Vietnamese Turmeric Fish Summer Rolls
"Time-honored recipes are important both for passing down history within families and introducing the culture to those outside it. And while for many people that might mean that traditional recipes should never be changed, I would argue that food is always evolving," writes recipe developer and food stylist Tyna Hoang. "The key questions are who is making those changes and whether they honor the spirit of the tradition. It's crucial that the history of the dish is referenced, respected, and not discarded. My family's recipes are dear to me, and I aspire to share Vietnamese cuisine with a wider audience and to broaden and deepen the understanding of what Vietnamese food is and can be. More often than not, some indigenous ingredients are inaccessible, so I've learned to adapt and use elements that are available. These acculturations are part of what makes me the Vietnamese-American I am. This particular recipe is my homage to Hanoi's classic Chả Cá Lã Vọng, a dish of fried fish seasoned with turmeric, shrimp paste, and dill that's served over vermicelli with lots of herbs and nước chấm, a staple fish sauce dressing. My simplified version is married with the summer roll for a quick and refreshing nod to an otherwise perfect traditional recipe. In Vietnam, summer roll dishes are usually served deconstructed with platters of crisp greens, herbs, and accoutrements so guests can assemble their own rolls (post COVID-19, of course). Preparing and eating a traditional meal is like sampling an important part of history, and I'm just as excited to participate in its evolution so that there are new stories to look forward to and share."
Slice 4 Persian cucumbers lengthwise into planks that are about 3" long and 1/4" thick. Cut off the crown and the rounded bottom of 1 pineapple, creating two flat surfaces. Stand the pineapple up, then use your knife to cut away the skin, following the contours of the pineapple from top to bottom. Cut your pineapple in four long pieces, then remove the core. Cut the pineapple plank crosswise into short 1/4" pieces. Set aside.
Peel and finely chop one 2" piece ginger and 4–6 garlic cloves. (You should have about 2 Tbsp. each.) Mix 1 Tbsp. finely chopped ginger, 1 Tbsp. finely chopped garlic, 1 tsp. ground turmeric, 2 Tbsp. fish sauce, ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, and a pinch of kosher salt in a small bowl. Cut 1 lb. white fish fillets, preferably skin-on, into 4 equal pieces, then massage marinade onto fish to coat evenly. Place in a shallow bowl or dish. Let marinate in the fridge at least 30 minutes and, preferably, up to 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the nước chấm dipping sauce. Stir 1 Tbsp. sugar and 5 Tbsp. warm water in a small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Halve 1 lime and squeeze in the juice (use your hand or a fine-mesh sieve to catch the seeds). Add a pinch of red pepper flakes if you’d like it to be spicy, remaining 2 Tbsp. fish sauce, remaining 1 Tbsp. finely chopped ginger, and remaining 1 Tbsp. finely chopped garlic. Stir to combine. Set aside for serving.
Remove fish from refrigerator. Heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium. Working in batches if needed, cook fish (start skin side down, if your fish has skin) until flesh is opaque all the way through, firm, and flakes easily with a fork, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and flake into smaller pieces.
To assemble rolls, working one at a time, dip 12 rice paper rounds in a clean shallow bowl or pan of hot water until pliable but not floppy, about 15 seconds. Lay flat on a large plate or cutting board and arrange a piece or so of torn tender lettuce, some tender herbs, a slice or two of the reserved cucumber and pineapple, and a few pieces of fish horizontally across the center of wrappers, leaving a 2" border on left and right sides. Fold left and right sides inward, then tightly roll wrapper starting at the side nearest you. If you’d like to make rolls with exposed fillings, simply fold in the left side of wrapper before adding fillings. Arrange fillings so that they overhang slightly on the left side, then fold in the right side and roll up. Repeat until all of the fish has been used (you should get 10–12 rolls). Serve with reserved nước chấm for dipping alongside.
Alternatively, you can plate all of the components separately with a bowl of warm water for soaking the wrappers and let guests assemble their own.
Do ahead: Nước chấm can be made 2 weeks ahead. Cover and chill.
