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Herbs and leaffy green vegetables in Vietnamese Cuisine September 15, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Fruits & Vegetables, Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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Although I love both Thai and Vietnamese food, I however think that the latter is lighter and more refreshing than the former, using crisp, uncooked vegetables, subtle seasonings, unique flavor combination and a lot of raw herbs. It is textural, with fresh and sharp taste.

Actually, the pervasive use of fresh leaves and herbs sets Vietnamese Cuisine apart from other and seems unique in its kind. While Vietnamese restaurants in other regions of the world rarely manage to offer more than one kind of mint, basil or cilantro, there is in Vietnam a remarkable variety of herbs, used in many ways: wrapped around cooked meat as a guava leaf does in nem chua; chopped, as dill in Cha ca (fish cake) or fingermint does in numerous salads; stirred into the steaming noodle soup as do Thai basil and saw leaf cilantro in Pho; BBQ wrap as betel leaf in Bo la lop; main ingredients in soup or sautee’d as morning glory, spinach, yute leave; as wrappers with lettuce and rice papers; and in drinks as rau ma

Certainly the use of these fresh herbs and leaves is part of the appeal of Vietnamese food, providing fresh flavors, beautiful aromas and many interesting textural variations.

My wife’s conclusion is: “now I understand how Vietnamese women are sveltes without diet or worrying about what they eat.”

I will write a post for each herbs that we grow and use at Bai Sri.

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Soursop or guanabana September 13, 2007

Posted by adrien in Fruits & Vegetables.
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I found this morning on the market of Palmar de Aramara near Sam’s Club a very nice soursop. It is not easy to find good soursop, they are often too green or with lots of bruises. And I enjoyed all day long a fresh and delicious soursop water while my 6 years old son prefered a milky champola (a cuban version of soursop water where the milk replaces water).

I don’t like that much to eat soursop with a spoon, but it is one of my favourite fruit to make juice, smoothies, water, desserts, sorbets, mousse..etc.

Soursop derives its name from the Dutch zuur zak or sour sac. Sop is an English word meaning something which soaks up liquid; as the flesh of the soursop is saturated with juice, the name is not inappropriate. In spanish, it is called guanabana, mang cau in Vietnamese, corossol in French and thu rian khaek in Thai (some would ask where is the point to know the name of this fruits in those languages? Well, there is pointless, it is just the price to pay when you are a Vietnamese native with French citizen living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (where English is almost a second official language) and owning a Thai restaurant. It is all about credibility, maybe!)

The slightly bumpy thin skin of this irregularly shaped fruit is green even when it is ripe. Inside, the flesh is white and pulpy, full of shiny black seeds (the most complicated part in the preparation of this fruit: taking the seeds out), with a central pithy core running its length. The soursop bruises easily when it ripens, so buy it while still firm and wait until it yields slightly to gentle pressure. Then eat it immediately.

The flavor is somewhat acidic (that’s why it is better in desserts and drinks when the acidity is counteracted by added sugar). It is refreshing, with a faint fragance and an elusive but irresistible taste.

The soursop found in South East Asia is much more sweeter, juicier and better quality then the ones found in Mexico, specially in Bahia de Banderas where is one of the most pest-infected regions in Mexico. And soursop is a very high prized fruits for all kinds of bugs.

If you are in South East Asia, try the raw fruit or some soursop smoothy. If you travel to Mexico, try agua de guanabana, it is very refreshing. Soursop sherbet made in Oaxaca style (nieve de garafa) is one of my favourites. At Bai Sri we will offer home made Soursop sherbet and Soursop souflle this coming season.

Tortas ahogadas August 29, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Food in Vallarta, Mexican Cuisine, puerto vallarta.
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I had my first torta-ahogada-experience three years ago in Puerto Vallarta, when I passed by a newly opened shop on Pancho Villa Street with a big sign that said: “TORTAS AHOGADAS”, which mean drowned sandwich. Amused and intrigued by the name, I came in and ordered my first torta ahogada. And I got it for lunch 3 times in this same week…

Tequila and Mariachis music have reached out the borders of Jalisco and became such an integral part of the Mexican Culture. But drowned sandwich is still the icon of Jalisco State. Invented 80 years ago in Guadalajara, where the drowned sandwich is more than a dish but an institution. The torta ahogada expands its boundaries: Puerto Vallarta has seen more than 10 new tortas ahogadas shops opened in the past 2 years.

tortas ahogadas
Tortas Ahogadas from Tortas Zamora, Guadalajara, served with some bones..yummy!

