Suong heo nuong xa – Vietnamese lemongrass spare ribs


3-4 lbs pork spare or baby back ribs
3 lemongrass stalks, tough layers removed and finely minced
1 Thai chili pepper, minced (or 1 tsp sambal olek)
4 scallions
2 cloves garlic
1 shallot
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1.5 cups water

In a mini-prep (or food processor or blender), pulse the scallions, garlic, shallot, oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, honey and black pepper.  In a small bowl, combine marinate mixture with minced lemongrass and chili pepper. Place pork ribs into a large glass baking dish; pour marinade over pork over ribs and rub in gently. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up 4 hours or overnight. Bring ribs to room temperature before cooking.

Heat oven to 450F. Add 1 1/2 cups water to the dish and cover tightly with foil. Cook at 450F for 30 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350F and cook for another 60-75 minutes. Remove foil and braise for another 10 minutes.

Remove ribs and place on baking sheet. Pour pan juices into a sauce pan and reduce by 1/2. Brush reduced pan juices onto ribs and broil on high (about 4 inches from broiler) to brown, about 5-10 min per side. Slice ribs and serve with pan juices, rice, and a vegetable of your choosing.


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Cha gio: Vietnamese Egg Rolls

My family LOVES cha gio. Cha gio were present at every gathering–birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, weekend dinners–and I always avoided them. As a kid I never liked the fried, greasy foods and cha gio were so ubiquitous that I found them boring. My mother even once overnight FedEx’d me a package of frozen cha gio, all the way across the country from LA to Providence, RI. I kid you not.

It’s taken a couple decades for me to recover from my family’s obsession and to my delight, I find that the Soup Lady in her 40s enjoys these fried little vessels of yumminess. My kids like them too, and I’ll try to sustain their enthusiasm by not making them too frequently.

Unlike the ones in restaurants where the wrapper is doubled up for a thicker looking roll, my version below goes light on the wrappers for crispiness with the focus on the pork and shrimp filling. For the luxury version use only crabmeat and shrimp.


1 package spring roll wrappers
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
1 cup vegetable oil

Filling:
1 lb ground pork (add 1/2 a lb if not using shrimp)
1/2 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined, and chopped
1 large carrot, thinly julienned or grated
1 small onion, chopped
1 bunch of bean thread noodles, soaked in lukewarm water for about 5 minutes and roughly cut with kitchen shears
1 oz wood ear mushrooms, soak in lukewarm water until soft (about 5 minutes)  and coarsely chopped 
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon fish sauce

Nuoc cham
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 Thai bird chili, minced (use more if you like spicy)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup fish sauce
2 radishes, thinly sliced (optional)
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced (optional)

Garnish:
1 small head butter lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried
1 cup sliced cucumber
1 bunch mint or Thai basil, washed and dried
1 cup bean sprouts

Combine all the ingredients (except for the wrapper) and one egg in a large bowl and mix thoroughly to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water. Set aside.

Using a sharp knife, cut the wrappers in half diagonally; you can peel of a stack of 5-8 pieces at a time and cut the whole stack.

Place one triangular piece of wrapper on a plate or cutting board. Arrange a heaping tablespoon of the filling along the long edge of the wrapper, then fold the two adjacent corners over the filling and roll tightly toward the third corner. Brush some of the egg/water mixture on this corner to help seal.

Heat oil in heavy wok or deep pan until hot. Fry egg rolls in oil being careful to not crowd them or the oil will lose temperature and rolls will be greasy. Remove rolls when they float and are a golden color. Place on baking sheet lined with paper towels to cool. Cooked rolls can be frozen and reheated in the oven at the 350F for about 15 minutes.

To make the nuoc cham, combine all ingredients and stir until sugar dissolves. You can also heat up the water, add the sugar to melt, then add the other ingredients when the mixture is cool. If desired, you can add thinly sliced onions and radishes.


Serve with platter of lettuce, cucumber, herbs and bean sprouts. Wrap an egg roll with veggies and herbs and dip into nuoc cham.

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I was not ready for this kind of grief.

**This essay was originally published online at WBUR Cognoscenti on April 8, 2021.

I wasn’t ready for this moment. More than two weeks after the shooting in Atlanta, I am still reeling and at a loss for what to do about the grief and sense of powerlessness I feel. Worst of all, I am realizing that I have neither the emotional “muscle memory” to express my frustration, sadness and fear, nor the natural instinct to make myself heard.

