This year, Chinese New Year is celebrated on 8 February 2016 to mark the Year of the Monkey. The equivalent Vietnamese celebration is called Tet, one of the most important events in my family’s calendar.
As a child, my mother went to great lengths each year to prepare a feast which could feed our entire neighbourhood. The menu always featured a sticky rice cake filled with mung beans and pork, a turnip cake, endless platters of spring rolls (egg rolls), roast pork with gorgeously seasoned crackling – all served with fresh vermicelli noodles, picked carrots and daikon, and an abundance of fresh salad and herbs. There was always a soup on the menu, too; often a light chicken broth with bamboo shoots. Each dish had a significance and the ingredients were always carefully chosen to welcome luck and prosperity into the family.
I wish I could be more comfortable eating ribs in public but, the reality is, I enjoy eating them more in the comfort and privacy of my home; somewhere where I can gnaw at the bone like a messy cavewoman and lick my fingers with glee. I think it is definitely a dish best eaten in the company of a few close friends (and certainly never on a first date), particularly since you can only make so much at one time anyway.
I used to wonder if my disinclination to play Lego with my son for more than 5 minutes made me a bad mother. I’m sure it must be fun as a child to build tall Lego towers, knock them down, and start over again. And again. And again. But any feelings of guilt dissipate when I am doing something together with my son which we both enjoy, which gives weight to the argument that life is too short to feign interest when you could actually be doing something meaningful. As I am often in the kitchen preparing one meal or another, sometimes the only way to entertain my toddler is to let him help out, and baking with my son is one of those activities where I don’t find myself wishing I was doing something else.
I know all too well that planning meals ahead of time, doing the grocery shopping in bulk, and even cooking in advance, are the easiest paths to a stress-free suppertime, but being organised often takes time and time is a scarce commodity when there is a toddler and newborn in the equation. And so I often find myself at the supermarket without a clue as to what to cook for dinner, except that I am relieved to have arrived there with both kids still alive. But then begins the mad dash to complete the grocery shopping before one or both kids decide that the cramped fruit and veg section is the appropriate forum to suddenly air their wailing complaints. This often means quickly filling the shopping basket with familiar foods which I know I can randomly throw together to create a meal, and the most common protein I turn to is chicken.
I first discovered pickled chillies at my local Chinese restaurant here in Zurich. Yes, Zurich. Despite having grown up in Australia where south-east Asian food abounds, and despite my countless trips to Asia since I was a wee tot, I only came across this delightful condiment during what would be the first of many stir-fries that I like to indulge in frequently at my local because I’m rather terrible at making stir-fries at home.
My mother used to cook a lot with chicken wings when I was younger. I’m not sure if it was just because they were cheap, or if she merely enjoyed cooking them. I certainly enjoyed eating them. She would sometimes make soups and broths using just chicken wings, but often she would marinate them in lemongrass, chilli and garlic before grilling them until they were bronzed and crispy. Just how I would like them.
A fragrant and soul-soothing beef pho is often what I crave when only a steaming bowl of noodle soup will do. But when time is sparse and I don’t have 3 hours to potter about in the kitchen, a chicken pho is a rather wonderful alternative.
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but my blog seems to feature very few Vietnamese recipes, despite the fact that I cook Vietnamese at home every second day or so. So in an attempt to rectify the situation and to bring some more balance to this blog, I hope to feature more Vietnamese recipes which are quick, easy and delicious to make at home.
There’s Chinese food, and there’s American-Chinese food. I wasn’t even aware of the latter until we were posted in Chicago for a few years where lunch with colleagues was often at P.F. Chang’s or Big Bowl, two popular Chinese restaurant chains in the US. There, the menu often featured the likes of Sweet & Sour Chicken, Honey-Glazed Chicken, and Mongolian Beef; Chinese food which is rarely eaten by the Chinese themselves but which are very popular with westerners.