Vietnamese Turmeric Fish Summer Rolls - Recipes
Who doesn’t love a spring roll? It’s the perfect union between vegetables and proteins bounded by sliver of carbohydrates that even the most ardent low carb fiend would approve.
The typical goi cuon contains pork and shrimp, but we must commend chef Kristen of the very popular Little Saigon restaurant, Garlic and Chives for her ingenious idea of using salmon belly. The salmon belly is fried, it’s exterior cripsy and crunchy, but due to the relative high fat content of the belly, it’s still moist and tender on the inside. Now, rolling up fish in spring rolls isn’t a novel idea—we do it all the time with our turmeric salmon and many restaurants devoted to this using roasted catfish, ca nuong. What’s genius about using salmon belly is the sheer ease to prepare and portion. We have to admit, it’s a laborious task of roasting a whole fish or an entire filet of salmon. Luckily many Asian markets sell salmon belly trimmed off the main filet so easy to buy exactly what you need and it cooks a lot faster. We prefer to deep fry, but you can definitely saute or even oven bake or airfry the belly’s. The texture will but slightly different, but it should all taste great.
The additional vegetables and herbs can be entirely up to you, but we do like to different textures and flavors in our spring roll so that each bite is bursting with contrasts. All the ingredients in our Nem Nuong cuon
is a good starting point, including something pickled like carrots and daikon and crunchy, especially the fried egg roll wrapper. We even improvised and added a nori strip to add a touch of salty and crunchy.
Chef Kristen uses a tamarind based dipping sauce that is tart and savory and complements the salmon wonderfully.
- 3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon minced scallion
- 1 tablespoon finely grated carrot
- 1 Thai chile, minced
- 3/4 cup rice flour
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions, plus more for garnish
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 slices of bacon, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced cooked pork (3 ounces)
- 8 freshly shucked oysters
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
- Lettuce leaves and mint sprigs, for serving
Make the Nuoc Cham
In a small bowl, whisk all of the ingredients until the sugar dissolves.
Make the Pancakes
In a medium bowl, whisk the rice flour with the turmeric and salt. Whisk in the water until smooth, then stir in 1/4 cup of the scallions.
Preheat two well-seasoned 8-inch pans (some prefer no stick for this) over medium heat for a few moments. Add the oil, divided into the two pans, swirl, and add the pork and bacon. Cook, stirring until the bacon begins to turn color and get light golden brown. Add the oysters, sauté for a few minutes. Divide the batter between the two pans, spread into an even layer and cook until browned on the bottom, about 4 minutes.
Using a spatula, flip the pancake, then pour half the beaten egg evenly on top of each pancake. Scatter 1/2 cup of mung bean sprouts and 2 tablespoons each of the cilantro and scallions over each pancake. Fold half the pancake over itself to form a half moon. Cook over moderately high heat, flipping once, until crisp on the outside and just cooked through, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate.
SALAD DAYS / Vietnamese wraps are the perfect meal to roll out at summer gatherings
1 of 5 VIETWRAP26_040_cl.JPG Photo of Vietnamese lettuce wraps. Food styled by Amanda Gold. Craig Lee / The Chronicle MANDATORY CREDIT FOR PHOTOG AND SF CHRONICLE/ -MAGS OUT Craig Lee Show More Show Less
2 of 5 VIETWRAP26_210_cl.JPG Photo of Vietnamese lettuce wraps. Food styled by Amanda Gold. Craig Lee / The Chronicle MANDATORY CREDIT FOR PHOTOG AND SF CHRONICLE/ -MAGS OUT Craig Lee Show More Show Less
Ten years of living in the fog zone has a way of redefining an urban cook's sense of summer. Without a garden to tend or a backyard grill to celebrate the season, roving the farmers' markets becomes my way of marking off the months.
Along with sweet peaches, fat figs and truly ripe tomatoes, I await the arrival of fresh herbs at the Asian vendors' booths. As the days lengthen, the piles grow in size and variety, toppling over one another in fragrant abundance. One bunch of each ends up in my bag, a summer splurge I enjoy while I can.
