7 Groceries My Vietnamese Grandma Always Has on Hand

published Oct 30, 2021
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Three generation family cooking healthy food together
Credit: Getty Images/ davidf

My mother, Ly, has a love for crunchy things. Whenever I bring my kids to see her on Saturdays, she gives them one crunchy delight after another. It was no surprise then, when I visited her last, she handed out sesame crackers — aptly called banh trang in Vietnamese — that she’d recently purchased in a pack of 10 for just a few dollars. They’re sold at just about every Asian supermarket in our hometown of Portland, Oregon (more on these below). 

While there, I interviewed her and two other grandmas (my Aunt Kim and my mother’s friend Nhung) to see what other groceries they find essential while living on a budget — something that a lot of Vietnamese grandmothers do these days. Beyond the basics, here are the seven groceries these grandmas tend to always have on hand.

1. Banh Trang Me Tom Den (Black Sesame Crackers)

Not to be confused with banh trang, the rice paper used in salad rolls, these black sesame crackers come with copious amounts of crunch. Easy to make, transport, and store, all you have to do is put them in the microwave for approximately 60 seconds, where they plump up quickly and deliver a quick, tasty bite. Often located in the dried-goods or noodle aisles (and often not in plain sight), they’re like a hidden gem, according to my mom.

Buy: Black Sesame Cracker with Shrimp Banh, $2.99 for 12 ounces at Weee!

2. Red Yams 

Some call them Japanese yams or Murasaki yams, while others call them Japanese sweet potatoes. My mom calls them red yams. Regardless of what you call them, these yams are a must for Vietnamese grandmothers. All the grandmothers I spoke with adored them for their nutrition value, soft, fluffy interior, and easy storage — you can leave them on the counter for a while without worrying about them rotting. When you’re ready to eat one, just pop it in the microwave for five minutes, covered, for a fast, fulfilling meal with lots of fiber and antioxidants.

3. Shredded Dried Pork

There are several brands of shredded dried pork, but the one these grandmothers tend to gravitate towards is the Formosa brand. You can find it in most Asian supermarkets, often across from the sauces. It’s stored in the cupboard and acts as an easy additive to rice dishes, often sprinkled on top of white rice (or, in my mom’s case, brown rice) and topped with soy sauce. In many ways, it’s comforting and familiar — much in the same way that one squirts ketchup on top of a hot dog, eating a bowl of rice with shredded pork brings back old memories for my mom, who often ate this in her youth.

Buy: Formosa Brand Pork Fu, $4.49 for 4 ounces at Weee!

4. Red and Green Shallots

Both red and green shallots are a staple in many Vietnamese households. But, for my mom, red shallots — sold in a bundle similar to bundles of yellow onions at the grocery store — take top billing. Sprinkle them on top of rice for a simple meal or, as my mom prefers, make crispy fried onions for a tastier alternative to the often-expensive version at the store.

5. Bouillon Soup Base

A bouillon soup base serves many purposes. The soup base (my mom prefers the Totole brand) amplifies flavor hidden underneath many ingredients, bringing out the best they offer. She and the other grandmas I spoke with use it to make a variety of soups, including a simple cabbage and cauliflower soup (her own creation) and pho, the quintessential Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

Buy: Totole Granulate Chicken Bouillon, $4.19 for 1 pound at Weee!

6. Shrimp Chips

These chips are wildly snack-able. Found in snack aisles, there are two versions. If you prefer to eat it straight out of a bag, opt for the Calbee brand. But if you want a cheaper (and equally delicious) version, try the Sa Giang brand, which you cook by frying the chips in a pot of vegetable oil. In my hometown’s supermarket, they often cost less than $1.50! When cooked, the result is an enormous bag of chips that you can eat for days to come.

Buy: Sa Giang Shrimp Chips, $14.99 for 3 7.05-ounce packages

Credit: symbiot

7. Root Vegetables

Like Japanese yams, root vegetables such as daikon, radish, carrots, and jicama have a special place in a Vietnamese grandmother’s kitchen counter. That’s because each of these vegetables can be used in multiple ways. Jicama and carrots, for example, can be chopped and used for soups. Daikon and carrots (and even radishes) can all be sliced and pickled in a simple solution of salt, water, and white vinegar. Store the popular condiment in the pantry or refrigerator and add it to bánh mìs, wraps, rice dishes, and more.

Don’t see your grandma’s grocery staple above? Tell us about it in the comments below!