Pho could perhaps be described as the national dish of Vietnam. But what many people don’t know is that it is predominantly a breakfast dish in Vietnam. In some parts of the world, breakfast might be a bowl of cold cereal to some. In Vietnam, however, they like to kick-start their day with an aromatic noodle broth, full of flavour and texture to awaken the senses.
With all of the French recipes I have been posting lately on this blog, I thought it was time to change the tune a little and post one of my favourite Vietnamese recipes. But as I set about preparing this post, I realised that this particular dish is actually a Vietnamese version of a French classic. Or is it?
As someone who squirms at the thought of eating livers or offal of any kind, I happen to love pâté. Perhaps because it is a crucial component of a Vietnamese Banh Mi, a staple in my childhood diet, that I have long-acquired a taste for this velvety spread.
A Vietnamese pâté is one of many culinary inheritances from the French colonial occupation, and the Vietnamese like theirs with a bit of texture and spice. It is often made with a mixture of chicken and pork livers and can even include a variety of other meats and offal to add texture and flavour. Smeared onto the soft interior of a crisp baguette, layered with some garlic mayonnaise, slices of pork belly and a generous touch of picked carrots with fresh coriander and chillies, and you have yourself a lip-smacking Banh Mi.
From looking at the recent entries on my blog, you wouldn’t think that I cook a lot of Vietnamese food at home. The fact is, I probably cook Vietnamese food about 4 to 5 times a week! Of course, the frequency varies, but hardly a week goes by when I haven’t made something at least Vietnamese-inspired.
After my mother, Luke Nguyen would have to be my greatest source of inspiration when it comes to authentic Vietnamese cuisine. His recipes appear in Secrets of the Red Lantern, an autobiography of sorts written by his sister, Pauline Nguyen, detailing the plight of their family from when they emigrated from Vietnam to Australia, as well as an account of her growing pains as a Vietnamese immigrant in an Australian society. Her story is an inspiring one, though perhaps not too different from many Vietnamese immigrants who struggled to come to terms with their Vietnamese heritage whilst wanting to embrace their newfound Australian identity at the same time. And whilst her bravery in sharing her story ought to be commended, I think the book is made more heartfelt by its recipes.
I have a soft spot for any book which is smartly dotted with recipes throughout. As with many foodies out there, I have a curious obsession with reading cookbooks, and so reading an autobiography is made much easier when there are mouthwatering recipes and tantalising food photography to break the story a little.
A visit to most Chinese restaurants will reveal curry puffs on the appetiser menu and I am always a sucker for anything wrapped in pastry. I could sometimes quite happily forego the main dish and just sit down to a huge serving of curry puffs, but afraid of any negative reaction this could elicit in public, I’ve never quite gone that far. So making curry puffs at home, and eating them by the plateful in private, is the far better and more ladylike option.
Chinese curry puffs can be wrapped in a variety of different pastries, such as filo pastry, wonton wrappers, spring roll wrappers or puff pastry. The restaurants typically serve them deep-fried, but baking them is also an option, especially if you are using puff pastry.
Pot-au-feu literally translates into English as “pot on the fire”. It is a classic French beef stew, a peasant dish at heart. Traditionally made from beef bones and stewing beef, the broth is typically served as a clear soup, preceding the main dish of sliced beef with vegetables which have been cooked in the broth. It is honest and hearty French fare. Although the dish may take several hours to cook, you are not required to do much during this time, other than to skim the surface of the soup and to check that the meat is continually submerged. This makes it an ideal dish to make when you have time to potter about the kitchen and can look forward to a simple, yet satisfying, supper.
Recipes abound for pot-au-feu and they are all variations of the same blue-print. The beef bones are necessary to add richness and depth to the soup, and oxtails are perfect for this type of cooking, in part because you can also eat the tender and sweet meat later. But the stewing beef is what is traditionally served at the table, so you should find a cut which needs a few hours of cooking time, such as beef brisket or beef shank. In Switzerland, the beef is often labelled “Pot-au-feu”, making it clear what the cut is intended for. But “Bouilli de boeuf maigre” is also a good choice. In Australia, I recall buying cuts of meat simply labelled “soup beef” which would be perfect here. You could also use beef cheeks, which are wonderfully tender and flavoursome upon cooking, though they take longer to cook and you might need to order these from your butcher.