Most of the herbs will find their way into my favorite summer treat: Vietnamese salad rolls. Crisp, cool greens are the perfect wrapping for those herb sprigs, along with crunchy slivers of vegetables and a savory morsel that provides the heart of the salad roll. Punctuated with sweet-tart pickles and dipped into nuoc cham sauce, salad rolls burst with flavor on the palate, yet remain light on the stomach.
There's not really a name for this way of eating. My mom, when I asked her, had to confer with her sisters for a day. She phoned back to admit, "We don't know what they're called. We just eat them, whatever is in the fridge or the garden. If you can do it to cha gio, you can do it to anything."
While restaurant menus tout "summer rolls" year-round, I've yet to taste in them the full, complex flavors that my family and I enjoy. Unfortunately, most restaurants have demoted the greens to a garnish. A single limp leaf of lettuce, for example, might prop up a few cha gio, fried imperial rolls that are the classic candidates for wrapping.
For the real thing, you need to make them yourself at home.
Simple pleasures. Not only do they highlight the best aspects of Vietnam's traditional cuisine -- its complex layering of flavors, its brightness and freshness, its interactive fun, its casual artistry -- salad rolls are also a healthy, easy way to celebrate summer produce.
I keep on hand a selection of the season's most tender greens and herbs for spontaneous snacking and fuss-free meals. Washed greens and trimmed herbs help smooth meal preparation. There's a jar of nuoc cham in my refrigerator, ready and waiting. With a tiny amount of foresight, lunch or dinner comes together in minutes.
Most of all, easy prep extends to summer entertaining. I might spend a little time in the kitchen to prepare the savory star of the wraps, but I'd prefer to spend most of my time at the table with my guests. Salad rolls are perfect for summer's friendly gatherings.
Over the years, I've settled on a few favorite dishes that suit wrapping especially well. Some, like grilled fish, are naturally simple even in their most traditional form. Others, like the golden shrimp cakes I make in muffin tins, are decidedly New World adaptations.
Savory highlights. Throughout Southeast Asia, where coastlines, rivers and canals shape community after community, a grilled whole fish is one of the most popular family meals. Happily settled near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, my parents still catch their own fish every weekend during the summer and then throw them right on the grill with the skin and bones, head and scales. Fillets are a convenient alternative.
On busy days, tempting shortcuts include a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store or juicy tidbits of duck or pork from a Chinese roasted meat shop. Sliced turkey breast works well, as does a plate of precooked shrimp. For the first course of a longer dinner or a comforting meal for two, a package of frozen imperial rolls, picked up in the freezer aisle at 99 Ranch Market, fries up quickly.
Traditional flavors. The whole leaves of young mustard are my favorite seasonal green, especially when their peppery notes are matched with the sweeter flavors of coconut milk or sweet potatoes. Look for bunches of these long-stemmed, flat, oval greens at Asian produce markets. Their lighter pea green stands out from the darker hues of other greens.
Mustard leaves are sturdier than lettuce, a bonus for those new to wrapping and rolling. If you can't find young mustard, cut older, more strongly flavored mustard leaves into thin strips and offer them as an aromatic along with the fresh herbs.
Another bitter ingredient, unripe banana, may be an acquired taste for some, but it appears on salad plates in Vietnam to add body to the complex layering of ingredients. The banana's inner peel adds a tannic bite while the unripe pulp offers a hint of bitterness.
A Vietnamese family might pick a banana from a tree in the backyard, but the large Cavendish variety stocked in most supermarkets can also be used. With a vegetable peeler, pare away the thin outer layer of the peel, leaving the pith, then shave the banana crosswise with a sharp knife.
The many English names of giap ca -- fish mint, fishwort, heartleaf, lizard tail and chameleon plant -- reveal both the dominant flavor and the striking leaves of this traditional Vietnamese salad herb. The variety preferred in Vietnam and now available in Asian markets in the United States has an all-green leaf and a pungently fishy flavor.
If you happen to have an adventurous palate and a green thumb, try tracking down the variegated plant, sold as "Houttuynia cordata" in Bay Area nurseries. It has much less "essence of pond" (as one of my Vietnamese cohorts likes to say) and much more citrusy, gingery flavors. I grow one as a houseplant, snipping a few small leaves off whenever needed.
