Vietnamese food like Mom makes

July 31, 2006

July 26, 2006, 7:04AM

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Bich Tran teaches her daughter, Mary Vuong, how to make Banh Xeo, a stuffed Vietnamese crêpe. Click through our photo gallery for a step-by-step guide.

Christian Vuong: For the Chronicle



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Copyright 2006 Houston ChronicleEditor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series about food, family, tradition and culture. The cooks we feature usually live in or near Houston, but this time our writer returned to her California hometown to learn the traditional Vietnamese dishes she was raised on.





–>She started without me.

I flew 1,400 miles so my mother could teach me how to make Vietnamese food, and discovered that she’d hit the kitchen she began 90 minutes before I woke up.

Instantly cranky, I marched back to the childhood bedroom I hadn’t slept in regularly for nine years. I was overreacting, sure, but it was only 7:28 a.m.

Was this a good idea? I wondered.

I traveled home to Redondo Beach, Calif., this summer determined to master family recipes and create delicious memories so that I could pass them onto on to the next generation. Eating has always been my favorite pastime, but I didn’t develop an interest in cooking until I began writing about food a few years ago.

A series of stories I wrote called Cooking With . . ., in which Houstonians happily reminisced about making significant dishes from their past, made me nostalgic for the Vietnamese dishes I was raised on.

I rarely eat such food in Houston. Nothing here compares to my mom’s cha gio, egg rolls that she stuffed, rolled and fried in party-size quantities, or her ca kho, a homey catfish stew bursting with the nuoc mam (fish sauce) ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine.

I was almost 5 years old when my mother, Bich (sounds like “bit”) Tran, became a stay-at-home mom with the birth of my brother, Christian. Our routine was the same each day: After my dad, Hoan Vuong, arrived home from work, we sat down to a home-cooked meal. I never gave it a second thought.

Now, two time zones away and too exhausted to cook from scratch after work, I’ve come to realize what a luxury those dinners that my mother labored over were.

One of my most vivid memories is of my mother standing at the stove during parties so that every guest would have a perfectly crisp banh xeo, a crêpe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, onions and mung beans. They ate them as quickly as she could swirl the batter.

So I asked her to teach me that and another dish. Goi sua tom thit is one of my all-time favorites, a lively, herbaceous salad with shaved vegetables, pork, shrimp and jellyfish. Though a it’s a common offering at Houston Vietnamese restaurants, I haven’t found a version to my liking; the celery is sliced too thick, or the typically pungent fish sauce is disappointingly bland.

I learned to cook in my mid-20s by closely following recipes until I felt comfortable enough to improvise. My mom, already preparing meals for her family at age 10 or 11, learned by observing her mother, analyzing restaurant meals and reading cookbooks and newspapers. I use my digital kitchen scale daily; she eyeballs nearly every ingredient.

We speak Vietnamese to each other, with liberal use of English words on my part. I call her me (pronounced MAY-eh), Vietnamese for mother.

Drastic measures

I tried learning to cook from her years ago, but it backfired. When I asked for measurements, she replied, “as needed” or “to taste.” I was an inexperienced cook with minimal kitchen skills, and such vague instructions were enough to make me quit.This time, however, I was prepared. To be able to write accurate recipes and re-create the dishes solo, I insisted on digging out her rarely used scale and measuring spoons and cups.

But my need to measure everything and to ask “why?” stalled the process. Over two days of cooking, this was a cycle we couldn’t break:

“Each person can do it their own way,” she’d say.

“But I want to know your way!” I’d cry, exasperated. “I need a solid starting point; I can’t improvise from nothing.”

A friend but always Mom

Cooking with Mom forced me to realize that the mother-daughter relationship may never blossom into an adult-adult relationship, no matter how old the child. She still has the I’ll-cook-and-you-play-or-do-your-homework mentality from my youth. She gives me the easier, less messy duties, such as peeling carrots and daikon, while she deveins shrimp and expertly slices slippery pork.She’s subtly critical of my work, taking over the shaving of the carrots because I’m not making them thin enough. For her, it’s easier to do all the work than have someone else try.

I’m the same way.

Our similarities start with our Vietnamese names. She is Bich-Ngoc and I am Ngoc-Bich.

Food is a key

We express love and affection through food. She tucks homegrown satsuma oranges and frozen banh bao (meat-stuffed buns) into my luggage as I’m heading back to Houston. I leave Los Angeles with fleur-de-sel caramels for friends here.We also share a rarely broached fear. My maternal grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for my mother and, ultimately, me. It’s not just the unwritten recipes I want to preserve but the memories they evoke.

