New lunar year, new me

tet-2013

Yesterday was Flavor Boulevard’s 3rd birthday. Today is my nth birthday. Back in 2010, a good friend of mine used to give me a ride to San Jose at least once every other month, sometimes more, when I got cravings for Vietnamese food, and especially when the Lunar New Year approached. When Flavor Boulevard was about one year old, things got complicated. Long story short, I hadn’t been back to San Jose for two years. – Why? You couldn’t rent a car? – Well… you know the stereotype that Asian girls can’t drive? It’s true for this one. It’s embarrassing. People, even those who don’t like driving, feel much more relaxed when they drive me than when I drive them. I’m also used to driving in Houston, where signs are helpful and people are friendly. Driving in California scares me. I’ve been here for 4 years, driven here twice, and both times reaffirmed my scare. So Vietnamese food cravings are satiated with the places in Oakland, where I can reach by bus. I don’t remember what I did for the 2012 Tet (Vietnamese lunar new year), and there seems to be no record of it on Flavor […]

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One Bite: Tteok bokki at Crunch

Thick sweet & spicy sauce. Soft chewy sticks of sticky rice. This is one heckuva tteok bokki. I can see myself going here for a tteok bokki takeout on movie weekends, and it’s only $7. Address: Crunch 2144 Center St Berkeley, CA 94704 (Downtown Berkeley) (510) 704-1101 This place used to be a sushi joint. I ate there once. I’m glad it has changed into something much better. Also, Crunch gave me a humongous plate of kimchi pork fried rice that was just three spoons above my limit and not enough to take home. What should I do? Cut down or increase my limit?

Recipe for bánh dầy đậu – Vietnamese mung bean mochi

When I’m home, Little Mom pampers me with her food and sweeps me out of her kitchen, except when I open the fridge to snack, because her mind fixes on the idea that if she lets me touch the stove, I only make a mess. She’s right. Not to toot my own horn but when I’m home, I’m a lazy mess. So when I said Mom, let’s make bánh dầy đậu, she threw her hands up, said oh my sky there’s no more room in the fridge, made the bean paste herself, and only let me play with the dough. The mung bean paste filling is really the most important part of the Vietnamese mochi (similar to the Japanese mochi, but it’s 100% Vietnamese): you want it slightly savory, slightly sweet, and mashed. Little Mom is the queen of seasoning, so that part was flawless. My job was to knead the dough and roll up them balls. At least I didn’t have to pound steamed sticky rice into oblivion. I was kneading while watching TV with Mom. I was kneading when she sectioned her bánh bao dough into balls. I was still kneading […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 21 – Bánh dầy đậu (Vietnamese mung bean mochi)

Legend said the first ever bánh dầy (pronounced |beng yay|) was a flat thick bun of cooked-and-pounded sticky rice, white and chewy and not recommended for dentures. The prince, taught by a Bodhisattva in his dream, made it to represent the sky, and bánh chưng to represent the earth. I don’t think the sky is chewy, but I really like it when it’s white. I also like banh day with silk sausage a lot. But somewhere along the history of Vietnam, somebody gave banh day a mung bean filling, softened the dough (which means more pounding for the sticky rice), rolled it into the size of a pingpong ball, and coated it with mung bean powder. I can NEVER get enough of this thing. $2 for 3. Found at: Alpha Bakery & Deli (inside Hong Kong City Mall) 11209 Bellaire Blvd # C-02 Houston, TX 77072-2548 (281) 988-5222 Unfortunately, I love them so much that the store-bought version just doesn’t do it for me. With Little Mom’s help, a batch has been made. A recipe is on the way. (UPDATE: the recipe is here.) […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 20 – Xôi khúc – Jersey cudweed sticky rice

There’s a Vietnamese song that starts like this: “Ten years pass by without seeing each other, I thought love had grown old/ Like the clouds that have flown by so many years, I thought we had forgotten.”(*) It then went on to say, as you might expect, that the narrator still yearns for that love like ten years ago. An even more dramatic thing happens to me: I still crave xôi khúc with the same passion of the last time I had it, which was twenty years ago. The lady who sold xôi khúc (xôi cúc if you’re from the South)(*) near our elementary school was old. In her sixties at least. She was clean, so Little Mom bought xôi from her. We never had xôi khúc from anyone else, and I don’t remember seeing anyone else selling it. Loosely wrapped in banana leaves like all other xôi(*), her xôi khúc beamed with the smell of ground black pepper in the bean paste and the cool, herbal flavor of the steamy sticky rice. After the lady stopped showing up in the mornings with her basket, we stopped having xôi khúc for breakfast. Xôi khúc is too […]

