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Xôi trà (tea-flavored sticky rice)

Xôi (steamed sticky rice) is most commonly served as plain rice embellished with other ingredients but there are a small number of recipes where the rice itself is flavored by being soaked in plant extracts.

xôi gấc

I was curious to see if that technique was generally applicable to any flavored liquid. As proof of concept, I wanted to see if soaking sticky rice in fragrant tea overnight would yield tea-flavored xôi. If successful, it would add innumerable possibilities to the long list of different types of xôi that already exists in Vietnamese cuisine. Continue reading to find out if the experiment worked


Food-filled weekend

Select photos from a food-filled weekend (2 big dinners on Friday and Saturday)

Cơm hấp trái dừa: rice cooked in coconut juice inside a coconut

There’s a huge bin of fresh young coconuts at the Asian supermarket I go to so I have been playing with coconut a lot lately. Latest fun was steaming rice inside a coconut with coconut juice. The rice is sweet and fully infused with coconut flavor. The rice could be a meal in itself. It paired very well with coconut-caramelized shrimps.

Tôm rang nước dừa coconut-caramelized shrimps)

And speaking of caramelization, how could I not make caramelized catfish in claypot as well? It’s kind of funny that I had never tried my hands at making this Southern classic before. Anyways, 1st and 2nd attempts (Fri & Sat dinners) both turned out very well. This delicious dish was a big hit at both dinners.

Cá kho tộ Caramelized catfish with pork belly)

Riềng (galanga) definitely enhanced the flavor of cá kho tộ

Friday menu:

  1. Gỏi ngó sen (lotus root salad with shrimps and pork belly)
  2. Tôm rang nước dừa (Coconut-caramelized shrimps)
  3. Cá kho tộ (Caramelized catfish in claypot)
  4. Canh chua (Sweet and sour soup with catfish)
  5. Rau câu dừa (coconut agar-agar/jelly in coconut)

Gỏi ngó sen lotus root salad), tôm rang nước dừa coconut-caramelized shrimps), cá kho tộ

Saturday menu:

1.   Chả giò chay (yuba rolls)
2a. Cà tím kho tộ (coconut-caramelized eggplants)
2b. Cá kho tộ (caramelized catfish in claypot)
3.   Mít non nướng cuốn bánh tráng (grilled young jackfruit in rice paper)
4a. Canh chua cá bông lau (sweet & sour soup with catfish)
4b. Canh chua chay (vegetarian sweet and sour soup)
5.   Mít nướng cơm dừa (grilled ripe jackfruit with grated coconut)



Amazake (chè gạo)

Amazake is a Japanese sweet fragrant drink made from fermented rice. We fell in love with amazake at first sip at a tea house in Hakone after a long and exhausting hike. This was another serendipitous discovery. Tired of all the tourist attractions at Hakone, we decided to veer off our plans when we saw a trail head sign indicating a 45-minute hike. Little did we know that the hike included many extremely steep climbs so even the shortest route took us over 2 hours. We found a tea house after finishing the hike and ordered amazake based on the limited English description on the menu. As soon as we had our first sips of the hot, sweet and gingery drink, the waitress came over to ask if we got there by car, because otherwise, we’d need to hurry up to catch the last bus leaving in 5 minutes. We panicked, hurriedly finished our amazake and ran to the bus stop, only to find out that the last bus was to leave in 25 minutes. Phew. We were glad the waitress reminded us about the bus or we’d have had a lot of trouble finding our way back to Tokyo. But too bad the language barrier prevented us from fully enjoying delicious amazake.

Amazake stock

Even with such a short encounter, though, we still loved it so much that we couldn’t stop looking for amazake once we got back to the US. I lost count of how many times we got so excited when we saw things labeled as Amazake in Japanese and American supermarkets only to be let down. What we found in the States were marketed as and tasted like health food drinks. The amazake we had was more closely related to various species of rice puddings than wheatgrass  juice.

As with tofu-misozuke, when we couldn’t buy what we were so obsessed about, we set out to figure out how to make it. Luckily for us the Japanese markets in the Bay Area carry koji, a crucial ingredient in making amazake.


