A Beginners guide to street food condiments
At street food stalls and in local restaurants vendors plate the noodles, broth, meat and vegetables, but the rest of it depends on the creative designs of the customers, who add their own toppings from the variety of pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, chilli, and sauces including, among others, the funky fish sauce or the extra spicy, Quang Nam chilli paste that dress the table.
For the novice, the sheer number of condiments present can be confusing - the temptation to wing it and copy your host or other diners overwhelming.. RESIST all urges to do this and first take a sip of the untainted broth to savour the complexities of the flavour - most often you'll find it's so good it doesn't need the extra flavours and blasting it with these sweet and spicy flavours, before giving it a chance, is sort of criminal.
However, understanding how these garnishes work is key to understanding Vietnamese cuisine and it helps to arm yourself with a little knowledge before you pull up a plastic stool.
This guide focuses on the table offerings available in the central province of Hoi An.
Salad & Herb Basket
Most commonly served are Thai basil (sharp and biting), bean sprouts (fresh and crunchy) and the funky fish leaf (a dark, heart shaped leaf. Taste it on it's own before you commit it to your soup). Those three are a given. You may also find Thai chilli peppers (crimson red with a fiery heat to match), spring onion greens, coriander, saw leaf herb (more bite and pepper than cilantro), crispy lettuce and mint (these two are more common on tables in the central provinces).
The herbs are best when added last (the aromatics dwindle quickly once submerged) bruised and ripped up (to release their flavour) before they are sprinkled on to the surface of the broth, as opposed to the entire leaf being submerged (it wilts). The larger leaves like lettuce are used as wrap between fingers and meat/fish/tofu for dipping.
Be conservative with your chilli, it can take a few minutes before the heat hits and they are deceivingly spicy. When the broth hits your happy heat spot, remove them. If it doesn't, add more.
Other common items are whole garlic cloves, lime wedges and delicious homemade pickles - strong flavours that can really alter the taste of a dish and another good reason to taste the untainted broth before throwing them in.
To the untrained tastebud, fish sauce is pretty much the iconic symbol of culinary obstinance and belligerence. It's the ultimate love-or-hate item. Marmite, Star Wars, or Kim Kardashian, people tend to feel strongly either way. This Salty, Funky Condiment boasts a staggering (and, truth be told, near putrid) fishiness—not to mention gout inducing salt levels—but if you like anchovies and use sparingly (heed that advice) it is near narcotically delicious.
For those that just don't get the flavour, you'll likely find all the ingredients on the table to knock together your own nuoc cham (the delicious dipping sauce you'll be familiar with if you have tried white rose, banh zeo, spring rolls or just about anything).
Grab a small bowl, add a little fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, a little sugar and then garlic cloves and sliced chilli to taste.
And if you really can't do fish sauce, use soy sauce in it's place.
Fortunately, you can feel more confident with the bottled condiments present at the table. What’s on offer will reflect the food served, because each dish has certain condiments that are traditionally added to it.
The most common are:-
Fish sauce - Flavour notes: Salty (it's pretty much the salt of the Vietnamese table), with a strong anchovy funk.
Soy sauce - As many of Hoi An's traditional street food dishes and specialities are strongly influenced by Chinese cuisine, soy sauce is very much a staple. It's often served in the same plastic bottles as fish sauce - it's the darker of the two.
Vietnamese soy sauce has a lighter, more subtle flavour than those used in Japanese cuisine, it's used to add a more salty, smokey flavour to soups, rice dishes (like com ga) or as a dip (for a vegetarian alternative to nuoc cham, substitute the fish sauce for soy).
Maggi seasoning - The flavour is similar to that of a vegetable bouillon cube but in a liquid concentrate form (a little goes a long way). A few drops can add a depth of flavour to soups, noodles, stir-fried veg and rice dishes. In the Vietnamese kitchen it's practically used in everything from bahn mi to dipping sauces (something to watch out for if you have anything against MSG, which it has in spades).
Chilli Sauce/Sriracha - Commonly used in soups and broths to add heat and best avoided by those who's taste buds are not attuned to very spicy flavours. A better choice in this case is the fresh chilli as you can control the heat easily by removing it entirely before it gets too hot.
NB. To counteract a fiery spice, add a squirt of lime juice and a little sugar.
Hoisin - More common in the north, sweet, salty Hoisin sauce is the classic accompaniment to pho where it is preferred as a dipping sauce for bo vien (pho meat balls) rather than added directly to the broth. It's an unusual addition to Hoi An cuisine unless you are dining in a Ha Noi pho joint.
Pickles & Jams
Pickles are pretty much the greatest condiment of all time. They are almost always homemade - whole shallots, garlic cloves, thinly sliced chillies and a slaw of carrot and daikon radish pickled in rice vinegar and sugar. They are commonly used to add a slightly sour flavour to dishes and the all important crunch to texture. Eaten alone, they make a good counterbalance to fatty meat dishes or to cleanse the palette between courses.
Quang Nam Chilli Jam - Hoi An Tuong Ot
Hoi An's most treasured condiment the smokey, sweet and varying degrees of spicy chilli jam can be found in squat little plastic jars with a pillar-box red screw top and goes with everything.
Key ingredients are mountain chilli, tomato, garlic, shallots and sesame seeds (which to the untrained eye can be confused for chilli seeds).
Rice crackers & Paper
Certain dishes (like My Quang) are served with a side of rice crackers. These are traditionally broken up and sprinkled on top of the dish to give it a bit of 'crunch'. They can also be served as table snacks in beer halls accompanied by a dipping sauce (normally soy sauce based).
Rice paper is provided alongside dishes like banh zeo or skewers (finger foods). The etiquette here is to soften with water from the bowl provided and then layer them with salad leaves and herbs before adding the grilled meat off the skewers and rolling them tightly (like a spring roll). Instead of adding the sauces during construction you'll be given your own personal dipping bowl in which to add sauces.
Salt, Pepper & Sugar
Most Vietnamese dishes come already seasoned and to add saltiness to a dish most Vietnamese will add fish sauce rather than more salt. In seafood restaurants diners will be served with a small dipping dish with salt, pepper and a lime wedge. Rather than sprinkle this over your food, squeeze the lime over the salt and pepper and give it a stir with your chopstick and dip.
Though it may seem strange to find sugar among your condiments for savoury dishes back home, it's very much a staple in Vietnam. It's used to balance the spicy or sour elements of a dish (a good fall back if you have gone overboard with the chilli).
Hoi An pho is a completely different dish from the classic. Due to the tropical climate and available ingredients the beef is often replaced by chicken (pho ga) and the broth more akin to the more fragrant Hue bun bo. Among the condiments served you'll find slithers of young mango in place of Hoisin sauce, an addition that better complements the lighter, spicier flavours of the broth and helps cut through the slightly fattier broth.
Lime - A little squeeze of lime can brighten, lighten and add an essential hit of sour to a broth. Use it before any other condiment or to with sugar to rescue a dish that's whacking out a bit too much heat.