If my mother or others of her generation join me for dinner, though, I'll hunt for a bunch of the fully green, fully fishy herb from an Asian grocery store. Like Vegemite, durian or cilantro, giap ca divides eaters into those who love it or hate it.
A special occasion in my family calls for grilling fish and then splurging on lots of ngo om, a delicate herb that looks like overgrown thyme but tastes of flowery lemons. Still rare and expensive in the United States, it shows up occasionally in Asian markets near large Vietnamese communities.
Composing the salad plate. Use the accompanying guide to the major components of the salad plate. The goal is to balance the flavors, shapes and colors, and to pile the platter high.
The beauty of salad rolls are their versatility and basic goodness. That said, though, a real salad plate is a verdant heap that dominates the center of the table. There should be so much, in fact, that it's better divided among three plates: tender green leaves on one, a heady selection of herbs on another, and yet a third plate with crisp pickles, fruits and vegetables.
Now, with summer delivering its abundance, I enjoy salads rolls that are as near perfect as they can be.
Here are some places to get salads wraps. These dishes often appear under house specials or in their own section of the menu. Look for dishes that highlight rice paper, lettuce and herbs, such as Hue-style sizzling crepes, shrimp on sugar cane, or grilled pork meatballs.
Anh Hong. 1818 Tully Road, No. 150 (in Lion Plaza), San Jose (408) 270-1096.
Bodega Bistro. 607 Larkin St. (at Eddy), San Francisco (415) 921-1218.
Le Soleil. 133 Clement St. (near Second Avenue), San Francisco (415) 668-4848.
Pagolac. 655 Larkin St. (at Eddy), San Francisco (415) 776-3234.
Many of these ingredients are available in supermarkets, but some take a trip to Asian grocers such as 99 Ranch. You should offer at least one ingredient from every taste group.
Baby mustard greens, stems removed
Vietnamese mint (rau ram, laksa leaf or polygonum)
Fish mint (giap ca, chameleon plant)
Rice paper, preferably 8-inch rounds
Rice vermicelli, cut into 4-inch lengths
Rice thread cakes, or banh hoi
Pickling cucumbers with peel, thinly sliced
Chinese celery, cut into 2-inch lengths, or thinly sliced celery stalk
Jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
Granny Smith apple, with peel, thinly sliced
Sour star fruit, thinly sliced
Pickled shallots or leeks, halved
Green banana, paper-thin slices
Green onions, halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch lengths
Pineapple, cut into long, thin slices
Unripe papaya (with just a hint of pink on the skin), peeled and cut into strips
Have all the greens ready and the table set before you prepare one of the savory dishes. For each diner, offer a small plate and a small bowl for the dipping sauce. A pair of chopsticks is helpful for collecting ingredients, but this is generally hands-on eating. Vietnamese meals tend to be casual affairs. Diners choose their own flavors, hot foods arrive as they're ready, and nimble fingers are more important than matching flatware.
For more formal meals, I'll offer rice paper and a smaller amount of greens. While crisp fritters and shrimp cakes stand alone with greens only, grilled fish is excellent with rice paper. The best way to coordinate the brief dipping required to soften the rounds also happens to be the easiest for the cook: Keep a wide, shallow bowl of hot water on or near the table and appoint one diner to be the rice paper person. A quick dip, with three or four seconds of swirling, and then a few more seconds on an empty plate will soften the rice paper to wrapping consistently.
To create a small, neat, compact salad roll, follow the step-by-step photos above.
Rolling up Vietnamese wraps
Begin by folding the spine of the lettuce leaf back into the center to make the roll sturdier. Pile on the fillings, balancing flavors, colors and textures, then wrap and dig in.
Hold the leaf open, then fold the tip of the stalk end back toward the middle.
Arrange ingredients for the filling along the rib of the lettuce leaf.
Continue adding ingredients, stopping before the filling is three fingers wide.
Fold the top of the leaf back over the center.
