Whenever I enter a Vietnamese grocery store, I’m overwhelmed with this sudden sensation like I’m a fish breathing underwater-the air thick with the unmistakably pungent, aquarium-like funk of the seafood counter. This Proustian scent memory sends me back to a moment where I’m a kid again, grocery shopping with Mom.
The maritime aroma is a welcome sign that you’re in the right place. It means you’ll find live fish tanks of fresh catfish in the back (live shrimp and lobster, if you’re lucky) alongside trays of mackerel-on-ice, ready to be deep fried to order and eaten at home with salty-sour-sweet homemade nước chấm with fresh lime.
Here, you’ll come across difficult-to-find, fragrant Vietnamese herbs, spices, and sauces; 50-pound bags of Three Ladies brand jasmine rice; imported Vietnamese jackfruit; and spongy fresh tofu from the local tofu maker who might fry and top the tender tofu with Three Crabs brand fish sauce-laced scallion oil. When you shop for Vietnamese groceries, remember: Three Crabs, Three Ladies.
My favourite aisle has always been the snack aisle, where a beautifully multicultural selection of imported snacks from all around the world awaits: Vietnamese shrimp snacks, tamarind hard candies from Thailand, buttery French biscuits, Indonesian coffee candy, Korean onion rings and choco pies. It’s an experience that feels distinctly American.
Growing up Vietnamese American in Southern California in semi-close proximity to Little Saigon (the diasporic “capital” of post-war Vietnamese immigrants in the States) and Gardena, I’ve been spoiled by Vietnamese-owned grocery stores and pan-Asian mega-markets.
Pick up these multicultural snacks and pantry essentials-favourites from my childhood-on your next trip to the Vietnamese grocery store or any Asian specialty grocer nearby.
Our favourite Vietnamese snacks and drinks
Coco Rico coconut soda
It’s so Vietnamese and “assimilation food” of us that one of our secret star ingredients to cook with is a carbonated coconut-flavoured soda from Puerto Rico. Somehow found in nearly every Vietnamese pantry and every Vietnamese grocery store, we drink Coco Rico straight up or cook it down with fish sauce into a coconut-scented, caramelized braising liquid for pork belly (we’re convinced the carbonation tenderizes the meat).
Durian ice cream pops
Ah yes, durian, the “king of fruits”-notoriously banned from hotels and public transit for its overpowering, so-called “offensive” aroma. Some people say it smells like garbage; Anthony Bourdain once said it tastes like “French-kissing your dead grandmother.” It’s a multi-layered, complex, acquired taste that I find much milder and easily accessible for first-timers in ice cream popsicle form. My absolute favourite ice pops are from the Tropical Ice brand, which also comes in a plastic tub.
Amira tamarind hard candy
At my grandma’s house in Westminster, California, more often than not, her dining table centrepiece was a decorative crystal bowl overflowing with these individually wrapped tamarind-flavoured Thai hard candies. They’re simultaneously tart and just a tad sweet-quite refreshing after a meal. Some Vietnamese restaurants include these with your check instead of those chalky peppermint pillows no one ever wants.
Vinacafe 3-in-1 Vietnamese instant coffee mix
For your average highly caffeinated Vietnamese person, only an ultra-concentrated Vietnamese coffee made from a phin drip filter and condensed milk will do. But in a hurry, this instant coffee mix is second best and most-loved by members of my family. Vinacafe are pre-sweetened instant coffee packs blended with powdered creamer. Just add water. During finals week back in the day, I’d pour two bags in one mug and get so caffeinated I was practically glowing.
Marco Polo shrimp snacks
Unlike Korean brand Nongshim’s more popular ridged Shrimp Crackers or Japanese brand Calbee’s Shrimp Chips, these shrimp snacks from the Philippines are greasier, lighter, puffier, and more delicate. Texturally, they’re similar to Banh Phong Tom Dac Biet-flat, dense, hard rectangles and ovals made of tapioca starch and prawn powder that puff up into airy crisps when you drop them in hot oil. My favourite flavour is the Garlic & Onion and Bar-B-Que-somehow they taste like neither flavour description, but I really don’t mind.
Bánh pâté chaud (or patê sô)
Golden brown, flaky, and buttery with a juicy ground pork centre (sometimes made with frozen peas), these French-Vietnamese puff pastry meat pies can be found under a hot lamp if your Vietnamese grocer has a bakery counter. My dad and I always pick up a few of these-some for later, some for snacking ASAP directly out of the brown paper bag they come in. For breakfast, they’re perfect with a hot Vietnamese coffee.
