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.


HoustonChronicle.com — http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: Food
This article is: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/food/4066533.html

Traditional Miscellany


by Huu Ngoc

I ate dinner more than once with Tran Dang Khoa, the poet in restaurants during the course of our travels. Before tasting the regional specialities, he always began by serving himself a small bowl of hot rice sprayed with a little nuoc mam (fish sauce).

Nuoc mam has such a strong smell that airlines forbid its transport on their aircraft. There were some young Vietnamese going to study abroad who had transgressed that prohibition. In the 1980s, a Vietnamese student who came from Ha Noi had caused a regrettable scandal at the East Berlin airport: he slipped on the waxed floor and had fallen flat on his back, breaking a bottle of nuocmam hidden in a nylon bag. Getting rid of the smell took hours.

Why does nuoc mam have such a strong power of gastronomic seduction? Nuoc means water or liquid. Mam means the brine of fish or crustaceans often conserved as a thick liquid, of which the people of Southeast Asia are very fond. Nuoc mam is a salted solution that comes from the fermentation of the flesh of small fish. It is a Vietnamese speciality. (There is also another type of fish sauce in Thailand.) To make it, one adds alternating layers of fish and salt in a huge wooden barrel. After a certain time, one removes the liquid accumulated at the bottom and pours it back on top. This is done repeatedly. The first extracted solution (nuoc cot, nuoc nhat) is very rich in protein, often drunk in winter by fishermen and divers to preserve body heat. The nuoc mam nhi (or ri) extracted directly from the bottom of the barrel is of the best quality. Nuoc mam contains sodium chloride, amino acids, histamines, organic phosphate and minerals.

I visited centres of production of the best nuoc mam in Viet Nam: the islands of Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet, and Cat Hai. I was very impressed by the importance of their production, particularly for Vietnamese living abroad. During the era of French colonisation, the Lien Thanh Company of Phan Thiet distributed nuoc mam in the country and abroad, having presented the sauce to the l’Exposition Internationale (International Exposition) in Marseilles in 1922. Phan Thiet became a famous commercial brand. Unilever, a major European food company, created a business on the island along with 18 local partners. The joint venture company Quoc Duong produced and bottled ultra-hygienic nuoc mam (20 million litres per year), a proportion of which was exported to overseas Vietnamese in France, Germany and in the United States. The company preserved the traditional way of production of nuoc mam. I have met the Phu Hiep family, who specialised in nuoc mam for three generations.

A handicap for the exportation of nuoc mam to Europe and America is its odour, although it is not stronger than Roquefort or Gibier faisande. Once the repugnance of the smell is conquered, the amber liquid finally pleases the palate. Cook Cam Van presented it to a culinary festival organised by the Culinary Institute of America in the United States, and French chef Didier Corlou of the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi organised a symposium about nuoc mam. To neutralise the odour, Ms Mai Pham counselled people to serve it diluted with a special sauce, and to never add it to a plate being prepared without a hot saucepan (“The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking,” Prima Publishing, 1996).

Traditional Vietnamese meals are served with all dishes displayed on a round brass tray, with a bowl of nuoc mam in the middle. Diners soak pieces of food in nuoc mam. Nuoc mam is also served to raise the tastes of all dishes. It is a sauce served plain, or mixed with other ingredients: red chilli seasoning, ginger, oil, vinegar, sugar and lime. Nuoc mam served with hard-boiled duck eggs is a Ha Noi speciality. Nuoc mam condensed by heat is a dietary element and is considered good for sick people and mothers of newborns. Nuoc mam paste was served to conserve the fighters along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. — VNS

By Kay Johnson, dpa
Eds: epa photos available

Hanoi (dpa)- The term "fast-food restaurant" took a new twist Thursday when hundreds of eager customers and curiosity seekers jammed into the lunchtime opening of the first KFC restaurant in communist Vietnam's capital.

The line to the counter was so long Thursday that Phan Huyen Trang, 26, had to wait 25 minutes for her meal of 11-secret-spices chicken, cole slaw and mashed potatoes and gravy.

"You have to wait for a longer time to have a KFC meal than to have pho," Trang complained, referring to the Vietnamese national dish of beef soup with rice noodles.

"I just come to see what it's like," she admitted, adding. "It's not as good as I thought. The chicken is too dry. It's not as good as Vietnamese dishes."

The company formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken already has 20 outlets in southern Ho Chi Minh City, making it one of the few international fast-food brands to compete with the country's wide range of street vendors and small shops.

But Hanoi, the communist capital heavily bombed by US warplanes during the Vietnam War, has never had a major American chain restaurant until now.

Even ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonalds have failed to enter the market, which is dominated by local chains such as Trung Nguyen and Highlands coffee shops and a burger franchise called "McHanh's."

That may change soon, since Vietnam's long-awaited entry into the World Trade Organization, expected later this year or in early 2007, will pry open up Vietnam's domestic service markets to more foreign competition.