Roll the bottom of the leaf back over the center to make a snug package.
Holding the roll by the stem end, dip it into the nuoc cham.
This is the ubiquitous sauce of Vietnamese tables. Homemade versions will be cloudier but also much more flavorful than the sauces you receive in restaurants. These amounts offer a baseline be sure to taste and adjust as you stir together the ingredients. Depending on the tartness of the citrus fruit or your own sweet tooth, you may need to add a sprinkle of sugar or a dash more fish sauce, less garlic or another whole chile.
1/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice
1 clove garlic, smashed flat then minced finely
1 red Thai or serrano chile, sliced thinly
Combine all the ingredients in a small jar. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust flavors until there is a balance of sweetness, tartness and saltiness. Refrigerate for up to 1 week.
PER TABLESPOON: 35 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 681 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
I can prepare this quick version of my mom's whole grilled fish easily in my oven broiler to keep me happy between visits home.
1 1/2 pounds lean, flaky fish fillets, such as halibut, sea bass or catfish
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Wooden skewers, soaked in water for 30 minutes
12-16 rice paper sheets, preferably 8-inch rounds (see "Tips for wrapping" at left for instructions)
Salad Plate (see instructions)
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce (see recipe)
Season the fish with salt and pepper. With a sharp knife held at an angle, cut the fillets into thick slices about 2 inches wide.
Thread slices loosely onto the skewers. Brush the fish generously and evenly with oil, then set aside at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Preheat an oven broiler to high. Brush the broiler rack with oil and then arrange the fish on the rack. Broil the fish 5 minutes on the first side, then 2 to 3 minutes on the second, or until the fish is just opaque at the center.
Serve immediately with the Salad Plate, rice paper and dipping sauce.
PER SERVING: 185 calories, 35 g protein, 0 carbohydrate, 4 g fat (1 g saturated), 54 mg cholesterol, 232 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
If the bottoms of your muffin cups are more than 2 inches across, slightly increase the amount of batter in each cake. For a vegetarian version, replace the shrimp with sliced cremini or shiitake mushrooms.
Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)
Vietnamese fish sauce dipping sauce, or Nuoc Mam Cham or Nuoc Mam Ot, is used in many Vietnamese dishes:
If these dishes do not come with Nuoc Mam Cham, there's no point in eating! Nuoc Mam Cham is such a major component of Vietnamese cooking that it should be a prerequisite for being Vietnamese.
There are ready-made fish sauce dipping sauces readily available in stores, but the best ones are the ones you make yourself with fresh ingredients.
Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)
Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)
Nuoc Mam Cham has such a delicate taste that any small addition can transform the sauce to incredibly off-putting to amazingly fantastic. Many people, including myself, frequently get the ratios of ingredients wrong. I finally turned to my cooking-extraordinaire mother-in-law for help. Her recipe is so delicious that I have seen guests slurp down her sauce. Her recipe is the perfect combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Her secret ingredient? Coconut soda. My Vietnamese dipping sauce woes are now over as I finally asked her to quantify each ingredient after many failed solo attempts.
Below is her recipe for the best Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dipping Sauce ever.
Summer Salad Rolls
We love eating leafy greens with every meal, but figuring out how to pack them can be a major pain. Our solution? Roll butter lettuce, cucumber, avocado, and tons of fresh herbs in rice paper wrappers and serve with a tangy peanut sauce for dipping—all the nutrition of a green salad with none of the mess.
2 tablespoons natural peanut butter
1 shallot, roughly chopped (¼ cup)
1 small clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
8 rice paper spring roll wrappers
1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed
½ English cucumber, cut into sticks
1 small avocado, thinly sliced
1. To make the peanut sauce, blend all ingredients until smooth.
2. Meanwhile, cut or tear the hard rib from each butter lettuce leaf and prep all other filling ingredients.
3. Fill a bowl large enough to hold the spring roll wrappers with warm water. Soak 1 wrapper for about 1 minute, or until just pliable, then lay flat on a cutting board. Layer in lettuce leaves, folding large ones in half, then fresh herbs, cucumber, and sliced avocado.
