Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen's site dedicated to Vietnamese recipes, Vietnamese food, Asian ingredients, Asian cooking tips, Little Saigon communities, and other Asian recipes and food cultures all over the world.
I love sandwiches and I love mayonnaise. It’s a win-win situation. I bought the condiment for years abut while writing The Banh Mi Handbook, I spent about a month working on different recipes – from regular and eggless (vegan) to Sriracha and umami mayonnaise. Making mayo from scratch is utterly easy. Moreover, homemade mayonnaise takes between 30 seconds and 2 minutes to blend. Plus, you can use fresh ingredients and create new renditions. This week, I revisited an umami mayonnaise recipe that I developed in 2014 as an exclusive for banh mi book fans (yup, there will be special content and giveaways for the upcoming Vietnamese Food Any Day so sign up for that newsletter to stay posted).
For bursts of savory goodness, the original umami mayonnaise recipe used an unusual ingredient – fish sauce salt, the salt harvested from the fish sauce production process. I got a bag of it from Cuong Pham, the owner of Red Boat Fish Sauce. It’s a naturally produced product that’s moderately salty and pungent with the fragrance of fermented fish. I know, it’s a little strange to wrap your head around. I’ve learned to use it with caution because it expresses itself over time. It’s impact on food is not immediate so patience is needed when using it.
I don’t use Red Boat salt like regular salt. I think of it like a cross between salt and MSG. It adds a subtle savoriness to food. For example, I shower a bit on the protein when building banh mi, include it with other seasonings when prepping and cooking, and I also use it to make this very good mayo that’s akin to my version of Japanese Kewpie mayo. The mayo does wonders for sandwiches but is also great as dip. Heck, I often lick it off the spatula.
Since Red Boat salt isn’t widely available, after making a batch of the umami mayonnaise, I wondered about substitutes. It’s a matter of sourcing the umami burst. I turned to my favorites – MSG and nutritional yeast (“nooch”). (For more on MSG, read this post.)
Within minutes, I had 3 kinds of umami mayonnaise to taste. The three kinds of umami mayonnaises were similarly good but different.
Mayonnaise made with the Red Boat salt (marked with “!”) had an elegant quality, with the funky brininess of the fish sauce fading into the background to establish the umami foundation. The nutritional yeast umami mayonnaise (“2”) tasted like the yeast; my husband thought it was great. The MSG mayo (“3”) offered a bright burst of savory-sweetness; I used the same amount of maple syrup in all three batches the one with MSG tasted sweeter than the other two.
The experiment was fascinating as a way to experience how umami can be expressed in food. I don’t expect you to run out and try all three but this recipe offers you options.
The other ingredients are straightforward. I like a grade A maple syrup because it has a more refined flavor; use what you have. I use non-GMO expeller press canola but you can use another neutral oil. If you like olive oil, use a light, mild tasting olive oil (extra virgin olive oil yield a bitter mayonnaise).
My mayonnaise recipes in The Banh Mi Handbook use the food processor and there are instructions for a regular blender, too. For this one, you can use an immersion blender, which takes about 30 seconds to whirl and emulsify all the ingredients into creamy mayonnaise. You don’t have to slowly add the oil. See this video I posted on Instagram.
I don’t use the blender often so the affordable Cuisinart Smart Stick is terrific for me. Whatever immersion blender you use, just remember to find a vessel that the blender fits into (see photo below). It’s easy to clean but makes a mayonnaise that is denser than what you’d get from a processor because there’s less air worked into the emulsion. (Don’t use the immersion blender for the cilantro Maggi mayonnaise in The Banh Mi Handbook because it does not process the herb well. Use the processor or regular blender for that amazing green mayo.)
So pick your mayo method and umami source. Make umami mayonnaise soon and add it to your summer eating. I’ve got 3 batches to eat up!
And if you’re into banh mi, the ebook version of the book is currently on sale through this week for an incredible deal.
1 small clove garlic, minced and mashed or put through a garlic press
1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon Red Boat salt; rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt plus 1/4 teaspoon MSG; or rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt plus scant 1 teaspoon nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup, delicate Grade A preferred
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup canola oil or other neutral oil
To make with an immersion blender: Put the egg, garlic, salt, mustard, maple syrup, lemon juice, and oil in a 2-cup container (such as a measuring cup or glass jar) that’s wide enough for the hand-held blender to fit into. Insert the blender to touch the bottom. Blend on high speed to create a creamy, thick emulsion, pulling up the blender as things approaching being fully incorporated to make sure everything is evenly worked into the mixture.
To make with a food processor: Put the egg, garlic, salt, mustard, maple syrup, and lemon juice in the food processor’s work bowl. Start the processor and after a creamy yellow mixture forms, 5 to 10 seconds, start pouring the oil through the feed tube in a slow, steady stream as thin as angel hair pasta. Midway through, after things thicken, pour a thicker stream, as wide as spaghetti. After about 2 minutes, all the oil should be incorporated and the mayo should be creamy and spreadable.
Regardless of method, taste and if needed, adjust with extra salt (savoriness), lemon juice (tang), or water by the teaspoon (softer texture). Blend or pulse to incorporate. Transfer the mayonnaise to an airtight container. Before using, wait 30 minutes to allow the umami depth to develop. This mayonnaise keeps in the refrigerator for at least a week.
You don’t have to do any tricky dance moves to cut a pineapple into something that looks like that. How to cut a pineapple in an efficient manner? Carving out a spiral-cut pineapple basically entails cutting out the eyes (hard dark brown spots) in a diagonal pattern of lines that swirls around the fruit. Done that way, you waste less of the tart-sweet flesh and the pretty result is ready for a Tikki party, luau, or, in my case, for snacking and cooking.
Taking an artful approach to the fruit is how my mom taught me to cut a pineapple. She didn’t do it any other way; to this day, she doesn’t know what a pineapple corer is. I doubt she’s ever paid attention to the instructions on the pineapple tag.
Turns out I’m not alone in this spiral-cut pineapple thing. When I posted the cut pineapple photo on social media, a number of people identified it with their Asian roots or a tropical part of Asia they’d visited. It’s not a Vietnamese thing. For the uninitiated, they were interested in how to cut a pineapple with little waste of its sweet-tart flesh.
One of my friends, Zanne Early Stewart, a former Gourmet magazine editor, mentioned learning to cut pineapple from a Time Life series called Foods of the World, which began in 1968 and ran into the late 1970s. I found the instructions in volume on Southeast Asia, in the chapter on Thailand and Vietnam (!).
I have no ambition to cut whole pineapple table side because I envision frequent accidents. When I cut up a whole pineapple, all the work is done on the cutting board. I buy whole pineapple at Costco or a grocery store. Most times, they’re green, hard, and unripe so I let them sit for a good week until the skin is somewhat yellow-orange and they give a bit when firmly pressed. That’s when I know it’s likely to be ready.
Some cooks use a serrated bread knife. I prefer a sharp, heavy chef’s knife like one of these.
Called Imperion, the Anolon knife on the left is a recent discovery. Made of Japanese VG-10 steel and crafted in China, the Imperion’s quality blade is surprising sharp and affordable. On a daily basis, I’ve used the utility knife from this set and have barely had to sharpen it. Ditto for the paring knife and big boy above, which is lighter than my Japanese knife on the right, but its heft works perfectly for cutting through pineapple!
