Why I Fell in Love with Food in Vietnam

Whenever people ask me how I ended up in New York after college, I have to go back to my semester in Vietnam. I was a History major and concentrated on Cold War American society (specifically how the Vietnam War affected American society) and this is how I found myself headed to Vietnam in August 2008. Little did I know my “career path” would change after my 5 months there.

There is something about Vietnamese food culture that captivated me from the moment I landed. Eating a meal is about sitting with friends and neighbors and sharing what you have created from simple ingredients that were cultivated from your family land- land that has been yours for generations. I will always remember being in Nha Trang (South/Central Vietnam) and out on a boat with the entire CIEE group (which was only 19 of us). We had been on the boat all day when we were lead to the roof where a feast of fresh seafood had been prepared for us. It was the moment I decided I wanted to get into the food industry and be as close to good, simple, local food as possible.

Nha Trang FeastOur meal of fresh fish, prawns, seafood stew and a few other Vietnamese favorites

Eating feast

My friends, Chris and Summer, enjoying the food on the roof of the boat

This morning Nick sent me an article from the New York Times about a man’s relationship with food in Vietnam. Reading it, I was brought back to my own journey with Vietnamese cuisine . I will always remember my first morning there. I stumbled out of our hotel in the backpackers district in Saigon and I had no idea how to find something to eat. I wasn’t nearly as adventurous with food as I am now and I was all by myself, in a city I did not know, surrounded by a language I could not understand. I walked down our block and stumbled upon a bahn mi cart (I did not know this is what it was at the time). I pointed at something that looked remotely breakfast-like- little did I know that the pho restaurant right behind it would have been the right choice for a true Vietnamese breakfast. What I pointed at was something like a dumpling so I just bit into it. I had no idea what was inside, so I wrapped it up and brought it back to the hotel to find one of our directors so he could tell me what it was. Inside my “breakfast dumpling” was a soft boiled quail egg. I couldn’t finish it knowing what it was.

Looking back, I’m sad I couldn’t appreciate how special that first meal was and how delicious it could have been. I ended up throwing it away and waiting until lunch to eat again but I wish I had just enjoyed experiencing something different. My daily routine did turn into going to a “people’s food” store front twice a day that was located just across the street from our hotel. I would go first thing in the morning for a bahn mi with a fried egg on top and again for lunch for a bbq pork chop with sauteed greens with garlic and rice (exactly what the author describes in the article above). I miss those days of being in the warm sunshine, eating a simple meal that cost less than 75 cents.

I cannot wait to go back to Vietnam (hopefully soon) and experience the food all over again but, this time, with a much better appreciation for just how special Vietnamese food culture really is.

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Goi Cuon- Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Summer Rolls

I mentioned last week that I ventured down to Chinatown to get some groceries to make Vietnamese food. Well here is the post (finally!). I apologize for not getting it up sooner- I need a little break from the computer but I have lots of fun stuff to post this week from my culinary adventures this weekend.

Lauren and Colleen are my two closest girlfriends in New York. I see Lauren regularly (it’s not unusual to see her more than I see my boyfriend in a week) but it had been a while since the three of us had had a girls night together. I invited them over to teach them how to make an easy Vietnamese appetizer and to enjoy some wine and dragon fruit. All I did was prep everything before they got there and had it all set up on the table for whenever they wanted to sit down and eat.

I made Goi Cuon from this cookbook once in college and it can be kind of labor intensive because you have to be patient with each and every roll. Honestly, after that first time I felt kind of defeated until I tasted them. The work is worth it! I also noticed what a difference the proper ingredients make. I know it can be hard to find garlic chives (very different flavor than a regular chive), Asian mint (it’s a lot spicier than regular mint) and perilla (also called shiso). You will definitely need to find an Asian market for the vermicelli and rice paper (unless your grocery store has an extensive international foods section) but the herbs can still be hard to find. If you are in a bind, just grab regular chives and mint and skip the shiso (I didn’t add any in when I made them). The flavors will be a little different but still delicious!

