Vietnamese cooking primer

We learned how the Vietnamese use exotic ingredients like banana blossoms, bitter melon and jackfruit.

August 27, 2011 13:41
Vietnamese food

Vietnamese food 311. (photo credit: Yakir Levy)

The writer is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.

‘What do you like better – Chinese or Vietnamese food?” we like to ask people from East Asia.

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Interestingly even people from China often confess that they prefer Vietnamese cooking. It’s lighter, fresher and less greasy, they say.

We ate Vietnamese cuisine many times when we lived in Paris, where there is a substantial Vietnamese population, as well as in Southern California, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Southeast Asia. We have sampled dishes in the regional styles of northern, central and southern Vietnam and often enjoyed the celebrated Vietnamese noodle and beef soup known as pho and the Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches made with fresh-baked baguettes.

Buying freshly made, still-warm Vietnamese tofu became a custom of ours.

But we had not had a lesson in Vietnamese cuisine – until recently, when we attended a cooking class by chef Haley Nguyen at the Southern California Gas Company Center.

Nguyen is a superb teacher, and clearly has a deep love and enthusiasm for her cuisine. Born in Vietnam, she learned to cook as a child from her mother and grandmother, and immigrated to the US with her family. Her restaurant, Xanh Bistro in Fountain Valley near Southern California’s Little Saigon, is known for its festive, homestyle dishes prepared with finesse.

We learned how the Vietnamese use exotic ingredients like banana blossoms, bitter melon and jackfruit. Most of us were familiar with sweet papaya, but the chef explained how she uses hard, unripe green papaya to make tasty salads.

Vietnamese cuisine has many refreshing dishes that are perfect for summertime. At meals, herbs are served by the trayful and added liberally to just about every dish. You eat noodle soup only after putting plenty of fresh herbs in your bowl.

An egg roll is not eaten plain – first you wrap it in a lettuce leaf together with sprigs of mint, basil or cilantro.

The chef explained how to season food with ginger and galangal, a pungent rhizome that looks like fat ginger but has a different taste. We sampled some galangal plain to appreciate its powerful menthol-like flavor. Lemongrass, familiar to many Israelis for making tea, is used often in Vietnamese cooking, especially for flavoring fish.

You can use these fibrous flavorings in different ways. An easy way to infuse their flavor into soups or stews is by putting in slices of galangal or ginger or pieces of lemongrass and removing them before serving time. If you want to leave these flavorings in the dish, Nguyen recommends using a spice grinder to pulverize them.

For most purposes, ginger does not need to be peeled, except for refined dishes like ginger ice cream.

Nguyen’s way of using turmeric is very different from that of Yakir’s Yemen-born mother.

Instead of dried turmeric, she pounds the fresh, bright orange root. In Vietnam a popular use for the fresh spice is marinating fish. The turmeric is combined with lemongrass and galangal, giving the fish not only an attractive appearance, but also a good flavor that masks any fishy odors.

FISH SAUCE was the ingredient that aroused the greatest curiosity among the students. Many Western cooks hesitate to use this notorious sauce, thinking it will make their food unpleasantly fishy. Perhaps they had tasted it straight from the bottle; some Vietnamese do use it this way, pouring it over rice or vegetables. Yet when used with a light hand, this seasoning sauce, loved not only in Vietnam but in Thailand, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, simply acts as a savory flavoring.

Nguyen showed us how to use fish sauce to prepare the famous staple of the Vietnamese table – the sauce known as nuoc cham. The fish sauce is diluted with water and flavored with fresh lime juice and sugar so that it is sweet, sour and salty but not fishy. A modest amount of garlic and hot chili is often added to further enhance the flavor.

Vegetarians use soy sauce or citrus soy sauce in a similar way; some buy a vegetarian form of fish sauce flavored with seaweed.

The chef demonstrated how to prepare seafood cakes grilled on sticks of sugar cane, which adds flavor to the seafood; sizzling rice crepes filled with seafood sauteed with garlic, mushrooms and onions; and rice paper rolls filled with cooked seafood or honey-grilled meat as well as mint, lettuce and thin cucumber strips.

For a simple accompaniment, we learned how to make easy pickles from carrots and white radishes. You mix vinegar, salt, sugar and water, add the shredded vegetables, refrigerate overnight and the pickles are ready. To us these pickles, which are served often at meals and added to most Vietnamese sandwiches, have an appealing sweet-and-sour taste.