This drink is extremely easy to make: we cooked rice with more water than usual to get slightly wetter cooked rice, let it cool then mixed in koji (1 koji : 4 white rice ratio worked for us) and incubated the mix at 140F (60C) for 10-14 hours (our water bath set up was extremely useful in making this drink). Where we didn’t have a water bath, we heated water on the stove and monitored the temperature with a thermometer. It required more work and attention, but it worked. After incubation, the rice had the consistency of porridge and tasted really sweet, even though no sugar was added at any point during the process. This amazake was diluted 1:1 with water, brought to a boil, then simmered, and served hot with grated ginger as garnish. Mmmm… finally! The stock could also be used as sweetener in cooking and baking.

Happy with our success, and based on our observation that nếp than (black glutinous rice) was very fragrant on its own, we experimented with making amazake using black glutinous rice instead of white rice.

cooked black glutinous rice

Turned out the koji:rice ratio needed to be increased to 1:2 and incubation period needed to be stretched to 48 hours for the rice/koji mix to be turned into a sweet porridge stock. The husk on the glutinous rice didn’t get broken down, so the diluted drink needed to be blended well before serving. We loved our own version of amazake because the fragrance of black glutinous rice complemented the amazake fragrance very well. This drink was so flavorful and complex on its own that we didn’t even need to add ginger when served.

nếp than black glutinous rice) amazake

The next natural question in this series of experiments was whether we could passage amazake: can we make new amazake by mixing rice with amazake stock instead of koji?

Passaging amazake: white rice mixed with amazake stock instead of koji)

The answer was it depends :) …we were able to passage white rice amazake but failed to do so with black glutinous rice amazake. We are still not sure why this was the case. Any chemists or microbiologists want to weigh in on this? One remedy we can try is to alternate our passages:

  1. make 1st generation amazake using white rice and koji,
  2. then mix 1st generation amazake with black glutinous rice to make the 2nd generation amazake,
  3. then use 2nd generation to mix with white rice to get 3rd generation,
  4. then use 3rd generation to mix with black glutinous rice to get 4th generation.

Don’t know if it’ll work, but we can try it and report back in the next post on this topic.

We are extremely happy that we can have good amazake whenever we want and can enjoy an additional variation of the drink by combining what we learned in Japanese cuisine with Vietnamese ingredient. Besides the passaging experiment mentioned above, next on our list to try is to experiment with different flavors (besides ginger). Our preliminary attempts with cinnamon and jasmine were underwhelming, so we’d need to think about this some more.

Mendelian arrangement of amazake from bottom left, counter-clockwise)

A note on the name: Since there isn’t an existing Vietnamese name for it, we made up the translation in the title (literally: sweet rice pudding) because a common naming formula for Vietnamese chè desserts is chè (sweet dessert soup/pudding) + main ingredient (e.g., đậu xanh (mung bean), bưởi (pomelo), đậu đỏ (red beans), bắp (corn), khoai môn (taro), hạt sen (lotus seeds)). I suppose we could have called it chè Nhật (Japanese sweet pudding) or cơm rượu Nhật (Japanese fermented rice). The problem with those names is that the first isn’t specific enough and the second is misleading, because amazake isn’t mildly alcoholic like the Vietnamese dessert of that name. We decided to stick with chè gạo, a new addition to the big family of chè :)

Finally, a biochemical digression: while freshly made amazake had a never-encountered-before fragrance, old stock amazake had an oddly familiar scent that once identified helped greatly in placing amazake in the grand scheme of things: old amazake smelled like kẹo mạch nha (maltose syrup, used in Vietnam to the same effects as maple syrup). Aha.

Home-brewers know that rice requires a 2-step fermentation because amylase is inactivated or otherwise unavailable in milled rice. Amylase is an enzyme essential for breaking down rice starch into fermentable sugar. The Japanese use koji mold and its amylase to accomplish this step, resulting in amazake. The next step involves converting sugar to ethanol using yeast. Amylase is also abundant in saliva – which is why thoroughly chewed rice tastes sweet, and some traditional alcohol recipes like chicha (Peruvian corn beer) call for spitting into the brewing vessel. However it’s accomplished, this first step in fermentation is called malting, and the resulting sugars are called maltose. Yup, that’s a scientific name.