I was in my mother’s womb when she and my father fled Vietnam in December 1978 for a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, a Malaysian island. I was born the next year on a hospital ship run by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization.

That’s the edited version of history. It wasn’t till last summer, during my first trip to Vietnam, that the more gut-wrenching stuff emerged.

A link in history

My dad and I were sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room, watching a CNN reporter wade through water during Hurricane Katrina. When I remarked on the awful conditions, my father said the tiny island they lived on with 40,000 other refugees was miserable, too.My father’s English students, the sons of fishermen, were experienced swimmers and helped him gather mussels in rocky areas. He and his brothers-in-law also would drag mosquito netting through the water to catch tiny fish along the shore.

But that wasn’t enough to survive on. He was forced to sell his wedding band so he could buy food to supplement the rations provided by the Red Crescent (Malaysian Red Cross), buying a chicken neck to make soup or a precious egg. (Eggs are my favorite food. Coincidence?) They splurged on the occasional 7-Up, under the odd but widely held belief that it would make their baby’s skin light. Someone stole my mom’s soda one night after she and my father dozed off on the beach.

I was just 1 1/2 months old when they arrived in California, where we first settled in the working-class city of Cudahy in Los Angeles County. Three homes later, they purchased their current house in Redondo Beach.

Which is where Mom and I spent these two days cooking.

Preparation, perspiration

The prep work was tedious. For the salad, my mom and I boiled pork and shrimp and shaved and sliced endless vegetables.”How much pork are you using?” I asked her. “We have to weigh it.”

“Oh, maybe this much,” she said. “If we have too much, we’ll subtract.”

“How about shrimp?” I pressed her, knowing her answer would be the same.

The crêpes turned out to be tricky. Mom’s first one was perfect, thanks to an experienced wrist, but it took several tries before I produced one that was unbroken and golden-brown.

Division of labor

As soon as my father returned from work, she tasked him with making the fish sauce we would drizzle over the salad and dip the crêpes in.”I can’t take it anymore!” she declared. “All day it’s been measure this, weigh that.” I burst out laughing. She did, too. So I had been driving her crazy the past eight hours, as well.

The tension melted away and we relaxed. My mom finished tossing the salad as I continued to pour the crêpes. My brother snapped photos, and my dad made a comical production of using measuring instruments to produce a dipping sauce that is very much “to taste.”

When we sat down for dinner, I learned to eat banh xeo the traditional way. With my fingers, I placed a piece of hot crêpe onto a cool lettuce leaf, then added shredded herbs. I rolled the pile into a tight bundle and lightly dunked the wrap in fish sauce. It was brighter-tasting than I remembered, thanks to the spicy, minty herbs I had rejected as a picky child.

The goi sua tom thit, despite the many ingredients, was light and clean. The tart lime juice and sweet-and-salty fish sauce pulled everything together, from the subtly sweetened shrimp and pork to those distinctive herbs.

Mung bean wars

Back in Houston, I tested the recipes in the comfort of my familiar kitchen, referring to my notes for cooking times and temperatures.10:02 a.m.: Beans with water on medium. Mostly covered. When starts to boil, reduce to simmer. Stir occasionally.

10:26 a.m.: When beans are somewhat cooked but still hard, drain any remaining water and return to stove to continue cooking at low heat (mostly covered). Stir occasionally.

10:37 a.m. Stop cooking when beans are tender and slightly mashed. Remove from the heat. Let sit 10-15 minutes.

Despite my meticulous notes, I overcooked the mung beans.

Some things I still need Mom for.


Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.

Use a 10-inch nonstick frying pan to make these stuffed crêpes, which should be served immediately, while crisp. To eat, tear a portion of a crêpe, place it in a lettuce leaf, top with shredded herbs, roll and dip in Fish Sauce. You can find the flour, labeled “banh xeo,” at Vietnamese and Chinese stores, as well as any other ingredients not in your local store. Plan ahead: You’ll need to soak and cook the beans before you start cooking.

  • 1/2 of a (12-ounce) bag dried, peeled and split mung bean, picked through
  • 1 (12-ounce) package banh xeo flour
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 3 stalks scallion, in 1-inch pieces
  • 2/3 pound small shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2/3 pound semifatty pork, sliced into thin, bite-size pieces
  • Sugar, to taste
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2/3 pound onions, thinly sliced (about 3 cups loosely packed)
  • 2/3 pound bean sprouts, washed and dried (about 5 cups loosely packed)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Assorted herbs such as cilantro, mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb
  • Fish Sauce (recipe above)

Rinse beans and soak in lukewarm water for 2 hours.

