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Apr27

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

Apr14

Gỏi cá trích (Vietnamese sardine ceviche)

It’s bothered us for a while that we can make Latin American ceviche but we had no idea how to make Vietnamese ceviche (gỏi cá). This past weekend, we set out to correct this imbalance.

We wanted to learn to make the dish as traditionally as possible so it was time to read up on recipes. Google searches turned up many recipes and instructions in Vietnamese that were all over the place. As we did more searches into this dish, we were struck by how a dish could be quintessentially Vietnamese (lots and lots of greens and herbs in a rice paper roll) and yet unique among its peers (wetting rice paper in coconut milk anyone?). We decided to draw on the common and/or interesting elements from the recipes that we found. So, consider this a best practice review (as Lamp would put it) or a high-level synthesis (my way of describing it) (can you guess the fields we are in yet? :D).

For the fish: we bought whole sardines. The fish mongers cleaned the fish for us, but we had to fillet them ourselves. We marinated sardines fillets in lime juice (~5′), then drained and squeezed out the juice from the fillets (care should be taken not to mush the fillets). We saved this juice to make dipping sauce. Sardine fillets were then mixed with minced ginger, garlic, galanga (riềng) and roasted rice powder (thính). We marinated fish fillets for a few hours in the fridge.

For the dipping sauce: we added coconut soda/juice (or water) to the fish marinade saved earlier, then added fish sauce, sugar and lime juice to taste. Then minced garlic, chili peppers and roasted peanuts were added to complete the sauce.

For the greens: as many herbs and vegetables as possible. When this dish is served in Viet Nam, the fish is accompanied not only by herbs but also by many different types of young leaves gathered in the backyard and/or forest. We didn’t quite know how to forage in the wild yet, so had to resort to foraging at the farmers’ market and an Asian supermarket. After a long walk through these 2 markets, we ended up with the following:

  • dandelion greens
  • 2 types of young kales
  • húng cây (spearmint)
  • kinh giới (Vietnamese balm)
  • rau răm (Vietnamese coriander)
  • rau om (rice paddy herbs)
  • bean sprouts
  • chuối chát (plantain)
  • khế (starfruit)
  • kiwi (for sourness, since we only found 1 starfruit at the market and it didn’t look like it’d be sour)

(Did we mention this was a quintessentially Vietnamese dish? This list isn’t much longer than a standard list of greens that typically accompany a dish involving rolling food in rice paper)

Oh, and don’t forget the coconut: diluted coconut milk (1:10) for wetting rice paper and coconut meat for inclusion in the rice paper rolls. The recipes called for roasted grated coconut, which we forgot to get, so we made do with the tender flesh of the young coconut instead. It was fine – grated coconut would assert itself more forcefully as a distinct textural component, but roasted young coconut flesh was rich and flavorful. A new ingredient to work with!

Phew, that was it for preparations. This is what the spread looked like:

gỏi cá trích spread

The glass of wine contained nước sim (hill gooseberry juice) mixed with shochu. Most of our working recipe is adapted from the gỏi cá style practiced in Phú Quốc, where sim fruits are plentiful and rượu sim (sim liquor) is a local delicacy. We would love to get our hands on authentic sim liquor someday, but the faux rượu sim paired very well with gỏi cá.

When we finally sat down, made our rolls, dipped them in dipping sauce, and took our bites, we encountered a riot of flavors. Our taste buds definitely had to work overtime with each bite given the incredible blend of flavors: spicy galanga and fragrant roasted rice commingling with the strong fish flavor of sardines, floral flavor of rau om, savoriness and creaminess of roasted coconut, bitterness of dandelion greens, leafiness of young kales, sweet fruitiness of starfruit, stringency of plantain, sourness of kiwi, sharp freshness of herbs and saltiness of dipping sauce that had been accentuated with fish marinade and roasted peanuts. Oh my. And yet the ingredients blended together harmoniously or else waited their turns to assert themselves, making for a different sensation with each chew.

gỏi cá trích in a rice paper roll

We were blown away by this dish. I actually thought it was much better than bò nhúng dấm (vinegar beef hotpot), which means a lot since bò nhúng dấm has always been my favorite dish. This dish is definitely more complex, starting with the defiantly fishy sardines that eclipse the milder vinegary beef. The variety of vegetables are similar, but gỏi cá trích specifically calls for as many as you can get, preferably by foraging, so that’s another point in its favor. Even the rice paper dipped in coconut milk, which we were initially skeptical about, turned out great – not greasy but a vehicle for additional coconut richness. Finally, it’s hard to beat a dipping sauce that decorates nước chấm (fish sauce with all its usual fixings ) with roasted peanuts and lime-fish marinade. Yum, and a new favorite!

