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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Black tea rice

Vietnamese Something occurred to me within the last month: I probably should learn to pair drinks with food, but I hardly drink anything beside water and soymilk. Now I would *love* to learn about the different kinds of water, but living in the city makes it a bit difficult, and soymilk can’t be paired with everything like wine (yet). Coffee, alcoholic beverage, juice? Didn’t quite catch on. So what does that leave me? Tea. A quest takes form: Mai is going to learn tea. And Mai will cook with tea, too. Because boiling water to drink tea takes some work, I might as well make it worth a meal. How much influence the ochazuke at Mifune had on me, I’m not sure, but during the two minutes of wringling my brain out for some easy way to use tea in food, the first thing that came to mind was cooking rice with tea. Now that’s the difference between my tea rice and the ochazuke: my tea rice is rice cooked with tea, and the ochazuke is rice eaten with tea, like a soup. As with everything, there’s the easy way and the […]

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Korean chilled noodle soup with a few Vietnamese twists

Sometimes my craziness surprises myself. I woke up one morning, reflecting that the week’s been warm, and decided to make mul naengmyeon (물 냉면). Weeks earlier, I bought the buckwheat noodles but never had the time to cook, or the mood. Now I still don’t have time to cook, but today is the day. I remember the main ingredients of a true Korean naengmyeon, but just to make sure that I don’t have them, I look at Maangchi’s recipe anyway. Beef bones? No. Mushroom? No. Dried anchovies? No. Kelp? No. Yeolmu kimchi juice? Hah. In my dreams. I don’t even have cucumber. Am I going to the store? Of course not. The wind might blow away my cooking mood, which is already rare as it is. Besides, I have a blind confidence that what I do have will make a fine bowl. The deaf ain’t scared by gun fires, they (we Vietnamese) say. Naengmyeon has three fundamental components: the broth, the buckwheat noodle, and the toppings. The broth needs to be clear and slender. To get the sweetness, I substitute beef bones by pig trotters. They have plenty of bones, and unfortunately […]

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Dinner with Rau Om

Early September. Monday night. An adorable meal that combines various elements of two Far Eastern cuisines. The parts harmonize, the mixture represents a cuisine of its own: the kind that you can only find in a home kitchen and enjoy with friends in the living room. We sit on the floor, we share twelve courses plus some, we listen to a record of traditional Vietnamese instrumental, we drink chrysanthemum tea in wine glasses. We talk fooding. We feel luxury, “like the wealthy landlords of the old days” as Dang put it. A dinner with Oanh and Dang, the Rau Om lady and man, is fine dining without the frilly designed plates, the crisp white napkins, and the pompous lighting. Each of the twelve courses has just enough twists to wow us while retaining enough familiarity to comfort us. But what I like the most about Rau Om creations is the way Oanh and Dang use one country’s familiar ingredients in the other country’s familiar dish, surprising (at least) me with the compatibility and similarities between the two cuisines. It’s the fusion of the authentics. My ladies and gentlemen, the September 5th Japanese-Vietnamese (+ a […]

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The Koreans make good pho

Every time I ride the bus on Telegraph, Kang Nam Pho stands out to me like a supernova. (There are these “sorta” cosmologically important exploded stars that have been on my mind for quite some time now, which is an excuse for the sparse blogging of late.) I’ve seen Chinese-owned pho places, but they never have a Chinese name. Pin Toh on Shattuck, which used to be Phở Hòa, has pho cooked by Chinese chefs, but it’s a Thai diner (talk about incognito). In my American pho encounters, Kang Nam Pho is the first instance of a Korean-owned Vietnamese diner with a Korean name. They even put the whole “Phở” with accents on their white-on-red sign, next to “강남 윌남국수” (Kang Nam Wilnam guksu, i.e., Kang Nam Vietnamese Noodle). I like this place already. Their menu is also all in Vietnamese, again, with complete accents albeit some misspellings; there is English description under each name and very little Korean. I vaguely remember bibimbap and bulgogi at some bottom corner of a page, but Kang Nam has things that even a common pho joint wouldn’t always have, such […]

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Taro and I

Taro and sticky rice pudding with coconut milk If you don’t like taro, I don’t know if we can be friends. I used to be aghast when people asked me what taro was. It’s a root, like potato, you know? Then slowly I realized that I was the obnoxious one for not realizing that not everyone is Vietnamese. But when you grew up with something so abundant, don’t you get the feeling that everyone else must have grown up with it too? Next time someone says “What, you haven’t seen Star Trek?!”, I’m gonna ask “have you eaten taro?”. (Just my luck, they’d say yes and I’d have to go to Blockbusters. :D) […]

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Sandwich shop goodies 17 – Mung bean milk

Do you like soy milk? No? Well, someone once told me that if you don’t expect milk when you drink soy milk, then you’d enjoy it. Yes? Then you might just prefer this luscious, green, liquefied nourishment to soy milk. Not only is it nuttier, mung bean milk also feels more natural and more local than the modern soy milk. From the cheap plastic bottle with a green plastic cap and no label (that means no half-stamped “Sell by…” either), you can probably tell that it didn’t go through any metallic machine with pulleys and tubes. Whoever makes this mung bean milk probably soaks the beans overnight in a dented aluminum basin, boils the extract at 2 am in a sooty pot, and bottles the final liquid via a red plastic funnel that looks just like the one they always use for oil change. It doesn’t really matter as long as the delivery of a fresh batch comes at 6. The sandwich shop unstretches its iron folding doors. The customers start buzzing in. At 11 I came. I grabbed a bottle at the cashier. It was warm. Two and a half hours […]

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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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Candied cà-na (white canarium or Chinese olive)

It’s not the black stuff they throw on your pizzas or the green thing they toothpick on your sandwich. How many of us city kids have tasted the tartness with a tiny sweet afterpunch of this Mekong delta fruit? It’s addictive like fresh squeezed orange juice on a summer day. Speaking street tongue, it’s nature’s crack in oblong shape. Eat ‘em fresh with chilipepper salt, or candy them with sugar and heat, it’s how kids down South do it with the cà na they shake off from bushes on the riverbanks. And argue if you may, kids know tasty food. The shape is really the only link cà na has with the Western olive (Olea europaea), though it’s at least two times bigger. Does the name “cà na” mean anything? “Cà” is tomato, and “na” is the northern word for sweetsop, two totally unrelated species to this ovoid fruit. So “cà na” is not a compound noun. I’m no etymologist but here’s my best guess: “cà na” |kah nah| is a shortened vietnamization of the Thai word “kanachai”, from which cultigen taxonomists derive the the scientific name “canarium”, a genus with about […]

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Delicious Vietnam #10 – February Essen

This month sees some of us travelling and visiting families for the Lunar New Year, so thank you all for spending time to write up your delicious pieces, which surprisingly comprise a very balanced and harmonious mix of courses, recipes, and reviews. Appetizers From Los Angeles, California: Hong and Kim, the Ravenous Couple, slices out a beautiful assortment of papaya, carrot, daikon, garden herbs, and (my personal addiction) dried anchovies, in the name of Green Papaya Salad (Gỏi Đu Đủ) […]

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