Basically, it is a bread called birote salado (salty bread) stuffed with fried pork meat, bathed in a chili sauce, served with big amount of tomatoes sauce, lime and limed or pickled onion slices.

The quality of the tortas depends on the birote, the sauce and the meat. Rumor has it that a good salty birote can only be made in Guadalajara because of its altitud, temperature, humidity rate and other related climatic factors. Some tortas shops in Puerto Vallarta bring their birotes from Guadalajara. It looks like old bread, a bit hard outside and a bit salty. If the birote is too dry, then your teeth will not like it, if it is too soft, it will absorb all the sauce and what you have is a sponge. The birote once drowned has to be crunchy outside and juicy inside.

The tomatoes sauce plays an important role in the success of the drowned sandwich. The flavor is very important, the spices and herbs used such as clove, oregano, laurel… need to be well balanced. The consistency of the sauce and the dryness of the birote will interact and give this crunchy-softy texture to the sandwich. The worst torta ahogada can be made with a soft bread and a watery sauce. You will have then a soup with chunks of bread and meats. Not too yummy!

The chili sauce is made from chile de arbol and cola de rata chilies

The difference of the meat from one place to other is the size and type of meat. While some make it in big chunks, other chop it more finely. Some just use the meat and other add chopped pork tongue and other parts.

It is important to precise when ordering how do you want your sandwich: well drowned (bien ahogada), the birote will be completely immerged in the chili sauce, I don’t really recommend it unless you like it very hot. Half drown (media) means medium or you can ask with chili sauce apart.

Purists will eat tortas ahogadas with bare hands but it is a bit messy because of the sauce and the size of the sandwich. If you are not comfortable with it, you can ask the sauce apart as a dip.

Drowned sandwich is far to be a health-conscious dish. You might like it or hate it, there is no half way. But it is interesting and deserves to be tried. Moreover, it is considered as a local dish. So if you want to discover further local culture, don’t hesitate anymore. And it is a very good remedy for hangover.

Emilio’s (a street stand in front of the Library Los Mangos on Pancho Villa), Torta Ro (near the Stadium on Pancho Villa), La Guera (in front of Versailles Movie Theater, on Pancho Villa) or TNT. those are the best place to eat drowned sandwich in Puerto Vallarta.

But the best tortas are in Guadalajara: Tortas Robert (near the Procuraduria General) or the historic shop Tortas Ahogadas El Guerito (guero is the nickname given to a blond or caucasian person, and lots of tortas vendors are gueros, partly by coincidence and mostly because the link with el guerito) at Madero Street No. 13 where Mr. Nacho Saldaña, grand child of the torta’s creator, sold the first Torta more than 50 years ago.

The flesh of Vietnamese Cuisine August 27, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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With more than 1600 miles of unspoiled coastline in addition to countless canals and waterways, which include the Red River, the Perfum River and the Mekong River (the most important river in South East Asia), it is obvious that seafood and aquatic products are such an important part of the Vietnamese alimentation. This ubiquity of water in Vietnamese landscape is reflected in the food by the extensive and systematical use of nuoc mam . In the same way, rice is omnipresent in Vietnamese landscape and Cuisine.

With its well irrigated lowlands and vast green uplands, the dramatic interchangeability of its landscape, Vietnam is a beautiful and fertile country, rich in agricultural ressources. Sixty per cent of its arable land is given over to the production of rice. Lush green rice paddies shinning under the sun dotted with water buffaloes and women’s conical hats is a picture that one can see everywhere in Vietnames countrysides, from the Red River Delta in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South, from the moutains of Sapa near the chinese border to southshore of Phu Quoc Island. Being the third exporter of rice after Thailand and the United States, rice has also an important position in the economy.

bai-rice-paddies.jpg

But it is in the Vietnamese kitchen that rice reveals the versatility of its use, the skill of those hands which turn this little white grain into such delicious tastes and forms, and the wisdom of a millenaire culture. As a matter of fact, the application of rice reaches far beyond the simple steaming, occuring in a diverse range of ingredients or dishes and not always recognizable as rice. In addition to being used in the production of wine and vinegar, rice flour is used to make noodles, cakes, dumplings, crepes, raviolis… Rice is also transformed into flat rice paper sheets for wrapping rolls and unumberable dishes; glutinous rice soaked overnight, steamed with beans or corn, then wrapped in an attractive way into a banana leaf with different garnishes such as shredded coconut, toasted sesame seed, sugar, crushed roasted peanuts, fresh coconut milk..it is xoi, the most healthy and delicious breakfirst ever. The same soaked glutinous rice can be also stuffed with mung bean paste, pork, then tightly wrapped with banana and cooked in water, it is called banh chung, a traditional “tamales” eaten during Lunar New Year holiday accompanied with cu kieu: preserved mixed vegetables (thinly slices of carrots, Daikon, green papaya , young shallots cooked in a nuoc mam based sauce).