Here’s how to cut a whole pineapple
1) Trim the outside: Cut off the ends, then stand the pineapple up and cut downward to trim off the skin. You don’t have to cut off all the eyes. You’ll get to that in the next part.
2) Deal with the eyes: With the pineapple on its side, identify a spiral pattern in the eyes. Then, wield your knife at roughly 45-degree angles to cut little wedges and remove lines of the eyes; make a cut on one side, then the other. When you’re done with one row, rotate the pineapple and repeat. Let the pineapple’s eyes guide the spiral. Sometimes they disappear and you have to start a new line or even merge two of them. It’s okay. You’re not going to enter the pineapple in a fruit carving beauty contest but it’ll still look great when done. This pineapple I had today had funny dark spots so I used the knife tip to dig them out.
3) Core and store: You can now cut the pineapple however you like. I typically quarter it lengthwise then trim the core with an angled cut. Sometimes I chew on the core pieces, which remind me of fresh sugarcane. Then I transfer the pineapple pieces to an airtight container and keep it refrigerated for up to five days. I cut the pineapple before I eat it or use it in cooking. Once cut, pineapple releases its juices, which you don’t want to waste.
Voila! There it is — a beautiful spiral-cut pineapple with most of its wonderful flesh intact. Since you’ll have all that fresh pineapple around soon, try one of these pineapple-y recipes from the archives:
My mother isn’t a touchy-feely person but we are close. We’re food pals and though I check in with her on a regular basis, this week, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent. I don’t have kids or even a pet but I do appreciate what it takes to be a good parent. I’ve told my friends many times that parenting is one of the hardest careers, which is why I am not a parent.
Mom has said that she and my dad did their best to raise us. They had tough times and thankfully, things turned out well.
Maybe it’s because of our shared interest in food and the fact that I don’t have kids. My mom and I share cooking tips and recipes. In doing so, we have stories about how food reveals certain things about culture and humanity.
She’s 83 and still curious and open to new ideas (I recently gave her a pressure cooker and she adores it for making pho from the book!) Much of our relationship has developed in the kitchen. She seeded my food writing career in many ways and I wrote about how she influenced me in a Mother’s Day story published this week at the Washington Post.
I was well fed in Saigon as well as in America. Click to read the Washington Post story.
The story got me thinking about the kinds of treats that Mom loves to prepare to spoil us to this day. One of them is a pyramid-shaped northern Vietnamese dumpling called banh gio (“baan zaw” or “baan yaw”). Each is the size of an average orange.
The dough is made of rice flour and the filling includes ground pork, mushroom, and shallot. It’s simple food, like any good dumpling. The banana leaf casing imparts pale green color and a charming grassy, tea-like flavor. I can eat two banh gio for breakfast, sprinkled with a dash of fish sauce, though I know I should stop at one.
Like when I was growing up, Mom still makes dozens of them and keeps them frozen for when we come to visit. My husband adores them too so she often sends extras home with us. They’re fun and delicious for a weekend brunch or lunch or afternoon snack. To me, banh gio is a Viet dumpling comfort food.
What about the name, banh gio?
Banh is the generic Viet term for foods made with flours, legumes and starches. For example, banh mi means bread made from wheat flour (mi) as well as the sandwich. Banh gio got its name because the dumplings were traditionally made by professional gio makers who prepared Vietnamese charcuterie, particularly the everyday mortadellalike pork sausage called gio (it’s often featured in traditional banh mi).
Leftover scraps of pork would be chopped up, cooked and employed for these dumplings. There would be banana leaf around from making the charcuterie. As my mom recounts, you’d go to buy your Vietnamese sausages from the gio vendor and picked up some banh gio dumplings too! A win-win situation.
In America, you’d find these dumplings at a Vietnamese bakery or deli, typically where you’d pick up sandwiches and other snacks. They’re not a restaurant thing because the dumplings require a certain level of skill to fill, shape and fold.
No problem. My mom shared her banh gio recipe and gave me a tutorial.
Mom’s Banh Gio Dumpling Folding Video
Below is a video from 2009. Mom hasn’t changed her technique she says. I remember that when we got to her house, she had her mis en place all ready to go. My husband just had to hit ‘record.’
In order to form the signature pyramid shape, banh gio is traditionally wrapped in many layers of banana leaf. Banana leaf is hard to manipulate (in Vietnam, certain kinds of banana trees yield the best leaves for cooking) and my mom wanted to make life easier on herself, so she used foil along with the leaf. She’s a modern woman.
Many Viet-American cooks use foil and banana leaf to shape complicated dumplings like banh chung Tet sticky rice cakes, which are shaped like adobe bricks. Aluminum foil is not a common household thing in Vietnam, but in America, it’s darn useful for holding things together because it can be bent and keep its shape!
With the combination of banana leaf and foil, banh gio becomes totally simple to master. Watch my mom:
How to wrap Vietnamese rice and pork pyramids (banh gio) - YouTube
In case the video isn’t enough, use these these photos to help you wrap banh gio:
Foil makes shaping the dumplings so much easier.
This is an unusual dough because it starts out as a batter and then you cook it so it may be molded. Vietnamese dumpligns like this one and banh nam (thin tamale-like dumplings from the central region of Vietnam) are made with partially cooked dough. When you make the dough, know that blending cornstarch with store-bought Thai rice flour helps the dough to firm up.
The dough is very stiff but don’t worry: After the dumpling cooks, everything softens.
My mom can make two or three dozen banh gio at a time. You don’t have to. Make a small batch and enjoy them. This banh gio recipe is her gift to you!
8 squares thawed or fresh banana leaf, each 9 inches wide, trimmed of any brown edges, washed, and wiped
8 pieces of aluminum foil, each 9 by 10 inches
To make the filling: Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes, until the edges have started to brown. Add the pork, stirring and poking it to break it into small pieces. When most of the pork has turned color, about 1 minute, add the mushroom. Give things a big stir, then sprinkle in the 1/4 teaspoon salt, sugar, pepper, and fish sauce. Cook, for about 2 minutes, until the pork is just cooked through.
Give the cornstarch a stir, add it to the mixture, and cook for about 30 seconds to lightly bind. Remove from the heat, taste, and add any flavor adjustments for a filling that’s well seasoned flavor. Shoot for a savory flavor that’s slightly more intense than what you’re used to as the dough is lightly seasoned. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool to room temperature. Makes about 1 1/4 cups. The filling can be made a day in advance and returned to room temperature before using.
For the dough: Put the rice flour, cornstarch, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and whisk in the chicken broth, water, and remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to form a smooth batter. Strain through a mesh strainer into a pot or large saucepan. Set aside for 10 minutes to bloom.
Pour the batter through the strainer. Set the pot over high heat. Continuously stir with a wooden spoon at a moderate speed for about 8 minutes, or until a partially cooked, very thick dough forms. Midway through, the mixture will have thickened slightly and resemble white sauce. When you see lumps forming around the spoon, lower the heat slightly and keep stirring. The lumps will eventually disappear. When the dough resembles stiff mashed potatoes, turn off the heat and stir for another 30 seconds to ensure that the dough is smooth. When done, the spoon should be able to stand upright in dough. Remove from the heat and set aside, uncovered, to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
Use the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to smooth out the dough in the pot, and then divide it into 8 even wedges, like a pie. This will help you eyeball the amount of dough for each dumpling.
