Exclusive to the Daily Gullet. Excerpted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, (Ten Speed Press, September, 2006).
We heard the plane coming in low and I was scared. Mom grabbed me, pulling me underneath the staircase as a bomb exploded nearby. I shrieked, believing the end was near. It was April 8, 1975, and though I was only six years old, I knew that the stalemate between North and South Vietnam was about to end. All I could do was cling to my mother’s legs and cry.
"Hush child. Calm down. What will you do in the time of real war?" my mother said in a steely voice. For her, this was not the time to panic. Instead, it was just a minor incident in a bad situation that was soon going to worsen. When the noise subsided, Mom went about restoring calm, first inventorying the kitchen to make sure nothing had broken.
Indeed, events were coming to a head. The dry season was ending, the humidity was rising, and the air was thick with worry and fear. North Vietnamese forces were advancing quickly toward Saigon. On April 21, South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu announced his resignation.
My dad locked the door to our house for the last time on April 23. That morning the seven of us crammed into the family Peugeot sedan and drove away. We resisted the urge to take a last look back at the house for fear of drawing suspicion, and instead focused on the road that stretched before us.
What lay ahead -- the unknown -- scared us all. In a photo of my mom and us five kids taken just before we left everyone except my sister Ha, who is displaying a characteristic smirk, looks grim. But the alternative to escaping was worse: stay in Saigon and wait for the Viet Cong to take over our home and send our father, a former military governor in the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem, into a reeducation camp.
In truth, my parents had been planning a sea escape for months. My father, who had been carefully monitoring political developments and international negotiations, knew that it was just a matter of time before South Vietnam would fall. Using money pooled with four other families, a cargo boat had been purchased, renovated, and equipped. Because life jackets could not be bought in Vietnam, my mother sewed one for each of us, with our names in bold lettering for easy identification in case we were lost at sea. All of my parents' clandestine planning came to a halt, however, when the government decided to prohibit any unofficial boat from leaving the harbor.
Frustrated but determined, Dad made his rounds of the city, asking the few remaining foreigners for assistance. But no one could help him. Without strong overseas connections, he was told, there were few options for escaping. At the same time, others seeking to leave were calling on my father, but there was nothing he could do for them.
On April 22, my father’s sister told him that she had made a connection with a former colleague, a U.S. State Department officer with whom she had worked eight years earlier. On the eve of South Vietnam's collapse, this man, along with a friend, had reentered the country to bring out as many people as they could. He had told Aunt Hue to pack and meet him at the Notre Dame Cathedral in central Saigon on the morning of April 23 at ten o’clock. Aunt Hue offered to take my two oldest sisters with her and promised to find a way to sponsor the rest of us after she got to America. Dad refused her offer. The entire family must go, he said.
My parents decided to take all of us to the cathedral. That way, if Aunt Hue’s contact permitted us to leave, we would all be ready. Our housekeeper, whom we called Older Sister Thien, waited at home to hear from us. When Aunt Hue emerged from the cathedral and gave Dad a firm nod, we knew it was a go. As it turned out, the men also agreed to help additional members of my father’s family and Older Sister Thien to leave the country. On hearing the good news, Mom sent word to our housekeeper and my father’s brothers.
We drove from the cathedral to an empty office building, where we rendezvoused with the two men. The afternoon hours were spent creating documents to get us into Tan Son Nhat airport and out of the country. In the evening, we successfully passed through the government checkpoint at the airport and knew that we were safely on our way. Seven days later, Saigon fell to the communist North.
My parents had purposefully packed light to avoid suspicion, bringing along only their most precious yet practical belongings. Two small, black leather suitcases held identification papers and a change of clothes for each of us. My mother squeezed her best jewelry, a couple of important photos, a bottle of water, two packets of dried instant noodles, and a small orange notebook filled with her handwritten recipes into her handbag. She decided she needed the recipes so that she and Older Sister Thien could open a restaurant in America. Surely, she thought, all the Vietnamese refugees heading for the States would want a bit of home to chew and savor. She guarded her handbag at all times, and the notebook traveled with us from Saigon to Guam to Hawaii and finally to California.
But as soon as we arrived at the Camp Pendleton refugee resettlement facilities (a U.S. Marine base in Southern California), Older Sister Thien thanked my parents and informed them that she had no intention of remaining their employee. She was in the land of opportunity and wanted her liberty. They could do nothing but wish her well.
