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Feb15

Tomato & pineapple dessert

Dessert is not my forte. I dislike baking and I never seem to be able to think of new ideas for desserts. That’s why I was so excited when I came up with this dessert and was even more psyched when it actually worked out well.

While cleaning up after a dinner I hosted last fall, I was blown away by the pineapple-tomato flavor combination (pineapple slices and grape tomatoes were used as plate decoration for a vegetarian course). The sweetness of the combo made me think of a dessert. And being from southern Vietnam, a dessert just isn’t complete without coconut milk.

So, the first idea for the dessert was to cook pineapple slices in coconut milk until soft, then serve them on clear tomato gel pieces with tía tô (perrilla) leaves. Tomato gel is made by filtering tomato puree to make clear tomato juice, which is then mixed with agar to make a gel. Here’s what tomato puree and the clear tomato juice look like:

Filtered tomato juice

This first version worked out ok, not great, for many reasons: the coconut milk flavor was quite strong and overpowered the pineapple; tía tô flavor didn’t go well with tomato and pineapple. Tía tô also makes the dessert taste confusing because it reminds people of savory dishes and doesn’t work well with sweet things. However, there were enough promises in the dish (I still liked the pineapple and tomato combination) that I decided to keep working on it.

For the next iteration, I tried to use rau om leaves with the leftover pineapple slices and tomato gel. It worked out much better due to the floral fragrance of rau om. The problem of the strong coconut milk flavor was still there, but that could be solved easily.

Tomato pineapple dessert

For the third iteration, I decided to keep the tomato gel, but did not steep tía tô leaves in the juice (steeping the herbs in the tomato juice didn’t do anything anyway), and cooked the pineapple slices only in sugar until soft. The coconut milk was mixed with maltodextrin to make it into a powder so we could sprinkle it on top of the dessert. This was to solve the problem of the coconut milk flavor taking over the dish. The dessert is served as clear tomato gel topped with a pineapple slice, which is then topped with a rau om leaf and sprinkles of coconut milk powder.

This dish has gotten better with each iteration and people seem to like it, especially the versions with rau om. Another tweak will be to figure out how to make clear tomato juice more efficiently (I had to triply filter the puree to get the juice to be that clear) to preserve more tomato flavor.

Between the 2nd and 3rd iterations, it occurred to me that the ingredients for this dish (pineapple, tomato, rau om) are among the core ingredients of canh chua (Vietnamese sour soup). Maybe in the next iteration, I can try to work tamarind into the dish. Then, as Lamp said, I should name this dish “canh chua ngot” (“sweet canh chua”). A ridiculous naming suggestion, as always.

But this dish does need a name and I am too uncreative to think of one. What do you think should be the name of this dish? :)

Dec20

Mắm Nêm (anchovy sauce) from Canned Anchovies

Our kitchen and household gadgets, our experimentations in the kitchen are our expressions of a DIY ethos we have the luxury to enjoy thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of our parents. We improvise because we can, Vietnamese immigrants of our parents’ generation improvised because they had to in order to eke out some measure of comfort in strange new lands.

For all the material richesse and political security provided by life in these United States (or Canada, Europe or Australia, wherever Vietnamese boat people ended up), that ultimate source of comfort, one’s mother’s flavor, is denied to the first wave of refugees. They would consider themselves exceedingly lucky if they were relocated to a major city, with ethnic grocery stores that carried soy sauce or rarer yet, nước mắm (fish sauce). If, like Bird, their favorite comfort food is bò nhúng dấm (beef hot pot with vinegar) which requires mắm nêm (anchovy sauce*) then they’re completely out of luck. Yet under these conditions, some ingenious soul invented a new way to make authentic tasting mắm nêm with ingredients one can find in any grocery store in the American heartland.

Bò nhúng dấm (beef hot pot with vinegar)

To make immigrant chic mắm nêm you’ll need canned anchovies (cá cơm), diced pineapple and chopped garlic. Flat anchovies in olive oil are best. First saute 2 cloves of chopped garlic in a little bit of olive oil from the anchovy can. Then add the anchovies and stir. After a minute or two add the pineapple, about equal volume to the anchovies. There is some protease (or something) in the pineapple that disintegrates the anchovies such that after another minute of stirring, you’re left with a rich brown sauce with pineapple bits in them. Add water to desired consistency, add sugar and salt to taste. That’s it!

Compared to traditional mắm nêm, the flavor is earthier and  more complex. It’s fishier but not as pungent as traditional mắm nêm. I actually prefer the new way, Bird prefers the old preparation. Preferences are similarly split when we tested the different sauces with our friends and family. Pretty good for an improvised kludge.

Bird adds thin slices of cucumber to her mắm nêm for crunchiness. To make the cucumber slices: wash cucumber, leave the skin on, quarter cucumber lengthwise, cut out cucumber seed, leaving only the white part and the skin, then slice the cucumber into thin slices. Thin slices of cucumber are sprinkled with salt. After an hour or so, the cucumber is washed with water and squeezed dry. Add cucumber to mắm nêm just before serving.

* Both mắm nêm and nước mắm are made from anchovies. The difference in their manufacture can be compared to the processes to make ketchup and tabasco sauce. Mắm nêm is ground anchovy meal fermented and preserved with salt; nước mắm is the nectar extracted from anchovies with salt, the solid portion of the fish being left behind.