Nothing from my upbringing as a Vietnamese refugee raised in sunny Southern California had prepared me for this moment. More concerned about succeeding in our new country, my family had little time to look beyond our own community, let alone consider where and how we fit in the American landscape.

While the tragedy in Atlanta underscored the danger of ever-present misogynistic stereotypes of Asian American women, it also exposed a vacuum of our voices. In its aftermath, I watched as our community struggled to articulate our collective pain and proclaim an impassioned call to action. Even the oft-tweeted “#stopAsianhate” seems too passive and unworthy of our awakening. We need to proclaim who we are and why we matter; we just don’t know how.

So many Asian Americans of my generation were raised to keep our heads down, to suppress our rage, discomfort, and fears, to be invisible, to suffer in silence. All this was multiplied many times over for Asian American women and girls. And it all worked. We made ourselves so invisible that the larger society is able to forget about our stories and ignore racial and misogynistic violence against us. We are neither seen nor heard.

I have no memories of any conversations with my family about anyone’s feelings. Nobody talked about them; nobody asked how anyone else felt. My uncles, who fought in the Vietnam War, never talked about their experiences. My mother, who survived hardship and deprivation, never talked about her emotions — there must have been many.

As a girl, I was told to be quiet and submissive. Emotional vulnerability was not encouraged. While my family certainly couldn’t have imagined that I would need emotional skills to cope with mass tragedy, they also didn’t recognize that I needed these skills to process heartache, failures and grief.

In my heart, I know that our families did the best they could, teaching values and behaviors based on their own experiences of persecution, survival and immigrant hardships. They were protecting themselves from wounds and scars as they tried to prepare us for a future they could not predict.

They drilled into us a fierce love of education, appreciation for stability, and loyalty to family. These values made up the armor they thought would protect us. I know this was their way of showing love. But they didn’t teach us how to cope with failure, heartache, anger, and all the other emotions that pierce through our armor. And by avoiding attention, we remained invisible.

“Fitting in” was considered our key to success, and to achieve it we swallowed our own discomfort, to avoid making others uncomfortable. We never corrected anyone for mispronouncing our names, nor did we confront anyone when they made fun of our eyes or food. I can’t remember how many times I smiled politely at a Kathy Lee Gifford joke or when someone complimented my English. To act otherwise would risk drawing attention and potential nonacceptance.

Even in college, I tried so hard to fit in. I didn’t understand that no amount of effort could erase the vast imbalance of privilege and lived experiences at Ivy League institutions. When I could not relate to European summer vacations, spring breaks in the Caribbean or winter ski trips, I just avoided talking about them. I did not share stories about staying on campus for Thanksgiving because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket home. I never talked about my own family, knowing deep down that the omission was tinged with shame and guilt. To fit in, I thought I needed to transcend my identity.

The toxic combination of poor emotional proficiency and the value placed on keeping our heads down has deprived my generation of Asian Americans of our collective voice, social capital and power. Don’t rock the boat, don’t rock the boat. A silent refrain can become ingrained like a malignant cancer, building its DNA into our physical and emotional muscle memory. Our instinct in moments of danger is to seek the comfort of invisibility, to be passive and hope the danger will pass.

As we’re seeing all too clearly, the danger never truly passes. Not after the Japanese internment camps were shut down. Not after two Ivy League degrees. Not even after the election of Kamala Harris. We have to accept that the violence today has deep roots, and “fitting in” has only provided a false sense of security — one that is now cruelly shattered.

So, whether we like it or not, whether we know how to or not, the moment calls for us to give voice to our suffering and change our collective narrative. Recognition can be a powerful thing, but it’s what we do next that is important.  I wish I could promise that the path forward will be smooth and easy; it will not be.

To succeed, we will have to fight the discomfort of finally being seen and heard. For me, that starts here with this essay, shared beyond the comfort of my own friends and family. Hopefully, I will get used to hearing (and seeing) my voice more often. And maybe it will inspire my Asian American sisters, aunties and grandmas to follow suit.

Please consider making a donation to community-based organizations and entities working to stop Asian hate and support victims of violence.

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Pandemic fog and a call to action

Screen Shot 2020-09-03 at 1.29.38 PM.pngI have been struggling lately on several fronts.  Sometime mid-summer, a malaise seems to have settled over my mind, making it difficult to see the forest for the trees.  Covid-19, racial reckoning, protests, Lysol wipes, face masks, Amazon food orders, the prospect of another year of remote learning–each one crowding the foggy recesses of my mind, obscuring a path forward.  So much was beyond my control and that feeling of helplessness is not part of my natural state. And so, I would go through the motions, feed the family, tidy the house, but not really knowing what would happen next or how to plan for anything. I was numb.