I’m happy I thought of having Lauren and Colleen make their own rolls for a few reasons:

1. I didn’t have to stress out about making 12 of these ahead of time

2. It was kind of like a cooking class and they both learned how to assemble them on their own

3. They both agreed that it was pretty easy and I think they enjoyed them a little more because they appreciated the work that goes into making them

I hope you will try to make these at home. They are beautiful to set out for a dinner party and will be sure to impress everyone! And, I promise, once you’ve made them twice, you will have the process memorized and it will feel like a breeze every time after that!

Secrets of the Red Lantern; stories and Vietnamese recipes from the heart

Pauline Nguyen with recipes by Mark Jensen and Luke Nguyen

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Goi Cuon– Vietnamese Summer Rols

2 3/4 ounces dried vermicelli

18 sheets of 8 1/2 inch rice paper

18 cooked small shrimp, peeled and sliced in half

4 1/4 ounces cooked pork neck, finely sliced*

1 cup firmly packed shredded iceberg lettuce

1 bunch perilla (shiso)

1 bunch mint

1 bunch garlic chives

Hoisin dipping sauce (recipe below)

Add noodles to boiling water and bring back to a boil. Cooke for 5 minutes. Turn off the hear and allow the noodles to stand in the water for an additional 5 minutes. Strain and rinse under cold water, then leave to dry. For this recipe, it is best to have cooked and strained the vermicelli at least 30 minutes prior to rolling. This allows the noodles to dry off a little and stick together.

To assemble the rolls, cut six sheets of rice paper in half. Fill a large bowl with warm water and dip one whole sheet of rice paper in the water until it softens, then lay it flat on a plate. Dip a half sheet of rice paper in the water and lay it vertically in the middle of the round sheet. This will help strengthen the roll and keep the filling from breaking through. In the middle of the rice paper, place three pieces of shrimp in a horizontal line approximately 1 1/2 inches from the top.

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Below the shrimp, add some pork, lettuce, perilla, mint, and vermicelli.

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To form the goi cuon, first fold the sides into the center over the filling, then the bottom of the paper up and over. Roll from bottom to top to form a tight roll, and just before you complete the roll add two pieces of garlic chive so that they stick out at one end.

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The final product

WW Points: 3 points per roll (no pork)

*I do not use the pork neck. I find that they are just as delicious (just not as authentic) without it and it saves some points!

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Hoisin Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup of hoisin sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon roasted peanuts

1 red bird eye chili

In a saucepan, combine the hoisin sauce and the rice vinegar, place over medium heat and stir in the milk. Continue to stir until just before boiling point is reached, then allow to cool. To serve, chop the roasted peanuts and finely slice the chili to garnish the sauce.

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The dipping sauce will last up to one week stored in the refridgator.

WW Points: 2 points/serving (makes 6 servings and this is using fat free milk)

Total WW Points for suggested serving: 11 points (3 rolls and one serving of dipping sauce)

And here are pictures of the dragon fruit stand in Chinatown and it all cut up for dessert. I ate dragon fruit almost every day for breakfast when we lived in Vietnam. Think kiwi meets pear meets watermelon. It’s mild, not too sweet and very hydrating and refreshing! The biggest difference between dragon fruit in NYC and Vietnam? Price. I got one fruit for $6 in Chinatown whereas the same fruit would have cost about 45 cents on the streets in Saigon!

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Last Lunch in Atlanta

My mom and I set out Friday to do some shopping. It was a rainy and cold day so we figured it was as good a time as any to be inside a mall. Our first stop, however, was for lunch at Star Provisions. I posted quickly on Friday about my cold-brewed coffee but that was just a small part of the experience. I ordered a pork belly banh mi. It was a little oily (but then again, it’s pork belly) but the flavors were perfect!

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My mom ordered a Mediterranean salad that was full of vegetables, chick peas, lentils and more.

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Star Provisions reminded me a lot of Haven’s Kitchen in that it has a cute café section as well as a retail section. They had some cute but kind of over priced kitchen gadgets!

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They also had an entire wall dedicated to candy, which made me think of my little sister, Hannah.

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All in all it was a great first stop for our day of shopping in ATL!