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.

~~~

Hoi An Mango Salad

Adapted from The Morning Glory Cookbook by Trinh Diem Vy

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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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Choose Love … and a How-To for Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls

 

Romantic Heart form Love Seeds
Romantic Heart form Love Seeds (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Choose love.

These two simple words have been on my mind since they popped out at me from a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago. She was recapping her past year and she ended her reflection with “When in doubt, choose love.”

They could mean many things to many people, and I’ve been thinking about what it means for me to “choose love.”

2012 was a challenging year personally and love was often in short supply. Not that I wasn’t loved, but rather that I wasn’t a very loving person. I felt so drained I had no love to give.

I had to get used to the fact that my husband was 6,720 miles away and 12-1/2 hours ahead for an entire 12 months. And I worried (and still do) about his safety, every single day. Plus, I had to adjust to solo-parenting a toddler.

After a three-year hiatus, I worked very hard to develop a book proposal (one that I thought was very sellable and timely) that was quickly shot down. I have yet worked up the nerve to submit it elsewhere.

And I’m sure anyone who lives close to their parents can relate to the stress of having them live a stone’s throw away.

Did I mention I’m solo-parenting a toddler? I definitely have a newfound awe and admiration for single parents everywhere!

While I admit 2012 wasn’t all that bad—there was a trip to Vietnam to meet my husband, a paperback book launch–it was filled with plenty of angst and stress.

I realize now that many of these events and circumstances were beyond my control. Yet I was riddled with unnecessary anxiety and/or reacted negatively to them.

In hindsight, I can come up with any number of “what if?” scenarios.

What if I kept calm and didn’t raise my voice at Isaac when he wasn’t behaving the way I wanted him to? Then maybe I wouldn’t be wracked with guilt in the thereafter believing I was traumatizing my son and ruining him for life.

What if I listened patiently every time my dad complained about a new ache or pain, or expressed concern that his memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be (aging has nothing to do with it, of course!). Instead, these could have been happy dad-and-daughter moments spent over a cup of coffee, especially if the topic at hand could be diverted.

If I had chosen love in these circumstances, perhaps I wouldn’t have expended superfluous time and energy getting worked up, upset, frustrated, etc., etc., you know what I mean. Thankfully, it’s never too late.

Today is only the 11th day of the new year but I’ve already savored the power of choosing love.

The other day, the cashier at Target had a face so sullen it rivaled Posh Spice’s– a.k.a. Victoria Beckham’s–perpetual pout (am I dating myself with this analogy?). Instead of condemning her off-putting attitude silently in my mind, I complimented her on her gorgeous red top out loud. That coaxed a smile out of both her and me.

When my toddler asks for one more book, yet another sip of water, anything he can think of, to put off going to bed, I take a deep breath, tuck his blanket under his chin and hold him till he falls fast asleep. This phase won’t last forever (I hope, gulp …).

I’m off to a good start, don’t you think?

Starting with this new year 2013, whatever the season, whatever the mood, always choose love.

~~~

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls (Gỏi Cuốn)

all rolled up

In line with our #LetsLunch theme of new beginnings and first times, I’m going to start a new column about trying dishes I didn’t think I could or would make at home. I’ve been told many times how easy it is to make these fresh rolls but I’ve always been intimidated by the rice paper wrappers. Most sources say to dip the dry rice paper rounds in water until soft but it seems impossible to get just right. While traveling in Vietnam, I learned two other methods of softening the rice paper: one is to wipe it with a wet, non-terry towel until pliable, and the second, use a spray bottle. The rest is easy. Well, the rolling does takes some practice but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. The following recipe/how-to is based on what I learned at a cooking class I took at the Morning Glory Cooking School in the beautiful town of Hoi An in central Vietnam.