With spring just around the corner, my thoughts have been turning to more light and fresh meals. A cookbook which I frequently turn to during the warmer months is Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer (curiously re-titled as Nigella Fresh in the US). Not that it is necessarily a book which should only be opened once the weather starts to warm up – I often cook from this book in winter, too – but I like that it happens to be a book which I associate with summer, no matter the season I am in. Obviously what Nigella had intended when she wrote this book.
A recipe which I have earmarked since first purchasing the book, oh, 10 years ago (?!) but which I have regretfully never gotten around to making is the Keralan Fish Curry with Lemon Rice. With many thanks to Jodie over at the delightful and ever happy blog, Jo Blogs, I finally got the nudge that I needed after reading her insightful and playful review of this recipe.
I have long been a fan of Nigel Slater, his books having been instrumental in my initial forays into the kitchen, along with Nigella Lawson and, dare I say it, the Australian Women’s Weekly. One of my favourite cookbooks would have to be Appetite, a hefty book filled with amazingly delicious recipes but provided in a manner that encourages the cook to develop some intuition in the kitchen. Rather than call for, say, 100 g of tomatoes, Nigel Slater’s recipes would instead ask for 3-4 medium-sized tomatoes, not only making it a bit easier to shop but also allowing the cook some flexibility.
I have been distracted in recent years by cookbooks from other authors, but this year hopefully marks a revisit of some old favourites. I was only reminded of Nigel Slater recently when hubby and I were browsing in the bookshop and Nigel Slater’s Tender Volume 1 & 2 were being sold together in a limited edition boxed set. Having lusted after these books for some time but trying to sensibly refrain from hoarding too many cookbooks in one year, I couldn’t resist a boxed set. And upon realising that Volume 1 was all about vegetables, and Volume 2 was dedicated to fruit, hubby generously offered the books to me as a gift, on the condition that they supported his New Year’s resolutions to eat more vegetarian and healthy food. Of course, honey …
With pumpkins in season, I was instantly taken by Nigel’s recipe for pumpkin laksa in Tender Volume 1. As a lover of all noodle soups, from the robust and herbal hit of a Vietnamese Pho to the equally comforting but milder-flavoured chicken noodle soup of the western palate, and not to mention the 2-minute noodles (or pot noodles) of my student days, I can rarely turn down a recipe for comfort in a bowl.
It is often observed in the Vietnamese culture, and also amongst other Asian groups, that a typical greeting when you see someone is not “Hi, how are you?” but, rather, “Hi, have you eaten yet?”
Even when my mother calls me, if she’s not asking me first what the time is where I am (either because she’s never sure which country I am in or she’s just too lazy to look up the time difference), she will inevitably ask me if I have eaten yet. It is almost the equivalent of asking someone how they are but without the desire to actually know, although if you do respond with a “No”, you can expect an immediate invitation to actually go and eat, whatever the time of day. For my mum and I, it happens to be our way of keeping in touch. She often loses track of, or interest in, my activities, and rather than boring each other with details of our unremarkable days, she will often call me to see if I have eaten, offering suggestions for the week’s menu and reciting recipes over the telephone while I eagerly scribble everything down on the back of an envelope.
I always look forward to Autumn, that time of the year when the trees change their colours and their golden leaves line the streets with their warm tones in contrast to the biting chill that is beginning to pervade the air. I also love Autumn because I can start to pull out my favourite trench coats, turtleneck jumpers and knee-high boots, a welcome change in wardrobe when I can start to cosy up with layers.
I adore artichokes. As a child, my mother would boil a whole artichoke for my dinner on those nights when she was preoccupied with other things or, more likely, fed up with cooking and needed to give me a no-fuss dinner. Hard task given that I was a fussy eater for most of my life.
