Memories and a Mango Salad

When my husband was deployed for one year last year, he was entitled to a two-week R&R (rest and relaxation) trip which meant the military would fly him anywhere in the world. Many choose to go home but we decided to entrust Isaac to the grandparents and rendezvous in Vietnam.

My trip from Seattle took about 17 hours. His, two days. But that’s beside the point.

Hoi_An lanterns
A kaleidascope of lanterns brighten up the inky darkness at a Hoi An night market.

Because this is meant to be a brief post–we are moving yet again, but at least it’s only across town this time!—I’ll get to the point. One of my favorite experiences on that trip was a cooking class at the Morning Glory Cooking School  in the picturesque town of Hoi An along the central Vietnam coast. I wrote about it here.

And this gorgeous mango salad is testimony to it. Every time, I make it–and it’s quite often–I think of the blissful (and childless) two weeks my husband and I spent in Vietnam, lovers without a care in the world, taking comfort in each other and in the moment that was now.

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Hoi An Mango Salad

Adapted from The Morning Glory Cookbook by Trinh Diem Vy

mango_salad2

The key to this vibrant salad is selecting a mango in the right stage of under-ripeness—you want mango slices that are slightly tart and still have some crunch (I don’t like them too sour though). Don’t focus on color as it’s not the best indicator of ripeness. Squeeze the mango gently and it should give ever so slightly but not too much. If it’s too squishy, the mango will be too sweet and mushy, and is better eaten out of hand. The breed of mango doesn’t matter as much–Ataulfo, Tommy Atkins, Kent, any of these will do.

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 appetizer servings

1 medium (about 13 ounces) underripe mango
1 teaspoon chili paste
1 small clove garlic
2 teaspoons sugar (palm or white are fine)
2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon lime juice (1 key lime)
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 small onion, sliced and soaked in water to remove its bite (about 1 cup)
1 ½ cups Vietnamese mint (rau ram or laksa leaf) and mint leaves
2 tablespoons fried shallots

Peel the mango with a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife. Hold the mango firmly down on the chopping board (or in one hand if you are comfortable) and use a paring knife to make vertical incisions down the mango from stem-end to tip, about half-an-inch apart. Do this on both sides of the seed.

With the vegetable peeler (or the nifty knife below), “peel” strips of mango away from you.

mango_mosaic

In a mortar and pestle, grind the chili paste and garlic together. Place the chili-garlic paste in a large bowl and add the sugar, 1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds, vegetable oil, lime juice, and fish sauce. Mix well.

Add the shredded mango, onion, half the mint leaves and toss until the ingredients are well coated with dressing.

Turn onto a serving tray and garnish with remaining mint leaves, sesame seeds and fried shallots.

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Sweet and Savory Stuffed Lychees

I found a lonely can of lychees at the back of my pantry and it begged to be turned into something

My friend Yuki recoils at the mere mention of meat and fruit in tandem. I can still remember the times her face scrunched up into an origami of disgust at everything from sweet and sour pork to Hawaiian pizza.

As for me, give me pork stewed with prunes or mango chicken any day.

So it’s not surprising that I fell in love with an appetizer of sweet lychees stuffed with savory ground pork when I went to Duangrat’s Thai Restaurant in Falls Church, VA. Lychee, also commonly called litchi or lichi, is the fruit of a tropical and subtropical tree native to southern China and Southeast Asia, and now cultivated in many parts of the world. When eaten fresh, the translucent white pulp surrounding the seed is delicate and springy and it has a faint floral perfume and flavor.  Unfortunately, I mostly make do with eating it out of a can.

Anyway, I’ve been fantasizing about this dish for weeks and as I was rummaging through my pantry during Operation CDMK, I found a can of lychees. My next post literally wrote itself.

To recreate the dish, I relied on my taste memory to deconstruct the flavors of the ground pork stuffing. For sweetness, the natural choice was the syrup the lychees came in, but I made a note to moderate the amount I used. Duangrat’s version was a little too sugary for even my major sweet tooth. I figured I could rely on either soy sauce or fish sauce for the savory layer. Instead of ground pork, I used turkey for a less greasy finish.

When it came time to cook, I started with a basic foundation of onions and garlic. I cooked the turkey until it was no longer pink then added the lychee syrup and simmered until the syrup was absorbed, rendering the meat subtly sweet. I added some chopped green onions for color and flourish.

Next, I had to figure out an efficient way to stuff the lychees. After breaking apart one too many lychees, I eventually learned how to gently pry open each fruit with my thumb and stuff it with a 1/2 teaspoon of filling at a time while leaving the fruit intact. A chopstick acted as a poking device when necessary.

At Duangrat’s, the stuffed lychees were served cold and almost gave my tongue the impression that I was eating a salty dessert. So I stuck mine under the broiler until they were burnished. I think this extra step not only integrated but also intensified the flavors and gave the little appetizers a peachier, prettier appearance. And personally, I prefer warm appetizers.

What about you? “Yay” or “Nay” to meat and fruit?

