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Gỏi dưa hấu heo quay / Watermelon salad with roast pork belly

Summertime in North America is the season of heat, watermelon, and family gatherings, and the perfect time to make and enjoy this refreshing and festive salad. The recipe was an original creation of Fatty Crab‘s Zekary Pelaccio and was written up by The New York Times, where we found it. Sweet and fluffy watermelon cubes tossed in an aromatic ginger cilantro dressing and tangy pickled watermelon rinds were coolly delicious contrasts against juicy roast pork belly. Spicy scallion, rau răm / Vietnamese coriander, and Thai basil completed this unusual salad that in its own way provided all the textural and flavor elements of gỏi (Vietnamese salad). The original recipe combined elements of Southern United States cuisine with spices and techniques chef Pelaccio encountered in Malaysia. We substituted his crispy fried pork belly for a star anise marinated roast pork that was more reminiscent of heo quay (roast pork), an ingredient associated with celebrations in Vietnam. We had no idea how one would classify a dish in which so many lineages were mixed together, but we felt perfectly at home serving and enjoying this salad out in the backyard with the rest of our family.

Watermelon salad with roast pork belly

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Khô bò (beef jerky) with lemongrass, kumquats, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves

Growing up, I have always loved my Mom’s khô bò (beef jerky). Each bite was tender and packed full of flavors. It was an addictive snack by itself or in a beef jerky salad with green papaya or spaghetti squash. Store-bought beef jerky, which is hard to chew and tasting only of soy sauce and chilli pepper just can’t compete. When I bought a food dehydrator for one of our cooking experiments (making beef crackling, subject of another post), it was time to ask Mom for her khô bò recipe.

What she sent back was just a list of ingredients (with no measurements, of course :)) and a general sketch of the method. It was so different from the detailed recipe she wrote for spring roll dipping sauce. A measure of my progress in cooking? After a couple batches with consistent success (defined by how much people enjoyed my khô bò), here’s my adapted recipe.

Homemade khô bò / beef jerky

Enough rambling already, let’s get to the recipe!


(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.


Anatomy of a phở spice bag

Anatomy of a phở spice bag

Toss this spice bag in your oxtail broth along with roasted onion and ginger and you’ll have a fragrant and delicious pot of phở 😀