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Weekend food fun

Elaborations on our tweets:

We got together this weekend and worked on a number of dishes, some of which we tweeted about. Select pictures related to those tweets are below:

Weekend discovery #1:

Tea smoked chicken was great paired with oolong flavored xôi/sticky rice

Weekend discovery #2:

Yuzu-mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste) stir-fry on crispy fried spaghetti squash

Weekend discovery #3:

When nem chua gather in groups, the proper collective noun is covey.

Weekend discovery #4:

Xôi lá dứa w dulce de leche From a street vendor in the Paris of South Amerasia


(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.


Towards a more noodle-like spaghetti squash

One of our little victories this past year was finally figuring out ways to use squash in our cooking. And a smaller victory within that campaign was discovering that egg-noodlelike strands of spaghetti squash remained at noodlelike lengths when the squash was sliced crosswise rather than lengthwise, since the strands were wrapped concentrically around the long axis of the squash. We went on a spree of serving noodle soup dishes with low-carb spaghetti squash over the holidays (future post topic) but there were refinements still to be made.

The Beginnings of Lẩu Vịt Nấu Chao

The Beginnings of Lẩu Vịt Nấu Chao (Hotpot with Duck Marinated in Fermented Tofu) - with spaghetti squash vermicelli.

We loved the flavor and especially the smokiness roasted spaghetti squash noodle imparted to our noodle soups. The crunchiness was also a novel and welcome addition to the noodle soup experience. Still, sometimes we missed the resilience of traditional noodles. And sometimes, we did not achieve smokiness before the squash strands turned mushy. When the always inspiring Cooking Issues blog did an article on the wonders of lime paste in Central American and Asian cuisine, we thought we might have a technique to help us with our quandaries.

Calcium hydroxide ( Ca(OH)2 ) in lime paste is a potent modulator of food texture. Specifically relevant to our case, Ca(OH)2 cross-links fruit pectins to produce crunchier, more resilient cooked fruits. The example in the Cooking Issues article was the Thai technique of soaking bananas in lime water before frying.

The first step was to make slaked lime. Ca(OH)2 is only weakly soluble in water, so lime powder + water tends to produce a saturated solution + a little less lime powder that needs to settle. Once the solution cleared, we had our slaked lime.


Tall refreshing glass of slaked lime (slaked lime not actually refreshing)

Spaghetti squash quarters were soaked for 0, 15, 30 (usual banana soaking time), and 45 minutes. They were then roasted at 375 degrees for half an hour. After an initial taste test, they were microwaved for another 2 minutes on high.

After roasting, the different squash quarters were not much different from each other texturally. The 30′ and 45′ soaked squash took on a slight hint of the minerally (cementy according to Cooking Issue) smell of Ca(OH)2. Surprisingly, this addition made the squash smell more like noodles. Or unsurprisingly as a great many noodles are made by alkaline modification of grains starch.


A bowl of spaghetti squash noodle

After microwaving, the untreated and 15′ squash quarters were mushy, so the two steps of cooking simulated a less than perfect day in the oven. Encouragingly, the 30′ and 45′ squash quarters remained crunchy with overcooking. Perhaps finer adjustments of soaking and cooking time would produce a crunchy outer layer and a soft core. However, the resilience of noodles was still missing. I wonder how we can achieve that.

In conclusion, Ca(OH)2 treatment of spaghetti squash produced a dose-dependent protection of crunchiness while adding a noodlelike aroma to spaghetti squash. Definitely worth pursuing further.


Gỏi khô bò (beef jerky salad) with green papaya or spaghetti squash

Yes, I know the proper name for the dish is gỏi đu đủ khô bò (green papaya salad with beef jerky). But it didn’t feel right to call it that after I played with the dish by using spaghetti squash instead of green papaya as the core ingredient.

Set up for making 2 variations of gỏi (salad):

ingredients for 2 types of beef jerky salad

Top row, from left: beef jerky soaked in lime juice, fresh basil leaves and julienned carrots. Bottom row, from left: spaghetti squash, green papaya

Green papaya was thinly julienned and soaked in water mixed with lime juice to avoid discoloration. Spaghetti squash was cut crosswise and boiled for ~20 minutes. The spaghetti strands were easily removed with a fork. I tried not to overcook the squash to preserve the crunchiness of the strands.

Dressing for salad: kecap manis, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar to taste. The dressing for this salad should be black and pretty viscous (hence the use of kecap manis and hoisin sauce instead of soy sauce, which has no viscosity). Like all Vietnamese gỏi, the dressing should be a little sour, a little sweet and a little salty.

Roughly chop basil leaves and mix them with green papaya (or spaghetti squash), beef jerky and carrot. Mix well with dressing.

Green papaya salad

green papaya salad with beef jerky

Spaghetti squash salad

spaghetti squash salad with beef jerky

Spaghetti squash salad was a lot crunchier than green papaya salad, which was nice. The squash was sweeter and soaked up more dressing than green papaya. The only thing I didn’t like about the squash salad was that the squash lost its golden color and became brown once the dressing was mixed in. I personally liked the squash version of the salad more (also because spaghetti squash came already julienned while it took some time to cut up enough green papaya). 2 friends who tasted those 2 salads were split on which one they prefer.

Substituting spaghetti squash when the recipe calls for julienned green papaya is actually a trick devised by early Vietnamese refugees who had to make do without Vietnamese ingredients. Like the canned anchovies mam nem, the squash substitution revealed new facets and possibilities in the traditional recipe and so established itself as a relevant and viable variant even when green papaya became readily available wherever enough Vietnamese-Americans congregate. We’re excited to uncover more of these immigrant chic recipes as they represent a very organic fusion cuisine and we hope to discover on our own new possibilities in Vietnamese cooking using ingredients that were not available to our forebears.