Time: 45 minutes prep
Makes: 4 servings

8 sheets rice paper wrappers, plus more in case some break (8 to10-inches across is best)
Red leaf, romaine, or butter lettuce
3 cups fresh herbs: mint, cilantro, Thai (or regular) basil, red perilla, Vietnamese mint, rice paddy herb, bean sprouts (any combination of these is fine)
Carrot and daikon pickles
8 ounces small round rice noodles, cooked according to package directions (look for noodles labeled ‘bun,’ not the super thin vermicelli or bean thread noodles. If you have my cookbook, they are pictured as #1 on pg. 15)
8 small slices pork shoulder, cooked as desired (I like to use char siu, store-bought or home made)
12 large cooked shrimp, peeled and halved
12 (3-inch-length) pieces garlic chives
Dipping Sauce (see below)

Lay all the ingredients out on the table and let everyone make their own rolls.

Soften the rice paper using your method of choice:
1. Dip in a bowl of warm water for about 3-5 seconds (depending on its thickness).
2. Lay on a flat surface and wipe with a wet non-terry towel several times until pliable.
3. Fill a spray bottle with water and spray until pliable.
You want the rice paper to be just soft enough that you can fold it. You will lessen the risk of over-soaking your rice paper wrapper if you use the latter two methods but it is up to you.

Place the wrapper on a work service (a flat plate works fine) and lay a piece of lettuce on the edge closest to you. Grab a handful of herbs and place them on top of the lettuce. Place a handful of noodles on top of the greens. Add some pickles. Arrange 2 slices of pork above the noodles, followed by 3 slices of shrimp, pink-side down.

layout
In case you were wondering, the surprise in the middle is a deep-fried rice paper roll (a tip I learned at the Morning Glory Cooking School). Adds a lovely crunch to it!

Fold the edge closest to you over the ingredients and start rolling, ensuring the roll is snug as you go. When you are about half-way, fold both sides in and  arrange three pieces of garlic chives on the right so that they jut out like palm leaves swaying in the wind. Continue rolling until you have a nice tight roll.

If you tear the rice paper, don’t fret, just start over again. And even if your roll isn’t perfect, so what, it’ll still taste good!

Serve with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce (Nước mắm chấm)

Makes: 4 servings

2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 Thai red chilies, or to taste, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lime juice (from about 1 large lime)
2 tablespoons warm water

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s new beginnings and first times.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Annabelle’s Brown Butter Creamed Greens at Glass of Fancy

Emma’s Gluten-free Pretzels at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Grace’s Matcha Green Tea Yogurt at Hapa Mama

Jill’s Heavenly Angel Cake at Eating My Words

Lucy’s Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies at A Cook and Her Books

Lisa’s Da Bombe Alaska at Monday Morning Cooking  Club

Linda‘s Trinidadian Black-eyed Peas  at Spicebox Travels

Nancie’s Vietnamese-style Chicken with Lemongrass at NancieMcDermott

Rashda’s Parathas at Hot Curries and Cold Beer 

Sonja’s Beetroot and Fetta Varenyky at Foodnutzz

 

My New Kitchen Toys

One of the greatest joys of traveling is bringing home loot, whether for yourself or for friends and family. Some travelers purchase objets d’art, others, clothes and accessories. Me? I almost always go for food and kitchen knick knacks.

I just spent three weeks in Singapore (for a friend’s wedding) and Viet Nam (for a two-week R&R with my hubby). And I have plenty to show for it!

I scored most of my finds in the lovely town of Hoi An on the Central Viet Nam coast. My husband and our friends attended a market tour and cooking class organized by the Morning Glory Cooking School and we were introduced to all manner of local fruit and vegetables, as well as kitchen gadgets.

A girl can’t have too many peelers, no? This Y-peeler, etc., is excellent for skinning cucumbers and shredding green papaya (I saw many street vendors wielding this same tool) but the main reason I bought it was because it can transform a lowly carrot into beautiful rosettes!

