One Hot Pot & Grill: countryside taste for city price


These days I keep craving noodle soups. There’s just no end to it. Plus, it rained this morning. If I were in Houston, I would go downtown to get this: a crab noodle hotpot (lẩu riêu cua đồng). The crabs are tiny freshwater paddy crabs, pounded into a paste and strained to make the broth. Throw in some crab meat and fried tofu, some light seasoning, and you get a bubbling soup to dunk your noodles and vegetables. The size of the hotpot in this shop is enough for two, you have to pay a few dollars extra for some chrysanthemum greens (cải cúc or tần ô) and some thin rice vermicelli (they absorb the broth better than the flat kind), but the package doesn’t taste complete without them. What does this hotpot taste like? Imagine yourself in a remote area on a mildly hot day (not blazing though), sitting on a low chair under the shade, looking out to some green rice paddy in Can Tho, a canal in Giethoorn, or some other kind of open field with flowing water. You’re hungry but not famished, it’s hot enough that you just want […]

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Noodle soup: Banh canh Que Anh & Que Em


Quite possibly the cheesiest name of a store I’ve ever seen: Bánh Canh Quê Anh & Quê Em – “bánh canh [from] your hometown and my hometown” (it doesn’t sound cheesy translated into English, but trust me, it’s like Twilight’s Edward Cullen in noodle soup form). Which is actually fitting, since banh canh is commoner’s grub, not a bourgeois lunch. You won’t find a classy madame dressing up just to go out for banh canh. The poor thing will never be elevated to the level of pho. I love it. I grew up eating it before I was born (literally). Backstory can be told in person, but despite eating so many bowls, I never knew that there was so many types of banh canh. Que Anh & Que Em offered 30 types (see menu at the bottom), 14 of which are no more traditional than the Spider Roll, but the other 16 are attached to geographical regions in Vietnam, and thus, in this case, more meritable. Banh canh is a thick, chewy, slippery rice noodle (with tapioca starch). It’s similar enough to udon in appearance and texture (as the shop aptly translates it […]

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one shot: homemade hu tiu


From Mom: hủ tíu bột lọc. Hu tiu is a common type of rice noodle in Southern Vietnam, often served in noodle-soup form, the noodle soup dish is of course also called “hu tiu“. The usual hu tiu noodle is characterized by its thin shape and chewy texture. Vietnamese love chewy noodles just as much if not more than any other country, so people began using various methods to make hu tiu (*) chewier (the soaking time before grinding, the grinding, washing the rice flour, the mixing ratio with water and other types of starch, the thickness to spread the mixture into a film, the temperature and time to steam it). Bánh bột lọc(**), a type of savory snack, is made with tapioca starch (cassava flour), so I guess hủ tíu bột lọc also contains tapioca starch. I spent an hour googling but expectedly found little and contradicting information about hu tiu bot loc – nobody in the business would reveal their secret. What I found online is hu tiu bot loc originated from Cần Thơ, and what I found in my bowl are fat (and flat) strings, whose color […]

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one shot: Bun Rieu at Ba Le Sandwich


Good ol’ tomato and crab noodle soup from Southern Vietnam: bún riêu (pronounced |boon rhee-oo|). The broth looks alarmingly spicy but this soup is actually never spicy. The orange red color comes from tomato and annatto seeds, and if you’re lucky, crab roe (if fresh crabs are used for the soup). The sweetness of the broth comes from freshwater paddy crabs, where the whole crab (meat and shell) is ground to a paste and strained for the juice. It’s a delicate, distinctive sweetness that can’t be reproduced with dashi no moto, meat bones or mushroom. To deepen the flavor, the cook adds some mắm ruốc, fermented krill paste, to the broth. Traditionally, bun rieu has crab meat and tofu for the protein part, but bun rieu at Ba Le Sandwich is ladened with cha lua, pork and shrimp. Continue reading one shot: Bun Rieu at Ba Le Sandwich

Tuesday mind-wandering: food blogging is weight watching?

Bánh bía from Tường Ký Fast Food. Filling: taro paste with salted egg yolk, would have been perfect without bits of candied winter melon.  $13 per box of 4.

Bánh bía from Tường Ký Fast Food. Filling: taro paste with salted egg yolk, would have been perfect without bits of candied winter melon. $13 per box of 4. I’m having writer’s block. Don’t know if that’s true (I once met an Ivy League law school professor who said, as diplomatically as she could, that scientists can’t write), but that’s how my friend put it when I told him that I’ve been sitting around all day producing nothing worth mentioning and munching Vietnamese snacks. As incredibly lazy as that sounds, I think of myself as savoring the cultural assets of my people. (Somehow that sounds even worse…) There’s this Taiwanese movie, Eat Drink Man Woman, I found it a little indelicate and got weirded out (the food looks great though!), but one line from the second sister in the movie stuck in my head: “Dad said that for a person who lives up to 80, he would have consumed 80 tons of food. People who enjoy food and people who eat without savoring it don’t experience the same level of happiness.” I used to think for sure that what he meant […]