To form each dumpling: Set a piece of foil down on your work surface with one of the long sides closest to you. Center a piece of banana leaf, smoother side up, atop the foil. Brush a 3 1/2-inch circle of oil in the center of the banana leaf. Then use an ice cream scoop or 1/4-cup measuring cup to center half of a portion of dough atop the banana leaf. Dip two fingers in water and press then gently the dough into a 1/2-inch disk.
Put 2 1/2 tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough; try to keep the filling in a mound. Top with the remaining half portion of dough. It will look messy but don’t worry. Moistened a few fingers and gently press down to spread the dough out a bit and smooth things out. It should now look like a strange sandwich. Bring the edge of banana leaf that’s closest to you to the center, and then bring the edge at the top down to enclose the dumpling. The edges should overlap by 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Pull them in tighter to ensure good coverage.
Use your two hands to gently press down on the right and left edges to begin forming the pyramid shape. Bring the top and bottom edges of foil to the center and let them overlap, just like the banana leaf. Use your hands again to firmly press down on the sides to secure the square-shaped base. Finally, fold the open ends down and under the dumpling. Use scissors to trim any excessive foil poking out. Place the dumpling in a steamer tray (there’s no need to line the tray). Repeat with the remaining dumplings.
Steam the dumplings over boiling water for 40 to 45 minutes, or until dumplings have puffed up slightly a skewer inserted comes out more or less clean; some dough sticking to the skewer is okay. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before eating. Open up the foil and banana leaf and dive in with chopsticks or fork. The banana leaf is inedible.
Refrigerate leftovers, return to room temperature, and resteam for 10 to 15 minutes until hot.
The Japanese excel at building umami — savoriness, to allow simple foods to taste extra delicious. This easy-to-make condiment embodies just that. I learned about banno-joyu, which I call Japanese seasoned soy concentrate, while visiting with Elizabeth Andoh, one of the foremost experts on Japanese foodways. She’s the consummate teacher and part of my field research for the Asian Tofu cookbook was spending time with her in Tokyo.
It was September 2010 and exceedingly humid, which meant I arrived at Elizabeth’s home drowning in sweat. Thank goodness for air conditioning. She also had chilled tofu, purchased from her favorite tofu-ya (tofu maker/tofu shop). She reached into her pantry to procure soy sauce and also a small jar of this Japanese seasoned soy concentrate. Quietly, she opened in up and asked me to sniff. The dark liquid was smokey and smelled faintly salty sweet. She told me she made it.
Never had I thought of cooking up manipulating soy sauce to create a new condiment. In my Viet kitchen, it was just added to dishes as a savory accent. But she that afternoon, she taught me that you can use naturally occurring glutamates in ingredients like kombu (dried kelp), dried shiitake mushroom, and shoyu (soy sauce) to create super synergy.
The seasoned soy sauce amplified the tofu in a phenomenal way. Tofu, like many proteins, just needs to be paired with glutamic acids to create a big umami effect. The banno-joyu magically did that and I could barely stop eating the tofu.
Last week, I attended a conference at the Culinary Institute of America and two chefs from Tokyo spoke at length about Japan’s tradition of building umami. Up until the late 1800s, meat was not widely eaten, explained chef Shinobu Namae of L’Effervescence, named one of Asia’s best 50 restaurants and one of Asia’s most sustainable restaurants, too. Coaxing out maximum flavor from ingredients became basic to Japanese culinary craftsmanship.
Elizabeth referred me to her recipe for banno-joyu in her landmark book, Washoku. She rightly pointed out that good, fresh tofu, should be treated simply to let it shine. Indeed, like freshly made cheese or bread, you need to dress it up minimally to enjoy it at its maximum.
I went several rounds to develop my own recipe, published in Asian Tofu. I don’t use fancy kombu, just this affordable kind sold at many Asian markets and online. Use good dried shiitake. I favor ones with thick, crack-filled caps; here’s a dried shiitake primer. If you have small ones, use more and let things soak overnight.
For the soy sauce, choose a Japanese or Korean soy sauce. Kikkoman from a regular supermarket is fine. BUT if you shop at a Japanese market like Mitsuwa, try a soy sauce made in Japan. Kikkoman has several that are fabulous but not often sold outside of Japanese store.
For the bonito flakes and mirin, my choice varies, but I use nothing expensive. Made in Berkeley, California, Takara mirin is about 12 percent alcohol. It’s not sugar syrup. I bought it at Lion, a Chinese market in San Jose, which means you can find it elsewhere! Since you do not need much mirin, and you do need sake, make it yourself. Here’s a mirin recipe from the VWK archives.
The Japanese seasoned soy concentrate lasts for six (6!) months in the fridge. I mostly use it straight to enjoy with tofu but you may also dilute it with water or dashi stock (make a quick broth for ramen or udon!) or add the inky magic seasoning to marinades.
Homemade tofu garnished with green onion and dried bonito (katsuo bushi). The Japanese seasoned soy concentrate sends everything over the top!
For a healthy amount of natural glutamates, soak the larger amount of dried kelp and a big, thick-capped shiitake mushroom. Want a vegan version of banno-joyu? Try this recipe.
Banno-joyu brings extra joy into your Asian dishes. Make a batch and keep it around!
1/2 cup (5 grams) lightly packed dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
In a small saucepan, put the dried kelp, mushroom, soy sauce, sake, and water. Set aside for at least 1 hour, or better yet overnight, to release the deepest flavors from the dried ingredients.
Add the sugar and mirin. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower the flame to gently simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced by about a quarter and is slightly syrupy. Coat the back of a spoon with the sauce and run your finger through it. The line should just hold.
Turn off the heat. Scatter in the dried bonito flakes. Let the sauce sit for 2 or 3 minutes for the fish to release its smoky brininess; resist waiting longer or the sauce will be overly fishy. Some of the flakes will settle to the bottom.
Position a muslin- or coffee filter–lined mesh strainer over a jar. Pour the seasoned soy sauce through the strainer. Press on the solids to extract extra liquid, then discard the solids. (The kelp is not reusable here but you can use the mushroom for other dishes; see the main article for ideas.) Let the soy concentrate sit at room temperature until completely cool. Cap tightly and refrigerate for up to 6 months.
From Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Tofu (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
My husband adores scallion pancakes, even the sad, dry ones or weird tasting frozen ones I’ve bought at Asian markets. I’ve made them before from an old Sunset magazine recipe but have been looking for a better once ever since. Scallion pancakes are not made with batter, but rather with a soft-but-elastic dough. There’s shortening (lard, if you want to go whole hog), sesame oil and regular cooking oil involved. The rolled-out dough is panfried to a crisp, flakiness and served as a street snack or dim sum offering. They’re best freshly made. In Mandarin Chinese, the pancakes are called cōng yóu bǐng ( 蔥油餅) but on menus, you’ll likely see them as scallion pancakes or green onion pancakes. The name looks boring but the pancakes themselves can be thrilling to eat when made well.
My friend Mary-Frances Heck, senior food editor at Food & Wine magazine, tipped me off to a scallion pancake recipe in Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes. She worked on the book while serving as the test kitchen director for Lucky Peach magazine. The scallion pancake recipe belonged to the family of a buddy of hers from culinary school, she said. “It’s the real deal,” Mary-Frances said.
I had to try it.
