Viet cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients. At my mother-in-law’s table, greenery abounds, the fish and shrimp come from my sister-in-law’s family pond, and Mother buys fresh meat daily at the Đông Ba Market. Canned, bottled, and dry ingredients in her kitchen are mostly limited to the everpresent bottle of fish sauce, bin of rice, sugar, salt and pepper, and soy sauce, ruốc, and MSG. But then there are preserves.
Occasionally, Mother prepares pickled mustard greens, cải chua, to serve as a side or add to a dish for flavour and crunch. At Tết, she buys or makes mứt—candied fruits and vegetables. She picks up nem chua, a sour pork preserve with a hint of garlic and chili, to serve with beer when guests drop in. Cutting white radish and carrot for dưa món preserves is a family activity—Mother, sister-in-law Ta and I spend an evening peeling and cutting enough vegetables to make several jarfuls to last us through Tết. Dưa món is an essential accompaniment for bánh chưng, the sticky rice cakes that we eat in great quantities, usually fried, during the Lunar New Year.
Year-round, the one preserve we cannot do without is my mother-in-law’s Huế-style chilli paste. We use it as a table condiment, include it amongst the ingredients for fried rice, and eat it with our sticky rice cakes too. We rarely eat Huế beef noodle soup or bánh canh without it.
Mother always informed me when she planned to make some so I’d be there to observe and to help. She has no written recipe for her tương ớt. (The word tương has its roots in a Chinese word that means paste, and ớt means chilli pepper.) Perhaps because I’ve been such a fan from the very first time I tasted the condiment, Mother trusted me enough to ask for my opinion on every batch. Usually, I thought it was vừa—just right—but once in a while, I’d find it so spicy I couldn’t taste the other flavours, or a bit too oily, and she’d make some adjustments until we agreed it was vừa.
My husband cannot live without tương ớt made in the style he grew up with, so I prepare enough to fill a small jar—about 300 ml—every couple of months. It’s easy to make but it does take time. If you rush it, the garlic and the chilli powders can burn and become bitter, or the sugar will overcaramelize to produce a rock-hard spicy bitter candy. Oh, yum! But be patient, and make it a few times to figure out your personal preference for flavour balance, and you can’t go wrong.
Following Mother’s method, I measure out finely ground dried chilli powder and about half as much of a coarsely ground seedy one for a total of half a cup. I chop and cook two or three garlic cloves and two shallots in plenty of oil on medium heat until they are dryish and golden, then lower the heat and add the chilli powders and more oil as the mixture absorbs it. I add a tablespoon of fish sauce, which foams up if the mixture is very hot. With the heat on very low or even off, I add a generous tablespoon of sugar, stirring until it melts and thickens the paste. If it doesn’t thicken I turn the heat on again briefly. A bubble or two may rise to the surface, but I don’t let it simmer lest it turn to candy. I sample a tiny taste, on a spoonful of rice if I have some around, and make adjustments if needed.
I prefer to use Thai palm sugar, pictured above, grating a disk into a fluffy, sticky pile of sugar. When measuring, I tamp it into the measuring spoon but I don’t pack it in hard. Rock sugar and white sugar work too, and the exact amount is whatever pleases the taste buds.
Making changes at this point can be tricky, resulting in that hard candy I mentioned earlier, so usually my only adjustment would be to add more oil if the mixture is too thick. More fish sauce could be added if a saltier or more pungent flavour is desired. When the chilli paste has cooled down, I spoon it into a glass jar and admire the lovely deep red colour, which you can see in the header for this post. The oil rises to produce a film on top, which is handy for when you need a bit of chilli oil to flavour a dish.
It keeps well for a couple of months on my counter as long as we make sure to use a clean spoon to scoop it out. The cooking process drives much of the moisture content out of the onions and garlic, and the sugar and oil give it a reasonable shelf life. However, if kept too long in a hot kitchen or beside an oft-used stove, the oil may start to go rancid. At my house, the biggest challenge is to make sure the jar is never empty for long.