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Mung bean porridge

Rice porridge was my enemy. In elementary years, I got a fever about once every month. Aside from feeling tired and having weird dreams when the fever got high, I didn’t really mind that, but my mom did. She was so worried she wouldn’t sleep for days, not until my temperature went back to normal. And she made sure that I ate my rice porridge. She made rice porridge with ground pork and rice porridge with fish, she added vegetable, she seasoned it perfectly, and I still hated every spoon of it. I hated the texture of rice porridge: mushy and textureless. I hated both thick porridge and watery porridge(*). Every porridge meal was a battle between Mom and me, and I always lost, which deepened my aversion to porridge even more. But there were happy days when I actually liked my fever porridge and didn’t need my mom to prod: it was mung bean porridge on those days. Actually, there’s rice in mung bean porridge, too, but the mung bean skin makes the porridge all nuttier and better. Then it’s a sweet porridge (just rice, mung bean and sugar, no meat), so that’s doubly better. […]

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Chewy dried banana

They aren’t banana chips. Those are crunchy, not very sweet, and make you thirsty. These are chewy and packed with honey sweetness. They’re as addicting as soft-baked chocolate chip cookies and as healthy as dried blueberries. At least I like to think so when I nibble twenty of them in one go. Chewy dried bananas come in many shapes and sizes. Some were pressed into flat sheets (3-5 bananas to make a sheet), laid on bamboo panels and dried under the sun. Cà Mau is known for this kind of chuối khô, the main ingredient of the other 101 banana snack things in the South, e.g., banana candies. Other bananas are dried whole, and they turn into finger-long wrinkly banana fingers. Eurasia Delight sells two kinds: the normal chuối khô – more caramel looking, shinier, sweeter, shorter and chewier, the “organic” chuối khô – whiter, dryer, longer, not as good. Continue reading Chewy dried banana

Sandwich Shop Goodies 19 – Bánh tiêu (Chinese sesame beignet)

Little Mom and I… we just have different tastes. She likes seafood. She prefers crunchy to soft. She doesn’t like sticky rice (!) She thinks the mini sponge muffins (bánh bò bông, the Vietnamese kind) are sourer than the white chewy honeycombs (bánh bò, the Chinese kind). I beg to differ. The mini sponges can be eaten alone; the honeycombs are almost always stuffed inside a hollow fried doughnut that is more savory than sweet: their sourness needs to be suppressed by the natural saltiness of oil and the airy crunch of fried batter. That doughnut, brought to us by the Chinese and called by us “bánh tiêu“, saves the honeycombs. The honeycombs could go hang out with the dodo for all I care, but this Saigonese would always appreciate a well-fried bánh tiêu. At any time of the day, one would be able to spot a street cart with the signature double-shelf glass box next to a vat of dark yellow oil. The oil gets darkened from frying too many doughnuts too many times. Sure, it isn’t healthy. But should you really care about health when you eat fried dough? “Fried dough […]

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Year in, year out, savoring the savoriest of pork

If you had to choose, what is the most Vietnamese dish? If you are a Vietnamese expat, what would make your mouth water the most just thinking about? What is the food, the smell, the taste that when you see or hear some stranger is savoring, you’d immediately think, “hey, he must be my fellow countryman”? One of my friends lives in Freiburg, Germany. There is one Vietnamese restaurant 1 km away from the University, der Reis-Garten, and it is the only Vietnamese restaurant in a 40-km radius (the next one is across the border: Le Bol d’Or in Wintzenheim, France). For over 6 years living away from home, he survived on pasta and tomato sauce, students don’t have time. One day, external circumstances have finally driven him to decide that he no longer needs to suppress his cravings out of consideration towards his Germanic housemates. He bought a bottle of fish sauce. The next day he made thịt kho. That makes it official: he’s Vietnamese, and he hasn’t forgotten it. “Success?” “Did you add coconut juice?” “Do you have eggs in the pot?” “Do you have chả lụa […]

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Red Boat fish sauce – Good enough to sprout crazy ideas

“It’s sweet, and it shines like honey,” my mom recalls. She was in fifth grade, her teacher, whose family also owns a fish sauce plant, gave each student in the class a sample of the condiment in a mini plastic pouch. When my mom took it home, it took her mom no time to see that this was the Ninth Symphony of fish sauce. It didn’t take the Vietnamese grandmothers in the Bay Area very long either, Rob Bergstrom said, and I quote, to “limp out of the store carrying a full case” of Red Boat’s. I met Rob because of a half-a-month-late comment that I left on Ravenous Couple’s glowing review. Rob is a man who goes around grocery stores and the world to taste fish sauce straight out of the bottle by the spoonfuls (I don’t recommend doing it at home if you’re under 18). And Rob was moved by my mom’s fifth grade experience, which, he said, is similar to a few sparse stories among the older Vietnamese about an excellent-quality fish sauce that some have once tasted in their lifetime and never again. Especially not in […]

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