Eager to get out of the resettlement camp, my father contacted one of the few Americans he knew. Surprisingly, Robert Beals lived only thirty minutes away from the base. Within days, he was made our official sponsor, and we found ourselves at his seaside Laguna Niguel home, eating our first home-cooked American dinner and experiencing many new things.
Mom now laughs at how astounded she was when Mrs. Beals served her water straight from the tap. In Vietnam, you had to boil water before drinking it because tap water was unreliable. Out of courtesy, my mother drank the water and was relieved to find out it was potable. My siblings and I ate dinner off of TV trays, all the while gazing at a large color television set. Everything seemed like an amazing luxury.
Mr. Beals, who knew my dad as a successful entrepreneur in Vietnam, checked us into an apartment hotel at Dana Point Harbor, a scenic destination for boating, fishing, and vacationing. We welcomed the real pillows and mattresses after living in tents and sleeping on cots at Camp Pendleton. But our new refugee status meant that we couldn’t afford the hotel for long. It was quickly eating up the savings we had carried with us from Saigon.
After a week, we checked out and started a new life in the nearby beach town of San Clemente. Dad figured that if San Clemente was good enough for former President Richard Nixon it was good enough for us. We moved into a four-bedroom apartment and immediately went in search of the nearest supermarket to assess what was available. Since we didn’t have a car, the seven of us -- my dad in front, of course -- walked through the streets of San Clemente to an Albertsons supermarket. Curious locals stopped and welcomed us along the way.
At the market, I was amazed to find meats sealed up neatly in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I poked at each package as we walked down the aisle. I wanted to see if the resilient fleshy objects resembled what I identified as meat on my frequent visits with Older Sister Thien to Saigon’s outdoor markets. After all, we used to purchase food with life still in it!
On our way from meats to produce, we passed through the dairy section. Butter, milk, and cheese were displayed among unfamiliar items, such as sour cream and half-and-half. It was clear that the American cow had replaced our beloved water buffalo. Waiting for us in the produce section were beautifully arranged and polished fruits and vegetables. My parents were delighted with the abundance and variety of produce that had been either expensive or unavailable in Vietnam. America gave us the opportunity to eat grapes to our heart’s content and cook zucchini for the first time.
As new immigrants, we could not budget a lot of money for groceries. Since the restaurant idea had fizzled, Mom applied her French sewing skills to start a home tailoring business that catered to well-heeled women. She spent long hours in a workshop set up in one of the bedrooms. In addition to other jobs, my father taught ESL classes at the local junior high school. My three older sisters, Chi, Linh, and Ha, pitched in with the cooking, sewing, and cleaning. My brother, Dang, and I were too young to do much.
Times were tough, but our family always enjoyed satisfying meals. At first, we made do on what we could afford to spend and what was locally available. That meant Americanizing Vietnamese food. Mom and Dad hunted down substitutes for key ingredients, such as fish sauce, that were unknown in supermarkets. But as diligent as they were, the food wasn't the same because we had to rely on unremarkable rice and soy sauce.
Once we bought our first car, a used Mercury Comet, Chinatown in Los Angeles provided many of the items Mom needed. The trip was always a daylong event, so we usually filled the trunk with food to make the journey worthwhile. Other destinations included piers in Long Beach and San Diego, where we would load up on inexpensive fresh fish that my mother simmered in caramel sauce for traditional kho.
Whenever we heard of old friends opening markets or managing restaurants, we would stop by to show our support. Our former Saigon neighbors, the Hop family, started two grocery stores that we frequented for years. My parents' Chinese Vietnamese friend Ly Siu Coong was the accountant and eventually the manager at Tai Hong, a Chinatown restaurant where I fell in love with dim sum breakfasts. To show his esteem for my parents, whom he had known for years in Vietnam, Mr. Coong always made sure that our table received fresh-from-the-oven char siu bao. When broken in half, the golden bao exhaled fragrant vapors of rice wine.
By the early 1980s, the Vietnamese population in Orange County, California, had reached a critical mass. Businesses such as the well-stocked (but now defunct) Maikong market started to draw refugees to Bolsa Avenue in the sleepy suburb of Westminster. Families like ours came in search of food and experiences to remind them of their homeland. Because we lived only forty minutes south of what would become Little Saigon, we frequented the bakeries, grocery stores, and cafés and brought home fresh herbs, high-quality fish sauces, and good rice. These trips made being Vietnamese in America -- and eventually Vietnamese Americans -- a reality.