Slowly, the fog has lifted just a little, revealing what is controllable and what is not, what is heartbreaking and what is just noise.  The noise has taken up too much of my mind and it does not go easily, calling to my insecurities and fears. The pandemic in all its horror and longevity, disrupts so much of normal life, least of which is our ability to think, process and plan. How do you plan when the earth keeps shifting? Science is amazing, giving us new information about this virus nearly every day, and yet all the data can be debilitating when every single decision is fraught with consequences.  Do you sanitize your groceries, mail, take out?  How far is 6 feet–is it far enough?  Can we trust decisions made about school re-opening? How will our kids manage remote learning? Dental appointments? Flu shot? So much noise. 

Compounding the pandemic induced fog is the state of our political discourse, where the emphasis seems to be more on what divides us than what we have in common. And at the root of this dysfunctional national discourse is the this country’s racist past and present, now manifesting in a collision of BLM versus white grievance, woke versus bigoted. The pain of this racial reckoning is plain to see, from the grief of the black community to the complicity of white allies. It is easy to blame it all on the current occupant of the White House, and certainly he plays an outsized role. But that’s the easy way out and it doesn’t explain how divisive even local politics have become. In Massachusetts we were caught in a horrid debate about the merits of one white man versus another white man. Really? (At the end of the day, I guess I’ll take the white guy from Malden over the white guy from the Hyannis compound, but still.)  More noise. 

More maddening noise comes from the Vietnamese American community, some of whom have met this moment of racial reckoning by dismissing the suffering of our black brothers and sisters and renewing support for a divisive and immoral president. A Vietnamese American business man raises a BLM billboard in Houston and is met by outrage and death threats from his own community. Rather than stand in solidarity with the black community, some Vietnamese Americans pretend that they are better by parroting the language of white privilege, equating peaceful protest with violence and looting. They talk about law and order, and forget about the trespasses of our own community (tax evasion, welfare abuse, illegal immigration just to name a few). They neglect to recognize that speaking the language of white privilege does not protect us from racism, that hate against any group is hate against all. 

By and large, Vietnamese immigrants have found success in our adopted country, sending our children to college and building small businesses. I don’t begrudge this hard-earned success. But there are many indications that we have come so far so fast that some of us have forgotten our own histories and  have recast our plight as somehow different from those of refugees from Latin America or Syria. They have forgotten what fear and desperation feel like. They hide now behind our success and deny our fellow refugees and immigrants the same opportunities that we so desperately sought. Just as migrants continue to make dangerous crossings across deserts and seas, risking lives and family separation, so did we as boat people. Just as today’s refugees leave behind homes, careers, families, so did we.  

Full disclosure: I am one of those Vietnamese American success stories.  A child born of war, raised in poverty, versed in struggle and finally, safely delivered to an upper middle class life in a green and leafy New England suburb. Ensconced in privilege, I have not forgotten the desperation that is forever etched into my bones, nor that my success was made possible by so many public service programs–welfare, food stamps, Pell grants. More importantly, I see myself and my family in the eyes and stories of immigrants at the southern border and in the refugee camps around the world. My heart aches in recognition of their desperation and hopes. So when my fellow Vietnamese Americans turn away from the current immigration crisis, when they support a political party that wants to cut social services and put children in cages, when they care more about anti-communist rhetoric against China, I am disheartened and angry. The same family members who disparaged me for my American-ness, for not being Vietnamese enough and for “losing my heritage,” are the ones who have truly forgotten our history. The joke’s on them; I have never forgotten from whence I came.    

What do I do with all this now? I don’t know. Writing down these thoughts has helped to lift the fog a bit. I know better than to hope that people will change their minds and I am ashamed to admit that some of these people are my family members. I was raised to never talk back and to never question my elders. But silence is not an option. I think it’s time for me to talk back and offer my Vietnamese American community a different narrative.  Maybe, just maybe, I can channel the anger and frustration to pull myself out of this funk and effect some productive change. Wish me luck. 

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Remembering my father

 

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My father died one year ago and I’ve struggled to write about it. 