In the meantime, the opening of a well-known US restaurant – strategically located on busy Huynh Thuc Khang Street, close to a popular children's playground, a golf driving range and a large cinema complex – proved a novelty.

"You see, there are many people … we will have to expand," said Nguyen Chi Kien, deputy general director of KFC Vietnam. The company plans to open three more Hanoi outlets by year's end.

Whether American-style fast food will continue to appeal remains to be seen. A typical KFC meal, priced at around 3 dollars, is about triple the price of a bowl of pho or bun cha, another popular street food made of grilled pork, rice noodles and fresh greens.

"I think there are so many people here today because they come for curiosity," said customer Vu Khanh Trinh, 29. He said he had already tried KFC chicken in Bangkok and said he liked it.

"You cannot compare KFC with Vietnamese traditional dishes. Each has its own tastes," he said. "But honestly, I prefer Vietnamese food."

Other customers, though, were impressed.

"The food is very good. It tastes different and delicious," enthused 16-year-old Vu Viet Anh. " I think I can eat KFC every day."

Health advocates might not advise that, though. Last week, KFC was named in a US lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which said the hydrogenated cooking oil the company uses contributes to obesity and heart disease.

Vietnamese customers Thursday seemed unconcerned.

"I'm not afraid of getting fat, because I'm too thin now,"said construction worker Vu Cam Trang, 28. "I hope other foreign food chains like McDonald or Starbucks will enter Vietnam soon so that we will have chances to try many different kinds of food."

00:04' 14/06/2006 (GMT+7)

Soạn: AM 805653 gửi đến 996 để nhận ảnh này
Graham Holliday.

VietNamNet – Graham Holliday, an English guy who speaks no Vietnamese, can spend hours talking about Vietnamese food.


After almost ten years living in Vietnam, the guy now is not boastful when he says that “there are not many Vietnamese dishes that I have not tried”.


Graham blogs on www.noodlepie.com, where he introduces a variety of Vietnamese dishes. His blog is just more or less like an encyclopedia on Vietnamese food with nearly 100 dishes posted meticulously.


The blog introduces many different kinds of food ranging from the most common and simple ones like Che (sweetened porridge made of glutinous rice, bean…), Chao (rice soup), Beef Noodle in Hue style to luxurious and fussy food. These dishes were presented lively with pictures looking mouth watering for any visitors who have ever logged in.


“Why did you name it noodlepie?” “In Vietnam noodle is in so many different kinds such as Bun, Mi, Pho while pie is very common food for Westerners. Noodlepie is where western and Vietnamese foods meet, where sausages meet the noodle,” explained Graham.


Since it was first launched in April 2004, Noodlepie has attracted nearly 2,000 visitors and has twice been nominated for the Bloggies Competition, which was rated as “Oscar for personal blogs”.


Although it has just been awarded the Consolation Prize, for Graham, the most important thing is the more people know about the blog, the more popular Vietnamese food gets.


Gaining the confidence of foreign visitors is something that makes Graham happiest. Many visitors wrote that they prefer to go to places recommended in the blog to following travel magazines directions as they said, “If Graham says a place is worth seeing then it’d never be wrong.”


Sometimes he becomes a guide to provide information on what to do, to eat and where to see in Vietnam for tourists who wish to travel in Vietnam.


Writing and traveling a lot (Graham has been working also as a freelance journalist for The Guardian, Scotland Magazine, Sunday Herald, Time Magazine and so on), he chose Saigon as a place to settle down. “The reason is my wife is working here and Saigon is famed for its delicious dishes,” said Graham.


Graham’s principle is to try everything, even if they are strange foods. Luckily he has never had any problems with food poisoning.


Usually he is a very quiet man but when talking about food Graham can talk for hours without getting bored.


He just found a small restaurant where they serve Bun Mam (noodle mixed with sauces in District 10 run by a woman. He decided to send the dish to the Food Festival 2005 organized by TasteEverything.org, and won the Prize of Great Dish of TasteEverything.


Many Vietnamese people were proud that such a common food from their country was listed in prize awards together with 29 other dishes from all over the world.


Graham said it would be a great thing for Vietnam to use its various kinds of good food to advertise for the country’s tourism.


“It is difficult for Vietnam to compete with Thailand in terms of beautiful beaches and to be compared with Cambodia with all its Wats, but Vietnam has the advantage to competing with other countries in terms of food,” said Graham.


Eating on streets is a special thing of Vietnam especially traditional food, which is very Vietnamese. Using this to make a plan to advertise the tourism here would see an increase in number of tourists coming to the country.


(Source: Tuoi Tre)

10:09' 27/04/2006 (GMT+7)

Vietnamese-American chef Bao Michael Huynh has traveled here and there in HCMC in the past weeks, pursuing his plans to further promote Vietnamese specialties at home and abroad.

