I had wondered and the wondering is over. Hallelujah! While I’ve been eating Vietnamese food for the past 12 years, it’s only recently that I’ve been trying to cook it. I’m not talking about anything elaborate, but some home-style cooking. To my and sometimes guests’ disappointment, my dishes never really hit the mark and turn out to be Asian only by the fact that a wok or rice cooker were involved.
Growing up I watched my mom make her routine dishes like macaroni and cheese (with beef if it were a special day), spaghetti and meat sauce, and beef stroganoff. As you can tell beef was a staple in my family’s diet. All are great comfort foods if you ask me. Later on, my dad took over a lot of the cooking teaching me dishes like veal Marsala, pasta carbonara (butter, bacon, and cheese hear attack bliss), spaghetti and pesto, or barbecuing just about anything that can fit on a grill. Being in the kitchen and helping out is something I enjoy, but till recently stepping into a Vietnamese kitchen and I was better off saying I just know how to boil water.
The first challenge is to go and get the ingredients. While this is not so hard to do with modern supermarket conveniences, but you’re much better off going to the outdoor market were the locals go since the ingredients are fresher, more abundant and cheaper. It's no big deal when it comes to such tasks as picking up groceries. I even fondly remember my trips with my dad several times during the week together. However, you can forget any warm and fuzzy childhood memories of grocery trips with your parents and you'd be better off going to a few concerts and dancing in a mosh pit to prepare yourself for the scene at a market in Saigon, a longtime nogo for me.
While my Vietnamese language skills are beyond basic, it’s not always easy to figure out what’s being said and one slight hesitation in your voice at the markets here in Saigon and they’ve upped the ante. Conversations are flying from all directions so just focus on what you need to say. Yell randomly and repeatedly and you'll fit in fine, not to mention get someone's attention. There are no formalities, no nice to see you again crap, and the faster you make a transaction the more you look like you know your way around. Prices aren’t marked and depending on the vendor; he or she will try to get you to buy more. “You want ½ kilo, oh I just sell for 1 kilo.” Fortunately all items are out in the open for you to point to for which you ask by knowing your 1,2,3’s (amount, price or weight). Like most places Saigon, the market is crowded, chaotic and filled mostly with women in their pajamas and conical hats, who unlike me, know what they came to get.
The great thing about going to most markets in Saigon as that you can just ride your motorbike right up to any stand and buy what you need. How convenient is that? Mc Donald’s in your face! So for a meal’s worth of ingredients it only takes a dizzying 10 minutes to get your stuff and you’re zipping your way back home.
As the saying goes, timing is everything. For master chefs all the movements goes into slow motion once you’ve got the right steps, get in the zone. Wash the veggies, start the water boiling, chop the veggies, chop the meat, etc, etc… As you know from watching any skilled cook, it’s all in the timing like working on another dish while the meat is browning, or starting the rice when the juices are being reduced. However, for me timing has usually been impaired; a little wine for the food, a little wine for the chef.
While ingredients like olive oil, garlic, wine, and butter are common to me, other ingredients like fish sauce, MSG, and bot nem (you’re ubiquitous all-spice mix) are only recently becoming patterns in many dishes. First of all fish sauce smells god-awful, but like fine French wines, it has its qualities with age and serves as the salt base for most dishes. While it has a potent smell as you’d expect from fermented fish extract, the health benefit is immense. Next the much reviled MSG that Chinese-American restaurants proudly defy in their store windows. MSG as we all remember from bio class serves as the sugar base. Like many dishes, some sugar, salt and pepper can be added, but nothing goes further than bot nem which makes your dish tastier. Even if you don't use it, you look like you know your shit for having it in your spice stash.
This weeks Attempt – Thit Kho Tau which translates to Chinese braised Pork
With a grocery list of what to buy and the detailed pointers to, “just try” ..try I did. After prepping all the ingredients I gave myself 2 hours to cook this simple, yet time consuming dish. As any Vietnamese person will tell, cooking Vietnamese dishes are easy. Of course they are! Given my mastery skills in cooking ramen instant noodles, no problem.
I’ve eaten this dish more times than I can count and many will tell you this is something their mothers cooked for them. This succulent, juicy, spicy and sweet is another comfort food I have grown to love. And so the experiment began. For starters the electricity was out which isn’t uncommon as blackouts occur just like the passing rains. I assure you it was just a shirtless experience, but hey it’s hot here in this tropical climate.
After some chopping, boiling, frying, and simmering my dish looked like a real dish. Voila! Here is the run down:
- Hard boil 4 eggs
- Chop pork (300g) into 1 inch slices
- Carmelize a sauce pan with sugar and water till brown, then add the pork
- Add ½ onion, a couple cloves of chopped garlic and chopped red pepper
- Brown the pork then add about 1 cup of coconut juice, simmer for about an hour adding coconut juice as needed not to burn the dish
- After about 1 hour add the hard boild eggs and simmer for another 20 mins
- For a healthy balance, I boiled some ochre, one of many vegetables I never really ate till I came to Vietnam. So ochre wasn't just a color used to decribe JCrew fall wear? Hmmm. Anyway, just wash the ochre and boil till green (about 3-5minutes). Be careful not to over-cook or they taste like mush.
- Also, can’t eat rice without canh (broth) for which I boiled some rau cai ngot (what does this translate to?), added some diced pork, salt and pepper. I’ve heard quite a few locals say they can’t eat without or their dish is too dry. A cold beer helps that problem for me, but go with the flow.
- Lastly steam 2 cups of rice and this serves 2-3 people.
“Did you taste the food after you cooked it?” - Hang
“Oh, yeah..taste the food. Um no. I thought it smelled great, but I did take a lot of pictures though!” - Me
• The braised pork was tasty, but a little too sweet - needed more salt
• The broth was a bland – needed more salt, pepper, MSG and that bot nem that I totally left out. Sacrilege!
• The steamed white rice – 1/3 burnt as it’s been ages since I cooked rice in a pot. Damn electricity was out. Can’t beat a rice cooker!
• The ochre was ochre – I aced that
Of our favorite pleasures in life, food is tops! Even with this tough critique I was told next time would be perfect and to keep cooking. The Vietnamese love their food, love to eat together, and for good reason. Vietnamese food is simple, healthy, tasty and cheap... a tough combo to beat. The Vietnamese also live off the land as many of their dishes use ingredients that are in abundance here which is also comforting. I’ve never eaten so much rice, seafood, vegetables, and fruit in my life. It’s great!
This weeks Attempt 2 – Dau Hu Thit Bam Ca Chua (Tofu filled with Pork and Tomatoe Sauce)
Tofu stuffed with minced pork (mixed with shallots, salt & pepper).
Sauteed tomatoes, add tofu, simmer, adding water gradually, and top with green onions right before serving.
Side dish of morning glory (boiled in water with some salt and MSG) for about 5 mins.