My family is Catholic so I grew up knowing little about Vietnamese Buddhist vegetarian cooking. We had plenty of meatless dishes but they always had a some fish sauce for umami depth (dam da, in Vietnamese). There was nothing that was expressly designed to be purely vegetarian, like this lemongrass chile mushroom stir-fry, a recipe from Cameron Stauch’s Vegetarian Viet Nam cookbook.
Because of my lack of knowledge, I was intrigued by Cameron’s book, which I reviewed and wrote an endorsement for. He lived in Vietnam for several years and traveled the country to meet with Buddhist monks and resourceful vegetarian cooks. The result is a terrific look at how people produce beautifully textured and flavorful dishes that’s sustainable, too. There are interesting tidbits, such as the importance of mindful eating to better appreciate Nature’s bounty.
Cameron includes seitan and other meat substitutes, but I chose the lemongrass chile mushroom stir-fry because it’s not trying to be anything but its mushroom-y self. Plus, you can easily obtain the ingredients at a grocery store.
Homemade Mushroom Powder
We’ve discussed flavor enhancers at Viet World Kitchen before and I’ve mentioned that mushroom seasoning powder is often labeled in Vietnamese as being vegetarian (chay). That’s because many people use chicken bouillon powder as a flavor enhancer. Both mushroom powder and chicken bouillon powder function like MSG to impart kisses of savory depth.
In his book, Cameron offers a simple workaround – grind up dried shiitake mushroom stems. I save my stems for stocks and the like so I threw some into my spice grinder (just a cheap coffee grinder reserved for spices) and went to town. It was woodsy. I tried three kinds of mushroom – Asian market dried shiitake, supermarket shiitake, and then a surprise outlier – a blend from Costco!
The Mushroom Company’s dried blend from Costco was a standout. It’s a lot to commit to but perhaps you have other uses for it. The flavor is woodsy with lots of umami aroma whereas the shiitake wasn’t as strong. Dynasty brand of dried shiitake (sold at supermarkets) is somewhat soft, and because of their smallish size, I tore up whole caps for the powder. They didn’t grind up into a powder until I added some coarse salt to move things along.
Remember that when you make your own. Store it in a jar in the cupboard and when you use it, let it sit in liquid to express itself through hydration. This homemade mushroom powder is not fast acting like the store-bought kind.
Extra Tips for Your Lemongrass Chile Mushroom Stir-Fry
Beyond making the mushroom powder, the rest of the recipe comes together very easily. To move things along, use a mini food processor to mince the lemongrass; the same could be done with the garlic. A pound of mushroom is bulky so use a large skillet – at least 12 inches wide to cook the mushroom well. I deployed my 14-inch carbon steel skillet, which heats up superhot and acts like a commercial kitchen flat-top cooking surface. A wok is good if it’s large and well heated.
Cameron’s Vegetarian Viet Nam is loaded with interesting recipes and cultural insight. If you’re into plant-based cooking, check it out.
- Mushroom Pate for Banh Mi Recipe
- MSG Salt and Mushroom Powder – Instant Flavor Fixes?
- MSG in Pho and What to Do about It
Lemongrass Chile Mushroom Stir-Fry
Yield 4 servings
Called nam xao xa ot in Vietnamese, this vegetarian dish can be a main or side. The mushroom-y result can be served cooled atop a salad, if you like. It would be great in tacos, too. Use different mushrooms so you get a variety of textures, shapes, and flavors.
If you only have lemongrass paste, use 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons and stir-fry on medium heat at the front end to avoid burning. Crank up the heat before adding the mushrooms. The following recipe was adapted from Cameron Stauch's Vegetarian Viet Nam.
- 1/2 teaspoon Mushroom Powder (see above)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, or 1 tablespoon soy sauce plus 1 1/2 teaspoons Bragg Liquid Aminos or Maggi Seasoning sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar, or 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons vegetable stock or water
- 3 to 4 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass (chop 2 trimmed lemongrass stalks then mince in a mini food processor)
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 Thai or serrano chile, finely chopped (keep seeds intact)
- 1 pound fresh mushrooms, such as oyster, pioppini, shiitake and/or cremini (blend them for great variety!)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion, green and white parts
- 1 lime wedge (optional)
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro stems and leaves
- Make the mushroom powder, if you haven’t.
- For a seasoning sauce, stir together the mushroom powder, soy sauce, sugar, and water. Set aside. Ready the lemongrass, garlic and chile and keep near the stove.
- As needed, tear, slice or quartered the mushroom into large bite-size pieces. (Trim the ends of pioppini and they’ll fall into clusters or singles. Oyster mushrooms can be torn. Other mushrooms may be quartered or sliced. Set aside.
- Warm the oil in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lemongrass and garlic and stir-fry for 1 1/2 minutes, until fragrant and the raw garlic flavor mellows.
- Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 5 minutes, until they soften and glisten. Add the green onion, stir to combine, then pour in the seasoning sauce mixture. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until the liquid is no longer visible and the mushroom have cooked through.
- Turn off the heat and let sit for a minute develop flavor. Taste and if you want to brighten the flavor, add a squirt of lime juice. Stir in the cilantro, then heap onto a serving dish and enjoy.
Adapted from Cameron Stauch's Vegetarian Viet Nam (Norton, 2018)