It has been quite an exciting and busy week. I had the very great honor of being invited to co-host Lunar New Year dinner in true Vietnamese fashion. Not only did I learn a lot about Vietnamese food and new year’s traditions, but I got to learn everything first hand with the help of my friend Judy, born and raised in Vietnam.
I decided to take a slight detour in my cooking tour around the world when Judy asked me to help her host Lunar New Year and so this week we travel to Vietnam with the help and guidance of my very own Vietnamese expert!
But before I get ahead of myself, I will start from the beginning. Judy planned the whole menu and she let me do a lot of the cooking as she helped and instructed me through some classic Vietnamese food.
There were many dishes that required multiple days to prepare, so we started first with the báhn chưng. Báhn chưng is a rice cake that is cooked in banana leaves. It was an absolutely essential dish if we wanted to make a truly traditional Vietnamese new year dinner. It was a dish that was made by the whole family and is a dish made to honor our ancestors. This was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever tried to make and it was certainly an adventure. At first glance, it is a simple dish, but there is a lot more to it than the simplicity of the ingredients. It consists of sticky rice, yellow mung beans and pork all wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Simple, right? Not quite.You have to soak the sticky rice overnight and the mung beans should soak for a few hours as well. The pork needs to marinate (I let it sit overnight) and then it needs to be browned before being wrapped. And, of course, the final part of the recipe is that these cakes have to boil for at least 8 hours and you have to keep an eye on them to make sure that they stay submerged by replenishing the water as it boils. The part that I predicted would be the most difficult was the wrapping. You need to wrap the banana leaves in a way so that no water can get into the cake.
When I was ready to assemble the cakes, I drained the rice and mung beans and set everything out on my kitchen table. So first steps, take a mold, which Judy kindly provided for me, and line it with banana leaves making sure to reinforce the corners so that they don’t break open. I had to use all my origami skills to make each corner separately and then add another leaf to the bottom to make it a little more stable.
Once you have your “basket”, so to speak, you put down a layer of rice, then beans, then pork, then beans, and rice again. Make sure that the rice covers the pork completely so that it forms the entire outer layer. Then, between Judy and I, we were able to fold up the top and tie it with string.
The trick was, it you saw the leaves splitting apart or opening at the corners, to just keep wrapping. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be secure. Above are the before and after boiling pictures of what the báhn chưng looked like. Once they were wrapped I submerged them in a pot of boiling water for 8 hours. Every hour or so I added more water to keep the water level up and completely covering the báhn chưng. Once they were done, I let them sit out in my kitchen for a couple days until the night of the dinner. You can make other variations of this dish either in shape or other elements (in one recipe they wanted you to dye the rice green to symbolize the earth), but since we had the square mold, we went the more basic route.
The two other things we made a few days ahead of time was the dưa chua, or pickled mustard greens, and the nem chua, which was a cured pork dish.
I handled the mustard greens and let them pickle for three days. They probably could have sat for longer, but as long as the greens have a nice salty flavor, you should be good. I filled a pot with about 2 quarts of water, 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Boil the water until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved and then let it sit until it is at room temperature. I cut the greens into large bite sized chunks and blanched them. Once they had cooled a little I put the greens in an air tight container and filled it with the sugar/salt water. I filled a ziploc bag with water and sealed it then let it sit on top of the greens before sealing the lid on the container so that the greens remained submerged.
I found that pickled vegetables are very common in Vietnamese cuisine. I made the mustard greens but we also had jars of dưa món (papaya, carrots, peppers, and other things) and củ kiêu (leeks) that were eaten with certain dishes. Salt is used as the connection between the worlds of the living and the dead and pickling is the preferred method of preservation as opposed to all the canned foods we have here in America.
I have to admit, I can’t talk too much about the process of making the nem chua because Judy’s fiance, Steve, made them, but they are cured pork that are wrapped and served as individual bite sized pieces. each bite is topped with garlic and a chili pepper piece.
I honestly can’t tell you how he made it, but they were delicious with a nice spicy kick from the pepper. “Nem” is vietnamese sausage and can also be served as rolls or fried.
Everything else was made the day before and day of the dinner. In order to simpify things, I will talk about each dish individually instead of chronologically. If you ever want to make your head spin, try cooking with an Asian woman. Judy and I had many things going at once and it can get confusing.
We started prepping the meat for the thịt kho trứng the night before so that it could marinate overnight. “Thit” means meat and “trứng” means egg. I cut up the pork shoulder into large chunks. This was a relatively easy task once I got the hang of ignoring the hungry husky who kept eyeing up the raw meat.
Once the meat was all cut up, we mixed it in a bowl with fish sauce, shallots, garlic and black pepper. We were very heavy handed with the fish sauce, so we didn’t need any additional salt. We let the meat marinate over night and then the next day browned the meat on the stove.
Once it was pretty evenly browned, we added three cans of coconut juice and about one can’s worth of water. This allows the meat to cook slowly over a few hours and makes the meat so tender with an amazing flavor. Right near the end of cooking, we added hard boiled eggs to allow them to cook in the sauce as well.