Excerpted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, (Ten Speed Press, September, 2006), with the kind permission of the author and publisher. The Daily Gullet thanks them.
Andrea Nguyen is a food writer and culinary instructor based in Santa Cruz, California and founder of the website www.vietworldkitchen.com devoted to the food and culture of Vietnam. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Jose Mercury News. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen is her first book.
Nước Màu/Nuoc Mau
This is a cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking. The term nước màu was originally coined in southern Vietnam. Northerners know this same ingredient as nước hàng (merchandising water), probably because it was so often used by food hawkers to enhance the appearance of their wares. Its ability to impart incredibly savory-sweet flavors is the key to simmering meats, seafood, eggs, and/or tofu for everyday kho dishes. Some cooks substitute brown sugar, but the results tend to be too sweet. The inky sauce also lends rich brown color to grilled meats, much as molasses does in American barbecue.
Traditionally, the sauce is made by pouring boiling water into the caramelized sugar, a somewhat dangerous step that causes the mixture to bubble and spew dramatically. This method immediately arrests the cooking, so that the sugar doesn't burn to a bitter black stage. I find it easier to place the pan in a sink partially filled with water, which cools the caramelized sugar, halting the cooking, and then add the water to dilute the sugar. The result with both approaches is the same bittersweet, inky sauce that is a staple in every Vietnamese kitchen.
Makes about 1 cup
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1. Select a small, heavy saucepan with a long handle. Use one with a light interior (such as stainless steel) to make monitoring the changing color of the caramel easier. Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the saucepan.
2. Put 1/4 cup of the water and all the sugar in the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon.
After about 2 minutes, when the sugar is relatively smooth and opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear.
If a little sugar crystallizes on the sides of the pan, don’t worry. After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. You will see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, around the 20-minute mark, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it.
Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big, bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel is the color of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking. The hot pan bottom will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water; don’t worry, the sugar will seize up but later dissolve. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.
3. Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous, while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover and store the sauce indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.
Pork Riblets Simmered in Caramel Sauce
Sườn Kho/Suon Kho
This kho involves a little more work than the pork and eggs kho (see book, page 146). You must first marinate the meat and then sear it before it settles into its long simmer. The extra steps produce a rich, roasty undercurrent of flavor that permeates the dish.
These riblets have special meaning for my mom because her family prepared them for their month-long Tet festivities. An entire pig was slaughtered for the celebration, and the ribs were used in this kho. Since it reheats well, it is the perfect make-ahead dish for the Lunar New Year, a time when everyone is supposed to relax, rather than slave in the kitchen. When purchasing the ribs, remember to ask the butcher to cut them into strips for. For the best flavor, sear the riblets on a grill.
Serves 4 to 6 with 2 or 3 other dishes
3 pounds meaty pork spareribs, cut crosswise through the bone into long strips 1-1/2 to 2 inches wide
1/2 large yellow onion, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons Caramel Sauce
2 scallions, green part only, chopped
1. Cut each rib strip between the bones or cartilage into individual riblets. In a large bowl, combine the onion, sugar, pepper, and 3 tablespoons of the fish sauce and mix well. Add the riblets and toss to coat evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
2. Remove the bowl from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before searing. Prepare a hot charcoal fire (you can hold your hand over the rack for only 2 to 3 seconds) or preheat a gas grill to high. Remove the riblets from the marinade, reserving the marinade, and sear on the grill, turning as needed, for about 10 minutes total.
Alternatively, broil the riblets on a foil-lined baking sheet for about 8 minutes on each side, or until lightly charred.
3. Transfer the seared riblets, the reserved marinade, and any cooking juices to a 5-quart Dutch oven and add the remaining 3 tablespoons fish sauce, the caramel sauce, and water almost to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 45 minutes. Uncover and adjust the heat so that the riblets simmer vigorously. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the riblets are tender when pierced with a knife. The sauce will have reduced, but there will still be plenty.
4. Remove from the heat and let stand for a few minutes so that the fat collects on the surface, then skim it off. Return to a simmer and taste the sauce. Add extra fish sauce to create a deeper savory flavor, or water to lighten it. Transfer the riblets and sauce to a bowl. Sprinkle the scallion on top and serve.