Chef Bao Michael Huynh puts the final touches on his crocodile meat dish at Saigon Crocodile Village on Friday.

The award-winning chef says in his Vietnam trip from April 14 to April 25, he has been working with the four star riverside Majestic Hotel in downtown HCMC to open a fine-dining Vietnamese restaurant.

The "Best Chef of New York 2003" says if everything progressed smoothly, the restaurant would open in mid-June to cash in on the increasing number of foreigners who love to eat Vietnamese food.

To create a special menu for the planned restaurant, Bao and his friends, including Vietnamese-American singer Jimmii Nguyen and American model Trissa Nasser, have frequented local eateries and markets to try com tam (cooked broken rice with grilled pork) and other specialties.

Last Friday, Bao and his friends visited a wine maker in the Mekong Delta province of Long An and the Saigon Crocodile Village in HCMC's District 12. There Bao cooked up two crocodile meat dishes for his friends and guests to taste.

According to Bao, Vietnam has become a favorite destination for food lovers and renowned chefs from around the world so that more restaurants should open, especially in HCMC, to present specialties of the country.

The 43-year-old chef's Vietnam visit this time is almost over, Bao flies back to the United States today to help set up and decorate a restaurant in New York City to serve original and innovative Vietnamese dishes.

The ambience of the 200-seat restaurant will reflect real Vietnam with Vietnam-made chairs and tables. Bao plans to invite local designer Vo Viet Chung to tailor ao ba ba (loose-fitting attire) for the servers.

Bao says the restaurant, whose investors include American artists fond of Vietnamese cuisine, is scheduled to open in September.

Bao says an increasing number of Americans favored Vietnamese food because it is easy to digest and healthy.

Bao returns to Vietnam every year either alone or with friends and other chefs to promote Vietnamese cuisine.

Last year, he led a group of chefs and students from the Culinary Institute of America to explore the cuisine and other attractions across the country.

After leaving HCMC in 1982, Bao settled in New York with his adopted family that owned an Italian restaurant. After a short period of training and working as sous-chef, he climbed the ranks to become executive chef.

While continuing to work as a chef, he decided to follow his father's footsteps and enrolled at the New York Institute of Technology to study architecture in 1987.

Bao's two fields of interest, architecture and culinary arts, began to merge. Soon he was designing, planning and building restaurants with other chefs and opened his own restaurant Bao 111 in September 2002.

April 1, 2006

Nice Vietnamese, pho sure

By Patricia Rodriguez

Pretty, tasty: Miss Saigon Cafe's menu includes grilled marinated chicken breast on rice noodles with dipping sauce. Iced milk coffee accompanies.


Pretty, tasty: Miss Saigon Cafe's menu includes grilled marinated chicken breast on rice noodles with dipping sauce. Iced milk coffee accompanies.

THE CUISINE: Vietnamese.

THE IDEA: Manager Kim Pham wants to bring traditional Vietnamese cuisine to the masses. The menu at this small, stylish suburban spot hits just the highlights of the vast expanse of Vietnamese cuisine and serves them in a stripped-down style that may be especially appealing to those unfamiliar with the cuisine.

THE FOOD: Vietnamese dishes are light yet complex, depending on a careful mix of fresh herbs, vegetables and seasonings for their layered, subtle flavors. Most of the dishes we tried here were traditional versions but a bit light on the herbs and spices, making them perfect for novices but perhaps a little bland for aficionados.

Our favorite dish was the grilled chicken on rice noodles ($4.95). Large chunks of marinated chicken breast were charred perfectly on the grill, then laid atop a bed of skinny rice vermicelli, chopped lettuces and a bit of mint and cilantro. Served with the traditional light dressing of rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, chiles and sugar, it made for a refreshing main-course salad.

The beef noodle soup, or pho ($5.25), was also a traditional version. The strips of beef (good-quality eye of round steak) were cooked to rare temperature and were the best part of the dish, which seemed a bit lacking in the cloves and other spices that usually make this broth so fragrant.

Spring rolls (two for $2.75) were fat, cool rolls of rice paper, stuffed with rice vermicelli, slivered shrimp and pork.

No liquor is served, but there's a nice selection of other drinks, including several boba (tapioca pearl) drinks, strong Vietnamese iced coffee and delicious, fresh-squeezed orange juice, sweetened with just a bit of extra sugar.

THE SETTING: The dining room, painted in two soothing shades of pale green, is understated yet fashionable, accented with low tiled pillars topped by vases, and square-framed black-and-white photos of landscapes and icons like Miles Davis. Eclectic music selections — mostly Brazilian on our visit — set a worldly tone.

THE SERVICE: Attentive, friendly and fast; they paid special attention to our small dining companion, making sure he got his child's entree while we were noshing on the appetizers.

THE DETAILS: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. Major credit cards accepted; smoke-free; BYOB; wheelchair-accessible.

Miss Saigon Cafe

932 Melbourne Road


(817) 595-0135

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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.


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.