Little Saigon, at home

March 31, 2006

Little Saigon, at home

Ann Le worried that her family's recipes would be lost, so she gathered her favorites and published a cookbook.

By Mary MacVean, Times Staff Writer
March 29, 2006
ANN Le's parents married in 1975, a week before the end of the Vietnam War and three days before they joined relatives in two boats for an uncertain future that led from South Vietnam to a Korean refugee camp, to Minnesota and finally to Southern California.

They were among the early residents of Little Saigon in Westminster, a lively culinary destination with 200 markets, bakeries and cafes in 3 square miles, Le says. The first restaurants, she says, were just dining rooms of private homes where residents served inexpensive, family-style meals.

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Growing up, Le, her brother and their parents ate Vietnamese food almost exclusively, often heading to one restaurant on Bolsa Avenue (that's no longer in business) at the end of her parents' long workdays. "I recall almost having the menu memorized," she says. "Everything was family-style."

They usually ate steamed rice, a salad platter, a meat or fish dish and a consommé. But sometimes her grandmother cooked for the family — dishes such as braised fish, chicken salad and bun rieu, a soup with crab, tomato and noodles.

Fearing those recipes would be lost because they were not written down, Le began gathering them, finally producing "The Little Saigon Cookbook" (Globe Pequot Press), published not long before her grandmother died this year.

Le, 28, is an investment banker, not a professional cook, and she says it was a challenge to write recipes that her family and friends had only passed along orally.

"I hope people modify them," she says. "That what's we do at home. Everyone has their way."

Her grandmother's way with the sweet braised dishes called kho was among Le's favorites. Especially braised catfish, cooked in a clay pot with lemon-lime or coconut soda and black and chile peppers. A nearly vegetarian version (except for the fish sauce) uses eggplant.

Le, who now lives in Silver Lake, returns often to see her family — and to shop. On a recent Sunday morning, she joined the crowd at the ABC Supermarket.

The aisles were packed, the shelves precariously crowded. In the produce section, Le surveyed the banana buds, bitter melons, fresh water chestnuts, lemongrass, small white eggplants, a dozen fresh herbs. Le put Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil and mint into her cart.

Next, condiments: The huge assortment included dozens of varieties of nuoc nam, fish sauce made from salted, dried fish, usually anchovies. Le recommends those from either Phu Quoc or Phan Thiet. The fish sauce is essential for nuoc cham, the dipping sauce Le says you'll find on every Vietnamese table; to make it, Le combines the nuoc nam with lime juice, sugar and chiles.

Among the nods to busy modern lives were little tubs of chopped frozen lemongrass — a product Le says would surely have met her grandmother's disapproval — and pre-shredded green papaya.

Le looks askance at that convenience. She uses a plastic mandoline to make the pretty, almost translucent shreds that are the main ingredient in a wonderfully fragrant salad, gói du dú, that also calls for Thai bird chile, Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil and fermented fish sauce. Le says the traditional salad is topped with a dried, spiced beef that's available in the grocery stores of Little Saigon. But she likes it with cooked shrimp — boiled or grilled.

To make a warm "shaking beef" salad (bò lúc lâc), Le marinates cubes of beef in nuoc nam, garlic and oyster sauce, "shaking" the container so the beef is coated. She quickly sautés plenty of sliced onion, then adds in the beef with all its marinade, stirring as it cooks. Then she spoons the rich-looking mixture onto tender watercress leaves, tops it with quartered tomatoes and serves it with steamed rice.

Asked what sort of rice she uses, Le laughs. She uses whatever brand her mother has gotten for free in a supermarket promotion — a sign of the fierce competition among Little Saigon supermarkets.

To round out the menu, Le makes a dish that's rarely found in restaurants: gà chiên, chicken pan-fried with mint and ginger. She combines nuoc nam, ginger, garlic, Vietnamese coriander, onion and oil and marinates the chicken in it overnight. After the chicken is cooked, she cooks the marinade briefly to turn it into a sauce.

The home-style dish couldn't be easier. The recipe for it in Le's book calls for assorted chicken parts with the skin removed, but it's even better made with all thighs, with the skin left on.

**

Green papaya salad with shrimp (Gói du dú)

Time: 40 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "The Little Saigon Cookbook" by Ann Le. You can prepare this salad up to an hour before serving, but no longer or the herbs will wilt. Green papayas and Thai basil are available at Asian markets. For 3 cups julienned green papaya, use a portion of 1 small green papaya (about 2 pounds); save the remainder for another use.

