New lunar year, new me


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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Sandwich shop goodies 10 – Bánh chuối nướng (Vietnamese banana bread pudding)

Every now and then I feel blessed to grow up in the tropics. It doesn’t let you wear scarves and gloves, but it has bananas. Many types of bananas. There are at least 10 common cultivars in Vietnam, most are for eating fresh as a fruit, some for eating raw as a veggie with wraps, and one is particularly favorable to be cooked in desserts. And desserts with bananas are just about the most addictive thing out there. Take this banana bread pudding for instance. I intended to cut one little slice each day to savor it for over a week, but next thing I knew I was gorging half the slab after dinner. The bread is part chewy, part spongy, mostly firm, juiced up by a semisweet layer of sliced banana on top. It needs no sauce, no ice cream, no chocolate. It is good both at room temperature and right out of the fridge. The description simply can’t capture how delicious this thing is. And it’s not even a well made banana bread pudding, you know, the type of treat that grandmother would make at home or the recipe that a vendor […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 9 – Bánh bò bông (Steamed sponge muffin)

Does this happen to you often? You give a friend something to taste, he says “It’s good. What’s it called?”. You’re stumped. The English translation is easy, but it would make no sense because the name matches neither the food, the ingredients, nor the method of cooking. It happens to me quite often, and usually I shut off the questions with “Just eat it!”. But I wonder, too. Southern Vietnamese folks have a niche for obscure naming scheme. The names could have sprouted from some jokes, some overly simplified impromptu description they thought of at the moment, some mispronounced foreign names, who knows. The result is intelligible and untranslatable, like bánh khọt, bánh tét, chả đùm. The translatable-but-not-always-understandable cases happen when they attach random verbs after the categorical nouns to make a new name, like bánh xèo – “sizzling banh”, bánh lọt – “falling-through banh”, bò né – “dodging beef”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Bánh bò belongs to this flock. Cow bánh? Unlikely, the thing is vegan to an n. I even thought about the possibility that the name is derived from its resemblance of the cow’s tripe, but they would have called it tripe […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 8 – Bánh bao chỉ (loh mai chi)

Yet another sticky rice snack that I vaguely remember eating one or twice during the early childhood, and found again in a San Jose sandwich shop more than ten years later. I was excited when I saw these green balls covered in coconut bits. We Vietnamese call them bánh bao chỉ to distinguish from the meat-filled steamed bun made from wheat flour known to us as bánh bao. Just as bánh bao comes from China, so does bánh bao chỉ. Just as bánh bao are baozi and mantou in Mandarin, mandu in Korean, manju in Japanese, manti in Turkish, and many more, bánh bao chỉ too has its share of names. The most-result-yielding Google search belongs to loh mai chi, commonly shown as little sticky rice flour dumplings with sweet ground peanut filling. Other variations in Malaysian and Chinese food blogs are snowball, loh mi chi, chi fa bun, muah chee (yeah, these are really cute you’d want to kiss them too)*, noh mi chi, and ma zi. Once again, I feel the need to learn Mandarin. Some say “noh mi” means “sticky rice” in Cantonese, but what does “chi” mean? Others, […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 6 – bánh dừa (coconut sticky rice stick)

If anything can be called the Vietnamese granola bar, it’s bánh dừa. Coconut bánh. The simple name lends room for innocent confusions with the French Coco au Miel, the Malaysian kuih binka gandum, the coconut cookies, and a whole flock of other Vietnamese coconut treats also known as bánh dừa (with some additives like “grilled”, “honeyed”, or “lemon”). People of the deep south don’t get too fancy with names: when the bánh has coconut milk mixed with sticky rice and is wrapped in coconut leaves, it has every right to be call a coconut bánh. Besides, children identify it by the unique look. A stiff, almost cylindrical case, as long as a palm and almost two fingers wide, is made from wrapping one single young coconut leaf around hours of training, to protect the glutinous rice and bean paste core for days in the tropics’ heat. The one I bought stays good for two weeks in the fridge, unwrapped. Continue reading Sandwich Shop Goodies 6 – bánh dừa (coconut sticky rice stick)