Apr11

(Mì) Vịt Tiềm Bí – Tonic Duck Soup with Spaghetti Squash “Noodles”

Mì Vịt Tiềm is one of my favorite comfort food but I hadn’t been able to get a good bowl since I’ve been in the States. The central appeal of the dish is the use of thuốc Bắc (traditional Chinese medicinal herbs) that give the duck and broth an ancient, mysterious fragrance – but it’s inexplicably overlooked or dialed down by restauranteurs in the States.  We had to learn for ourselves what medicinal herbs to use before we could make a proper bowl of mì vịt tiềm … and then we had to go and alter different pillar of the dish :)

A prototype bowl of Vịt tiềm bí

Common ingredients used to flavor the broth included ngũ vị hương (five spice), nấm đông cô (shiitake), táo tầu (dried jujube), quế (cinnamon) and đại hồi (star anise). The medicinal herbs included huynh ky (huáng qí, Astragalus propinquus root), đương quy (dāngguī, Angelica sinensis root), kỷ tử (gǒuqǐ, goji berry / Lycium chinense fruit), and suynh khôm (chuānxiōn, Ligusticum wallichii root). The last 3 common ingredients and all of the medicinal herbs were included in mì vịt tiềm kits imported from Guangdong. We were happy with results from the kits but if fetishizing minutiae is a hobby for you too, you can also pick up the herbs individually – they would be in less fragmentary pieces and presumably higher grade.

Gia vị thuốc Bắc của mì vịt tiềm - medicinal herbs for tonic duck soup

Duck pieces were marinated in ngũ vị hương, sugar and soy sauce overnight, then given a quick, searing stir frying.

Seared duck legs

Duck meat and bones were cooked in a stock pot with all the spices. The medicinal herbs were used in equal proportions, except suynh khôm of which a half portion was used because its contribution was so strong. The broth was brought to a boil and then simmered on low-medium heat for 1-2 hours until the duck was soft. Chicken broth and additional ngũ vị hương can be added to the pot. We also added shiitake mushroom and dried jujube.

vịt tiềm broth

In our variation on this dish, we cooked the fry-seared duck pieces inside a spaghetti squash. The squash was roasted at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Duck jus from inside the cooked squash was added to the stock pot – this provided more sweetness to the broth and a lovely smoky flavor that blended perfectly with the traditional vịt tiềm fragrance.

Spaghetti squash being stuffed with marinated duck

We used the strands inside the spaghetti squash as our noodles and garnished the bowl with boiled cải rổ (chinese broccoli) – cải rổ was flashed boiled in the broth itself. Another garnish we used and were happy with was bamboo shoots.

a bowl of vịt tiềm bí

vịt tiềm bí was served several times during this past holiday season to our friends and family. Everyone loved that fragrance of authentic vịt tiềm, with or without recognition of the added roasted squash in the mix. The use of spaghetti squash noodles – crunchy and flavorful in its own right – was a fun surprise, but some missed the resilience of grain noodles. We’re working to improve that and have made some progress.

We’ve made do without the chinese medicinal herbs before, but what a joy it was to finally  have a bowl of mì vịt tiềm with that distinctive fragrance of impossibly old port wine and curiosity shop. Personally it recalled happy times as the undisputed runamuck at my grandfather’s clinic and dispensary. We were also happy to come up with a fun variation on the recipe, one which added New World ingredients and flavors without altering the essential identity of the dish.

This is our contribution to the  April Delicious Vietnam food posts round-up started by A food lover’s journey and Ravenous Couple.