1/3 pound large shrimp, cleaned, deveined

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Juice of 1 small lime

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc nam)

1/2 fresh Thai bird chile, finely chopped ( 1/4 teaspoon chopped)

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon minced shallots

3 cups julienned green papaya

1/4 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves, divided

1/4 cup chopped fresh Thai basil leaves, divided

3 tablespoons finely chopped, unsalted dry-roasted peanuts

1. Heat a grill pan or grill. Place the shrimp in a bowl. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper and toss to coat. Grill until opaque in the center, about 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill, cool and slice in half lengthwise.

2. In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, garlic, sugar, fish sauce and chopped chile. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved.

3. In a small skillet or saucepan, heat the oil. Fry the minced shallots until golden brown. Drain and add to the fish sauce mixture.

4. Julienne the papaya or mangoes into thin, matchstick strips 2 inches long until you have 3 cups. Place in a large serving bowl or platter. Pour the dressing all over the strips, evenly coating them. Toss with 2 tablespoons coriander and 2 tablespoons Thai basil.

5. Top the dressed papaya with cooked shrimp and garnish with the peanuts, the remaining 2 tablespoons coriander and the remaining 2 tablespoons basil.


Each serving: 214 calories; 9 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 55 mg. cholesterol; 1,083 mg. sodium.

**

Pan-fried spicy chicken with mint and ginger (Gà chiên)

Total time: 50 minutes plus 4 hours to overnight marinating

Servings: 3

Note: Adapted from "The Little Saigon Cookbook" by Ann Le. Look for Vietnamese coriander leaves and Thai bird chiles in Asian markets.

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper

1/2 onion, finely chopped

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves

1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

1/4 cup fish sauce (nuoc nam)

1 fresh Thai bird chile, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

2 pounds bone-in skin-on chicken thighs (about 6 pieces)

Fresh mint and cilantro leaves to garnish

Steamed rice

1. First make the marinade. In a large bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of the oil, the white pepper, onion, garlic, coriander leaves, mint leaves, ginger, fish sauce, chile, and sugar. Stir well until the sugar is dissolved.

2. Clean the chicken thighs and pat them dry. Put them in a large bowl or shallow dish and pour the marinade on top. Rub the marinade all over the chicken until each piece is evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

3. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Wipe the marinade off the chicken and reserve marinade. Find a heavy frying pan large enough to fit the chicken pieces in one layer. Pour the remaining 5 tablespoons oil into the pan and heat over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken, skin side down.

4. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the chicken for 4 to 5 minutes until skin is golden brown. Turn over and cook the other side for about 15 minutes or until done. Test the chicken for doneness by pricking it with a fork; when the juices run clear, remove the chicken from the pan and keep warm.

5. Pour out the fat and return the pan to medium heat. Spoon in the reserved marinade and stir to bring up the brown bits on bottom of pan cooking 2 to 3 minutes. Add one-half cup water and bring to a boil. Turn down and simmer for a few more minutes. Return the chicken to the pan to reheat if necessary.

6. Serve the chicken with steamed rice and garnish with fresh cilantro and mint leaves. Drizzle the pan sauce over the chicken and serve.


Each serving of two thighs: 675 calories; 42 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 52 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 149 mg. cholesterol; 1992 mg. sodium.

**

Warm 'shaking beef' salad with watercress and tomatoes (Bò lúc lâc)

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "The Little Saigon Cookbook" by Ann Le.

1 pound beef (filet or sirloin; best grade recommended)

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/4 cup fish sauce (nuoc nam)

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

2 bunches watercress, stems removed, about 5 cups

2 onions, cut in half and sliced

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

4 plum tomatoes, cut into quarters

1. Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes.

2. Prepare the marinade in a bowl or container with a lid by combining 2 tablespoons of the oil, the fish sauce, black pepper, oyster sauce, garlic and sugar. Mix well until the sugar is dissolved, then add the beef cubes. Cover the bowl or container and shake the cubes to evenly coat the meat (or you can simply stir). Leave the cover on and let the container sit for 20 minutes on the counter.

3. Clean the watercress and arrange it on a large serving platter or dish.

4. In a large skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over high heat. When it is hot, add the onion. Sauté for just a few minutes, then throw in the beef with its marinade and toss quickly. You need to cook for only 5 minutes over low to medium heat for the meat to be medium rare; continue tossing as it cooks. Cook it longer if you prefer.

5. When the meat is cooked, turn off the burner and stir in the cornstarch to thicken the sauce. Spoon onto the watercress and top with tomato wedges. Serve family style with steamed rice.


Each serving: 248 calories; 18 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 15 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 35 mg. cholesterol; 1011 mg. sodium.

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