This multipurpose tool peels, shreds and makes gorgeous carrot rosettes

Here we have an unusual instrument that transforms morning glory–a.k.a. kangkung, a.k.a. water spinach–stems into sprightly blossoms. It works with spring onions too.

spring onion flower
The label on this nifty tool reads” Instrument to split convol(v)ulus vegetable made of inox metal.” I used it to split a green onion instead.

This instrument makes easy work of splicing the stems, a job I saw many street vendors tediously doing by hand with small, sharp knives. The stems are then soaked in cold water to allow them to “bloom” and curl before being scattered over soups or tossed into salads and rolls. (See this Wandering Chopsticks’ blogpostfor more photos.)

Green onion “blossoms” and cilantro sprigs are scattered over a bowl of pho.

And my final toy is a peeler/slicer/knife, a gift from the cooking school! We used it to shred mango for our salad. I saw women using this versatile knife to shred lemongrass, banana blossoms (see below) as well as using it like a regular knife.

A vendor at the market deftly shaves a banana blossom into thin slices
A vendor at the market in Hoi An deftly shaves a banana blossom into thin slices with this unique peeler/knife

A quick search on the internet reveals this is a traditional Vietnamese knife called a cai bao (this link has a video that demonstrates its use but the selling price seems a little exorbitant to me) or dao bao, depending on where you look.

During the cooking class, we were taught to make vertical cuts into the mango flesh from the seed’s tip to its bottom using the knife’s edge. Then, I used the center blade (which kinda acts like a peeler) to scrape off the flesh which came away as shreds.

Strips of semi-ripe mango are tossed into a tasty salad. My husband made this plate all by himself during our cooking class!

I’m thrilled to add these kitchen gadgets to my collection and can’t wait to use them. I didn’t see any of them at my nearest Asian market (which is 99Ranch) but I’ll try the Vietnamese markets next time.

Have you spied any of these tools at your local Asian Market? And have you brought home a unique kitchen gadget from a trip abroad? Do share!

Technicolor Vietnamese Pickles (Do Chua)

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Technicolor Vietnamese Pickles (Do Chua)

Asian pickles do not adhere strictly to Western pickling methods (quick pickles, salt-brined etc) nor do we have a tradition of canning using sterilized jars and such. This method is a combination of quick pickles and salt-brined pickles and they’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. But they hardly ever last that long. This combination makes a sweeter pickle so adjust according to your taste. Use them in bánh mì sandwiches or Vietnamese vermicelli noodles.

Time: 45 minutes, 15 minutes active
Makes: 1 quart

5 carrots (about 2 pounds) in white, burgundy, and orange
6 large celery sticks (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup water
1 cup rice or distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
Dried chilies (optional)
Peel and cut the carrots crosswise into thirds.

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Then slice them vertically down the middle into three planks and then cut each plank into matchsticks. Cut the celery to the same shape and size.

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Place the carrots and celery in a colander over the sink and sprinkle with salt. Mix well and let the vegetables sit for about 30 minutes to draw out moisture and allow the pickling brine to penetrate the vegetables more thoroughly for better texture and flavor. They should be soft and pliable at the end of it. Rinse and drain.

While the vegetables are sitting, make the pickling liquid by combining the water, vingar and sugar in a medium bowl. Heat the pickling liquid in the microwave on high for one minute. Stir to dissolve the sugar completely.

Pack the carrots, and celery and dried chilies, in two pint-sized (16-ounce) jars. Divide the pickling liquid between the two jars. Seal and refrigerate.

Steep for at least 2 hours and enjoy. The pickles will keep in the refrigerator for four weeks, if they’re not gone by then!

Vietnamese pickles

A Summer Bánh Mì Buffest (Buffet+Fest)!


The Vietnamese sandwich, a.k.a. bánh mì, is the epitome of cheap, good food.

In fact, so remarkable is the bánh mì’s reputation, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire article to this glorious sandwich. The article also suggests that Seattle, with its thriving Vietnamese community, could very well be the center of Vietnamese sandwich culture. My favorite place to get bánh mì: Seattle Deli in the International District. Nowhere else can you get a satisfying lunch for $3 or $4. Yes, you read right–$3 or $4.