To see how these flavors come together, we sampled specialties of Xanh Bistro: green papaya salad, honey lime chicken breast with ginger, tofu with baby bok choy (a delicate Chinese cabbage) and lemongrass coconut rice.

Many people feel that the best baguettes in Southern California are baked at Vietnamese bakeries. In answer to our question about other French influences on Vietnamese cuisine, Nguyen mentioned that like the French, Vietnamese people appreciate delicate flavors. Pâté is popular for Vietnamese sandwiches on French baguettes. The Vietnamese adopted the French ragout technique for stewing meat. Café au lait is loved by the Vietnamese, who make it with sweetened condensed milk instead of fresh milk.

Next we had an overview of the country’s three regional styles. With its tropical climate and abundance of fruits and vegetables, the South has lighter, more colorful dishes. The cuisine of the North features sophisticated traditional dishes and foreign influences. In central Vietnam, the cuisine is spicy, and hand-made rice cakes appear often on the table.

Breakfast or lunch in Vietnam might be noodle soup; the noodles are cooked until soft, not al dente. Another option for breakfast, lunch or quick substantial snacks is street food, such as rice rolls, sticky rice balls or grilled skewered meats.

For everyday home cooking, dinner consists of steamed rice as the main dish served with braised fish or meat, steamed or stir-fried vegetables, and a clear soup. It might sound boring, Nguyen said almost apologetically, but we vary it by using different vegetables – for example, one day mustard greens, another day summer squash. Special occasion dishes feature more elaborate cooking methods or expensive and exotic ingredients.

Although Nguyen characterizes her food as traditional, she does allow Western influence on her desserts and other sweet pastries. We savored subtly sweet beignets and sticky cinnamon buns as a breakfast snack, and for dessert, delicious bread pudding, which she flavors with caramel, coconut and tamarind.

Basic Vietnamese table sauce

This sauce is used for dipping all sorts of appetizers and for moistening fried or baked fish, vegetables and rice.

To keep the sauce clear, it’s best to mince the garlic by hand; using a blender or food processor makes the sauce cloudy.

You can keep the sauce for several days.  It keeps longer if you use vinegar; the fresh taste of lime or lemon juice diminishes quickly.  If you add garlic, hot peppers or ginger, their flavors become stronger as the sauce sits.

Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
3/8 cup (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) lime or lemon juice or vinegar or a mixture of these
2 or more garlic cloves, finely minced (optional)
1 or more small fresh hot peppers, red or green, finely minced or cut in thin slices (optional)
2 teaspoons minced ginger (optional)

Combine the fish sauce, sugar, water and lime juice in a bowl and whisk to blend, making sugar the sugar dissolves completely. Taste and add more fish sauce if you like, so the sauce has an amber color.  Add more sugar or lime juice if needed so the sauce is sweet and sour.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Broiled fish with Vietnamese tomato sauce

This recipe is inspired by a fried fish dish of Nicole Routhier, author of “Foods of Vietnam.”   For summertime we broil the fish to make it lighter and easier to prepare.  If you don’t have shallots, substitute the white part of green onions.

Serve the fish with steamed rice and, if you like, with a plate of herbs and with the basic Vietnamese sauce, nuoc cham (see recipe above).

Makes 4 servings

450 grams (1 pound) halibut or cod fillets, about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick, in 4 or 8 pieces
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 shallots, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
700 grams (about 1 1/2 pounds) ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup water
2 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons shredded fresh coriander

Put fish on a plate.  Spoon 2 teaspoons oil and 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce over it and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.  Let marinate for 30 minutes.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or skillet.  Add shallots and garlic and stir-fry over medium heat until fragrant.  Add tomatoes and cook for 1 minute.  Add remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce, the sugar and 1/4 cup water.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. 
Preheat broiler with rack about 10 cm (4 inches) from the heat source; or heat stove-top ridged grill on medium-high heat.  Set fish on broiler rack or grill with skin side facing heat source.  Broil or grill about 4 minutes per side, or until a skewer inserted into fish comes out hot when you touch it to underside of your wrist, or until the fish just flakes with a fork.  Transfer fish to a platter.

Add half the green onions and half the coriander to the sauce and stir to combine. Spoon sauce over fish.  Serve sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper and with remaining green onions and coriander.

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