4. Carefully roll up the wrapper, leaving both ends open. Soak another wrapper and wrap the existing roll inside to secure ingredients.
5. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling ingredients. Then pack in an airproof container, layering in a damp paper towel to keep the rice paper moist.
6. Serve with dipping sauce on the side.
Bánh xèo tôm Vietnamese pancakes
Try this Vietnamese bánh xèo recipe, adapted from Vietnamese: Simple Vietnamese Food to Cook at Home by Uyen Luu (£22, Hardie Grant). Uyen says:”There’s a knack to eating these: gather a handful of leaves and herbs in your hand, break off some crêpe onto the leaves, then roll it up and dip it into the sauce. You can vary the filling.” This recipe was supplied by the publisher and not retested by us.
- rice flour (non-glutinous) 100g
- ground turmeric 1 heaped tsp
- coconut milk 200ml
- spring onion 1, thinly sliced
- sea salt flakes ½ tsp
- caster sugar a pinch
- vegetable or coconut oil for frying
- shallots 2 round, thinly sliced
- shelled king prawns 200g, de-veined and halved
- bean sprouts 100g
- garlic chives or coriander 50g, (optional)
- lettuce leaves large handful
- spring onions 3, cut into short lengths
- Asian herbs a few handfuls, (such as coriander, thai sweet basil, garden mint, perilla and cockscomb)
DIPPING SAUCE (NƯỚC MẤM)
- bird’s-eye chillies 2, finely chopped
- garlic 2 cloves, finely chopped
- caster sugar 3 tbsp
- white wine vinegar 3 tbsp
- fish sauce 4 tbsp
To make the crêpe batter, mix together the flour, turmeric, coconut milk, the spring onion, salt, sugar and 200ml of water in a bowl until smooth and free of lumps. It should have the consistency of single cream.
Sizzling crepes with pork and prawns
This is a street-food favourite when the sun sets – it is a light savoury crêpe, to be eaten as it’s being cooked. It is served with salad leaves and herbs. A slice of crêpe is placed on a lettuce leaf in the palm of your hand, then rolled up with lots of herbs and dipped into a dipping sauce.
Makes about 12garlic cloves 2, finely choppedbird’s eye chillies 2, finely choppedcider vinegar 2 tbsp fish sauce 5 tbsp sugar 3 tbsp
Crêpesrice flour 200g ground turmeric 2 tspcoconut milk 400ml spring onions 2, thinly slicedsea salt a pinchsugar a pinchcooking oil for fryingshallots 4, choppedpork belly 200g, thinly slicedking prawns 400g, shelled and deveinedbeansprouts 200g
Garnisheslettuce leavesspring onions cut into short lengthscorianderThai sweet basilgarden or hot mint
You will need a 20cm non-stick frying pan with a lid.
Mix together the garlic, chillies and vinegar in a bowl. Set aside for 2 minutes to “cook” the garlic. Now add the fish sauce, sugar and 400ml water.
Mix together the flour, turmeric, coconut milk, 400ml water, spring onions, salt and sugar in a bowl, making sure it is free of lumps.
Heat 1 tsp oil in the frying pan over medium heat and fry 1 tsp of the chopped shallots until browned. Season the pork belly and prawns and add a few pieces to the pan until cooked through. Using a shallow ladle, pour in a thin layer of the crêpe batter, add a handful of beansprouts and cover the pan with the lid. Cook for 2 minutes on a high heat. Remove the lid and cook for a further minute, making sure the crêpe is crispy and brown. Fold the crêpe in half and set aside. Repeat this process with the remaining ingredients to make more crêpes.
Seriously Asian: Chả Cá, Seared Fish with Turmeric Over Rice Noodles Recipe
In the sweltering streets of Hanoi, life happens in the instant. In an instant people zip by on scooters going so quickly, laden with impossibly large items, that you suspend disbelief and simply watch. I once saw a whole family—the father navigating, the mother seated primly behind him holding their daughter in her arms, and behind the three of them, a stack of cages stuffed with live chickens piled three cages high.
