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Supermarkets with well-stocked ethnic sections carry most of the ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking; five-spice powder, turmeric, fermented black bean and chili sauce, tofu, jasmine rice, rice sticks, rice flour, unsweetened coconut milk, oyster sauce, Oriental sesame oil, chayotes, fresh cilantro, and Thai chilies. Asian markets are the source for the more exotic ingredients; good quality nuoc mam, fresh lemon grass, tamarind, and packaged fried red onions.
Fresh Lemon Grass:
This member of the grass family has a tender, aromatic bulb that is used and an indirect flavoring; like a bay leaf, it's simmered to release its perfume but is not meant to be eaten. Look for stalks that have full, firm, fragrant bulbs. Trim off the tough green tops and outer leaves, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate or freeze. To use, pull away all the outer leaves until youreach the moist tender inner core, then slice, mince, or shred.
The long, fat, fuzzy brown pods of the tamarind tree are studded with large seeds surrounded by an intensely tangy and fruity sticky pulp.
This treasured condiment is widely used in hot and sour fish soups.
Seedless pulp is available in Indian and Middle Eastern markets and needs to be diluted with water. A ready-to-use version is available in Asian markets.
One of the most important staples of the Vietnamese diet, this highly digestible flour is made from ground long-grain white rice. It's available in supermarkets and Asian or Latin markets. Be careful not to buy sweet rice flour or Japanese rice flour.
Thai (or bird) Chilies:
These fiery, tiny red and green chilies are sold in small plastic bags in Asian groceries. A little goes a long way, so finely chop the chilies, seeds and all, adding as much or as little as your tolerance allows. As with all hot chilies, careful handling is imperative. Fresh serrano, cayenne, or jalapeo chilies can be substituted.
Unsweetened Coconut Milk:
Not to be confused with the sweetened coconut cream used in tropical drinks, unsweetened coconut milk also comes in a can and has a rich, genuine coconut essence. When the milk settles in the can, the thicker, richer cream rises to the surface, so you may have to stir or shake before measuring it out. Look for Chaokoh or Chef's Choice brands from Thailand. Pour any leftovers into a glass jar and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Food and Wine April 1995
Submitted By DIANE LAZARUS On 04-18-95