Beef Stewed with Tomato, Star Anise, and Lemongrass
Bò Kho/Bo Kho
This stew is so popular that practically every Viet cook has his or her own version. I have read recipes that call for curry powder, annatto seeds, tomato paste, and beer. But this is how my mother learned to make bò kho decades ago. Although in Vietnam it is traditionally eaten for breakfast, here in the States it has become lunch or dinner fare in the Vietnamese American community. It may be served in shallow bowls with warm French bread for sopping up the flavorful sauce, or it may be spooned over rice or wide rice noodles (bánh phở). The addition of chopped Vietnamese coriander or Thai basil leaves is something that my parents picked up when we lived in Saigon. Also, despite the name, this is not a kho dish. Here, kho means “to simmer” or “to stew.” No caramel sauce is involved.
Traditionalists like to use the boneless beef shank sold at Chinese and Viet markets for this dish, which they cook for hours to yield a chewy-tender result. Once in the States, my family switched to beef chuck, which is flavorful, suited to long cooking, and more readily available.
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
2-1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, well trimmed (about 2 pounds after trimming) and cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
1 hefty stalk lemongrass, loose leaves discarded, cut into 3-inch lengths, and bruised with the broad side of a cleaver or chef's knife
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1-1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2-1/2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped fresh tomato or 1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomato
Generous 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 star anise (16 robust points total)
3 cups water
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander or Thai basil leaves
1. In a bowl, combine the beef, lemongrass, fish sauce, five-spice powder, ginger, brown sugar, and bay leaf. Mix well with chopsticks to coat the beef evenly. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
2. In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, add the beef and sear on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take about 3 minutes. Reserve the lemongrass and bay leaf from the marinade and discard the rest.
3. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the onion, and cook gently, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomato and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a rough paste. Check occasionally to make sure the tomato mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. If it is, stir well and splash in some water.
4. When the paste has formed, add the beef, lemongrass, bay leaf, and star anise, give the contents of the pot a bit stir, and cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and penetrate the beef. Add the water, bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for 1-1/4 hours, or until the beef is chewy-tender (a sign that it is close to being done). To test for doneness, press on a piece; it should yield but still feel firm.
5. Add the carrots and return the stew to a simmer, adjusting the heat if needed. Cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots and beef are tender. (This stew may be made up to 2 days in advance. Let cool, cover, and refrigerate, then bring to a simmer before continuing.)
6. Just before serving, do a final taste test. Add salt or a shot of fish sauce to intensify the overall flavor. Or, splash in a bit of water to lighten the sauce. Transfer the stew to a serving dish, removing and discarding the lemongrass, bay leaf, and star anise. Garnish with the Vietnamese coriander and serve.
Salmon with Tomato, Dill, and Garlic Soup
Canh Rieu Cá/Canh Rieu Ca
When Rieu is brought to the table, expect a full-bodied soup laced with rich-tasting seafood and tangy tomato. Viet cooks prepare a fish rieu like this one as an everyday canh, or the more extravagant crab and shrimp rieu noodle soup for a special occasion.
Carp is the fish typically used in this soup, but since it is not commonly available at regular markets, my family switched to salmon, which has the fattiness to pair perfectly with the tomato, dill, and garlic of a classic rieu. We used salmon steaks for years because the bones and skin enriched the broth. But steaks can be difficult to handle during cooking and later on in the bowl, so I now use salmon fillet. In the classic northern Vietnamese tradition, the fish is seared first to firm its flesh. The searing not only helps the fish hold its shape, but also provides a nice textural contrast in the finished soup.
Serves 4 to 6 with 2 or 3 other dishes
1 pound salmon fillet, skin removed
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon canola or other neutral oil
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
2/3 pound ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fish sauce
6 cups water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, feathery tops only
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1. Briefly blot the salmon dry with a paper towel before cutting it into 1-inch chunks. In a nonstick skillet, heat the 1/2 teaspoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the salmon and sear, turning once, for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, or until lightly browned. The fish will cook further in the soup. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
2. In a 3- or 4-quart saucepan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomatoes and salt, cover, and simmer for about 4 minutes, or until the tomatoes have collapsed. Uncover and add the salmon, fish sauce, and water. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil, using a ladle to skim and discard any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, so that the ingredients dance in the broth. Cook for 15 minutes to develop and concentrate the flavors. If you are not serving the soup right away, turn off the heat and cover.
3. Just before serving, return the soup to a simmer. Taste and add extra salt or fish sauce, if necessary. Add the dill and garlic and turn off the heat. Ladle into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the pepper. Serve immediately.