A Taste of Cooking in the Mekong Delta

by Eliot Martin

I’ve found that really good Vietnamese food is unfortunately difficult to find in the U.S. For that matter, Vietnam as a whole seems to be misunderstood by many. While the best solution would be to spend some quality time in Vietnam—something I would recommend to anyone—you can whet your appetite without going halfway around the world. Get a taste of Vietnam through my experience with bánh xèo.

When someone says “Vietnamese Food,” what comes to mind?

For most people, I would guess their answer is phở, maybe fresh spring rolls or bánh mì.

This was my impression before I stumbled across an incredible hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant while driving through Louisville, KY, several years ago. It was only then that my eyes were opened to another iconic Vietnamese dish—bánh xèo (pronounced: BÁNH-say-òh. Roughly translated as fried cake). I was taken aback by the complex flavors and textures in the dish. It was a crispy, yet chewy, vibrantly yellow crepe; rich with pork fat, but tempered with light and pungent herbs and lettuce; served with sweet, sour, and spicy nước chấm (a lime juice and fish sauce blend that goes with many dishes in Vietnam).

Fast forward a few years and I found myself living in Vietnam as a student. One of the first meals I had in country was a bánh xèo that well exceeded my recollection.

If you’re like me, a large swath of the pleasure of travel is experiencing culture through cuisine. I made it my mission to try every new food I could get my hands on during my nearly four months in Vietnam. I made a special point to not only experience the food I could find on the streets of Saigon and restaurants around the country, but through learning what people eat inside their homes first hand with my homestay mom—by my reckoning, one of the finest chefs in the world.

My learning from her was done mostly through gesturing and the communication of individual food words using translation apps, notes, or my homestay brother’s translations—my homestay mom hardly spoke a word of English and my Vietnamese is atrocious. I couldn’t hope to achieve many of her sophisticated dishes and I wasn’t sure what ingredients I’d even be able to replicate.

If little else could be imparted, she wanted to at least teach me my favorite Vietnamese food, so I asked her to show me how to make bánh xèo.

On a trip to the Mekong Delta with my homestay mom and friends, the time had come for one of my most memorable food experiences. In the early evening, I joined my homestay mom and a close friend of hers under a dining gazebo situated in a picturesque field of palm and banana trees along the river to learn how to make bánh xèo.

Ingredient-by-ingredient, step-by-step, she instructed me without words. My culinary background enabled me to fill in the blanks in many instances, and acquire the necessary skills quickly—though with nowhere near the acuity of my mentor.

Google translate assisted in confirming my hunch that the crystalline salt added was MSG, but I was dumbfounded by what turned out to be the quintessential ingredient in this iteration of the dish—some damp, fibrous strips of white vegetal matter. After fruitless engagement with Google Translate, she eventually pointed at the top of a palm tree—it was fresh heart of palm, an ingredient I had never seen before and to this day have never seen since.

After several attempts of trial and error, we put together an array of bánh xèo in varying degrees of presentability.

As I sat down at the outdoor table in good company and the moist, cool air of the Delta in evening, I knew I had been granted a truly extraordinary opportunity. The bánh xèo came out exceptionally crispy on the clay burners we had used to cook outside. The fresh ingredients left us with unique flavor impressions—the density and light, sweet coconut flavor the heart of palm imparted to the crepes was exquisite. The exotic atmosphere and new family the meal was shared with made the experience truly memorable.

While I can’t share every detail of that night or adequately describe the finesse of my homestay mom in the kitchen, the recipe I have included is an adaptation of my notes from that very meal. The only alteration I have made is the recommendation of bean sprouts as an alternative to the fresh heart of palm—true to the way the dish is prepared just about everywhere else in Vietnam.

It may take some experimentation to get right, but skip ordering bánh xèo in a restaurant, make it right and write your own story in the company of friends and family with this recipe. And next time you order Vietnamese food, remember to look beyond the famous Hanoian street food, phở, and delve deeper into an incredible and under-explored cuisine.