Born to parents who are nationals of a former colony (Indonesia) and having grown up in another (Singapore), I feel that the most significant legacies our colonials bequeathed us are food-related. Think sausage rolls and curry devil or debal (a dish with Portuguese roots) in Singapore, or Indonesian-Dutch pastel panggang (a shepherd’s pie of sorts) and pisang boelen (banana wrapped in puff pastry).

Vietnam is yet another country with a rich colonial influence. Some suggest that the rice noodle soup, phở, is a variation of the French beef stew, pot-au-feu, and then we come to the item of today’s discussion, bánh mì.

In my opinion, bánh mì is equal parts French, equal parts Vietnamese. A baguette (French) is sliced open, slathered with mayo (French), and various fillings ranging from pâté (French and my favorite!) and/or ham, barbecued pork (Chinese-Vietnamese), lemongrass chicken (Vietnamese) and fried tofu (name your Asian country of choice). Add to this a bright, crunchy slaw of carrot and daikon radish (do chua, definitely Vietnamese), cilantro sprigs, cucumbers, and sliced jalapenos.

Last weekend, I was having a vegetarian friend over for dinner and I wanted a quick, easy meal that would satisfy everyone. Thinking back to a hot dog buffet a friend mentioned on Twitter, I came up with the idea of a bánh mì buffet to feed all five of us, toddler included.

Clockwise from top left: Carrot pickles, celery pickles, citrus tofu, lemongrass chicken, baguettes

Next, I had to decide on the components of the buffet.

Sometime ago, I sampled a delicious citrus tofu from PCC Natural Markets and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to attempt it at home. And this was it. I did tweak the recipe a little. First of all, I halved the amount of tofu. And instead of orange juice concentrate, I used regular orange juice and reduced it. Then I cut the block into 2×4 rectangles, not 1/2-inch squares like the recipe says. After baking, I cut them into sticks.

Since I was on a lemongrass kick, the meat dish for the carnivores in the group came to me easily–lemongrass chicken.

And instead of pedestrian orange carrots and daikon for the pickles, I bought burgundy and white carrots from the farmers’ market for extraordinary color, and celery just because I was looking for ways to love this often maligned vegetable. For the record, I did! (Here’s the recipe).

I also made it a point to buy Vietnamese-style baguettes, which are usually available at any Asian store. They tend to be softer and airier than French baguettes and I find them to be easier on my mouth (don’t you hate it when the crisp shards scrape against the roof of your mouth?). Andrea over at VietWorldKitchen suggests Mexican bolillo rolls as second best choice and also offers up a well-tested recipe if you are feeling adventurous.

Finally, I declared my spread a buffest, because it’s not just an ordinary buffet but a very festive one too. I hope you’ll attempt it, and do tell me what you think!

~

Bánh Mì with Lemongrass Chicken and Citrus Tofu

Store-bought pâté  or any of your favorite grilled meats or vegetables would make an exciting filling for a bánh mì buffet as well. If you have pickled cucumbers, beets, and/or onions on hand, go ahead and tuck them in too.

The whole spread might look daunting to prepare but most items like the pickles and marinating can be done ahead. Just before your guests are due to arrive, lay everything out and let them wield a wild hand, picking and choosing, mixing and matching. All you have to do is concentrate on the ginger-melon spritzer (or other some such drink) in your hand!

Time: 2 hours or so over a couple of days
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

For the fillings:
Lemongrass chicken:
3 stalks lemongrass, smashed and cut into rings (see this post for more detailed prep)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons granulated coconut palm sugar (I used Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Coconut Palm Sugar, a SWAG gift from BlogHerFood. It’s a little less sweet than regular brown sugar, so adjust accordingly if substituting)
4 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
2 tablespoons canola oil
2-1/2 to 3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs (about 8 medium thighs)

Citrus tofu

For the sandwich:
6 to 8 Vietnamese baguettes
Mayonnaise or aioli (store-bought or homemade)
Vietnamese pickles
Cilantro
Jalapeno rings

Make the lemongrass chicken. Debone the chicken and save the bones for making stock. (Or skip this step altogether by buying boneless, skinless chicken.)