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Sweet and Savory Stuffed Lychees

These appetizers are absolutely scrumptious and will make a delightful introduction at your next dinner party. I would make enough for at least 5 or 6 per person. Trust me, you simply can’t stop at just one or two. Stuffing the lychees does involve some fiddly work but you can make the filling up to 2 days ahead and refrigerate it. Then fill the lychees on the day you plan to serve them.

2 (20 oz) cans lychees (about 45 lychees)
8 ounces/250 g ground turkey, pork, or chicken
1/4 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons fish or soy sauce
White pepper
2 green onions, chopped
Salt

Time: 40 minutes
Makes: about 45 stuffed lychees

Drain the lychees, reserving 1/4 cup/60 ml of syrup. (The rest of the syrup makes a refreshing drink over ice or add it to a cocktail.)

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Raise the heat to medium-high and tumble in the turkey. Stir to break up the meat, frying until it is no longer pink. Sprinkle in the fish sauce and a dash of white pepper.

Pour in the reserved lychee syrup and simmer over low heat until the liquid is absorbed, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the green onions and stir until wilted, about 30 to 45 seconds. Taste and add salt and more pepper if desired.

Set the filling aside to cool.

Move an oven rack to the topmost rung, 4 to 5 inches from the heat source. Start your broiler, on HIGH if you have the option. Line 2 baking trays with aluminum foil and brush with oil or spray with nonstick spray.

Stick your thumb gently into a lychee to expand the opening. Stuff the fruit with about 1 teaspoon of the turkey filling using a 1/2 (measuring) teaspoon. Use a chopstick to push the filling into the lychee if necessary. Lay the stuffed lychee on the baking tray on its side. Repeat until all the lychees and filling are used up.

Broil the stuffed lychees for 2 to 3 minutes, until the meat is lightly caramelized but not charred, and the lychees take on a slight blush.

Serve immediately.

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How to Choose a Durian and Open it

Whole durians available in the U.S. are often wrapped in netting so you can carry them without hurting yourself!

The durian is one of my favorite fruits, although at 357 calories and 13g of fat per 1 cup serving, it isn’t exactly as nutritious or as good for you as say, an apple. Hence, I don’t have it very often.

Plus, I can’t finish an entire durian by myself, at least not anymore. When I was younger, I could never have enough. I always wished my dad would buy me an entire fruit to enjoy all by myself.  How things have changed. Now, I need company and that company isn’t my husband, although he claims that he really isn’t a durian wuss (that’s his opinion , of course). I have to give him credit though, he has actually eaten two seeds worth of durian at one go, and without scrunching his face up into a still-life-in-origami.

So when my folks were visiting last week, we took a trip to an Asian market and bought me some durian.

In Southeast Asia, durian stalls are ubiquitous. And if you eat on-site, the durian seller will usually select his best specimens for you. Some places explicitly offer a money-back guarantee but most of the time you can try the fruit first and have the option to deny it.

When we were in Asia last spring, we visited a durian shop in Bandung, Indonesia where several different varieties of durians were available. We bought one "bitter" and one "sweet" durian

Here in the U.S., you can only find durians at Asian markets where the durians come frozen whole or already popped from their shells and prepackaged in plastic containers. They are usually of the Thai Mornthong variety. My mom prefers durian-in-the-box (as I call the prepacked ones) because for one, there’s no need to open the durian up and risk poking yourself, and two, she says they are fresher and have a more full-bodied fragrance.

While we were at the market, I asked my dad how to choose a tasty durian at its peak. If the fruit is too ripe, the flesh may be overly bitter or have a taste that is too “alcohol-y.” Unripe, and the seeds will be covered in leathery, chewy flesh that is often tasteless. Here are some tips:

    1. Look for slight irregularities in the shape of the fruit
    2. Seek out thick thorns
    3. Take a whiff. Assuming the odor doesn’t already put you off, learn to distinguish the smells. A docile “raw fruit” smell that is so mild you have to sniff several times means the fruit isn’t ripe; if the smell is overpowering even to a durian lover, then it is probably too ripe. With practice, you’ll be able to identify the just-right, sweet but not sickly sweet, fragrance of a perfect durian. Note: The previously-frozen whole fruits available in the U.S. have lost most of their pungency so this pointer may be moot.
    4. I’m skeptical but it seems you can shake the durian to see if it’s ripe too. Read about it here.

Backing up a little to point #3 about smell, I don’t find the frozen durians available here in the U.S. very satisfying because of their lack of fragrance. To me, the fragrance and the flavor go hand-in-hand and without the latter, durian tastes bland and flat. That being said, if you want to give it a go, tasting a frozen durian may not be as much of a shock to your system as a fresh one.

With years of experience, the durian seller easily splits the durian and removes the seeds. Note the bolder, brighter colors of the fresh durian shell compared to the previously-frozen durian we bought locally in the U.S. below in the video

In this video below, my mom demonstrates the technique for opening a durian. If you are not as brave as she is, do wear a thick glove on the hand that is not holding the knife.


P/s we later discovered a fifth pocket! So be sure to explore the entire fruit to find all the seeds.

Here are some yummy durian recipes:

Sweet Sticky Rice with Durian and Coconut Milk Sauce
Durian Puree Cheesecake
Durian Ice Cream 
Durian Puffs

Chime in if you have more durian tips or have an experience to share!