Part of my favorite childhood memories revolve around food. Family gatherings and holidays centered on the special foods that my mom and grandmother made and that each of my aunts and uncles brought to share. These memories feature distinctive Vietnamese dishes from my childhood like Banh Bot Loc, Bun Bo Hue, Pho Bo, and so many more.
Our holiday tables were heavy with the roasted turkey, stuffing, yams, and rolls my mother prepared for her assimilated first generation children, but more memorable, was the crispy roasted ducklings that took all day to roast that my uncle brought every year – one for each family to bring home. My grandmother’s Bun Bo Hue fragrant bowls filled with tender brisket, pigs feet, and lemongrass became a staple for each Thanksgiving – served in giant bowls after you’re already stuffed to the gills with turkey and stuffing. My mother’s golden Vietnamese cha gio (egg rolls) crispy and warm wrapped in crisp lettuce, filled with rice noodles, cucumbers, bean sprouts, dipped in the sweet and salty nuoc cham are what I remember and crave when Christmas rolls around.
When we decided to move to Ireland, I was worried that I was moving from Seattle, a place where I could pop down the street to a nearby Vietnamese deli or pho shop for a Vietnamese food fix, to Dublin, where I might not be able to find even the most basic Asian ingredients. How would my children learn about their Vietnamese heritage if I was unable to feed them the food that produced the most memories of home and comfort that I knew as a child?
The first time I was in Ireland, it was 2000 and I distinctly remember noticing that there were not very many Asians walking around. When we decided to make the move, I told my children that we were making a move to a country that was not as ethnically diverse as the place they were born and raised, the multicultural Seattle. Prepare yourselves, I said. People may stare or ask you crazy questions like where are you from and not believe you when you say America.
The kids thought I was acting silly, and they did not experience the singular feeling of being a the only person of an ethnic identity surrounded daily by people of another. Their father is American – but probably most importantly Irish American. His tall, fair, good looks turned out to be genetically stronger than mine. And although, when they stand next to their father, they look like they obviously may have a brown mother, it is not obvious from what ethnicity get their darker hair and easily tan skin. In the school line up, their golden brown hair is the same as many of their Irish friends, and it’s not until you see their features that they appear of mixed descent.
I was worried enough about sourcing Asian ingredients in Ireland like fish sauce and sriracha sauce that I actually googled Asian Grocery stores and Vietnamese restaurants to see if 13 years had brought in diversity in their cuisine. I was glad to see that there were some shops and I had hope! I did not pack anything with me although I did meet some people who smuggled sriracha in their shipping containers!
After arriving, during each trip we made through the city center, I was always on the look-out for Asian restaurants and grocery stores. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were many Asians in Dublin and that it had become a much more ethnically diverse place since 2000!
Most of the Asian grocery stores are North of the Liffy. After living here for a year, I’ve learned that Parnell Street and Capel Street have become a sort of International area feature grocery stores and restaurants of cuisines around the world. It is definitely the place to get your fix if you are craving something!
It is certainly possible to make Vietnamese dishes with the available grocery items. It is a bit more difficult to source items for more complicated dishes, but it’s not impossible. It reminds me of when my mom and grandmother made a lot of dishes from scratch or slightly modified dishes with the ingredients they could find locally. It reminds me of when my mom and grandmother made a lot of dishes from scratch or slightly modified dishes with the ingredients they could find locally. The best shops I have found so far for Vietnamese ingredients is Asia Market on Drury on the South side and Oriental Emporium near the Jervis Luas stop on the North Side.
Tips for Cooking Vietnamese Dishes in Ireland
- Find a good local butcher
While little butcher shops have gone out of style in most areas in the U.S. and most of us buy our meat from the big box stores, the local butcher shop is still popular in Ireland. They are even in the local shopping centers (kind of weird to see a meat shop next to a shoe shop), but it’s actually great! However, the favored cuts of meat in the shops here are pork chops, lamp chops, and loins. To get a good cut of pork belly or thin pork shoulder cuts for Vietnamese dishes, you need to get them from your local butcher (although I have seen ox tails and pork belly at the Dundrum Tesco). You may need to call ahead and have your butcher save you a cut. My friend did this when she made a pork shoulder. If you live close to the Dublin city center or go into town frequently, there are a couple of Asian grocery stores (such as Han Sung on Great Grand Street or the Oriental Emporium on Upper Abbey Street at the Jervis Luas stop) that have meat counters and you can get some cuts there.
- Buy Basics at Tesco and Supervalu
I am noticing that different shops of the same chain carry slightly different items, but I have found that the Tesco and Supervalu near me have a good amount of Asian pantry basics. Although the pre-cooked noodles at Tesco are a bit weird and covered in a oil, you can buy fresh bean sprouts, mint, and cilantro (called Irish Coriander) there. The basis for any good Vietnamese dish! You can also get fresh ginger and lemongrass at both of the Tescos near me. My local Supervalu also carries minced tubes of ginger and lemongrass. You can also buy Kikoman soy sauce at either chain and Tesco has an interesting selection of different curry pastes if you are also into Thai cooking.
- Buying Rice – without a car
If you need to buy rice and are used to buying a 25# or 50# bag, that is really tough to do without a car in Dublin. Lugging a giant bag of rice onto the Luas or bus is a bit odd, but if you have those kinds of muscles, I won’t judge. However, we did not purchase a car for the first year we lived in Dublin and I was not about to lug a big bag of rice plus four young children onto the Luas. Our stroller can only take so much abuse. So, I tried the rice at Tesco, Lidl, and Aldi and I’d have to say that I find the Lidl rice to be the best. It’s a small green bag labelled “Thai Jasmine Rice” and is quite good and very affordable. About half a bag feeds my family of 6 with leftovers. Each bag is about €1.99. So, it’s a good deal, is small and not super heavy, and fits easily into a weekly or bi-weekly purchase. The Tesco bag is larger, but the rice is not as nice. Of course, it’s not as lovely as a super fragrant bag of really good jasmine rice. But it’s still pretty good.
- Best place for rice noodles, fish sauce, rice selection for Vietnamese cooking
By far the best place to buy the ingredients for Vietnamese cooking is Asia Market on Drury Street in the city centre. This shop has the largest selection of cooking sauces, fish sauce, rice, mi goi, etc, Their location in Ballymount has a much smaller selection. This is also the only place in Dublin that sells Banh Tet and Banh Chung (which you will need for the New Year). It’s also the only place that sells gio lua and gio bi. You can also get your bo vien here if you are making pho!