Entries Tagged as 'Vietnam'

Pomelo Salad

Monday, December 15, 2014

About two weeks ago, I was wandering around the produce section of the grocery store in awe, as usual. I’m still not over the abundance of choice we get here. When I was fresh off the boat back in June, it was so easy to be critical of the size of everything, including the sky, and, apparently, the produce section at the grocery store. The first few times I mowed Mary Ellen’s lawn, I’d curse its enormity, and the invisible property line between her plot and her neighbor’s. Who needs this much grass anyway?! I’d mutter, while thinking of cancer and exhaust fumes and how crotchety I was becoming. Little by little, daily life chipped away at that, as it must, and I became a little more fun to have around. If you treat undesirable tasks as a chance to be mindful–mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, or segmenting a pomelo, say–it’s amazing how things change. I say this not because I’m the most mindful person on the planet, not the millionth most probably, but because I’ve learned to become mindful out of self-preservation. Without it, I’d be a ringer for Melvin Udall.


Pink pomelos are in season in the States now, and they are so much worth seeking. Have you seen them around? They look like oversized grapefruits, but they’ve got much thicker skin and sweeter flesh. Protected by thick and bitter pith, the pomelo becomes edible only when peeled and segmented, so it takes a little effort to prepare. A sharp knife with a non-serated blade makes it easier, but otherwise there’s no quick way to go about it. Segmenting citrus is a lot like butchering meat. You’ve got to slice through the tough sinewy bits with a delicate but steady hand to get to the gold, and it is so worth it once you do.

I didn’t know what I would make when I brought home that pomelo those few weeks ago, and it sat on the counter until last Saturday before I turned to Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking. Tony and Niki lent the book to me when I’d just come home from Korea and a couple of weeks in Vietnam. I went back to the store for more pomelos just for this salad, which is the perfect example of the textural wealth of Vietnamese food. Bitter greens offset by flecks of mint, punchy citrus, crispy sweet shallots, and sweet, sour, hot vinaigrette. A good starter salad, this would be great before a hot bowl of pho. In fact, that’s exactly how we had it for dinner last Saturday (Tony made the pho, Niki made the cocktails, and I brought the salad). I urge you to try this at home while pomelos are in season. I’ll try to work on a recipe for pho in the meantime. Have a super week.

Pomelo Salad from Vietnamese Home Cooking (makes enough for 6 side salads)
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon shallot oil* (or other neutral tasting oil)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon minced Thai chili
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large pomelos
6 cups frisée (I couldn’t find frisée, so I used a combination of radicchio, romaine, and endive)
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 cup chopped spearmint
fried shallots

*to make shallot oil, heat 1 cup avocado oil (or your pick of high-heat oil) in a saucepan. When oil is up to temp (about 275 degrees F) add 1 cup sliced shallots and stir until golden brown (about 8 minutes). Remove shallots and drain on a plate lined with paper towel. Strain the oil to remove bits of shallot left behind. The oil will keep for several weeks in the fridge. The shallots should be eaten the same day.

First, segment the pomelos. Using a sharp knife and a cutting board, cut both ends off one pomelo so that it can stand upright. Then, stand the pomelo on the board and slice downward to remove the skin and outer pith. If you don’t reach the flesh on the first try, just restart at the top and slice downward again. The skin might be thicker than you first expect. Then, holding the fruit in your non-dominant hand, cut along both sides of each segment. Look carefully for thin lines of pith to find each segment–some lines will be paper thin. You’ll know you’ve cut away the pith when you’ve got pieces of clear, jewel-hued fruit in your hand. Don’t worry if the segments fall apart because you’re going to cut them into bite-sized pieces. Repeat with each pomelo, and discard all the skin and pith.

Second, make the dressing. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, shallot oil, fish sauce, sugar, chile, salt, and 1 tablespoon water until the sugar dissolves.


Third, combine the frisée, red onion, mint, and pomelo chunks. Pour the dressing over it all and toss gently to coat. Drop fried shallots over the top and serve.