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Sencha and yomogi mochi

The third pairing of mochi and Japanese green tea. Perfect! Yes, finally a mochi that goes perfectly with sencha. Yomogi (Japanese mugwort), julienned into tiny strings and mixed with the mochi dough, gives the mochi a clean, refreshing taste, which reminds me of the tip of a Vietnamese bánh ít or a bánh ít gai (*). However, what struck me was the filling: red bean and sweet potato paste. The red bean is the main factor, the sweet potato is only at the top, closest to the doughy coat. The azuki sweetness subdues the fishiness (umami) of sencha, and the sencha bitterness subdues the sweetness. Is this why the Japanese use azuki for their desserts so often? Why didn’t the sencha – matcha-mochi pair work as well? The matcha mochi also has azuki paste, but I think the orange juice and the walnuts distracted me. The yomogi clarifies the taste in a more floral and less bitter way than the matcha; and like saffron, sometimes a spice’s presence isn’t noticeable, but its absence would be. Anyways, this pair also shows that a simpler mochi […]

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Nutty sticky rice

What hits the spot in the morning better than a hot packed handful of sweet sticky rice with muối mè (sesame-sugar-salt mix)? A hot packed handful of sweet sticky rice with soft steamed whole peanuts and muối mè. Xôi đậu – my forbidden childhood love. $1.50 for a full tummy. Mom did not want me to eat too much xôi đậu in the past because peanuts are known for producing gas excess.

Sandwich shop goodies #15 – Bánh quy (turtle mochi)

Vietnamese Of my two hundred fifty some posts so far, this Sandwich Shop Goodies series brings me the most joy when writing and also takes me the longest time per post. It’s a collection of the bits and pieces that cost next to nothing. You may say why of course, how can a mere grad student afford The Slanted Door, The French Laundry, or our local Chez Panisse et al. Now although my salary certainly factors in my grocery list, the truth is I’ve lost interest in the uptown food scene. It dazzles like fireworks, and also like fireworks, it doesn’t stay. The mixing and matching of the freshest and strangest ingredients has blended so many nationalities into one that it loses culture like a smoothie losing texture. Those fancinesses don’t have a home. Meanwhile, I can spend days googling an obscure street snack and still regret that I haven’t spent more time, because I know that someone somewhere out there has an interesting story surrounding its identity that I haven’t heard. With such food there’s more than what goes into the pot that I can mention. […]

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Hương Giang – Savour Huế in Houston

I lost my memory card. If you’re a food blogger too you’d know how devastated I felt: the first advice to a food blogger these days is “good pictures”. Well, the pictures I took at Hương Giang are amazing, they just no longer exist. But, pictures or not, as my professor Lawrence Hall would say in his British tongue, “you can’t stop me,” or in this case, I can’t stop myself from blogging about the restaurant. Is their food that good? Hương Giang takes a shy, small square in the parking lot at the corner of Bellaire and Boone. If you drive westward on Bellaire Blvd, you’ll see its sign on the left before you reach Hong Kong Market. It’s really a tucked-away place for scoffers, the outlook unimpressive, the sign blue and white like a tired worker shirt. The inside is similar to any average pho joints you’ve seen, wiped clean and plastic cheap. I knew my mom wouldn’t come here if not for blogging’s sake, but in this city it’d be hard to get a menu more Huế than this one. There are pictures in the menu and printouts taped […]

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Sandwich shop goodies 14 – Bánh da lợn (pig skin pie)

This is no stranger in the Vietnamese food biz: the layered pastry that gets its name from looking like pork belly, except green and yellow. Of course it doesn’t contain any pork skin, it’s sweet, sometimes may even be too sweet. Dad used to buy a whole pie home, as big as a platter and as warm as a father’s hand. From that same bakery somewhere in the market alley, he would buy bánh chuối nướng (bread pudding) too, which I always preferred to the bánh da lợn. But thinking back on those days when we lived near Bà Chiểu Market, it was certainly the best pig skin pie I ever ate. Many years have passed, and many bánh da lợn have been eaten by me, both in its homeland and across the seas. The best way, I figured, to slaughter these chewy beasts is to peel off the layers one by one, when it’s warm. That wet, smooth skin of tapioca flour, when warm, is fragile. You don’t want to break it while peeling, and you want to drop it whole in your mouth to wrestle with its resilience, all […]

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