In an instant you can find a bowl of noodles more delicious than most the people preparing the noodles have been making the same food for their whole lives, maybe generations, and the precision that goes into each bowl shows. A seemingly slapdash array of raw and cooked ingredients in the bowl balances perfectly the tension between savory, sweet, and sour.
I ate many large bowls of pho, laden with twice the offal that the bowls offered because my traveling companion at the time was squeamish and slipped everything offal that she didn't want to eat in her bowls of pho, into mine. In went a succulent section of omasum tripe! Following that, a gelatinous piece of tendon. We never sought respite from the pho, but midway in the trip we added another famed noodle dish, Chả Cá, to our repertoire of quick and delicious meals to slurp down.
The restaurant Chả Cá La Vong in Hanoi makes the definitive bowl, but everywhere we went in Hanoi, there were noodle joints serving their unique version of the dish. The major elements of the dish were as follows: a white-fleshed fish like catfish or snakehead seasoned with turmeric, seared, with plenty of dill and green onions on top a bed of rice noodles roasted peanuts and an assortment of herbaceous greens.
The greens varied, but there was usually Thai basil, mint, red perilla (a member of the shiso family), and Vietnamese balm (reminiscent of lemongrass, in herb form). Some kind of lettuce accompanied the noodles. Once the fish was seared, everything would be mixed with the noodles—the peanuts, a sauce containing lime, shrimp paste and fish sauce, and the assortment of herbs and vegetables. It was this unique combining of cooked and raw ingredients, which appeared over and over again in other Vietnamese dishes, that left such an indelible impression.
Upon my return to the states I learned that the fish for Chả Cá is marinated in turmeric, galangal, shrimp paste, and a fermented rice mash that is difficult to find outside of the country. Sour cream or buttermilk are handy replacements for the rice mash furthermore, though white-fleshed fish are the norm, I've often replaced the fish with salmon as a nod to the dill that garnishes the fish. Unlike the best pho broths, which should taste more like beef than beef fat, Chả Cá contains a fair amount of grease from the sizzling oil and juices that pool in the bottom of the pan of fish, not to mention from the addition of the oily shrimp paste. The oil lubricates the rice noodles, making them slick, flavorful, and incredibly addictive.
It's an ideal dish to try in the summertime: With the abundance of herbs available in gardens and markets during the season, the dish can take on as many new flavors as you're willing to try. Finally, leftover Chả Cá, if there is such a thing, makes for an unbeatable filling for rice rolls.
Pho: Vietnamese beef noodle soup with all the trimmings
Every time Justin and I go to visit his family in Denver, I beg to go to Pho 95. It’s a little Vietnamese restaurant that serves the most fantastic noodle soup. Like, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried the soup. The first time we ate there, I frantically wrote down all of the ingredients I could taste or see so that I could attempt recreate it at home. Be warned, Pho is much easier to make in large quantities, so have a crowd over to eat it!
Pho is pronounced “faah” (with a little bit of an “uh” sound at the end), not like “foe”–something I did not know until a year after I first tried it.
Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) – with Thai basil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves
3 teaspoons minced ginger (you can use dried if you’d like)
About 6-8 cups of beef broth
1/2 pound thinly-sliced beef (flank or skirt steak are popular)
pho spice mix from an Asian market (optional, but more authentic)
rice stick noodles (thick or thin, whatever you like)
fish sauce (to taste)
chopped green onions
To make, saute half an onion, 2-3 garlic cloves, and 3 tsp. ginger in your sauce pan with a little oil until fragrant and translucent.
Add beef broth/bullion to make about a gallon (I know, huge), or if you have pho spices/prepackaged pho mix from an Asian market, use that.
Bring to a boil, and add rice stick noodles. Boil until tender, then add thinly sliced flank, brisket, or skirt steak and cook until desired doneness (in Vietnamese restaurants, they often do rare). In Western Kansas, I bet a lot of people would also enjoy it with venison (I’ve made it that way, and it IS delicious).
Garnish with jalapenos, bean sprouts, lime juice, green onion, and Thai basil. You can add fish sauce and hoisin or Sriracha to taste.