Garnishes are indispensable ingredients that complement the symphony of flavors found in Vietnamese dishes. Fresh herbs, such as red perilla or basil, infuse our noodle soups, spring rolls and salads with a bouquet of flavors that scintillate our taste buds. More savory toppings like fried pork fat impart a crunchy succulence to dishes such as bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes) and cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork skin). Among the assortment of garnishes that dress our plates, I use fried shallots the most frequently in my kitchen.
Generations before me fled in droves from a war ravaged Việt Nam over 30 years ago following the fall of Saigon. The country was shrouded in panic and confusion during the final hours of the war as the Americans pulled out. In the midst of the mayhem, people in South Việt Nam scrambled to leave the country, which was the debut of a decade-long mass exodus. My mom and her family were among the fortunate ones who left by plane days before the borders closed after the south surrendered to the north. Many others left by boat and embarked on harrowing journeys at sea, where hundreds of thousands perished. Those who were lucky enough to survive the perilous journey settled in countries in all corners of the world.
Open the fridge in any Vietnamese household and you are sure to find a jar of nước mắm. I’m not talking about the pure bottled stuff, but rather the mix that accompanies many dishes on our dining table. It is often served as a dipping sauce for (eggrolls) or as a sauce drizzled over dishes, such as cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork) or bánh xèo (savory crêpes ).