But I always enjoyed my solitary meal of boiled artichokes which I would ceremoniously sit down to in front of the telly, picking off the leaves one-by-one and sucking off what scant flesh there was on the edge of each leaf. Once I was done making my way through all of the leaves (which usually took this fussy eater quite a while), my mum would then cut through the remains to reveal the heart. Though normally by this stage, I would have lost interest and demanded toast.
Don’t look too closely at this photo. No, really! A close inspection of this soup might not be so pleasant on the eyes, nor the tummy …
Having had a rather intense week at work, I have been resorting to Bill’s Everyday Asian when I haven’t been reaching for the telephone to order (another) pizza home-delivery. One particular evening, I felt that making this Sweetcorn Soup from scratch, using fresh corn, would be a welcome distraction from the stressful events which had been taking place in the office.
The Vietnamese have a popular dish called sườn nướng where the main component is a pork chop which is typically marinated with garlic, lemongrass and fish sauce. The pork is either grilled or pan-fried until it is golden in colour and caramelised, and served on a bed of plain Jasmine rice with accompaniments such as pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cucumber and tomatoes, and some traditional Vietnamese specialities such as finely shredded pork belly and a steamed pork and egg custard. And if you’re really hungry, you could also order this dish with a fried egg on top, sunny-side up. Some restaurants even offer a small bowl of clear soup on the side to make this truly a complete and satisfying meal.
In fact, this was the first recipe I tried from this book. I love marinated and grilled chicken and am always on the lookout for new recipes, though I think my mum makes the best version which I have tried endlessly to recreate and which comes close but, of course, it can’t quite compare. Like most Vietnamese mothers, mine works from taste memory rather than from written recipes, yet her dishes seem to sing each and every time. Sadly, I think I missed out on that gene and am trying to make up for it by learning from different recipes and lots of trial and error in the kitchen.
One of my all-time favourite Vietnamese dishes is chicken curry with sweet potato. My mum makes this dish using a whole chicken which is first marinated in a special mixture of Vietnamese curry powder and other seasoning, and then slowly simmered on the stove with an array of aromatics until the chicken is tender and almost falls from the bone. Towards the end, she adds potatoes and/or sweet potatoes which has been deep-fried so that it keeps its shape in the curry, and the whole dish is served with loaves of crusty baguette (preferably from a Vietnamese bakery) to soak up the lovely curry sauce. The bread is undoubtedly French-inspired as this is one of the few Vietnamese meals which is not served with rice or noodles.
I dream constantly of my mum’s curry and, over the years, I have developed my own recipe which at least satisfies my taste buds but still falls short of my mum’s version. It is a dish which requires a bit of planning and preparation, so definitely not something I would attempt during the working week.
I find it rather comical that I often look to non-Asian chefs for inspiration on Asian dishes. Take Bill Granger, for example. Most of his savoury recipes are Asian-influenced and, whilst they may not correspond exactly to what is served in Chinatown, they always taste fabulous. In fact, he has a way of scaling down and simplifying recipes so that the dish still reminds you of the traditional version, but it employs the trademark Aussie casualness which is often in stark contrast to the hectic energy in most Asian kitchens.
Rachel Allen is the same. I don’t think she has spent extensive periods in Asia like Bill Granger has, but her Asian-inspired recipes are the sort of dishes which I like to eat at home. This is one thing which I love about globalisation, the blurring of borders – it is totally acceptable to take the coriander, ginger and chillies from the Thai palate and apply them to a chicken for your Sunday roast. A meal which takes the best of both worlds can only be wonderful.
After seeing the mouth-watering photos of this dish made by Carrie from thePatternedPlate, as well as reading other rave reviews about this yet-another Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, I couldn’t wait to try this dish.