I hear that grief is different for each person; different for each loss. But when the grief is your own and it holds no shape, how do you engage it? I tried to write about it.  I started and stopped twice, trying to capture the complicated feelings that his death produced–feelings that ebbed and flowed as daily life took up my brain space. I don’t know how to finish these essays, so I present them unfinished… perhaps the best metaphor for grief. 

* * * * *

Technically, my father didn’t leave us, we left him.  We walked away onto a boat to face the unknown and started life anew. But for all intents and purposes, his refusal to join us was the same as leaving. I saw my father several times since our initial separation, and each time, I walked away, returning to my home in America. Each time I left I could understand a little better the conflict he must have felt back in 1980. Each time I left I believed that there was nothing else I could do, that we had each made our decisions and just had to live with the consequences. Each time I left I believed my decision was the right one. I don’t regret any of those trips and returns; I have done all that was within my capacity for forgiveness and empathy. But in the process I did understand him just a little better.  

We all make choices that affect those around us, some big, some small, most without really thinking. My decision to leave each time, though bound by plane tickets and other responsibilities, was always a choice. I see now that each choice brought me a little bit closer to forgiving him, letting anger and resentment go. I see now the strange parallel between us and how my decisions helped me to make peace with his decision. I hope he understood that in the end we were at peace with each other. 

* * * * *

If you’ve kept up with this blog you know by now that my relationship with my father was unusual, complicated by time, place, distance, and the long shadows of memories that are not my own. In many ways I never really had a relationship with him, certainly not the kind where we really knew each other’s tendencies, likes, dislikes. Whatever it was that we had was based on blood and duty. His blood runs through me and for that  we both felt a strong sense of duty that manifested in small acts now flashing through my mind like postcards from a trip long ago. There are fleeting sepia images of my first trip back to Vietnam 20 years ago, awkward embraces, quiet meals. More recent images in vivid color of his brief visits with his grandchildren; less awkward, more bittersweet. Beyond these images I have no access to the simple memories of his daily life or important milestones.

The few times I visited, my father and I would inhabit the same physical space but very different emotional and psychological spaces. In fact, for the whole of my life, I do not know if we have ever shared the same thoughts or feelings, but I sensed that my internal conflicts had a parallel in his. And now that he has passed, there is a void not in me but in the space between father and daughter. My grief, amorphous and unbound to the usual bonds between father and child, has no counterpart and feels unmoored. So I leave it to float about in my mind, trying my best to not lock it into a box or contain it. But it does not feel real, resisting my attempts to acknowledge and engage.

One year after his passing and I still do not know how to feel or what to feel. There are times when I wonder if I have subconsciously avoided the grief, worried about what lies underneath. Perhaps my feelings aren’t resolved as I think them to be. Perhaps I have deluded myself and now when further reconciliation is impossible I will have to deal with guilt and regret. At other times I wonder if perhaps I fear that there is really nothing underneath at all. Perhaps the reconciliation is complete and there is nothing left to resolve and no true feelings to profess. The former would mean that I will have to live with regret. The later would mean that I had no true relationship with my father, outside of duty and compassion. I am not sure which scenario is preferable. 

But enough about me. My father died and his life was full of challenges and difficult choices. 

Le Thanh Son was born on March 20, 1941 and died on July 21, 2018, he was 77 years old. He is survived by his estranged wife, Rosette Le, daughter, Kathy Le, and son, Joseph Le, as well as 3 sisters and 1 brother. He leaves behind an extended family and  loyal friends. He spent his entire life in the same house that his parents built. Le Thanh Son was a dutiful eldest son; he remembered all family anniversaries and tracked extended family relationships. He served in the South Vietnamese Army during the American War and afterwards, survived several years in a re-education camp. He never spoke of his experience in the war or the re-education camps but he never forgot them either. War and its aftermath ultimately separated him from his wife and children. 

The most important memory of my father that I take with me is the belief that he always tried to do the right thing and didn’t always succeed.  In this, we are the same. 

 

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2020

2020

I admittedly have had my head in the sand about 2020, but today I attended a small women of color meeting with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Interesting. We started immediately with questions for the Senator; no stump speech or warm up. Many people asked questions about the situation at the southern border and policies around maternal health, economic and education opportunities for low income families. She had great, specific policy answers each time.

When my turn came I asked, “I share your deep appreciation for the policy details, but given all the issues that the current administration has been stirring up and our numerous national challenges, what three issues should we prioritize?” It was an earnest question from someone suffering from Orange-fatigue. She kind of answered with the usual trifecta: healthcare, education, jobs. Right. I followed up with: What about foreign policy and global leadership? The Senator launched first into all of Orange’s foibles with the Middle East peace process, North Korea and then settled on China as our biggest threat.