Travelers often put steamed rice in a cotton cloth, press and compact it into a solid mass, then cut it in thick slices so that they can bring them in their travels. The Hmong, Dzao or Thai minorities in the northern Sapa often have with them a sealed bamboo tube which contains soaked rice with the appropriate amount of water. Just a fire is needed and fresh steamed rice is made with the most convenience everyhwere.

“Food” is all around. August 25, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts.
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“I feel it in my fingers

I feel it in my “mouth”…”

Well, in my Mom world, Love is all around, this song originally performed by the Troggs in the 60’s and made famous by Wet Wet Wet in the 90’s, would have sound like that; and probably would have been the soundtrack of ” Four entrees and a dessert”, also a my mom’s movie…

With my Mom, it is always about food. She can call very late at night (it happens often with the jetlag) or early in the morning, “have you eaten something yet?” is a sine qua non question. It is not a habit, it is not a tradition, it is my Mom’s way to tell me that she misses and loves me. Every time I visite her, there is always tons of food. No matters that we just finished lunch 10 minutes ago, she will come with another dessert, hors d’oeuvre or whatsoever and ask “do you want to taste that?”. And as a son, I will protest “Mom! We just finished the thousands plates you prepared for lunch barely 10 minutes ago”. She will smile at me and put the plate on the table and we both know that I will end up eating this plate in a short moment.

In Vietnam, food is available everywhere and at every hour of the day and night. And it is so light and healthy that you almost eat every 3 hours. Food is every where: food stalls on the sidewalks with clusters of tiny chairs and table; ambulant food vendors; neighbourhood restaurants which opened under french reign, prospered during the american war, shut down with the communist area, and now open again with the new market economy; food markets; fancy restaurants in old colonial houses; five star hotel’s restaurants… We were amazed how food venues are in every single street of Saigon, and most of them always packed, even at 11 pm. Most of people I know in Saigon eat at least twice a day outside.

When I was 5, I once get delivered in 5 mn a noodle soup at 1 am by the balcony of my room at the 3rd floor, without any phone call and in the absolute secret. My Mom probably will learn it reading this post, “too late Mom to blame me”. I will give you the secret. Night ambulant food vendors in Saigon go across a neighbourhood with one or two anouncers who preceed him, playing a rythm on a tiny bamboo bell. The rythm tells you what kind of food he sells. Just call him from your balcony and let him know you want one order, put the money in the basket, attach the basket with a rope and let it down. The anouncer will get back with the food, put it and the change inside the basket. Lift it up and enjoy!

Back on the blog August 25, 2007

Posted by adrien in Uncategorized.
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I wanted to post as often as I could during my Vietnamese trip. But there were so many things to taste, to discover, to see, to learn; too many peoples to meet, to share, to laugh and cry with. We never know enough about a country as well as we never know enough about a person, no matters how long is the acquaintance. And the more I learn about Vietnam, the more I realize there are still so many things I don’t know. However, it was a wonderful trip. Gerardo and his wife was delighted by the country.
So before to post,  I wanted to take some distance, reorganize the information, verify the accuracy…

Anyway, I am back again. And promised, new posts are coming.