Kopiko coffee hard candy
Did I say Vietnamese people love coffee? Indonesian brand Kopiko makes these beautiful individually wrapped coffee-flavoured hard candies that are flat and rectangular with smooth, rounded edges. This is a dense hard candy; it lasts impossibly long and shatters into sharp shards if you’re a hard-candy-cruncher like me. The depth of their dark coffee flavour is unmatched; the creaminess of the Cappuccino version is almost unctuous. It’s a favourite of my grandma, dad, and uncles because it has such a strong coffee flavour that it sort of tastes like Vietnamese coffee. These indeed have some caffeine kick to them. You’ve been warned.
Laughing Cow cheese wedges
One of my lunch pail favourites as a child is la vache qui rit (French) or con bò cười (Vietnamese): individually wrapped, super soft, mild, creamy Swiss cheese wedges. You simply pull the red tab and peel back the foil to reveal the most darling little cheese wedge-for-one. Evidence of French colonization, this cheese is incredibly popular in Vietnam and among Vietnamese-American immigrants alike; we eat them directly out of the foil or spread it atop a croissant.
Taiwanese fruit jelly cups
I can’t think of a sweet gelatinous snack better than this. These Willy Wonka-esque cups may look like jello, but they’re chewier, juicier, a little pulpy, and a thousand times more delicious. You can find them in plastic jars of colourful assorted fruit flavours, or single flavours like lychee (the packaging literally says, “This Product Is Unbelievably Delicious”). Look for the ones that say “coconut jelly”-it means chewy little cubes of nata de coco will be suspended at the bottom for a real treat.
Crispy rice crackers with pork floss
One of the most addictive crunchy-spicy-salty-fatty-sweet Vietnamese snacks ever created, cơm cháy chiên giòn, or Vietnamese crispy rice crackers, are usually made with leftover rice at home, deep fried to a golden crisp and topped with chà bông (pork floss) and a syrupy, sweet chile-fish sauce drizzle. Luckily, you can skip all that and find these in plastic to-go containers near the checkout line at the Vietnamese market. (If you haven’t had pork floss before, think of it as a lighter, fluffier, spun cotton candy-like version of meat jerky.)
French Maggi seasoning with the red cap
Vietnamese people don’t traditionally use soy sauce, at least not the Japanese and Chinese salt-forward versions. Instead, we consider this dark, thin, umami-packed Swiss seasoning our legendary cult condiment and pantry staple. Vietnamese folk of all generations believe the French-made version is superior; it’s almost always more expensive than the Chinese, Mexican, Swiss, and German versions, reads Arome Saveur on the front, and has a red cap. It’s so popular that there’s even knockoffs with an Eiffel tower logo so be wary.
My favourite way to use Maggi is simple: On a garlicky fried egg with lacey, crispy edges over steaming-hot rice, I’ll place a pat of European butter on top and finish it with white pepper and generous drops of Maggi.
Where to shop for Vietnamese products
Naturally a culture of culinary crossroads, Vietnamese people shop for groceries and imported pantry essentials at Vietnamese-owned markets, Asian American super-grocers, Thai grocery stores, Chinese markets, and Korean supermarkets alike.
If you live in a large city, Taiwanese-owned pan-Asian grocer 99 Ranch Market is a favorite of Vietnamese Americans and has been expanding on the East Coast for the past couple years. 99 Ranch Market’s online shop has a fairly good selection of condiments, instant noodles, and the aforementioned Vinacafe instant coffee. Plus, I’ve found quite a few Vietnamese essentials on Weee!, an e-grocer start-up specializing in Asian and Latinx ingredients.
Thuan Phat (also known as Shun Phat) is one of the largest Vietnamese-Chinese mega-market chains, with several locations in California and a few stores in Texas, Oregon, and Nevada. Another great multi-state Asian grocery option is Korean-owned chain H Mart. Formosa Market has a few East Coast locations, such as in Boston and Lexington.
While there aren’t any nationwide Vietnamese supermarket chains, I’d recommend searching “Vietnamese grocery” on Yelp-results may vary between Chinese, Thai, and Korean markets, but you’ll usually find something close to what you’re looking for. It’s how I found Bangluck Market in Hollywood’s Thai Town.
For a chaotic, extremely Vietnamese-American grocery adventure, check out ABC Supermarket in Westminster, California. It’s one of my grandma and dad’s favourite grocery stores. It’s crowded as hell, has next to zero parking, aggressive drivers, and some of the worst reviews. But! It has everything Vietnamese you could ever need, is always cheap, and is adjacent to a bakery, two fruit stands, an Asian barbecue meat shop, and a busy Bánh Mì & Chè Cali Bakery. Trust us: Park at the bank and walk.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.