The question and answer session was then followed by a how can Kirsten do better sesh with her staff.  I nearly rolled my eyes when one female participant criticized the Senator’s wardrobe. Oy.  One step forward, two steps back. Most comments were about the need for storytelling as a vehicle for policy discussion as well as a tighter focus on core values and key policy positions. I can’t imagine that this would be different for any other candidate.

With that build up, I give you my key takeaways:

– Senator Gillibrand is a smart and tough lady, whose grasp of policy and legislative process I admire. She provided very specific policy recommendations for issues from black maternal health to student debt, higher education, and even reparations. Mayor Pete and Beto should take note that policies matter.

– She talks very fast, some would say too fast.

– When answering a question, one should always lead with the most important point first. If China is the real threat, then you should lead with that.  Don’t take a trip around the world to get there.

– Her clothes are fine, though I wish all the candidates would show more personality with their wardrobes. How about some funky socks for the gents and some statement footwear for the ladies? I think Beto could rock some Van Halen socks, Elton John socks for Mayor Pete, cow socks for Bernie, Obama socks for Joe. I don’t know about Corey?? As for the ladies, I bet Kamala could rock some high-heeled mules, clogs for Elizabeth, penny loafers for Amy, and ballet flats for Kirsten.  I wish I could assign someone Rothy’s sneakers, but I’ll save those for Stacey should she decide to enter the fray. Just no kitten heels, please.

– I, and probably many like me, suffer from Orange-fatigue. Let’s make 2020 about NOT Orange. How about we just ignore him completely and thereby deprive him of the attention that he so craves? Rather than focus on all the horrible things Orange and his people have done, how about telling us what you do to fix the mess he’s made.

– As a woman of color, I would love to have a female or POC presidential nominee, but I have been known to support a blonde white lady, so they need to up their game and do more to distinguish themselves from one another. Otherwise, Kamala stands out more. 

– Upstate New York does not mean Manhattan, but does it still mean “coastal elite”?

– And BTW, can we just take back the whole “coastal elite” thing? I am a smart, Ivy League educated woman of color working to strengthen our communities AND I happen to leave on a coast; if “coastal elite” = NOT Orange, then I’ll gladly embrace it!

– To impeach or not impeach, that will be a question.  Not quite sure where I fall on this, but it is guaranteed to come up.

– Al Franken is going to be a skeleton in the Senator’s closet that needs addressing.

Thank goodness it’s only 2019.

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Kathy’s OMG Chili Oil

IMG_4457 copyI have searched far and wide, looking for a versatile chili oil that could be used with a range of dishes, from Western to Eastern. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t found one.  So I decided to make it myself. I considered various flavor profiles and decided that I wanted something that wasn’t blistering hot, but with subtle notes of pepper, ginger and anise and a good dose of savoriness. I rummaged around in my pantry and settled on a mix of dried chilis, Sichuan and black peppercorns, anise, fresh ginger, shallots, and garlic. To really amp up the umami notes, I reached for the Red Boat fish sauce salt and mushroom seasoning. And to let all these flavors take center stage, I use a neutral oil like sunflower or canola.

About the chilis… I am fortunate to live near a Penzey’s Spice brick and mortar store and can get a variety of dried peppers.  Penzey’s labels include the heat units of each chili–the 3 highest that I could find are the Very Hot Crushed Red Pepper (40,000),  Indian Sanaam (40,000), Chinese Tien Tsin (60,000) and Mexican Chili Piquin (70,000). I use a mix of these but feel free to mix and match to your own specifications. Use more of the higher heat unit chilis for more spice or less if you have less tolerance.  For the whole dried chilis, I use a spice grinder or mini-prep to crush them; you will want a consistency close to the crushed red chilis sprinkled on pizza.

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My main complaint about most of the chili oil recipes I see are that they cook the chilis in the oil, which I think gives the final product a burnt taste that overwhelms the more delicate scents and flavorings.  So for my chili oil, I only cook shallots, garlic, ginger and fresh peppers in the oil before adding all that to the dried chili mix. The result is magical and makes excellent homemade gifts in beautiful little glass jars.