Tacos al Pastor July 12, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Mexican Cuisine, puerto vallarta, street foods.
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For the last diner in PV before our trip to Vietnam, some tacos al pastor will make it: delicious, fast and we will bring along with us a good taste of Mexico to South East Asia.
There is about 20 tacos al pastor places in Puerto Vallarta, some very good and others really bad, but my favourite one is Tacos Sahuayo on Pancho Villa, at the corner where was the Honda Motorcycle shop. It is a tacos stand on the street, they have been there for more than 10 years, are opened from 8 PM to 3 AM and closed on sunday. I remember the first time my wife brought me there, I ate 15 tacos…the record is still unbroken..
There is no table at this place, you will be on the boardwalk, sit on Coca-Cola plastic chairs, eat in plastic plates covered with a plastic bag, but you will eat one of the best tacos ever.
The first lebanese immigrants brought with them to Mexico in the 20’s the vertical skewer rotisserie (which is common in Middle Orient: doner kebab in Turkey, shawarma in Syria, guss in Irak, gyros in Greece and commonly named kebab in France). But instead of goat or lamb, it is pork which is used for tacos al Pastor.
After being marinated in spice, herbs, onion, annato paste (which gives it the red color), the meat are placed on the skewer, topped by a pineapple, charbroiled as the skewer rotates in front of a vertical BBQ. Then the meat is thinly sliced and served on a small tortilla with chopped onion, cilantro and a chunk of sweet pineapple (this chunk of pineapple is really the cherry on the cake, it gives to the tacos al pastor a fresh and sweet taste, a juicy texture which will allow the flavour to explode in your mouth. I always ask for the double pineapple.
But it is not ready to eat yet, you have to give it your personal touch. There are 5 kinds of sauce: 2 red hot sauces, 2 green hot sauces and a avocado based green mild sauce. There is also some limed-onion with habanero slices, it is delicious but becareful to the orange habanero, it can be your worst ennemy for an hour. And if you want it even hotter, you can ask for a perfectly grilled Jalapeno. The problem with the jalapeno is sometimes it can be sweet, very lightly hot, and other times it is the devil’s instrument. But make sure to taste the spcicyness first and avoid all contact with your lips…
One last but not least ingredient: the grilled “cebolla de cambray” or spring onion bulb. When well grilled, it is crunchy outside and fondant inside and it surely will make you order for more tacos even though you are stuffed.
A taco al pastor costs 7 pesos, but there is also regular tacos such as asado, volcano, gringa..which I wil describe in another post.
If you have a big party at home, Tacos Sahuayo can also come to your place and amaze your guest.
As I am writing this post somewhere in the sky between Los Angeles and Taipei, I can not added pictures and video. But promised, I will do it when I will be back in Vallarta.

Good Morning Vietnam! July 8, 2007

Posted by adrien in Uncategorized.
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halong-bay.jpg

Two more days and Gerardo and I will board the plane from Los Angeles for Taipei, then from Taipei to Saigon. We will be in Vietnam for more than three weeks and will go from Phu Quoc Island (the most meridional territory of Vietnam, where is made the best Nuoc Mam) to the Northern Moutains of Vietnam, near the borders with China. We will enjoy vietnamese food for 3 three weeks, there is more than a hundred plats on our list: pungent flavor of the Mekong Delta specialties, the diversity of Saigon’s Restaurants and street foods, the delicacy yet hot and spicy of the Center, and the simplicity and subtle flavors of the Northern Cuisine. We will work for a week with some marvelous Vietnamese Chefs and friends.
There is only one concern: that our stomach will not be big enough.

Some “Ketjap” for your French fries? July 5, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Ingredients.
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Three years ago, when I went to LA for a business trip, Chef Sumanth Das of Aramara at Four Seasons Punta Mita (Sumanth had previously been the Executive Chef at Monsoon in Chicago and at the Peninsula Chicago as Sous Chef of Shanghai Terrace) asked me to buy for him some kecap manis (pronounced Ketjap and means sauce in Indonesian and Malaysian).
At first taste, it seemed to be a sweet soy sauce. But it is much sweeter, much thicker and the flavor much more complex than regular sweet soy sauce. This syrupy-molasses thick sauce is actually an Indonesian soy sauce generously sweetened with palm sugar and seasoned with garlic, star anise, galanga..etc. Malaysia which has a lots of cultural links with the
Archipel, has also kecap lemak, which is less sweet. You can find easily kecap manis in Asian supermarkets, the most famous is ABC brand.

But what brought me here today is not only the taste of kecap manis but also the name, specially the way it is pronounced: kechap or ketjap. I was so intrigued by the similarity with the ketchup so I made my little research and my intuitions were confirmed. English and Dutch sailors brought the Ketjap from Southeast Asia to Europe in the 18th century, where other ingredients such as mushrooms, anchovy or nuts were added (mushroom ketchup was a la mode under Victorian era and it is still available for the subjects of Her Majesty). Tomatoes was added only later in America.

At Bai Sri, we use kecap manis to make our cinnamon sauce for the Tofu Brochette.

