Ethnic Eating 101: Vietnamese, Part 3
Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101. This week, in the third installment of our guide to Vietnamese cooking, we make one more stop in the savory department and then head for the sweets--but not TOO sweet. Join us as we discuss fajitas, get our caffeine fix and then head for dessert.
Chả cá Thăng Long
While every ethnicity has its own foodways, there are threads that are universal. Porridge is a universal thread; grilling things over open fire is a universal thread, and cooking things on a ripping-hot metal plate is a universal thread. If you're at a Tex-Mex restaurant, this involves beef or chicken and is called fajitas; if you're at a Vietnamese restaurant, it involves catfish, marinated in turmeric, galangal (a slightly more medicinal-tasting cousin of ginger) and fish sauce, grilled on a very hot cast-iron flat skillet, served with skillet-charred onions and dill and called chả cá Thăng Long (sometimes written as chả cá Thanh Long).
When you think of dill, you might think more of gravlax and Swedish boiled potatoes, but this is a very authentic northern Vietnamese dish. It'll be served with the usual table salad, plus boiled rice vermicelli and, of course, nước chấm. You can assemble it yourself, or have it pre-assembled (in which case it will be called bún chả cá).
The taste is one of those revelations, especially if you're used to muddy, Southern-style deep-fried catfish. The edges char just a little bit, permeating the dish with a slightly smoky flavor; the onions sweeten on the grill, and the dill provides a slightly grassy note. Brought together with the unctuousness of fish sauce and the floral essence of the various herbs, it manages to have almost a buttery taste. You'll never look at that dried-up platter of chicken and bell peppers at El Torito the same way again.
This is, incidentally, one of the more expensive dishes to get; at $13-$16 for a huge portion, it's still a huge bargain compared to what a similar amount of prepared fish would cost elsewhere.
The world plays host to an insane number of caffeinated drinks, from the thimble-sized jolts to the head known as Turkish coffee to the formal green tea service in Japan that is so steeped in tradition it has conceived its own style of cooking to go with it, from the eggshell coffee served out of huge aluminium pots in American and Canadian Lutheran church basements to the concentrated black tea with a samovar of hot water to thin it found on every Russian train.
Vietnam's best contribution to the stimulation of the planet is called cà phê sữa đá (literally, "coffee milk ice"). It's very strong, very bitter coffee mixed nearly 1:1 with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice. Known around the office as the "Black Hole of Caffeine", it delivers a one-two punch with a massive wallop of stimulants and an equally impressive dose of sugar. If you're a lover of what in New York is called "light and sweet" (with dairy and sugar), you will quickly find yourself addicted to this.
Quality varies, but the ideal place brings the cà phê sữa đá setup to your table: a glass of ice with a long-handled spoon and a straw, a ceramic coffee cup with the correct amount of condensed milk in the bottom, and a cheap aluminium filter filled with grounds and boiling water balanced on the coffee cup. Wait for the water to seep through the grounds, then use the spoon to mix the milk and coffee together, then pour the entire contents over the ice, some of which will have melted. Try to resist the urge to drink the water with the straw, because the water will mix with the coffee and make it a little less thick and a little less cloyingly sweet.
Cà phê sữa đá usually comes in small-ish portions, perhaps a quarter- to a half-cup of coffee-milk mixture poured over a small cup of ice. This is plenty. Lee's Sandwiches has started selling an enormous "large Lee's Coffee"; drink one of these and you'll give yourself a stomachache.
Incidentally, you can get the coffee hot (called cà phê sữa nóng), but you'll miss the best part of the whole experience. Most places use crushed ice, so that when you pour the coffee over the top, it seeps into the ice. This turns the entire cup into an amazingly refreshing coffee granita, which you can tip into your mouth and use to cool off for at least an hour after you've ordered it.
Where to get it: absolutely any Vietnamese restaurant, cafe, pastry shop or to-go shop. Sit-down restaurants are the best choices for the full experience with the setup, but bánh mì shops are the most convenient places to get the coffee slush to go. Prices vary but expect to pay $1.50-$2.00 at to-go places and maybe a little more at sit-down places. Vietnamese pâtisserie
We have the French to thank for introducing Western-style pastry to Southeast Asia, but we have the Vietnamese to thank for adapting it to their own tastes. Vietnamese pastry tends to be a bit drier than French pastry, and less sticky-sweet than its Gallic counterpart as well, which means you can eat a sweet snack and not need to guzzle a liter of water afterwards to clear your mouth.
The apotheosis of this collision of worlds is the fruit tart. A flaky pastry shell filled with vanilla cream that is almost ethereally light, then topped with concentric rings of fresh--and I do mean fresh--fruit and shellacked with a thin layer of glaze to make it shiny. Because we live in Southern California, fruit is available year-round, and thus the quality of our fruit tarts is far, far superior to even Vietnamese fruit tarts in New York. They're also CHEAP. You can usually get a huge tart the size of a pizza for under $20.
Another item brought over by the French is pâte à choux--you know, the stuff éclairs and cream puffs are made of. That same light, not-as-sweet vanilla pastry cream is injected into puffs to make Vietnamese cream puffs, called bánh su ("su" in Vietnamese is pronounced like "choux" in French). Large cream puffs are normally 3 for $1.00, small cream puffs usually 4 for $1.00.
Even the ubiquitous street snack of northern France and Belgium, the waffle, got exported to the steamy wilds of Vietnam. In this case, the waffles got updated with a very non-European ingredient: pandan leaves that have been soaked in coconut milk. This lends a distinctly green cast and an herbaceous, deep undertone to the waffles, which can be alarming if you aren't expecting it. Just one thing about waffles: they are always sort of floppy. This may be because keeping anything crisp in the drippingly-humid climate of Vietnam would be an Herculean task, but if you want crisp edges, take the waffles home and pop them in the toaster, like the best Eggos™ you've ever head. Waffles are normally $1.00 each.
Where to get it: Fruit tarts are best found at Le Croissant Doré (9122 Bolsa, Westminster); items like bánh su and pandan waffles can be got at the various branches of Van's Bakery (9211 Bolsa, Westminster; 8926 Bolsa, Westminster; 14346 Brookhurst, Garden Grove; 9877 Chapman, Garden Grove; 13221 Harbor, Garden Grove) or most large bánh mì shops.
Next week, we'll leave Vietnam for a bit (but we'll be back--there is a lot still left to cover!) and journey northeast to Korea. In the meantime, happy eating and merry Christmas!
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