I use my chili oil with so many different dishes. I use it in marinades and as a finishing component. Combined with Chinese black vinegar, crush garlic, and cubed cucumbers make a delicious side dish or snack. I also drizzle it on soups, roasted meats and veggies. With black vinegar it is also delicious as a dipping sauce for dumplings or wontons. My friends have used it in Italian  and Greek dishes. And the husband declared that it was good on Greek yogurt! Let your imagination go wild!

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Dry ingredients
⅓-½ cup crushed chilis (use a mix to get the most flavor and the right level of spiciness)
2 anise stars
½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon Red Boat fish sauce salt
½ teaspoon mushroom seasoning
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 10.18.06 AM1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 inch piece of ginger crushed
2 fresh Thai chilis, minced (optional if you want extra heat.
1 ¼ cup sunflower oil (any neutral oil will work)

Squirt of sriracha hot sauce (for color)

 

  1. Place all dry ingredients (crushed chilis, salt, etc.) in a 16 oz glass mason jar.  Give everything a stir to combine. Break up clumps of fish sauce salt as needed. Place jar on top of a dish towel.
  2. Heat oil in a heavy pan until hot.  Add shallots, garlic, ginger and fresh chilis (if using). Cook until shallots and garlic begin to brown.
  3. Carefully pour or ladle hot oil mixture into glass jar.  Please handle the hot oil carefully as it spills easily and will splatter–that’s what the dish towel is for. Once in the jar, the oil will gurgle a bit.
  4. Stir chili oil mixture.  Mix in a squirt of Sriracha if desired for color.  Allow oil to cool before covering with lid. If you cover it before it’s completely cool the oil will look cloudy but it’ll still taste the same.

Note: This recipe can also make two 8 oz. jars of chili oil. Just make sure to scoop out the fried shallots, garlic and ginger to divide evenly between the two jars.

Storage: From what I can tell so far, a jar of chili oil will keep in the refrigerator for 3+ months–if you don’t use it all up first!

 

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Echoes

phoenix1Recently, I noticed something peculiar: I heard my voice echoed in the writing of other women. I heard my personal journey, something that I had learned to hold as sacred and singular, in the stories of other Vietnamese American women writers. I don’t know if this is a fleeting moment or the beginning of a wave of narratives from my sisters.  But in any case, I hear them, and through their voices I see myself anew.

Thi Bui’s The Best That We Could Do, told her story in vivid drawings with pen and ink starkly outlining the harsh realities of life in war torn Vietnam, and in simple words, expressing the distance between generations and the disconnect of the immigrant experience. It was not easy for me to read her book for it essentially told my story. The passages about families torn, scarred souls and immigrant struggles hit so close to home, so very close to the box that I keep tightly shut. But though the box remains closed, it cannot stop the mind from remembering and the heart from hurting.

Even my son understood that this story was about his mother, and perhaps that acknowledgement was most bittersweet of all. A teenage son, learning more about his mother through the narrative that she shares with thousands of others, is both heartwarming and traumatic. He will understand me better, but he does not yet realize that in doing so, he will become a part of that historical pain. It will be a loss of innocence so slow he won’t know it’s happening.

Julie Yip-William, would say that my son will also have learnt empathy from embracing that shared tragedy–that he will better appreciate the pain and struggles of others. She would’ve said so much more had she not passed away from cancer in 2018. Julie was an attorney and a writer, whose cancer blog is being turned into a memoir.  I do not have to read that memoir to know that we shared similar journeys from Vietnam into privileged American lives. I have begun to read her blog, knowing that I must pace myself, for once again, there is a familiarity that rattles me.    

“I never felt like I belonged in any of these fine institutions: a poor immigrant girl who wasn’t that smart but was willing to work hard, rubbing elbows with America’s elite.”

Julie was talking about attending Williams College and Harvard Law School. Her words eerily echo my own feelings about being a student at Brown and Harvard; the same insecurities, the same will to succeed.

I do not know why these women and their stories are coming forth now. I also don’t know if there will be more stories like theirs, like mine. But if this is indeed a moment, our moment, no matter how small or fleeting, I will embrace it as a sign that from great adversity comes great strength. In my feeble attempts to tell snippets of my own story, I’ve come to understand that finding one’s voice requires not just determination, but also bravery of spirit to welcome others into such a private space. We Vietnamese American women, born of war and weaned on struggle, not only have persevered, we have blossomed and our stories are worth telling. Thank you, my sisters, for being my voice and reminding me to speak up more for all of us.

