bark. It is an aromatic spice and can be used in some marinades for roasted chicken, roasted duck or beef braises.


Star anise

This six to eight pointed star spice imparts a flavour resembling cinnamon and cloves. It is used to flavour soups and stews, as well as marinades. An essential ingredient in pho.


Rice paper for rolls


ice paper rolls need to be rolled tight and the flavours need to be very well balanced. Too much vermicelli noodles will cause the rice paper to burst; too many herbs may overwhelm accompanying ingredients. Rice paper rolls are finger food, so it should not droop when held at one end.  My preferred rice paper is the ‘Cu Chi’ brand, as it has enough give and does not dry out too easily. When rolling a rice paper roll, use one and a half sheets per roll to ensure it does not brurst on you.


Fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables and tofu


Vietnamese cooking is renowned for its use of fresh herbs. Look for them in your local Vietnamese or Asian market, as there is really no substitute for their unique flavour and aroma. To keep the herbs fresh, wrap the herbs in a damp cloth and keep refrigerated. Here is a list of essential herbs with descriptions and their medicinal qualities.


Sawtooth coriander
Vietnamese: Ngò Gai
Tasting notes: Strong coriander flavour
Culinary uses: Eaten raw - used in soups and salads.  It enhances the flavour of fresh bamboo shoots.
Medicinal: Used in tea to stimulate appetite, soothes stomach pain, improves digestion.


Rice paddy herb
Vietnamese: Ngò Om
Tasting notes: Citrus with mild cumin flavour
Culinary uses: Sour soups, salads, compliments dishes containing cumin.
Medicinal: Antibacterial qualities


Perilla (shiso leaf)
Vietnamese: Tía Tô
Tasting notes: Large leaves, purple on one side and dark green on the other. Earthy, bold and musky – a mint/basil combination
Culinary uses: Eaten raw in a variety of soups, salads and meat dishes.
Medicinal uses: Used in tea for soothing properties and in steam baths for better skin.


Spearmint herb (green mint) 

Vietnamese: Húng Lui, Húng Dũi
Tasting notes: Spearmint and lime character
Culinary uses: Eaten raw. Found in most common herb and salad plates.
Medicinal: Used in tea as treatment for stomach ache, colds and flu and promotes digestion


Asian basil
Vietnamese: Rau Que, Húng Que 

Tasting notes: sweet / spice, anise / licorice
Culinary uses: Eaten raw. Smelling this basil is to be reminded of a piping hot bowl of pho noodle soup and in many common herb plates. 

Medicinal: Antibacterial qualities, leaves are crushed to a paste to treat small cuts.


Vietnamese balm (Vietnamese lemon mint)
Vietnamese: Kinh Gioi 

Tasting notes: Basil with hints of lemon citrus and lemongrass 

Culinary uses: Eaten raw in a variety of soups and meat dishes and on herb plates. 

Medicinal: Used in tea for soothing properties and in steam baths for better skin. 


Vietnamese mint 

Vietnamese: Rau Răm 

Tasting notes: Long and narrow with pointed leaves that are green and crimsony brown in colour. Spicy and peppery .

Culinary uses: Commonly eaten raw in salads, in duck-related dishes and on most common herb plates. 

Medicinal: Used to treat indigestion, stomach aches, ulcers, wounds and swelling. Believed to have the ability to reduce fertility.


Fish herb (fish mint) 
Vietnamese: Diep Cá

Tasting notes: Strong acquired taste for its fishy character
Culinary uses: Used in bold fishy flavored dishes, very popular in dishes of grilled meats, fish and noodle soups. 

Medicinal: Treats stomach aches, indigestion and swellings. Leaves are crushed to a paste to cure insect bites, rashes and itching.


Bitter herb
Vietnamese name: Rau Dang
Common culinary name: Bitter mint
Tasting Notes: Bitter character
Culinary uses: Add raw to hot pot dishes or steamboats and noodle soups
Medicinal uses: Treat fever, joint pains, & inflammations


Garlic chives (Chinese chives)
Vietnamese: He
Tasting notes: Garlicky and grassy
Culinary uses: Rice paper rolls, stir fries, raw in noodle soups
Medicinal: Antiseptic, aids digestion and helps promote the flow of blood


Betel leaf
Vietnamese: La lot
Tasting notes: bitter character with sweet aromatics
Culinary uses: wrapped around minced beef and grilled, stir fries, eaten raw
Medicinal: Juice of betel leaves with honey - serve as a good tonic.
Leaves soaked in mustard oil and warmed, can be applied to the chest area to relieve cough and difficulties in breathing. Also used as an antiseptic. 