Aside from having a mild obsession with scallion pancakes, I’ve also been obsessed with Korean flour, which pastry expert Pichet Ong said is great for all kinds of Asian dumplings and pastries. I’ve got about 12 pounds of it in my pantry right now. It’s sold at Korean and some Chinese markets. The Bear brand, Pichet says, is what he and dumpling chefs use for certain Asian doughy morsels. The flour produces a tender texture that’s desirable. What’s in it? He’s unclear but it works. Fine. I was game.
Wondering how the Bear would perform against Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour, I made the scallion pancakes with both kinds of flour.
I’ve brought back flour from my travels to Singapore, Hong Kong, China and the American South (hello White Lily!). The flour from Asia can often be extremely fine, almost talc-like. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the Korean flour on the left has a slightly powdery texture. More of it stuck to my fingers than the Gold Medal all-purpose.
I made the two doughs up and the color difference was interesting, too. Also, the texture of the Korean flour-dough was a little softer, more Play-dohish. Perhaps it has a slightly lower level of gluten? The more yell0w-colored Bear flour is on the left in this photo:
This scallion pancake dough is very interesting because it’s made in two phases. The first phase yields a sticky, ragged dough that’s been enriched with shortening. Then the remaining flour and water is added and worked into a very tender dough; there’s little elasticity. After a quick rest, the dough is rolled out, filled, coiled, then rolled out again. It’s super easy to work the dough and it’s elastic enough to stretch but not unwieldy. It gives and yields with moderate pressure from the cook. I flew through rolling out the pancakes.
There was a marginal difference between the two flours when I went to shape the scallion pancakes. Then I cooked the pancakes, which was simple to do. There wasn’t much of a difference between the two flours.
The finished pancakes below don’t even look different. Of course, it boiled down to eating the pancakes side by side. My husband and I ate them warm, cold, and reheated in the toaster oven.
On the left, Gold Medal flour. The Bear is on the right.
The Gold Medal flour scallion pancakes were remarkably great. It’s a supermarket ingredient that you can use to successfully make a Chinese treat! Score a big win for that. However, the Korean flour yielded slightly more tender, better tasting pancakes. I emphasize very slightly. I don’t read Korean Hangul so I have no idea what’s in the flour. It’s not weird, creepy tasteless, and overly bleached like some of the flour I’ve brought back from China. I liked it.
Should you go looking for Korean Bear flour to make scallion pancakes?
I’m not sure at this point because I’ve only used it for these pancakes. If you’re a curious flour fanatic and shop at a Korean or Chinese market with a Korean clientele, look for it. I’ll be using the flour on other recipes to see how it performs.
Regardless of what you use, consider the flour carefully. For example, I wouldn’t use King Arthur all-purpose because it has a relatively high protein level. Dumplings made from KA flour tends to be more chewy than tender. That’s why my flour of choice is Gold Medal; it’s lower in protein and easily found.
Knowing what I know about flour differences, I’d also try Whole Foods organic unbleached flour, which is slightly more tender than Gold Medal; the WF flour may come close to the Korean flour. If you use White Lily, use it for the pancakes because you may get even more tender results since its protein (gluten) level is lower than most regular all-purpose flour. If the results are too tender, mix in some Gold Medal or even a little Italian Caputo “OO” flour typically used for pizza.
The cool thing is that this recipe is really good and not fussy. I use a Kitchen Aid stand mixer but you could mix it by hand, if you want. In any event, this recipe for scallion pancakes belongs in the category of easy Asian recipes, as the Lucky Peach cookbook suggests. Thanks Mary-Frances for the tip!!!
Author Adapted from Peter Meehan's Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes
Yield 4 pancakes
Eat as is or serve with soy sauce, chile garlic sauce, sambal oelek, chile oil, Chinkiang vinegar (or 2 parts balsamic and 2 part cider).
1 1/2 cup (7 1/2 oz) plus 1 cup (5 oz) bleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons (2 oz) shortening
3/4 cup plus 2 1/2 tablespoons warm (95-100F) water
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup minced green onion, white and green parts
Neutral oil, for panfrying
Use a stand mixer to make the dough. Put the 1 ½ cups flour and the shortening in a bowl. With the paddle attachment, run the machine on low speed for about 1 minute to break up the shortening into small pieces (you should barely be able to make them out). Pause the machine and add the 3/4 cup water. Restart the machine and run for 2 to 3 minutes to make a moist, ragged dough. It will look stiff and sticky.
Add the remaining 1 cup flour, 2 1/2 tablespoons water and salt. Run the machine on low to combine all the ingredients. Pause to switch to the dough hook attachment. Knead the dough on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes to form a soft, smooth dough. Transfer to a lightly floured surface, then gather and knead into a ball. The dough will feel somewhat slack. Push a finger into it and the indentation will hold. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 10 minutes or chill up to 2 days, returning to room temperature before proceeding.
Lightly flour your work surface. Cut the dough into 4 pieces. Working with one at a time (keep the rest covered to avoid dry dough): Smack and pat the soft dough into a wide disk about ½ inch thick. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into an 8-inch roundish piece. Roll from the center to edge and turn the dough 90 degrees with every other pass.
Drizzle on a good 1 ½ teaspoons sesame oil then brush to within ½ inch of the edge. Sprinkle on a big pinch of salt. Distribute 1 tablespoon green onion on top. In a jelly-roll fashion, roll up the dough. Make it as tight as possible. Wind the log into a spiral, tucking the end underneath to keep the round shape. Expect a cinnamon roll shape at the end. Slide under plastic wrap then repeat to make 3 more. Once done, let rest 10 minutes or wrap individually and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Working with one dough spiral at a time, lightly coat it with flour. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough into a 7-inch round that’s a good ⅛-inch thick. Make 2 or 3 passes then turn the dough 90 degrees. When wet/oily dough and green onion break through the exterior (it often does), pat on flour to seal and keep rolling. Hold on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet or tray.
Pour 2 to 3 tablespoons oil into a large (11 or 12-inch) skillet to thickly film the bottom. Heat over medium and when barely shimmering, add a pancake. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until crisp and filled with golden brown splotches. To avoid splattering oil, flip using 2 spatulas/turners. After turning once, you can gently press on the pancake to help it cook evenly. Cool for a few minutes on a rack before eating. Reheat in a 350F toaster oven for 5 to 8 minutes until hot and crisp. Eat hot or warm. Cut or tear.
Chile peppers play an important role in Vietnamese cooking but in our family, black pepper was equally important, if not more so than the fleshy hot fruit. We didn’t have access to Vietnamese pepper for decades but that didn’t stop my mom. She used what was available and always sprinkled black pepper on top of brothy canh (everyday quick) soups, stir-fries, and noodle soups like pho. The spice injected a final flavor burst. The pungent heat of black pepper worked its magic on dumpling fillings and banh mi. I didn’t think much about Piper nigrum, especially Vietnamese pepper until I went to Phu Quoc island years ago and learned about its famous peppercorn farms. (Yes, PQ is known for fish sauce as well as pepper!)
In Vietnam, pepper farms are called vườn tiêu (peppercorn garden), easily identified by the tall columns of bushy pepper vines.
The Vietnamese pepper vines look funny, like they could walk into a Maurice Sendak children’s book. The soil on Phu Quoc can be sandy and the pepper vines wind around poles to keep their fruits well exposed to the sun. The fruits grow as long cluster. Each fruit is technically called a drupe.