#cookwithmusic: Work Song by Hozier

Saigon From Here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It’s been awhile, too long, I would add. Hel-lo! And because I don’t know where to begin, I’ll start from here. At the moment, music is pumping from both sides of the innocent establishment from where I sit, slugging lemon juice that’s cold around the ice at the top and warm at the bottom of the glass. Apparently, but not intentionally, I’m on the biggest party street in the city. There’s a cart set up in front that advertises Pho Bo, with the words Traditional Beef Noodle Soup written below it, and a woman hawking dvds from a tower in front of that. From the cheers that just erupted from somewhere to the right, you’d think we were watching the World Cup. A man with wild hair and an eye full of milk keeps circling the block in his wheelchair and stopping in front of the same table set in front outside, staring at the closest person within sight and holding out his hand. People see him. They pretend they don’t. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s felt seen, or if he has the mind to sense the difference.

Saigon is a dizzying place. It is electric and cloaked in noise and dirt, and today marks three days longer than I thought I’d stay originally. But I like it here, especially outside of the city center in District 8, at my new friend Linh’s house, where you can get two banh mi for less than two dollars and your toes painted for fifty cents. Saigon is lively like Flushing, but with wider streets and fifty times the motorbike traffic. To cross the street, you walk steadily and directly into traffic–to hesitate is to disrupt the flow that at first glance, seems impossible. Yet somehow, it works, and every successful walk-across feels like a bigger triumph, as if you, an outsider, have melded with the flow of the city.

Linh organizes homestays through airbnb. She lives down a tight alley off the main road and just over a bridge, in a narrow, stark white five-story home that she shares with her parents, her brother, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter. She hosts guests all the time, both friends and strangers, like Juan Carlo from Italy. Juan Carlo was staying long-term in his own room, and his friend, also from Italy but living in Saigon, in his. A traveling couple from Slovakia took the last empty room, and Linh’s father slept next to the kitchen on the floor in front of the television. The family has five motorbikes, and at the end of the night they’re each steered into the house up a ramp and parked directly below the kitchen. A thief had helped himself to the brother’s rooster from the front terrace the night before. This, according to Juan Carlo, was a lucky thing, but the brother was in despair–the bird was scheduled for an upcoming neighborhood cockfight, and without it, there’d be no gambling, no potential victory, no fun. In other words, rooster or not, it was a full house.

When I got to Linh’s, she and Juan Carlo asked if I wanted to join them for drinks, somewhere, and I, without catching the full terms of agreement, said yes. Moments later, Linh was snaking her motorbike through freeway traffic, with me on the back wearing a dysfunctional helmet, feeling curiously at ease (at home, I would stress about this, but traveling brings out a more carefree and relaxed temperament of mine that I find much sexier than the worrywart, who, in a snap, can bring forth images of the worst-case scenario. It’s a total buzzkill). We got to The Deck, a fancy restaurant along the Saigon River, Linh looking radiant, Juan Carlo in a ratty t-shirt, and me in stale clothes worn for the third day in a row. It was happy hour. We ordered martinis. The river rolled past, carrying plants with it, and well-dressed dignitaries and young entrepreneurial ex-pats filled the candle-lit tables on all sides. Later that night, we had dinner local, at a noodle cart around the corner of Linh’s house. A lady next to us came over and plucked one of the limes from a plate of several, a gesture I’d soon learn was commonplace at restaurants. Everyone shares the accoutrement. We sat on short plastic chairs around a table inches from the ground, in the dark, sweat dripping from our chins, slurping piping hot bowls of noodles, sliced pork, sweet basil, and fried shallots, and two things occurred to me: Street food is the best food, and that as many bowls of pho as I’d had, I’d never tasted Vietnamese food before this. Not like this.

Vietnam has been a dream destination of mine for years. I’ve been drawn to the food since I first tried it in high school, but also to the desire to better understand the grievous past to which Vietnam and the U.S. are forever tied. When I was twelve, my dad took me to the Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. I was too young then to comprehend the atrocities of the war, or maybe too shy to ask questions, but the visit must have planted a seed. I waited to come here until I could spend more than one week; even two feels rushed. And so I first flew to Cambodia for a few days (which I will get around to writing about one day), and then from Siem Reap to Saigon with the intention of busing north along Vietnam’s coast. Tomorrow I’ll be in Na Trang, for a day at the beach sandwiched between two overnight bus rides, before making my way to Hoi An, Hue, Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hanoi. It’s a heavy schedule to pack into two weeks, but I’m going to try. I can’t wait to tell you about the food (especially the street food!!!) in another post devoted just to that. Until then, I’ll leave you with some photos of Can Tho, in the southern part of the country, and some from one of the floating markets in Mekong–fascinating place. Have an excellent Sunday, this Mother’s Day, and an even better week.