Chrysanthemum greens
Vietnamese: Tan ô
Tasting notes: Bitter, strong flavour
Culinary uses: In soups, cooked or raw, and sautéed.
Medicinal: Rich in vitamin B.


Water spinach (moring glory)
Vietnamese: Rau Muong
Culinary uses: As a vegetable, stir-fried or in soups.
Medicinal: Treatment of bites and high in antioxidants


Mustard leaves
Vietnamese: cai xanh
Culinary uses: Eaten raw as a salad or cooked
Medicinal: High in vitamin A


Vietnamese: Rau dên
Culinary uses: Use like spinach in salads or as a cooked vegetable


Bitter melon
Vietnamese: khô qua
Tasting notes: Similar texture to a cucumber though very bitter
Culinary uses: Can be eaten green or when it ripens it is often cooked with meat or made into a soup
Medicinal: Beneficial for stomach related disorders


Elephant ear stem/stalk
Vietnamese: Bac Ha
Tasting notes: Mild grassy flavoured spongy stems
Culinary uses: Stems add texture and absorb the flavours of soups and stir-fries. Co
Medicinal: Good source of iron, phosphorus, and zinc.


Green mango
Vietnamese: Xoai Song
Tasting notes: Tart, crisp and refreshing with underlying mango flavour
Culinary uses: Used in salads and eaten with salt & pounded chilli as a snack
Medicinal: Good source of fibre, rich in vitamin A and vitamin C.


Banana flower/blossom 
Vietnamese: Bap Chuoi
Culinary uses: Remove outer leaves and sliced or diced and used in salad, stews, stir-fries.
Medicinal: valuable source of vitamin B, vitamin C, and potassium.


Vietnamese: Xu hào
Culinary uses: Can be eaten raw, sliced or diced in salads, sautéed, stir-fried or braised.
Tasting notes: Similar texture and taste to broccoli stem with a hint of mustard
Medicinal: High in fibre, source of vitamin C and potassium.


Young coconut juice

Young coconut juice is the clear water from the coconut, not the richer white cream or milk.


Tropical fruits

Tropical fruits are widely available in Vietnam and highly popular both as desserts and in savoury dishes and salads. Among them are carambolas (or star fruits), dragon fruits, durians, jackfruits, longans, lychees, mangosteens, and rambutans.



Bamboo is found in abundance in Vietnam. It is displayed as an ornament or a decorative plant in homes and gardens. It is used as a building material and its young shoots are used as a food source. If you’re lucky enough to find fresh bamboo shoots, peel off the outer layers until you are left with a soft inner core. Thinly slice and boil it for five minutes with a teaspoon of sugar to eliminate its bitterness. In most Asian markets you can find bamboo shoots in tins or in sealed bags sitting in water. These have already been boiled, but I still quickly blanch them for a minute or so.


Green papaya

Green papaya is simply the un-ripened papaya fruit. When choosing green papaya, make sure it is green, firm and the flesh white with no traces of orange. Peel then shred the papaya finely to make fresh, light and textural salads - combine with prawns, crab, pork or beef and lots of fresh mint with a fish sauce and lime dressing. Green papaya can also be used in soups and curries.


Bean curd

Bean curd is the literal translation of tofu. It is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds through a muslin cloth into blocks. Tofu can be made into silken or firm tofu. To get the maximum life out of your tofu, refresh the water it is stored in daily and keep refrigerated.

Vietnamese essentials
Utensils: Vietnamese
Find out which special utensils you’ll need on hand during cooking.
About Vietnamese food
Vietnamese food is one of the most varied and seductive on the planet – a delicious mix of the food of its colonial visitors and age-old native flavours and techniques. Many forces of climate, trade, history and immigration have influenced Vietnamese cuisine.