Most of what we eat is black pepper but the fruits have different flavors at different times of maturity. Unripe clusters of jade-green peppercorns are amazing enjoyed raw, as an accompaniment to food. Not as hot as their mature, dried kin, they also lend zing to earthy dishes like fish simmered in caramel sauce, which I’ve had on Phu Quoc several times. A Viet chef at the Sofitel resort on the island said he liked to use green peppercorns with beefsteaks for a local twist on French steak au poivre (peppercorn steak).
In America, you can get green peppercorns in brine – imported from Thailand. They’re okay but not as thrilling as the green pepper plucked off the vine.
Pepper changes color and flavor as it matures. On Phu Quoc, pepper is hand harvested and sorted, then left to dry in the sun.
The highly-prized reddish peppercorns are ripe and have a sweet, citrusy heat that’s similar to Cambodia’s Kampot pepper. Compared to the famed Indian Tellicherry peppercorns, the Phu Quoc variety is not as spicy hot.
I tend to use more of Phu Quoc’s Vietnamese pepper than normal as its more subtle pungency plays well with other ingredients. The island’s pepper has complex, nuanced flavor. Whenever I go to Vietnam, I buy pepper and ask for the red kind from Phu Quoc. I’ve had friends hand carry the green peppercorns back for me, too.
Do you have to go to Vietnam to get good peppercorns? Nope. Just head to a good spice shop or bulk spice department at a health food store. Whole Foods’s regular 365 peppercorns are from Vietnam; the exact origin isn’t specified but it has nice floral heat. (The WF organic pepper comes from India.) For rarefied and truly curated pepper, peruse a spice vendor’s offering.
A few spots where I’ve shopped for pepper: Curio (Sommerville, MA), Oaktown (Oakland), La Boite (NYC), Market Spice (Seattle), and Spice Station (Silver Lake/Los Angeles). Peppercorns offer terroir – a sense of place so try difference kinds from different locales. The Quang Tri pepper in the top photo, for example, tasted different than the Phu Quoc pepper.
“Late harvest” should mean the ripe drupes. “Extra bold” refers to select peppercorns with outstanding big flavor. A good spice vendor should explain the terminology to you. There are few standard descriptions of pepper.
Aside from regular black peppercorns, check out others, like Cubeb (has notes of mace and nutmeg) and Long pepper (woodsy and spicy sweet, the favored pepper before the little round ones took over in popularity). And there are smoked and flavor-infused peppercorns, though I’ve yet to find any that are super punchy the way I imagine they should be.
What are not true peppers – Sichuan pepper, pink peppercorn come from other plants, though they’re certainly fun to use.
What about pre-ground pepper? Purchase and use it only if you trust the source. What’s sold as pepper in a jar or can rarely has zip. Spice expert Lior Lev Sercarz writes in his book that pre-ground pepper may involve “a lot of adulteration” including ground olive pits (!!). It’s not a health danger but you’re not getting peppy pepper.
How to store and grind pepper? I keep mine in the freezer. For garnishing a salad with finesse, I grab this pepper grinder. But for recipes, I use recently ground pepper that I’ve whizzed up in a cheap coffee grinder dedicated to spices. I do not expect home cooks to hand grind 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Life is too short. Just grind up a few tablespoons at a time and keep in a jar.
Vietnam is among the world’s leading exporters of black pepper but the remarkable peppercorns from Phu Quoc and elsewhere are still relatively unknown. When you’re in country, visit the Vietnamese pepper farms to witness the hand harvesting, sun drying and sorting. Buy some to take home. When you’re not in Vietnam, keep your eyes out for it.
Regardless, pay more attention to pepper. It’s should play second fiddle to salt!
Want a pepper-centric recipe?
Try this Goan spice-rubbed shrimp dish that I made for my April column in Cooking Light magazine. Goa is on the Malabar Coast, where pepper proliferates. For more pepper history and lore, read the Cooking Light article.
Look at that! In February, the book made two bestseller lists! On the Wall Street Journal’s list, The Pho Cookbook was the seventh (7th!) bestselling non-fiction book. That’s never happened to me before and I’m totally stoked. My editor told the other day. I was in the middle of doing taxes so the news brought waves of cheer! Thanks for your pho-tastic support! This is definitely a career high point.
The first time I ordered boiling fish at a restaurant I expected some sort of spectacle — maybe a bubbling pot delivered to the table. Nope, what I got was a large bowl filled with just cooked greens and delicately cooked fish filet pieces in lots of salty-spicy-funky gravy topped with loads of chile and nubbins of Sichuan peppercorn. It was mala — the Chinese term to describe numbing, tingly hot deliciousness. I was smitten with boiling fish at first site and first bite.
When I went to look up the dish in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan cookbook, I realized that many things may be made in this boiling style — beef and eel, for example. The vegetables may vary but you want them to contrast with the protein, which is quickly simmered/boiled so as to preserve a delicate texture. Boiling fish (水煮鱼, shui yu yu) is a superb dish because of all the intriguing flavors and textural contrasts. There’s a ton of umami, too.
The other thing with these ‘boiled’ dishes is this: they tend to be very oily. It’s a Sichuan thing. Traditional mapo tofu has a slick of oil on top. When I had mapo in Chengdu, the layer of oil was a good ⅛ inch thick. The heaviness of the dish sort of matches Sichuan’s climate, which can be foggy and humid. The oil used when I was in China was a semi-refined canola oil that was yellow and thick like corn oil.
A lighter route to Sichuan Boiling Fish
If I was to include boiling fish in my repertoire, I needed to cut back on the oil. For traditional boiling fish, you heat about ¼ cup of oil until smoking then and pour it over the cooked dish to aromatize the chile and peppercorns and add extra richness.
I substituted about 1 tablespoon of homemade chile oil to cut back on the oil and drama. The chile-flavored oil still lent punch, which is the point of searing the spices at the end. You’re welcome to do the sizzling oil to stay true to Sichuan cuisine!
This a boiling fish recipe that I’ve been working on for a while and it’s finally ready for you to try. The hardest thing will be to get the Sichuan chile bean paste — pixian dou ban jiang. The good stuff is at Chinese markets. If you get a pound, you’ll have it for years to make dishes like this and mapo tofu and many many more, awesome Chinese preparations. More on the fermented bean and chile paste is in this post.
I’ve had this jar of Pixian chile bean sauce for about 1 year. It’ll last in the fridge. It’s fermented and salty!
Use the tip of the scissors to remove the seeds.
Additionally, you need Sichuan peppercorn and dried chiles, which together with the bean paste is a trio of ingredients commonly found in fiery dishes of the region. They’re not hard to find at regular markets these days.
What kind of fish to use? I chose catfish and petrale sole filet because they’d cook up on the firm side and had good flavor to stand up to the bean paste. No wimpy fish for this dish. You could use fish steaks, I suppose.
The sole is thinner than the catfish so cut the catfish a little smaller.
The beauty of boiling fish is you can load it up with vegetables. It’s an intense one-dish meal. Maybe add a little cool cucumber salad on the side? Celery and napa cabbage are my choice. You could use soybean sprouts which tend to be a little crunchier than mung bean sprouts. Wood ear and/or shiitake would be good, too. Think of contrasting textures and refreshing flavors.
Vary the veggies as you like.
Then, I cooked everything in a big clay pot, in order to go from stovetop to table. All you have to do is heat the clay pot slowly with some oil and it will be a terrific vessel for frying the chiles and later stir-frying the green onion, ginger and bean paste.