Sandwich Shop Goodies 5 – Bánh khảo (bánh in)

It looks just slightly bigger than a chocolate bar, and about as thick. It has three thin layers, one bright yellow sandwiched between two whites, like a rectangular slice of hard boiled egg. The humble appearance of bánh khảo, like so many other Vietnamese old school treats, masks tremendous creativity and skill of the country’s villagers. And so little is known about it. Some just say it came from the Chinese immigrants, others believe it’s a special fare of the Tày, an ethnic group in the second-farthest-north-border province Cao Bằng, where Chinese influence seeps through the forests and mutates with a mountainous feel. All we know is when you go to Cao Bằng, you get a bar of “pẻng cao” (bánh khảo) for 1000VND (less than 6 US cents), whose middle layer can either be sweet with peanuts and honey, or savory with sliced fatty pork. The savory kind is a staple to the Tày people. The flour from roasted sticky rice grains, let sit overnight, mixed with sugar and pressed into a thin sheet, somehow can stay good for a whole month. Its light weight makes a good dry snack […]

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Sandwich Shop Goodies 4 – Xôi bắp (sweet sticky rice and corn)

Every morning at six, sometimes five thirty, my dad went to the market with my mom’s grocery list, and on the way back picked up something fresh for my breakfast. He had to be extra early if we wanted xôi that day, because the warm morsels folded up in banana leaves wouldn’t last past six thirty. Sweet xôi was a popular morning food, until they started putting in lap xuong and pork floss and turned it too close to a lunch thing. But our xôi lady, and later her daughter, never made anything but sweet sticky rice in their loyal steamers. Every morning, sitting on a plastic stool and head half-covered by the cone hat, they surrounded themselves with three or four shining aluminum wok-like basins on the low table, neatly cut squares of banana leaves, old newspaper and rubber band in the side basket. Those aluminum basins often had peanut xôi, black xôi (which actually looked purple), and one other speciaux du jour. My mom was so concerned with my health that she would pick off all the peanuts if my dad got the peanut xôi, and I got […]

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Sandwich shop goodies 3 – Bánh ú tro (Vietnamese-adapted jianshui zong)

It’s been two weeks, but better late than never. After I read Jessica’s zong zi post on Food Mayhem, images of amber tedrahedra just wouldn’t leave me alone. I talked to my mom about them, and I could hear her voice crackle with sweet memories over the phone. We haven’t had these sweet little things for years. We used to eat them by the dozens every lunar May. Like most Saigonese, we didn’t do anything huge to celebrate Tet Doan Ngo, but bánh ú tro was too scrumptious a tradition to pass. Each pyramid is just a little over an inch tall, whichever way you roll it. It’s unclear whether the traditional zongzi grew smaller when Chinese immigrants share the recipe with their Vietnamese neighbors, or only the dessert zongzi (jianshui zong) is favored by the locals over savory types. Most Vietnamese have also long dissociated this sticky rice snack with the Chinese reason behind Duanwu festival, if not to assign the Fifth of Lunar May to commemorate the death anniversary of Vietnam’s legendary Mother Âu Cơ, kill off bad bugs, make ceremonial offerings to family […]

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Kim’s Sandwiches

In one bite you taste a garden. Minty fresh coriander, crunchy pickled carrots, a load of soft white pickled onion, but most special of all is the aromatic burnt lemongrass. It makes the charcoaled pork here extra flavorful just as crushed peanuts make Huong Lan’s texturally delish. Microwaved, the pickled sweet onion and meat grease make the bread somewhat like a slice of steamed baguette dressed with chives and lard (bánh mì hấp mỡ hành). Thumbs up. Kim’s Sandwiches (in the Lion Supermarket area) 1816 Tully Rd 182, San Jose, CA 95111 (408) 270-8903 The owner is supernice. More from this store later.