PS. I am aware that our Vietnamese American brothers are also having a moment, from Viet Thanh Nguyen to Bao Phi and Ocean Vuong, but their voices don’t fully capture my journey. Their success and their words fill me with pride and we have a certain kinship, but they do not share with me the weight of Vietnamese expectations of daughters and American expectations of mothers. Any Vietnamese family of a certain generation will tell you that boys and girls were treated differently. While my Vietnamese brothers will always have the advantage of their gender, even beyond the confines of their families, I find the strongest affinity with my sisters and their stories of love, loss and perseverance.

For more about Vietnamese American writers, please visit: https://lithub.com/vietnamese-and-vietnamese-american-literature-a-primer-from-viet-thanh-nguyen/

PPS. The Vietnamese Phoung (Phoenix) was often used as an emblem for queens. Richly symbolic it symbolizes grace, pride, and nobility. Unlike the Western phoenix myths, the Phoung are truly immortal. They are not reborn from their own ashes.  Like the western phoenix they do however represent longevity, renewal and most importantly hope.

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Com Ga: Vietnamese style Hiananese Chicken Rice

img_0934 copyLast year, in a cab in Hanoi, my family and I saw a sign for Com Ga (chicken rice) and asked our cab driver if he could recommend a good place for us to try it.  Up until this point, the driver had been rather dour and unengaged, but upon hearing about com ga, his face brightened and we embarked on a lively conversation about how the best com ga has to be homemade; how to get the chicken skin to be unctuous and a mellow yellow; the best kinds of chickens; the importance of chicken fat; etc. By the end of the short cross town trip, we had learned the Vietnamese term for free-range chickens (ga di bo, which translates to “walking chicken”) as well as a secret ingredient: turmeric.

The Vietnamese com ga, is a close cousin of Haianese chicken rice, a well-known and well-loved dish throughout most of Southeast Asia. It also happens to be one of the national dishes of Singapore, where it is served in the ubiquitous hawker centers throughout the city nation.  It is essentially a dish composed of a poached whole chicken and rice made from the poaching liquid.

Today, I share with you my version of this famous dish, where I’ve put my own spin on it, adding fish sauce to the soup and turmeric to the chicken.

Chicken:
4 lb young chicken, trim the fat around the bottom cavity and set aside
2 tbs coarse sea salt
2 scallions, tied in knots
1 garlic clove, smashed
3 inch piece of ginger, washed and smashed
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs shaoxing cooking wine
1 tbs fish sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs fish sauce
1/4 tsp turmeric

– Rub chicken vigorously with coarse sea salt to “polish” the chicken. Rinse and place butt-up in a stock pot that fits snugly around the chicken but is tall enough for the chicken to be entirely submerged.  If you use a pot that is too big then you will need a lot of water and that will result in a very diluted stock.  I recommend a 6-8 qt pot.
– Place in chicken cavity: scallions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, shaoxing wine, 1 tsp sesame oil, fish sauce, and salt.
– Fill pot with just enough water to submerge chicken.  Bring to a boil and then cover and cook on lowest possible heat for about 30-40 minutes.
– Remove chicken and place on plate breast up. With a damp paper towel, gently wipe off the chicken, being careful not to break the skin. Continue to boil leftover stock to reduce it.
– Mix turmeric with 1 tsp sesame oil and then rub onto chicken–use a brush because the chicken will be very hot; let cool.
– When ready to serve, carve chicken by removing the legs and wings first. Then carve out each breast and slice them against the grain into 1/2 inch slices. Arrange on a plate.

Rice:
1 tbs canola oil
reserved chicken fat
3 inch piece ginger, cleaned and smashed
1 garlic clove, smashed
2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
a couple dashes of turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce
3 cups reserved chicken stock

– In a hot pan, add oil and reserved chicken fat and sautee on medium until fat dissolves.  Add ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant.
– Add rice and cook for about 1-2 minutes, stirring.  Add turmeric and salt and stir to combine.
– Transfer rice to rice cooker and add stock according to your rice cooker’s instructions.

Sauce:
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 inch piece of ginger, smashed and then minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil (any neutral oil will work)

– Combine scallions, ginger and salt in a heat proof bowl. Make sure the bowl is big enough that it is only 1/2 full.
– Heat oil until HOT, then pour over scallions, being careful that the oil doesn’t bubble over in the bowl.  Mix well and set aside.
* This scallion/ginger oil is super addictive and can be made in bulk and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Drizzle on vegetables, eggs, sandwiches–it’s AMAZING!