Strain beans and put in a 2-quart nonstick pot. Add water to slightly more than cover. Cook, partially covered, on medium heat until water comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are semicooked but still firm. Drain any remaining water and return to the stove to cook over low heat, covered. Stir occasionally. The beans are ready when they are tender. Remove from heat and allow to sit 10 to 15 minutes, covered, then fluff with a fork.

Prepare the batter by stirring together the flour, 3 1/2 cups water and coconut milk until free of lumps. Add the scallions.

Combine the shrimp and pork in a bowl, season with sugar and salt, and divide into 12 to 14 equal portions, depending on the size you’ll make the crêpes.

Combine the onions and bean sprouts, then divide into 12 to 14 equal portions.

Heat about 1/2 teaspoon oil in a 10-inch frying pan on medium heat. Add 1 portion of shrimp and pork, turning to cook both sides and evenly spacing the pieces.

When the shrimp and pork are light golden, pour in about 2/3 cup of the batter, starting at the center and swirling the pan until the batter is about 1 inch from the edge. Scatter 2 tablespoons mung beans over the batter, then add 1 portion of the onions and bean sprouts.

Cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes or until the crêpe’s underside begins to develop golden brown spots and the edges are crisp. Carefully slide a spatula under half the crêpe and fold like an omelet.

Cook for another minute, then slide the crêpe onto a plate. Serve immediately with lettuce, herbs and Fish Sauce. Using fresh oil each time, repeat until you have used up all the ingredients.

Makes 12 to 14 crêpes.


Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.

There are many versions of this dish. My mom’s, which includes pork, shrimp and jellyfish, is light, refreshing and well-suited to summer. Plan ahead: The jellyfish, available in or near the freezer aisles of most Chinese and Vietnamese markets, must soak for several hours.

  • 4 ounces jellyfish, soaked and cooked (see note)
  • Marinade (recipe follows)
  • Fish Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 of a (12-ounce) can CoCo Rico Coconut Soda
  • 3/4 pound shell-on large shrimp, deveined
  • 2/3 pound lean, boneless pork
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 3 cups loosely packed)
  • 2/3 pound daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 4 cups loosely packed)
  • 1/2 of a (15- or 16-ounce) jar young lotus root in water, drained, rinsed and cut crosswise into bite-size pieces (slice larger pieces in half lengthwise first)
  • 1/2 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 large sweet red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, seeded and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 2 1/2 cups loosely packed)
  • 1 or 2 stalks celery, sliced thinly on the diagonal
  • Cilantro and assorted herbs, such as mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb, to taste
  • Red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, for garnish
  • 1/4 cup shelled peanuts, toasted and crushed, for garnish
  • Lime wedges
  • Shrimp chips

Allowing plenty of time, prepare the jellyfish and set aside. Prepare the Marinade and Fish Sauce; set aside.

Heat the CoCo Rico in a small pot until boiling, then add the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are pink, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp and set aside to cool. Don’t throw away the broth.

Place the pork in the pot with the CoCo Rico, adding enough water to cover. Season the liquid with salt. Simmer, partially covered, until the pork center is lightly pink, about 10 to 15 minutes (if pork is in multiple pieces, reduce the cooking time). Remove the pork and allow to cool, reserving the broth for another use, if desired.

Cut each shrimp lengthwise to yield 2 pieces. Slice the pork into thin, bite-size pieces. Refrigerate.

In a large bowl, combine the carrots, daikon, lotus, bell pepper, onion, cucumber and celery. Add the Marinade and toss well. Refrigerate.

Before serving, drain the marinade from the salad. Shred the herbs and mix into the salad with shrimp and pork. Lightly dress the salad with Fish Sauce to taste and toss. Garnish with chiles and peanuts.

Serve with lime wedges and additional Fish Sauce — so diners can adjust the flavorings to their taste — as well as shrimp chips.

Note: To prepare the jellyfish, soak it in water for 3 hours to remove the salt, changing the water every 30 minutes. Boil water and blanch the jellyfish for 5 to 8 seconds. Then soak the jellyfish in fresh cold water for 20 minutes before thinly slicing.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.


  • 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

This recipe makes enough for the banh xeo (recipe follows) as well.

  • 4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons bottled fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Chile garlic sauce, to taste

Combine all ingredients with 1 1/2 tablespoons water and mix until the sugar is dissolved. — | Section: Food
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One Response to “Vietnamese food like Mom makes”

  1. Gel Pen Says:

    i like very cute wedding bands that are lined with satin clothe and some velvet colored stuffs too `.,

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