Ladies and Gentlemen, before dipping your French fries (which is certainly not originated from France but Belgium) in your Ketchup, please have a little thought about how different peoples of different cultures in the world can be linked in a way that we can not imagine. First World or Third World, our cultures are rich in the same way, poors or richs, we will have at the end the same futur.

And when it comes to food and language, only the death ones remain the same. Fusion Cuisine is not a fashionable movement of the 20th century, it has been there a long, long time ago.

The blood of Vietnamese Cuisine July 4, 2007

Posted by adrien in Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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Even though used throughout Southeast Asia (nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, ngan byar yay in Myanmar or Tuc Trei in Kampuchea (Cambodia), it is in Vietnamese Cuisine that fish sauce is omnipresent.
I remember after spending a year studying in Notre Dame de Garaison (a beautiful 16th century monastery in the Pyrenees) without none Vietnamese food, the first night I got back to Paris, what I was fancied for was just a bowl of plain rice with some nuoc mam. The taste and flavor of nuoc mam reflect so well the soul of Vietnam: the saltiness of tears (caused by centuries of wars, civil wars and those against invaders); of the sweat of slavery under a thousand years of Chinese domination and a century of French colonization; of the South Chinese Sea water that drunk thousands of boat peoples in their thirst of liberty, the fishy smell of the 3500 km of coastline, of infinite numbers of fishing ports and the gigantic Mekong Delta, and finally the sweetness bitter tainted of hope and nostalgia.

But let’s get back to the main purpose of fish sauce as a cooking ingredient: it is made with salt and anchovy, fermented and aged in wooden barrels. In my opinion, the Vietnamese nuoc mam is better elaborated and therefore has a subtler flavor than its Southeast Asian alter egos. The Thai nam pla (the most used in US Thai Restaurants is Tiparos but the Squid brand or Trang cha are far better) is saltier, less sweet and less strong in taste but the flavor is also less complex, meanwhile the Filipino patis (the most famous is Rufina Patis) is even saltier and heavier.
While Vietnamese constitutes the first Southeast Asian population in the United States, Thai fish sauce is the most sold. This might be explained by the American trade embargo on Vietnam (1978 –1994), which allowed Thai fish sauce exporters to position comfortably on the northern american market and even European market (Vietnam was the only exporter of nuoc mam to Europe since the 19th century but has stopped its exportation with the arrival of the communists in 1975 and let the door opened to Thai fish sauce). However, it was harder for them to reach the quality of Vietnamese nuoc mam. (Actually, to respond to the quality expectations of the market – most of fish sauce buyers are Vietnamese- tons of Vietnamese nuoc mam was imported in Thailand, mixed with Thai fish sauce and re-export to the US under Thai Brands as a Thai product). Even though today, lots of vietnamese fish sauces are thought Thai products. The best example is from importfoods.com, a commercial site hailed by the New York times and Martha Stewart Living, which said about Viet Huong (means in vietnamese Flavor of Vietnam) Three Crabs: “is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong”…
Without any chauvinism, I strongly recommend you Vietnamese fish sauce, especially the ones which come from Phu Quoc (the largest island of Vietnam which houses more than a hundreds nuoc mam producers, where high rate of protein anchovy can be found in abundance in the southwestern water of the island in their season from August to December) or Phan Thiet, and it is primordial that you can read the mention of nhi and Thuong hang on the label. “Nhi” means first extraction and “Thuong hang “ highest quality. Nhi is for Nuoc mam what extra virgin is for olive oil: first extraction, better quality and more expensive. I remember a visit of a fish sauce factory in Rach Gia when I was a kid. We assisted to the first attraction and I was amazed and disgusted how the first extraction was pungent and thick. Actually, the fish sauce we found in the bottles is already diluted at 80%.
Most nuoc mam is made with anchovy (some are made with mackerels and are more expensive), but some producers in Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc combine different type of fish just a wine producer combines cepages to get better flavors. Since 2002, Phu Quoc’s nuoc mam is regconized as “Apellation d’Origine Controle” products in France and Europe (just as wines, Champagne and Cognac).
In Bai Sri, we use mainly Viet Huong’s The Three Crabs brand which is for me the best. It has a good consistency in quality: subtle flavors, delicate aroma and translucid amber color. We only use Tiparos nam pla for Pad Thai.

More than the blood of Vietnamese Cuisine, nuoc mam truly connects his lost sons to their homeland, and Vietnam to the world.