The Vietnamese rice wine making process stopped halfway yields a sweet dessert, the aforementioned cơm rượu (fermented rice). It’s mildly alcoholic because both malting and alcoholic fermentation are happening simultaneously.

So we don’t need malting to make wine, but we do use maltose syrup on a lot of sweets – particularly drizzled in between a folded crispy crepe with grated coconuts and toasted sesame inside. The traditional recipe for making maltose syrup reveals another place where amylase can be found: in sprouted rice. Of course! Amylase is activated so the sprouted rice can convert its stored starch into consumable energy for the eventual seedling. Crushed sprouted rice is boiled with (glutinous) rice for 12 hours, strained & squeezed, and reduced to yield a thick, sticky, sweet, and fragrant syrup called kẹo mạch nha. Neat! Now where can we get some seed rice?


Tofu-misozuke: things you can do with your tofu-misozuke & update #4

tofu-misozuke on bread and crisp rice crackers

Tofu misozuke hits many of the same spot as soft cheeses and can be enjoyed in many of the same ways. We originally had it straight up and paired with sake. It’s also great spread on baguettes and bánh đa (tapioca cracklings). On the other hand, the salt content and assertive taste of many crackers make that pairing a hit or miss affair.

Here’s another way of enjoying tofu-misozuke, inspired by how the Vietnamese sometimes eat mắm (fermented fish): spread tofu-misozuke on a slice of cucumber, whose coolness and crispiness provide an excellent contrast to the soft, intense tofu.

Tofu misozuke on cucumber

That’s a great snack all by itself, but we also like to add herbs to all things:

add herb on top of cucumber-tofu misozuke ensemble

Seen above are húng cây (spearmint) and tía tô (shiso). Kinh giới (Vietnamese balm) and lemon balm (kinh giới Mỹ) also work great, especially with the next addition:

add sardines on top to round out the ensemble

Finally, a piece of sardine (cá mòi) cooked and canned in olive oil is placed on top of herbs, tofu misozuke, and cucumber. This combination makes a great hors-d’oeuvre that is filled with textural and flavor contrast. The tofu-misozuke, herbs and sardines are each strongly assertive in their own ways yet blend together into a suprisingly well rounded whole. Just remember to pick a can of sardines that’s low in sodium; they vary wildly.

An aside: Canned sardines, by the way, are totally a part of Vietnamese cuisine after being imported by/for Frenchmen serving in Indochina. The luxurious aura of foreign food during the colonial era and the lean, iron-curtained post-war years helped, but canned sardines are also just plain good (see also: those red cans of Bretel butter, still cherished by those Vietnamese living in the land of fresh butter and innumerable cheeses). I still relish my occasional sardines and baguette breakfast, and the same combination are still offered by many bánh mì stands in Vietnam.

Updates on tofu-misozuke from CA and MI:

– Soft tofu is gone – all eaten 😀

– Medium firm tofu was soft and creamy (and almost gone; half of it should be in Lyon, France by now; another quarter was consumed at a birthday party this past weekend). It was still on the salty side but paired really nicely with a slice of cucumber.

– Firm tofu was creamy on the outside (I didn’t check the middle; it was probably still crumbly inside). It was still on the salty side.

– Firm tofu with lemongrass was still crumbly, which was perplexing. I wonder if the presence of lemongrass inhibited protease activities. I’ll let this run for a few more months to see. The flavor was more complex than just miso, but it was difficult to identify the additional flavor as that of lemongrass.

– Tofu with kelp: the tofu block wrapped in the better grade kelp was starting to become soft and creamy. The taste was amazing: kelp flavor was there in the tofu and blended very well with miso flavor. It was very delicious and mildly pungent. I can’t wait until this one ripens. The excitement was dampened a bit when I had to throw out the block of tofu wrapped in lesser grade kelp. It had all sorts of growth on both sides of the kelp :( Oh well, at least there’s still one good block of tofu to continue this experiment.