Clay pots (a.k.a., “sandy pots”) can also cook beautifully at low heat. I’ve cooked rice, simmered stews, and baked beans in this vessel, which I’ve owned for about 12 years. You can buy it for very little money from Chinese housewares shops like the Wok Shop. Or, get fancy with a Japanese donabe. A heavy enamel coated cast-iron Dutch oven like this would work, as well.
It’s still cold in many parts of the country so it’s perfect boiling fish weather.
If you want a touch of pungency in your boiling fish, add 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves along with the green onion and ginger. There’s a lot of leeway in this Sichuan classic. And it comes together fairly fast.
1 to 1 1/4 pounds firm white fish filet, such as catfish or petrale sole, cut into 2-inch pieces
In a bowl, combine the fish with 1/4 teaspoon salt and the wine (or sherry). Set aside.
Set a large (4 or 5-quart) clay pot, donabe, or similar kind of heavy pot over medium heat with 2 tablespoons oil. When shimmering, add the chiles and peppercorns. Stir and let fry for about 45 seconds, then use a slotted spoon to scoop into a bowl, leaving oil behind. Set aside to cool.
Reheat the pot over medium-high heat. Add the celery and cabbage and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute, until crisp-tender. Hold in a bowl.
Return the pot to the burner. Still over medium-high heat (or increase the heat to high, if you want more heat) and add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil to the pot. When shimmering, add the green onion whites, ginger, and bean paste. Stir to loosen up and when aromatic, add the stock (plus water, if using). Let come to a boil.
Meanwhile, add the starch slurry to the fish. And, roughly chop the cooled fried chile and peppercorn mixture. Keep near the stove.
When the pot comes to a boil, add the fish and all the starchy liquid. As the fish cooks and firms up, 1 to 2 minutes, gently nudge with chopsticks to keep the piece separate. Taste and if needed, add the soy sauce for salty, savory depth.
Throw in the remaining green onion parts and let cook for 15 to 30 seconds to soften and meld flavors. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle the chopped chile and peppercorns on top, then finish with the chile oil. Bring to the table and serve.
Where did pho come from? Does pho from the French word, feu?
Why does pho matter? To help clarify things, here’s my introduction
in The Pho Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2017).
Pho is so elemental to Vietnamese culture that people talk about it in terms of romantic relationships. Rice is the dutiful wife that you can rely on, we say. Pho is the flirty mistress that you slip away to visit.
I once asked my parents about this comparison. My dad shook his hips to illustrate the mistress. My mom laughed and quipped, “Pho is fun but you can’t have it every day. You would get bored. All things in moderation.”
The soup first seduced me in 1974, when I perched on a wooden bench at my parents’ favorite pho joint and wielded chopsticks and spoon with dexterity and determination. The shop owners marveled; mom and dad beamed with pride. The fragrant broth, savory beef, and springy rice noodles captivated me as I emptied the bowl. I was five years old and suddenly hooked on soup. That experience is among the most vivid from my childhood in Vietnam.
After we immigrated to the States in 1975, there were no neighborhood pho shops to frequent in San Clemente, California, where my family resettled. My pho forays were often homemade, for Sunday brunch.
Like many Vietnamese expatriates, we began savoring pho as a very special food, a gateway to our cultural roots. My mother regularly brewed beef or chicken pho broth on Saturday, then the next morning after eight o’clock mass, we sped home. Everyone had a job on Mom’s pho assembly line.
At the table, our bowls of homemade pho were accompanied by fresh chile slices and a few mint sprigs. The simplicity reflected my parents’ upbringing in northern Vietnam, where purity prevailed. They’d lived in liberal Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) for decades, but they didn’t allow embellishments like bean sprouts, Thai basil, or lime wedges. And definitely no sriracha, which Mom deemed un-Vietnamese.
As a college student in Los Angeles, I went to pho restaurants that served up giant bowls with plates piled high with produce for personalizing flavors. Flummoxed at first, I learned to loosen up, even at the sight of someone squirting hoisin and sriracha into a bowl. Over the years, I practiced making my own pho, developed recipes for my first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (2006), researched pho in Vietnam and wrote articles on it, answered reporter and blogger queries, and taught pho classes to countless cooks.
Interest in pho has risen exponentially as it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. It’s a favorite food for many but it’s also been the focus of novels, art exhibits, rap songs, and Kickstarter campaigns. People are smitten by Vietnam’s signature dish for many reasons: Pho is comforting (noodles in clear broth satisfy), healthy (there’s little fat and gluten), restorative (try it for colds and hangovers), and friendly (you can have it your way). It’s also delicious.
I figured that I knew what pho was all about until friends, Facebook fans, and then my publisher suggested that I write a pho cookbook. Seriously? What was there to present beyond the familiar brothy bowl? As it turned out, a lot. It didn’t take me long to realize that the world of pho was unusually rich with culinary and cultural gems.
Vietnam is a country with a history spanning over thirty-five hundred years, but pho is a relatively new food. It’s unclear how and when it was birthed, though most people agree that the magical moment happened at the beginning of the twentieth century in and near Hanoi, the capital located in the northern part of the country.
Prior to 1910, images of pho street food vendors appeared in Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the People of Annam, 1908–1910), a multivolume effort by Henri J. Oger. He was a colonial administrator who commissioned artisans and wood carvers to document life in Hanoi and the surrounding countryside.
One of the pho vendor wood carvings from Oger’s historic “Technique du Peuple Annamite”.
But what was the source of the original pho? Some say that long before pho got popularized, it was being prepared in Van Cu, an impoverished village in Nam Dinh Province located about sixty miles (one hundred kilometers) southeast of Hanoi. The village and province produced generations of pho masters, many of whom relocated to the capital to open well-regarded pho shops.
We’ll likely never know for certain how pho first came about, but it’s in great company: almost all beloved foods have origin controversies that fuel conversations and imaginations. What’s clear is that pho was created from cultures rubbing shoulders.
There are many theories, but a reasonable explanation for pho was presented in “100 Năm Phở Việt” (“100 Years of Vietnamese Pho,” 2010), an oft-cited historical essay by Dung Quang Trinh. In the Hanoi area during the early 1900s, there was a lot of interaction between the Vietnamese, French, and Chinese (China and Vietnam are next-door neighbors). The French, who officially occupied Vietnam from the 1880s to 1954, satiated their desires for tender steaks by slaughtering cows, which the Vietnamese traditionally used as draft animals. The leftover bones and scraps were salvaged and sold by a handful of Hanoi butchers.
Locals hadn’t yet developed a taste for beef, and the butchers had to promote it via special deals and sales. Street vendors who were already selling noodle soup recognized an opportunity to offer something new. It was just a matter of switching the menu of their portable kitchens.
At that time, a noodle soup called xáo trâu was very popular. It was simply made, with slices of water buffalo meat cooked in broth with rice vermicelli. The vendors swapped beef for water buffalo. Somewhere in the process, they also traded flat rice noodles for the round rice vermicelli.
The result was a noodle soup that some people called xáo bò, but since many of the vendors were Chinese, the Vietnamese-Cantonese name prevailed: ngưu nhục phấn (beef with rice noodles). Viet culture and language were in flux when pho emerged on the scene.