Soup:
3 cups reserved stock, add salt/fish sauce to taste
1.5 cups sliced bok choy, or cubed butternut squash (dice size), cubed tofu, or spinach
1 scallion, chopped

– Heat stock in a pot until simmering, then add vegetables or tofu.  Simmer for another 3-5 minutes.  Ladle into small bowls and garnish with a dash of black pepper and a sprinkle of chopped scallions.

Serve chicken on a platter, rice in a big communal bow, and inidividual soup bowls and dipping bowls for scallion/ginger sauce.  A dash of soy sauce on the rice is super nice.  I also like to chop some fresh chilis and pop them into a small bowl of say sauce for dipping. Pairs well with a chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

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Instant Pot Adventures

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For months now I’ve been stalking two Vietnamese cooking Facebook groups: the Vietnamese Cooking Group (VCG) and the Instant Pot Vietnamese Food Recipes. Both groups are totally nuts in the best possible way about sourcing, making, and eating Vietnamese food.  Everyday I am bombarded with photos of drool-inducing Vietnamese delicacies that come out of home kitchens around the world–from the ubiquitous pho and bun bo hue, to ca ca thang long and banh xeo.  With a membership if nearly 80,000, VCG members post from all 50 American states, Canada, Europe, Australia, and even South America.  The topic du jour (and really tous les jours) is Vietnamese food, but the cooks aren’t always Vietnamese, which just underscores the popularity of Vietnamese cuisine across the world.

As I pored over daily posts on my FB feed, it became increasingly clear that both groups are nuts about two cooking appliances: the airfryer and the Instant Pot. A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved and bought myself an 8 quart Instant Pot Duo with 7-in-1 functions:  Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice/Porridge Cooker, Yogurt Maker, Sauté/Searing, Steamer, and Warmer. I gleefully opened the package and stared at all the buttons and doo-dads. Huh? What had I gotten myself into? I then read and re-read the menu. Oy. What is the difference between low pressure and high pressure? What is quick release? Natural release? It might explode?!? This is not how I’m used to cooking. But so many people have been raving about this contraption and they managed to figure the darn thing out, so surely I can, right? Well, four Instant Pot meals later and I’m still learning!

I love to cook and prefer to make authentic dishes over hasty shortcuts–mostly because I am Type A and like to know how something is supposed to taste even if I don’t quite know how to get there.  I clearly didn’t get the Instant Pot to make cooking easier/better/faster or because I don’t enjoy traditional cooking methods.  I got the Instant Pot because I love soups and soups take a really long time to make the traditional way–bones simmering for hours on a stove that needs to be tended to. My Facebook comrades had assured me that the broths made in the IP (with traditional ingredients) could still be as good or pretty darn close.

So I took a deep breath and did what I do best: cook!  After perusing the recipes on the IP Facebook group, I decided to start with pho ga (chicken pho), which came out pretty good. Relieved that I hadn’t made a big mistake, I launched into pho bo (beef pho), banh canh (chewy thick noodle soup), and bun bo hue. My first tries were just a bit off, especially with the cooking time for the various cuts of meat, but the broths were pretty spot on.  Without further ado, I present you with my first round of IP recipes! We’re going to start with pho today.

Pho Ga (chicken, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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4.5 lbs free range chicken, scrubbed with salt and rinsed
2.5 lbs chicken bones (backs and necks)
1 tbsp chicken stock paste
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
1 large onion, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

 
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 15 minutes, then QR. Remove the chicken and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onion. Skim scum and impurities. Add remaining chicken bones and additional water or chicken stock, and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 20 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the chicken is cool, shred into bit size pieces.

In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 15-20 seconds and place into bowls. Top with chicken, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

Pho Bo (beef, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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3 lbs beef bones (preferably a combo of oxtail, marrow bones and knuckle bones), parboiled and rinsed
1 lb pork hock/foot, parboiled and rinsed
1 lb boneless beef shank (more poundage if with bone)
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
2 medium onions, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

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1 lb sirloin tips sliced as thin as possible (tip: place meet in freezer for 15 minutes then slice)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 12 minutes, then QR. Remove the beef shank and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onions.Skim scum and impurities. Add any remaining beef or pork bones and additional water to the max line and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 60 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. You can also add a bit of water to taste. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the beef shank is cool, slice thinly.
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In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 10-15 seconds and place into bowls. Top with beef shank, sliced raw sirloin tips, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

 

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