Mix all the remaining ingredients together in a container large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and turn to mix. Marinate for at least 4 hours, but no longer than overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until the skin is burnished a beautiful bronze, and a meat thermometer inserted into the flesh reads 165 degrees F. Or grill the chicken on the barbecue for 5 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. When cooked, slice each thigh into ½-inch thick slices.

To make a sandwich, halve a baguette and toast or grill if desired. Spread with a thick layer of mayo and layer with fillings and garnish as desired.

~

Vietnamese Sour Soup Flavored With Spring’s Secret Ingredient–Rhubarb

Vietnamese sour soup
A big bowl of canh ca plus rice makes for a satisfying spring supper. Do you notice the delicate blush of the broth from the rhubarb?

Rhubarb ranks way up there, together with ramps and fava beans, as a local vegetable I have absolutely no clue how to tackle.

In Singapore, where I didn’t eat my first fresh, fuzz-covered peach until I was 14 and imported smoked salmon cost $50 an ounce (okay so maybe not that much, but you get the point), there was nary a stalk of rhubarb in sight.

Every spring since I moved stateside, when a friend waxes lyrical about grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, or my inbox overflows with emails linking to the latest and greatest rhubarb recipes, I’d be as elated as a ladybug chewing on a leaf. I simply didn’t get all the hoo-hah that swirled around spring’s first fruit (right, it’s a vegetable but many American cooks think of it as a fruit because it’s a common ingredient in dessert).

After all these years of being reticent about rhubarb, I wondered if I just might be missing out. I also wanted to truly enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, so I decided to reexamine my feelings toward the pie plant, so named because it’s most commonly used in pie. Of course I had to find a way to use it in an Asianesque preparation. No easy task, mind you.

Inspiration eventually came in the form of a Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua).

We were celebrating my mom’s birthday with about 20 (!) of her friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Central District when a big, steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me. I scooped up some of the crystal clear soup brimming with bright red tomatoes, brilliantly-green baby bok choy, bean sprouts as white and unblemished as a bride’s wedding dress, and of course, the requisite bac ha (aka taro stem) into a bowl. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the broth to have that much flavor. I didn’t think a clear vegetable soup could! But the tamarind-soured soup was tempered by the right amount of sweetness, and the vegetables tasted as fresh as morning’s first dew. I shamelessly ate four bowls!

When I next saw rhubarb at the market, it all came together. Rhubarb is sour. Canh chua is sour. Why not bring them together?

I contemplated the best way to bring out rhubarb’s pucker power in my soup and decided to stirfry it with the aromatics before adding the rest of the ingredients. I liked the subtle tang of the soup as well as the resulting texture of the rhubarb. In a cool coincidence, Marvin at BurntLumpia devised a different method to extract rhubarb’s sourly delights for the Filipino sour soup, sinigang. Have a look. (We didn’t plan this, I swear!)

Perhaps next year when spring rolls around, I’ll have another stroke of genius, this time on the sweet side. At the very least, I’ll be joining the masses in cheering the joys of rhubarb.

