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Chè Banh Trôi Nước (sic) – Mung Bean Spheres in Ginger Syrup

One of the goals Bird and I are working towards is to come up with new dishes that are identifiably and uncompromisingly Vietnamese. Having availed ourselves fully of modern material culture, we still want the lineage of our dishes to be apparent, and the appeal of our recipes to mirror that of the recipes that inspired them. This is one of our successes:

Chè Banh Trôi Nước (photo by Tiến-Anh Nguyễn)

The Vietnamese inspiration for this dish was chè trôi nước aka chè xôi nước, bánh trôi nước, or bánh trôi bánh chay. Briefly: it’s a dessert of glutinous rice dumplings with or without mung bean paste filling, floating (trôi) in a strong gingery sweet syrup. The other inspiration was Thomas Keller’s fake egg yolks (encapsulated mango juice) for his vegetarian steak tartare. The third element came from a variant recipe for bánh trôi nước using khoai môn (taro) to make the glutinous outside purple. Putting it all together we get the above picture.

Our version of chè trôi nước is encapsulated mung bean milk and purple sweet potato puree. The encapsulation is done via reverse spherification: Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate is dissolved into the liquid to be encapsulated at 2% while sodium alginate is dissolved into a water bath at 1%. Sodium alginate is a substance extracted from seaweed that remains liquid until crosslinked into a gel by calcium. When mung bean milk or sweet potato puree is dropped into the alginate bath the calcium reacts with the alginate to form a gel coat around the milk/puree. The spheres are stored in a different water bath containing 8% sugar (roughly the amount added to sweeten the milk/puree) to prevent diffusion of water changing the content of the spheres. Before serving the spheres are placed in a bowl of hot (temperature wise) and spicy ginger syrup and drizzled with coconut milk. The spheres are the reason why we took off the diacritical mark from bánh (cake) to form the word banh (ball).

Banh trôi nước in sugary water bath

We were excited to serve this dish as our featured dessert during the Tết season and were happy to see it produce just as much excitement with our friends and our parents and their friends. People loved the fact that the spheres popped in their mouths. My friends in particular were reduced to the level of giggling high school stoners. Many noted the interesting contrast between the cool and almost savory liquid inside and the hot and spicy gingery syrup outside. It’s a neat effect we didn’t design for, but we’ll take credit for it. Now I can’t wait to make this dish for my grandmother, who introduced and made it for me when I was little.


Gỏi cá kiểu Nam Mỹ (Ceviche)

Funnily enough I never learned how to make gỏi cá (lit., fish salad) the Vietnamese way, but I know how to make it the South American way. My Dad claims he knows how from watching my Grandfather make it, but then I’ve never seen my Dad actually cook. My cousin also says there’s a mean gỏi cá, Granddad’s style, waiting for me at his farm in Vietnam. One of these days I’ll take him up on his offer. For now, I’ll have fun with a very similar dish from the other side of the world.

Ceviche is eaten throughout South America. National, regional, and local variations exist from Southern Mexico down to the very tip of Chile (probably). We are most familiar with Peruvian iterations of the dish because we first learned of it from an authentic Peruvian, then subsequently took a trip to Peru where we consumed ceviche from lunch counters in Highland markets, cevicherias, and restaurants in Lima.

Marcos Pesado, of the Peruvian metal band Reino Ermitaño, posted on a music message board his ceviche recipe (thread deleted), which we immediately connected to gỏi cá. The basic idea is the same: cured, uncooked fish mixed with chilli and fresh herbs (essential) and other ingredients (variable). The main difference is the curing method – South Americans use acidic citrus juices to denature fish protein and inhibit spoilage; the Vietnamese use rice wine.

Our first iteration of ceviche was very Vietnamese – garnished with basil, cilantro, pineapple, onion and chilli. Just add thính (powdered roasted rice) and you’d have something very similar to gỏi cá.

Our trip to Peru informed us about other nuances in the dish. Seemed like ceviche was always served with something crunchy, something sweet and something starchy. In Cuzco, a more traditional version of the dish came with fried giant corn, sweet potato, and rice, respectively.

Ceviche at a marketplace lunch counter in Cuzco, served garnished fried giant corn, sweet potato and rice.

In Lima, at a restaurant with a reputation for innovative recipes, ceviche was served with potato chip, fried plaintains, and boiled giant corn.

Ceviche at a restaurant in Lima, served with boiled giant corn, potato chip, and something or other.

Subsequently, our ceviche followed those guidelines. In September we made scallop ceviche, sliced crosswise and served with fried seaweed, fried anchovy (both are sweet and crunchy) and lavender roasted purple sweet potato (sweet/starchy).

Scallop ceviche with fried seaweed, anchovies, and purple sweet potato

In October, we made skatewing cevichewith popcorn (crunchy/starchy) and curry roasted yellow sweet potato (sweet/starchy).

Skatewing ceviche with popcorn and yellow sweet potato

Mike of Monahan’s Seafood in Ann Arbor deserves a mention. It’s easy to be confident and adventurous whenever ceviche is on the menu if one has access to Monahan’s seafood and Mike’s forthright and knowledgeable assessment of his inventory. The man even has his own scallop ceviche recipe on the store website. Elsewhere, we usually have to hit the Japanese markets to get sashimi grade fish to be sure of getting well-handled fresh seafood.

Finally, in his post Marcos also informed us that the leftover marinade is sometimes mixed with vodka for a drink called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk.) Tasted like a fishy screwdriver.