A typical pho vendor in Hanoi long ago. They were often men. Source: Depplus.vn
The new noodle soup was often prepared and sold by food hawkers who roamed the streets looking for customers. Many of the initial pho customers were Chinese coolies and other workers whose livelihoods were tied to the French and Chinese merchant ships that sailed up and down the Red River; the river flowed from Yunnan Province, past the edge of Hanoi, then into the Gulf of Tonkin, connecting a diverse group of people.
French and Chinese merchant ships employed many Yunnanese, who likely identified ngưu nhục phấn as being akin to Yunnan’s guòqiáo mĭ xiàn (crossing the bridge noodles), composed of rice noodles, superhot broth, meat, and vegetables. The beef noodle soup caught on with the Chinese workers and, soon thereafter, with the many ethnic Vietnamese who began working on the river, too.
The popularity of the dish spread as the number of street food vendors rose in response to Hanoi’s colonial urbanization, according to historian Erica Peters. The initial pho shops opened in the bustling Old Quarter (the main commercial hub) and more followed. Nam Dinh–style pho shops seeded their reputation around 1925, when a skilled cook from Van Cu opened a storefront in Hanoi. By 1930, pho could be found in many parts of the city.
How did ngưu nhục phấn become phở? It is likely that as the dish caught on, street hawkers became more competitive and abbreviated their distinctive calls. For example, “Ngưu nhục phấn đây” (Beef and rice noodles here) was shortened to “Ngưu phấn a,” then “Phấn a” or “Phốn ơ,” and finally settled into one word, phở. It’s been suggested that phở won because if phấn is mispronounced or misheard as phân, it would mean “excrement.”
In a Vietnamese language dictionary published around 1930, an entry for phở defined it as a dish of narrowly sliced noodles and beef, its name having been derived from phấn, the Viet pronunciation of fěn, the Chinese term for flat rice noodle. Despite the Viet-Chinese definition, some people have conjectured that the term is French in origin because its pronunciation bears a resemblance to feu (“fire” in French), as in pot-au-feu, the boiled beef dinner. The terms indeed sound similar, and pho came about during the French colonial period, but it’s difficult to accept that the soup directly descended from French cuisine. Pho doesn’t involve lots of vegetables like pot-au-feu does, for example. A plausible Franco-Viet connection is the technique of charring ginger and onion or shallot for pho broth.
No one may claim pho but the Vietnamese because it happened on Vietnamese soil under a unique set of circumstances. It was genius make-do cooking. While original pho was a simple bowl of broth, noodles, and boiled beef, as time went on, cooks began experimenting with different techniques and ingredients, some of which were influenced by other cultures and others that were spurred on by necessity. In the late 1920s, people debated the merits of pho featuring spices similar to those in Chinese five-spice powder, peanut oil, tofu, and cà cuống (a pear-scented water beetle pheromone). Vendors were serving up pho with rare beef slices by 1930. Around that time, phở xào dòn, panfried pho rice noodles topped with a saucy beef and vegetable stir-fry, was introduced and well received; see recipes in the chapter on stir-fried, panfried, and deep-fried pho dishes.
Things got heated in 1939 when pho restaurants began selling chicken pho (phở gà). It usually happened on Mondays and Fridays and was likely due to the government forbidding the sale of beef on those days in order to control the slaughtering of draft animals for food. Purists initially decried chicken pho as being un-pho-like, but in the end, it prevailed as a worthy and tasty preparation in its own right. In fact, some pho shops decided to specialize in phở gà.
One last note about terminology: phở not only refers to the noodle soup but is also shorthand for the dish’s flat rice noodles, bánh phở. The word’s dual culinary meanings are telling. Pho is not only about the soup but also about the rice noodle and its many glorious manifestations.
Foreign occupation, civil war, the Vietnam War, reunification, and rebuilding—the twentieth century was tumultuous for Vietnam. Pho got swept up in the events that unfolded.
During the 1930s, many authors and poets in Hanoi resisted the French occupation with their pens. In 1934, one of the country’s distinguished poets, Tu Mo, published Phở Đức Tụng (An Ode to Pho). A nationalistic satirist, Tu Mo wanted to convey Viet pride and people’s desire for justice and self-determination. After espousing the unique deliciousness of pho, how it arouses the senses, and how its bone broth nourishes rich and poor as well as artists, singers, and prostitutes, he concluded with these lines, which I have loosely translated:
Don’t downgrade pho by labeling it a humble food,
Even the city of Paris has to welcome pho.
Compared to other international foods of note,
It is delicious yet inexpensive and is often crowned the best.
Living in this world without eating pho is foolish,
Upon death, the altar offerings should include it.
Now go savor pho, or you shall crave it.
When the French colonial period ended in 1954 and the Geneva Accords split the country into North and South Vietnam, about one million northerners migrated southward, heralding the arrival of Hanoi-style pho to Saigon. Saigonese were familiar with pho by 1950, but proud northerners like my mother say that pho wasn’t popularized there until they showed up. (Restaurants abroad named “Pho 1954” often give a nod to that important marker in Vietnamese history and cuisine.)
In the agriculturally rich and freewheeling south, pho broth eventually developed a sweet edge, as cooks added a touch of Chinese rock sugar. Southerners also liked a lot of accessories: bean sprouts, Thai basil, chile sauce, and a hoisin-like fermented bean sauce. Northerners were aghast. The new additions desecrated their well-balanced, delicate soup. To this day, the regional pho fight between Hanoi and Saigon—north versus south, salty versus sweet, simple versus eclectic— rages on.
The late 1950s were cruel to pho in Hanoi. The Communist Party nationalized many businesses for the sake of social reform. The Soviet Union sent economic aid, including a lot of potato starch and wheat flour. Xuan Phuong, a former party loyalist, recounted that era’s pho experience in her compelling 2004 memoir, Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam.
The government restricted “real” pho because it wasted precious rice, she explained, and the resulting state-run pho shops produced bowls of “rotten rice noodles, a little bit of tough meat, and a tasteless broth.” People who could afford pho lined up for it nevertheless, only to face unhygienic conditions (chopsticks were seldom washed) and suffer humiliation (holes were pierced in spoons to prevent people from stealing them). Pho street vendors were limited to selling soup with potato starch noodles. Hanoians determined to get good pho found a work-around, as she described:
Little by little, the rules were overlooked. To deceive controllers, the street merchants placed a small basket of those shriveled up noodles on display. But the pho, the real stuff, was underneath. It was almost as good as it had used to be and hardly more expensive than the substitute. We all passed on our list of secret addresses. “I would like a bowl of soup with potato flour noodles,” we would say out loud, just in case any State officials were hanging around. The merchant would understand immediately. But then the pho had to be downed very quickly to keep the unfortunate man or woman from having his or her equipment seized, as well as a fine to pay.
During the Vietnam War, a different kind of pho underground operated in Saigon. Starting around 1965, a Viet Cong spy cell operated out of Pho Binh (literally “Peace Noodles”). The seven-table joint was a communist nerve center for carrying out the city’s part in the 1968 Tet Offensive. According to a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, Pho Binh was a hub for organizing and transporting weapons from northern strongholds to secret hiding places in Saigon.
Elsewhere in the city, people tried to maintain calm and normal lives. Many headed to “pho streets” such as Ly Thai To and Pasteur for satisfying bowls at popular restaurants like Pho Hoa and Pho Tau Bay.