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

~~~

Vietnamese Sour Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb (Canh Chua Chay)

If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb (like I was!), do read this tutorial about handling and preparation. Be sure to remove all traces of the leaves as they contain toxins. The rhubarb imparts a tang that’s a little more coy than tamarind but you end up with a pretty soup tinged a delicate pink. Plus, the rhubarb develops a soft, spongy texture akin to bac ha (taro stem), the vegetable traditionally added to canh chua.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
2 small stalks rhubarb, halved lengthwise and chopped into ¼-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 cups vegetable stock (I made mine using Harvest brand MSG-free vegetable bouillon)
2 large firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/2 small Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced, green leaves and white stalks separated
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8 ounces bean sprouts, tails snapped off
Chopped cilantro and green onions for garnish
Lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family meal

Swirl the oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic and onion and stir and cook until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the chopped rhubarb and stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the rhubarb pieces soften and turn a shade paler. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

Add the white cabbage stalks and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cabbage leaves and the tomatoes, and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the tomatoes soften a little and the cabbage is cooked but still crisp (or for however long you may like).

Stir in the sugar and the fish sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts, they will cook in the residual heat but still be crunchy. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onions with or without abandon.

Serve immediately on the table family style, or in individual bowls with steamed rice and another dish or two. Or just have a huge bowl of it with rice. You can also have lemon wedges on the table if you’d like to spritz some juice on your soup

~~~

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

What’s in a Curry?

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Golden-hued Madras curry powder

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a generic curry powder. In fact, the term curry powder didn’t exist until the 18th century when local cooks in Madras (now called Chennai in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state) packaged a spice blend for British colonialists to take home with them. Hence, Madras curry powder is one of the most common curry blends you can find on the market.

So what’s in a curry? It is, to put it simply, a blend of spices called a masala and may contain two or three spices, or a dozen or more; and it varies from region to region, household to household.

It is widely accepted that curries originated in India and the phenomena has spread across the world through migration and trade over the centuries. The Indians who migrated to Southeast Asia brought with them not only their religion and cultural practices but their cuisine and cooking techniques as well.

In Singapore, I grew up eating Indian-style fish head curry and roti prata dipped into mutton curry. I also ate curries based on spice pastes called rempah (Malay) and bumbu bumbu (Indonesian). These pastes comprised herbs and spices such as chilies, lemongrass and galangal plus other ingredients like candlenuts and shrimp paste to make a wet paste instead of a dry spice blend.

My mum would also make what she called a Chinese-style curry. And surprise, surprise, I discovered the Vietnamese have a very similar version. Cathy Danh was gracious enough to share her grandmother’s recipe with me.

Vietnamese Chicken Curry (Ca Ri Ga)

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This mild adaptation of an Indian curry has a Vietnamese twist added—sweet potatoes. Cathy Danh’s grandmother cuts up her chicken into various parts. But Cathy likes to make it with just drumsticks since they’re a hot commodity in her family. She also uses a combo of white and sweet potatoes. If possible, allow the curry to sit overnight so that the chicken really absorbs the flavors from the spice-rich gravy.

Time: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Madras curry powder
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces; or 3 pounds bonein
chicken parts of your choice (drumsticks, wings, breasts, etc.)
20-ounce can (2 1⁄3 cups) coconut milk
1 cup water, plus more as needed
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and stir and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Add the chicken and brown for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Don’t worry about completely cooking the chicken at this point, you just want to sear the meat so that it retains its juices and doesn’t fall apart during cooking.

Add the coconut milk and water followed by the potatoes. Make sure the chicken pieces and potatoes are completely submerged in the liquid. If necessary, add more water. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2.

When the dish is done, the chicken will be fall-apart tender and the gravy will be thick from the starch of the potatoes. Add the remaining salt. Serve hot with freshly steamed rice or French bread.

Variations: When frying the onion, throw in chopped lemongrass or crumpled kaffir lime leaves for a very Southeast Asian flavor.

Add red chili flakes or ground red dried chilies to give the curry a little more kick.

For a lighter curry, decrease the amount of coconut milk and top off the difference with water.

Pat’s Notes: For a true Viet flavor, buy Vietnamese curry powder from an Asian market. This golden curry mixture is very similar to a Madras curry powder and is made of curry leaves, turmeric, chili, coriander, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, allspice, and salt. Cathy’s grandmother prefers the Con Voy brand but D&D Gold Madras curry powder is also recommended.

As grandma always says, please share:

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