19 Vietnamese Vegan Cooking Secrets from the Village
The freshness Vietnamese food is astounding. For some cuisines a salad is simply lettuce. In Vietnam salad is a mix of fresh sprouts, vibrant herbs, leaves of many shapes with purple stems and varied aromas all crunching gently in your mouth beside crushed peanuts and soft rice noodles. It’s a version of heaven. And these mixed greens are served with many dishes, along with a slice of lime. So fresh.
When I travel, I give myself the gift of vegan cooking classes. Then I internalize the tastes and smells of another land and bring it home to my kitchen to enjoy and share again and again. I learn to cut a vegetable a slightly different way, to make a sauce in a way I never have, and it brings me joy. That’s the kind of gift you don’t have to pack up each time you move or get sad when it brakes. You always have it! And you can easily give it to others.
In gorgeous Old Town in Hoi An, there’s a vegan restaurant called Dam. It is not designed specifically for foreigners like many other relatively high priced vegan restaurants. It was created for everyone to eat delicious vegan food together every day. Even local people with limited resources. There are long shared tables, a revolving menu in buffet form as well as made to order noodles, and many smiling people making the whole restaurant a flowing symphony.
At the restaurant there is a sign for a vegan cooking class with a teacher named Cuong (firstname.lastname@example.org). I emailed the teacher and went on a bike riding adventure with him to the market and then to his outdoor kitchen beneath his home in the village outside of the city.
#1. Be liberal with lemongrass. Slice it as thin as you can, cut as much as you can and add it in handfuls. And if you are lucky enough to get a straw size tube of lemongrass, use it as a straw! You can also wrap seitan around the stick-like base of lemongrass and then steam the seitan so it sticks to the lemongrass like a chicken wing. Pretty cool.
#2. You can add mint to a lot more dishes than you think. You can serve it on the stem on the side with soup, take leaves off of the stem and mix them with other herbs and lettuce for a flavorful salad. I even had a tomato sauce dish “ragu” with mint in it, and it was surprisingly delicious. The mint with the small leaves and dark purple stems and veins seems to be the most common in Vietnam, and it’s so nice.
#3. Get creative with carrots. It’s easy and it adds a lot. Use a claw peeler to make long carrot shreds that mimic the shape of long noodles and fry them together. Make 4 tiny 90 degree knotches in the carrot, cut circular cross sections and you have flowers.
#4. Cook vegetables fast in hot oil (without burning yourself or the food) and then add lots of water. This keeps the colors bright and the vegetables more fresh
#5. When making soup broth, keep the broth flavor pure. Vietnam is probably most famous for Pho, a delicious noodle soup. While the broth may be fermented over night sometimes, it is still not a stew. Many people are quite serious about their Pho broth.
Pho (pronounced “Fuh” with a rising tone) is usually sweetened with an animal bone. In our cooking class, we sweetened it with an Asian pear. An apple could also be used.
Vegan pho broth:
- 1 whole Asian pear or apple with the peel, stem and seeds removed cut into quarters
- 1 whole uncut grilled (or broiled) onion with burnt skin removed
- 1 carrot cut into simple flower cross sections
- 1 star anise
- 2 inches of cinnamon bark
- 1 litre of water
- Bring 1 litre of water and fruit, onion, carrot, anise and cinnamon to a boil and then simmer for 30 min.
- Remove grilled onion, fruit and spices from broth. You can use these for a salad. Keep carrots in the broth.
- Taste broth. Add mushroom powder, soy sauce, salt and sugar as needed
Add whatever else you like to the soup when serving. Fried mushrooms, pieces of tofu, uncooked noodles, greens.
- In a portion-size bowl, place a couple cooked mushrooms and pieces of tofu and uncooked noodles. Ladle the hot soup on top just before serving. Garnish with mint on the side.
*You don’t want the mint on the side to touch the hot broth until you are just about to put it in your mouth. It is important for the broth to stay separate. Herbs always have their own oils. Tasting the flavors separately is better. That is also why you don’t cook the mushrooms or tofu in the broth. And you want the noodles not to overcook and break. That is why you ladle hot broth on top just before serving each bowl instead of cooking the noodles ahead of time
- Add other parts of the soup right before you take each bite.
#6. You can add oil and spices to rice before cooking…and it’s delicious. Turmeric rice is a popular vegan replacement for the typical “chicken rice” dish in Vietnam. It makes the rice very flavorful all on it’s own, and a vibrant yellow as well. Here’s how our teacher did it:
Turmeric (vegan chicken) Rice
- Heat a bit of vegetable oil in a pan
- Turn off the flame and THEN add the tumeric. You want the turmeric to be fragrant. It will get bitter and the color will get too dark if it is over cooked and you keep heating it.
- Rinse and drain the rice and put it in the rice cooker insert without turning the rice cooker on
- Fry onions in the oil. Turn off the heat and add turmeric. Then pour just the oil (save the onions) into the uncooked rice. You can hold the onions back with large cooking chopsticks.