In Hanoi, wartime scarcity forced state-run pho shops to make the soup without meat. In 1964, after the United States began sending unmanned reconnaissance planes to photograph North Vietnam, locals mockingly called their meager soup phở không người lái, literally “pho without a pilot.” A bowl of pho noodle soup is defined by its protein (you order pho by the cuts of beef or chicken), and meatless pho seemed as surreal, if not as absurd, as a drone aircraft. Wartime pho in Hanoi was often served inappropriately, namely with leftover cold rice and baguette. Fried breadsticks called bánh quẩy were the saving grace; they were procured from Chinese vendors who spotted an opportunity to inject richness into an otherwise sad pho experience. The breadsticks became a local pho accompaniment that endures today in the capital.
My cousin Huy Do Le, a Hanoi native in his late fifties, recalled the state-run pho shops producing deplorable soup, whereas street pho operators were much better. He and a friend, poet Giang Van, lived through those hard times, as well as the lean years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The nation was reunified as one, but its economy was in shambles. Food was rationed and people stood in line for nearly everything, including pho. One midmorning over tea, they wistfully discussed their longing for the elegant simplicity of Hanoi foodways: smallish portions of flat rice noodles, savory yet slightly sweet broth, and sliced cooked beef. “No fried breadsticks, condiments, or other extra things. Traditional Hanoi style is pure and delicate,” Giang Van said.
Saigonese continue to celebrate pho with all of the embellishments because that’s how they like it. For people who experienced extra hardship, there’s a smidgen of defiance, too. During a pho breakfast in Saigon, I asked my cousin Phu Si Nguyen, an energetic retired teacher in his seventies, about pho after the Communist takeover in April 1975. “My brother and I were jailed, sent to reeducation camps,” he said with a wry smile. “Times were difficult, but now, there is plenty of good pho in Saigon.” We all nodded, added bean sprouts and herbs to our bowls, and dug in.
Pho is about tradition as much as it is about change. It comforts as well as stokes the imagination.
While beef pho remains the favorite and chicken pho ranks second in terms of popularity, Vietnamese cooks are always coming up with something new. Some dishes, like pho with beef stewed in white wine (phở sốt vang) and sour pho (phở chua), never totally caught on, whereas fresh pho noodle rolls were a hit.
As interest in Vietnamese food and travel rises, there’s incredible excitement about pho. In Hanoi, family-owned, multigenerational pho shops do a brisk business with traditionalists, while young people are keen on nontraditional preparations such as Chicken Pho Noodle Salad and Deep-Fried Pho Noodles. Souvenir vendors in the historic Old Quarter sell pho T-shirts and postcards. Tourists and street food tours include pho on their bucket lists. The esteemed Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole has a pho cocktail on its menu.
Several factors collided to result in my making this northern Indian curry, one of which was an Indian man who told me that he owned five (5) pressure cookers, some of which were Instant Pots. He was a Silicon Valley techie and loved using them to prepare foods of his heritage.
The second motivation was a Twitter conversation some friends and I had about classic cookbooks and nearly-forgotten cookbook authors. Food writer Nik Sharma and I both mentioned Julie Sahni, who wrote with precision and authority. Her Classic Indian Cooking is a one that I’ve turned to many times. We chatted about religion, culture and cuisine for my Asian Tofu book research and she said that her Savoring India, part of a series by Williams Sonoma, was also amazing and beautifully illustrated with color photography throughout. I bought a well priced copy via Amazon and have never regretted it.
Finally, I’m in the middle of editing Vietnamese Food Any Day, which means I needed an unfussy main dish that would age well in the fridge and could be served over days. Sahni’s gosht recipe was uncomplicated and like many braises, totally doable in the Instant Pot. Her recipe headnote (introduction) conveyed the recipe’s ease and flexibility.
My general rule in adapting conventional recipes to the Instant Pot and other pressure cookers are: Add enough liquid to just cover the solids and to cook for 25 percent (including depressurization) of the regular estimated cooking time. If I need to hedge the cooking time, I’ll use hot water to kickstart the cooking at the front end, like for the Instant Pot chicken pho recipe.
The original recipe called for boneless lamb shoulder but our local butcher only had lamb shoulder steaks and necks. So I used those cuts, which had lots of flavor due to the bone. The bone-in cuts reminded me of gosht that we’d had at Shalimar, an Indian-Pakistani restaurant in Fremont, California.
Then it was a matter of browning the meat in the Instant Pot. Be patient and let the IP heat up on Saute/More until the oil is shimmering. Then brown in batches.
Then like any other braise, aromatics – onion, spices, ginger and garlic were added and cooked until aromatic. Indian cooking often relies on a deep browning of onion to create a sweet, umami undercurrent. Don’t forget to wait and stir.
The lamb cooked with tomato and water while we went out to dinner. By the time we returned, the Instant Pot has completely depressurized. I refrigerated it overnight to later remove most of the fat. Then I reheated it to loosen the gelatinous sauce, and pulled out the meat and bones – which were tender enough already.
Butternut would have been great but a section of winter squash at the market was nearly fully prepped for me! The chunks were briefly simmered in the sauce before the meat was returned to the pot.
To go with the lamb, I made basmati rice, sauteed some kale, and prepared a fast raita with grated cucumber, diluted yoghurt, mint and cilantro, pounded cumin and salt. There were leftovers, which I was able to trot out a couple days later (dinner was made!), and even pack the remains in my husband’s lunch.
Braises are perfect for the Instant Pot because the appliance is fabulous for making slow food fast.
You can of course adapt this for a stovetop pressure cooker like the Fagor Duo. Just use about 1 2/3 or 1 3/4 cups of water. A multicooker like the Fagor Lux is a straight up swap in for the Instant Pot.
3 to 4 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil, divided
2 medium-small lamb shoulder steaks (about 12 ounces total), each cut in half along the natural sinews
12 to 16 ounces lamb neckbone, cut into 2-inch-thich pieces
1 cup chopped yellow onion
3 black or green cardamom pods
2 cassia or bay leaves
1 tablespoon peeled and grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup chopped tomato
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more as needed
1 pound piece of pumpkin (such as butternut, winter, or kabocha), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon garam masala
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Use the Saute and More functions on a 6-quart Instant Pot to heat 2 tablespoons of oil until shimmering and Hot. In batches, lightly brown the lamb all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Hold on a plate.
Turn off the heat, then program to Saute and Normal. Add 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of oil, and when hot, add the onion, cardamom and cassia (or bay) leaves. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is richly brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Lower the heat, if needed, to coax cooking and avoid burning. When satisfied, add the ginger, garlic, coriander, and turmeric. Stir to combine and cook for 15 to 30 seconds until fragrant.
Replace the lamb in the Instant Pot, stir, then add the chopped tomato, tomato paste, water, and salt. Lock the lid in place and program to cook on high pressure for 15 minutes. Let depressurize naturally for about 25 minutes before releasing residual pressure. (Or just let it totally depressurize naturally.)
Skim off some fat or let cool completely and refrigerate overnight to solidify the fat and make its removal easy. Reheat and if the meat is tender to your liking, transfer it to a plate.
Add the pumpkin and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes until just tender. Return the lamb to the pot and cook for 5 to 10 minutes to combine flavors. Let rest 10 minutes before tasting and adding salt, if needed. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle on the garam masala and serve. (Or, stir in the garam masala and serve on individual plates with a sprinkling of cilantro.)
Adapted from Julie Sahni’s Savoring India (Williams Sonoma/Oxmoor House, 2001)
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