Gado-gado is essentially a salad dressed with a satay sauce. As far as satay sauces go, this is perhaps the most complex recipe I have ever come across! There are quite a lot of steps involved, not to mention quite a lot of ingredients. As you can see from my photos below, I used small red onions in place of shallots. I have a tendency to gather a small collection of different coloured onions and shallots and recently decided that, as a compromise, small red onions should do the trick whenever “onions” or “shallots” are called for. The sauce takes about an hour to make, so you will have to factor this time in when making this dish or perhaps even make the sauce the day before.
I had to renew my work visa the other day, which necessitated a trip to the immigration office so that I could be fingerprinted and all the rest. The only thing worse than taking an hour out of my day to visit a government office was posing for my mug shot and realising that I would be stuck with that photo everytime I have to go through passport control in the next 12 months. Someone ought to fix the lighting in those photo booths …
Thankfully, my time at the immigration office was over in 5 minutes (that’s Swiss efficiency for you) and as I walked back to the tram stop, I popped into the Asian grocer nearby to see what I could pick up for dinner that night. It was not a store I had frequently visited before and I was giddy with excitement by how well-stocked it was. I was particularly surprised to see a large selection of different types of tofu, including silken tofu which I had never come across before in Zurich.
Further to my previous post, we still had another 1 kg of potatoes to get through, and as we are going away next week, I had to come up with a way to use those potatoes. And then, by chance, Carrie from thePatternedPlate posted her delicious recipe for fishcakes (or, as they are called in her Indian culture, cutlets). I was instantly sold!
Not only were these fishcakes the perfect way of using up our potatoes, but we had most of the other ingredients on hand, too, which we also needed to use up before going away. As much as I love fresh herbs such as coriander, I think they are sold in bundles which are often too large, such that they usually go brown and wilted before you can use it all. Plus, I always seem to pick up a bunch of coriander when I am out grocery shopping because I am never sure if there is enough back home in the fridge.
Any recipe which calls for punchy Asian ingredients such as garam masala, ginger, coriander and chillies can only taste good, in my opinion. Previous recipes which I have tried for fishcakes have been geared towards more the nursery-type palate, which is not a bad thing when you just want fishcakes simply made from mashed potatoes and some tinned fish. This is certainly what I grew up on and a supper of simple fishcakes with a salad (and a blob of Heinz ketchup on the side) is one of the most comforting nursery meals I can think of.
Last night’s dinner was supposed to be Yotam Ottolenghi’s Mee Goreng from Plenty. Unfortunately, the trip to the supermarket for the necessary ingredients turned out to be very disappointing. I’m currently working in the mid-West in the US and while I should be grateful that the local supermarket even has an aisle for “Global Cuisine”, I think I might need to have a chat with the manager about their range of products. I mean, is it really necessary to have 5 different types of dried soba noodles when perhaps there could be more variety, like some egg noodles?? I know I shouldn’t complain but I am prone to whinging, especially after a long day at work (and which starts with a tornado evacuation).
So faced with the above-mentioned assortment of soba noodles, I reluctantly took a packet and then headed in search of tofu. Except there wasn’t any left. Sigh.
To be honest, I was rather skeptical of this recipe when I first saw it. I’m not sure how the Thai would feel about having this dish ascribed to their region as I suppose it is more “Thai flavoured” than authentically Thai. Nigella makes the same faux pas with a Vietnamese soup in Kitchen but I’ll save this discussion for another time!
This recipe comes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty and was recommended to me by the lovely Carrie, another food-obsessed cookbook lover who has become an invaluable friend to me in the online world. When she first made this dish sometime ago and raved about how delicious it was, I knew it was something that I had to try. Having grown up on tofu as a child, I love it cooked in whatever shape or form and could happily eat it every night for dinner.
Despite owning over a hundred cookbooks (I’m too afraid to count them now!), I don’t (yet) own any by Ottolenghi, even though quite a few people have emailed me about how wonderful his books and recipes are. The simple truth is, I don’t know much about Ottolenghi so I was very interested in trying out this recipe for dinner tonight.