- Mix and mix more so all of the rice is coated in turmeric and oil. Then add a teaspoon of salt and and a teaspoon of mushroom powder. Add 2/3 as much water as you normally would to the rice cooker and cook. Now start the rice cooker.
- Before the rice is done cooking, heat some more oil in a pan and put the onions back in. Add garlic, different kinds of mushrooms, and finally add shredded green unripe papaya. Turn off the heat.
- Fold in fresh herbs and salad greens
- Top the cooked yellow rice with the mixture of mushrooms, papaya herbs and salad greens
- Sprinkle black pepper on top
#7. Try adding sesame seeds to your peanut sauce. Unlike Thai and Indonesian peanut sauce I’ve seen made, Vietnamese peanut sauce can contain sesame seeds. Blend sesame seeds and peanuts and water 1:1:3. Blend together. Then add mushroom powder, soy sauce, sugar, salt. Then cook. and add kuzu or cornstarch or wheat flour to thicken it. Use room temp water to dissolve kuzu.
#8. When you make fresh rolls with rice paper that is ¼ of a large circle, use 2 pieces of rice paper and overlap the rice paper in the middle. The filling can be raw or cooked skinny long carrot sticks, kuzu, tofu, etc. Like Thai fresh rolls, put lettuce leaves down first and add the filling on top. You can even add a sweet skinny slice of fruit (pineapple, etc). But less is more. There’s no need to overload the roll with ingredients so it is hard to roll and eat. But be generous with the mint!
#9. Use both soy sauce and salt, especially when you do not want to change the color of the ingredients in a dish. For some reason I thought I should choose one or the other. Silly. We can use both in the same dish. And use mushroom powder! That’s an important flavor for vegan Vietnamese cooking.
#10. If you need to add more flavor, combine wet and dry ingredients in a bowl first and then pour into the pan in a way that distributes the sauce evenly. Guess I should have realized that a long time ago!
#11. Some vegan restaurants make all of their mock meat. Dam vegan restaurant in Hoi An makes their own. Other vegan Asian restaurants buy and serve highly processed mock meat, and the flavors are very strong and may contain chemicals. We can make our own seitan without vital wheat gluten by fermenting wheat flour overnight. Putting the uncooked seitan dough in a food processor changes the texture. Seitan can also be steamed in different shapes as well as fried. And adding Chinese five spice powder to the dough makes it extra tasty. The recipe was something like this: Soak flour and salt in warm water for 45 minutes, then mix it in a bowl and wash it. When it stops sticking to your hands, soak it in water under a wet cloth for 5 hours. Then wash it like you are washing clothes and break it. Wash it again. You can save the washing water and use it for other dishes too. There’s protein in it.
#12. Rice rinsing water can be used as a DIY natural beauty treatment. In Vietnam you can buy broken rice. When you rinse it, the rinsing water can be used for a softening face mask. The rice that is whole kernels is exported from Vietnam and doesn’t work as well for this.
- Add a little bit of lime to the water. The acid will remove chemicals from cosmetics, etc
- Put it on several times. Put on, let it dry, rinse off, and then put it on again.
- Leftover rice rinsing water can be kept in the fridge and used another day
#13. “Put your love in. It will taste better”. That’s what our teacher Cuong said. Watching the way him and his wife Trang worked together in the kitchen, I could see this is a belief they live by. Compassion for animals and people, love for plants, and delicious fresh home cooked food.
#14. Buy with long bamboo chopsticks as cooking utensils. Coconut chopsticks don’t last as long. And you can add spices like turmeric to dishes with your cooking chopsticks. You don’t need to get another spoon dirty. And you can tell when the oil in the pan is not enough by touching the tips of your chopsticks on the bottom of the pan. If bubbles come up, it’s time to cook!
#15. Burn agarwood to create nice energy in your kitchen, business and home. I don’t know if Cuong does this, but he showed us where to buy agarwood at the market. There’s a reason why many cultures burn things that smell good and have a good meaning in their homes…
#16. Consider saving seeds and growing more of your own food. Cuong kept carrot tops, lemongrass bottoms, and more vegetable cuttings for planting in the gardens surrounding his outdoor kitchen and house.
#17. Purple and slightly crunchy banana flower curls also add color, flavor and texture to Vietnamese salads. Slicing red cabbage very thin may be a good replacement for that in parts of the world that don’t have banana flowers.
#18. The secret ingredient in claypot eggplant is rosemary. Surprise! I’ve never seen rosemary used in Asian cooking at all. Cooking large cubes of Asian eggplant, tofu, onions, zucchini summer squash, and mushroom in a clay pot for 30 minutes and then add rosemary at the end. Delicious.
#19. It is easier to find vegetarian food in Central and Southern Vietnam than in the North. I remembered having a more difficult time finding vegetarian food in Hanoi around 2005. I asked about this. I was told that religious people (maybe more specifically Buddhists?) headed south years ago, and now people live in Hanoi to make money and work. The pace in Hoi An was relaxed and laid back, and there was a ton of vegetarian and vegan restaurants all around. Thank you Vietnamese Buddhists and other plant-food chefs!