– The attempt to control salt content by cutting marinade amount was a success. All arms of the experiment were creamy and rich. The original recipe was creamier than the rest, but only noticeable in a direct comparison. The others will catch up, I’m sure. Most importantly, the tofu with the least marinade was well on its way to being a full-fledged tofu-misozuke, with a much diminished salt presence.


Head-spinning East goes West goes East Bloody Mary (Rượu Pha Nước Cà Chua)

The Vietnamese translation above is literally liquor mixed with tomato juice because there is no way for me to translate Bloody Mary into Vietnamese without being blasphemous.

Bloody Mary is a lovely Sunday morning drink and reputed hangover cure, made with vodka, (sometimes roasted) tomato juice and various spices – most commonly Worcestershire sauce.

Anyway, a month or so ago, a Vietnamese history blog I visit often to disabuse myself of gradeschool-level history mentioned efforts to market Worcestershire sauce in the Far East. Now Worcestershire sauce was attributed to an Englishman bringing back a recipe from the British Far East colonies and attempting to recreate a taste he encountered there. Some decades later, Worcestershire sauce was marketed in Thailand as Western Fish Sauce. Reading the article inspired the idea to make Bloody Mary using Asian ingredients.

Tomatoes on a bed of chopped onions and sea salt - ready for roasting

Worcestershire sauce is made with primarily tamarind, anchovies, chile pepper, sugar (high fructose corn syrup in the US), and clove. The ingredients up to sugar are easy to substitute – altogether that’s just nước mắm me (fish sauce with tamarind). Clove is harder replace, and it’s one of the defining components of Worcestershire sauce. I ended up making a tea of 10 clove pieces and 20 pepper corns in a shot glass to titrate into my drink.

Tomatoes cut in half were laid on a bed of chopped onions and sea salt and roasted at 375 until the outside were charred. Tomatoes and onions were then blended with wasabi (horseradish traditionally) and lemon juice and chilled overnight (forgot to strain juice to get the seeds and other chunks out.)

Roasted tomatoes

Tamarind fish sauce were made from a semi-dry tamarind block, softened and rehydrated with boiling water – about 1/3 of a cup for a 1 inch cube. After straining, fish sauce and sugar and chopped garlic were added to taste. That’s nước mắm me. The sauce was then blended to make a smooth liquid to add to the tomato juice.

I also had some ponzu sauce (a Japanese sauce made of soy sauce, rice cooking wine, and fragrant Yuzu lemons) on hand, so I made another Worcestershire sauce equivalent using ponzu and adding ume-boshi (Japanese pickled plums) for added tartness.

A tall cold glass of stock solution: shochu + tomato juice.

To make the stock solution, equal parts chilled tomato juice and shochu were mixed together. Each type of Bloody Mary was made by adding a tablespoon of the appropriate spices (Worcestershire sauce or the equivalent) and a dash of homemade tương ớt (chilli sauce, Vietnamese style) to a glass of stock solution

  1. The traditional preparation Bloody Mary with Worcestershire sauce was nice as expected. Hints of the wasabi and tương ớt made a small difference, but Worcestershire sauce and tomato flavors dominated.
  2. Bloody Mary made with ponzu sauce was missing umami and the fragrance of yuzu lemon was disproportionately strong.
  3. Bloody Mary made with nước mắm me tasted great, biting, savory and sweet. But it was missing the spicy edge of clove. Adding clove tea didn’t work as clove and nước mắm me were unhappy to share space together.

An East meets West meets East Bloody Mary

Ultimately, my favorite nontraditional Bloody Mary made with traditional Asian ingredients to replace Worcestershire sauce because Worcestershire sauce was originally inspired by Asian ingredients (see, head-spinning) was made with 3 teaspoons of nước mắm me and 1 teaspoon of ponzu/ume-boshi sauce. I never noticed it before, but the distinctive fragrance of yuzu lemons could almost be described as citrusy and clovey. Diluted in nước mắm me, that fragrance was more well-behaved and gave a distinctive Bloody Mary that hit most of the same spots as the traditional recipe. A garnish of rau răm completed the East to West back to East transformation.