This dish was probably my favorite, but the cooking of it is the easy part, since eating it requires some assembly. Now, based on recipes found on the internet you could eat this dish as a sort of stew, but as with all these dishes, I looked to my Vietnamese expert to guide us, so we ate them as rolls. You take rice paper wraps and wet them slightly to soften them, and then wrap up greens, the pork, noodles, dưa món and củ kiêu (these are the pickles I mentioned earlier).
**Just to add a side note, I was told the củ kiêu were leeks, but I just wanted to take a moment for you all to appreciate that google translate says it means “supercilious tubers.” This obviously made me giggle in a very childish way.**
Once you have everything on the rice paper, you roll it up and dip it into a bowl that has some of the broth from the pot and some of the egg chopped up and mixed in. It was so delicious and it was fun to make our own roll, but of course they tended to fall apart once you reach the end if you keep dipping after each bite (which you definitely should!)
The next dish is another that I didn’t have as major a role in creating. This was the thit đông. This was basically a meat jelly that is made out of pigs feet and pig skin. I did cut the meat off the bones in preparation for cooking it, but Judy took the reins on this dish for the most part. But I did have my first experience with pig’s feet.
Basically I cut most of the meat off the bones (very difficult with the feet) and also cut up some pig skin and then we boiled the meat.
Sauté the meat with with wood ear mushrooms.
And then I am ashamed to say that I do not know what the next steps are. This is a very traditional winter dish in Vietnam and it uses pig’s feet and pig’s skin. The important part of this is to cook it slowly so that the cartilage pieces will form the jelly. I cut up some carrot pieces to look like flowers, which we put at the bottom of the dish before putting in the meat and then let it set overnight. Then you turn it over on a plate and ta-da!
I’m just going to take the time right now to apologize to Judy for not knowing what exactly she did or the process to get to the final product, but this was served cold with warm rice and the pickled mustard greens.
The rice we made was a kind of coconut sticky rice called, xôi gấc. Xôi is the sticky rice, which is just very glutinous rice, and gấc is a kind of fruit.
Just like with the báhn chưng, we soaked the rice over night. You take out the soft center of the gấc and mash it up, mixing with red wine.
Drain the rice and mix it with gấc mixture, coconut milk and sugar. Then you steam the rice. We didn’t quite have a big enough pot to cook the rice in Judy’s bamboo steamer baskets, so I lined the steamer basket for the rice cooker with banana leaves and steamed the rice that way. Basically you put some water in the bowl of the rice cooker, and then, cooking in batches, filled the bamboo lined steamer basket with rice. The rice cooked for about twenty minutes and about halfway through each batch, I would give the rice a little stir. As each batch was ready, I put it in a bowl so that when it was inverted it made a beautiful rice dome.
Are you guys getting tired yet? Don’t worry, I’m almost done.
Last, but definitely not least, were the chả giò chiên, or egg rolls!!
We used a tried and true recipe from Judy’s family, but obviously the variations for egg roll fillings are endless. Ours had mushrooms, noodles, ground pork, shrimp, carrots, shallots, garlic, salt and black pepper.
Everything was put in the food processor to mince it and then everything was mixed together. To assemble the egg rolls you place the wrapper with one point towards yourself and spoon on the filling.
You can make them as small or large as you want, just make sure that they are wrapped very tightly so that they don’t fall apart when you fry them. Also you should make sure as you roll, to tuck in the edges so that they look nice and neat. We used just a touch of an egg wash to help seal up the rolls.
When you fry the egg rolls, make sure that your oil is very hot and that you use a deep enough pan for the rolls to be completely submerged. We made 50 egg rolls for this dinner (all of them were eaten, by the way) so I had to cook them in batches. You should keep a paper toweled plate next to you so that you can just place the cooked rolls directly onto the plate.
If you are worried about how long to cook them for, what I learned is that as long as the outside is nice and crispy but not burnt, then they are ready.
We ate in courses starting with appetizers of the egg rolls and nem chua. The second course was the báhn chưng, and if I thought cooking it was an adventure, unwrapping it was quite the chore as well. I think the main problem was we were so worried about making them secure we had multiple criss crossing layers that were incredible difficult to unwrap. It also didn’t help that it was sticking to the rice.
But, eventually it was unwrapped and cut up so that everyone could have a piece!
Then came the thit đông with the mustard greens and sticky coconut rice, and finally ending with the thịt kho trứng.
Of course with all this amazing food there were also the traditional candies (ô mai or fruit preserves) and fresh fruits. The fresh fruit is chosen specifically to create a message for the new year. Each fruit’s name means something and when you put your selected fruit together, it translate into a wish or good thought for the new year.
Our friends also brought desserts that included cookies, flan and chè chuôi, which literally translates into “tea bananas,” and it is a coconut, banana, tapioca kind of pudding.
I hope everyone who came out to dinner enjoyed themselves as much as I did. We ate and drank and played Vietnamese bingo and I basically rolled myself home immediately falling into a food coma!
Chúc mừng năm mới!
Tune in next week, it will be decidedly less ornate, but hopefully just as delicious!