 

Bánh Xèo Recipe

Servings—Makes enough for several people as an appetizer or a few as a meal

Cooking time—Allow up to a couple hours for prep time. Making multiple crepes on one burner can be time consuming.

 

Batter ingredients:

Approx. One cup rice flour

One can coconut milk

Approx. ½ cup chives (finely chopped)

Water

Approx. one tbsp. turmeric powder

Salt to taste (the original recipe calls for 50% table salt and 50% msg)

 

Filling ingredients:

A strip of pork belly, diced (Typically available at Asian grocery stores. Sometimes you can even get it at Whole Foods. Though not ideal, it could be substituted with a mild bacon.)

One large onion sliced

One package sliced mushrooms

A couple handfuls small shell-on shrimp (These can typically be found in the frozen section at an Asian grocery store. Substitution with other shrimp is possible, but not recommended.)

A couple handfuls of bean sprouts

*I wouldn’t recommend substituting canned heart of palm for the fresh heart of palm my homestay mom used because it neither contributes the texture nor light coconut flavor that were so nice with the fresh heart of palm. You could try experimenting with mature coconut flesh for a similar effect—but that’s probably more work than it’s worth.

**When available, sliced squash blossoms are a delicious addition as well

 

For frying:

Traditionally lard is used, though it works nearly as well with vegetable oil

A traditional wok is ideal for this recipe for the edges of the crepe to properly crisp. If you don’t have one, a large sautéing/stir fry pan will work fine—it is important to have a large cooking surface though.

 

For serving:

Mint

Vietnamese/Thai basil

Cilantro

Purple perilla/sesame leaves (Available at Asian grocery stores. Can substitute with mustard greens)

Lettuce (I’d recommend a head of red oak lettuce)

A rice bowl of nước chấm

 

Instructions:

Mix coconut water and chives. Refill empty coconut milk can with water and add to mixture. Add rice flour, mixing evenly, keeping the batter very runny (About the consistency of coconut milk. If it is too thick, the crepes will not crisp properly). Add enough turmeric to turn the light batter yellow. Salt to taste.

Stir fry briefly, in small batches, the onion, shrimp, pork, mushroom, bean sprouts, and squash blossom in frying oil in a very hot wok (it should be hot enough to vaporize any moisture that is released from ingredients).

Transfer mixture out of wok. Heat wok up again until very hot (retain the oil, adding more if needed).

Quickly pour a ladle of batter in a circular motion around the wok, tilting the wok as needed to fully cover the hottest portion with a thin layer of batter.

Carefully add a few large pinches of the filling mixture onto the middle of the crêpe (I know the mixture looks tasty, but resist the temptation to add more than a sprinkling of the ingredients in order for it to cook properly!) and cover for a couple minutes until the crêpe is bubbly.

Uncover and add lard or oil on edges to avoid sticking. Turn the wok over the flame on its sides to use the boiling oil to get the edges crispy.

When the edges are very crispy and it appears fully cooked, fold the crêpe in half.

Serve with nước chấm, herbs (typically mint and Vietnamese/Thai basil, and a little cilantro), purple perilla, and a variety of lettuces. Wrap the crepe in the herbs and lettuces and dip in the sauce (be prepared to get a little messy!).

 

Nước Chấm Recipe

Literally “lime water”—this sauce pretty much goes with an astonishing array of dishes in in Vietnam. You may also here it simply referred to as nước mắm  (fish sauce) as this is the typical way the traditional Vietnamese sauce of fermented fish is used.

 

Combine ingredients to taste (listed in order of quantity used):

Fresh lime juice

Fish sauce (nước mắm)

Palm sugar (cane sugar works almost as well)

Crushed fresh Vietnamese/Thai chilis

Crushed fresh garlic

(many places include grated carrot and shredded green mango too—though this are a good thing to skip when making it at home)

Eliot Martin is a first-year student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program who, like many Friedman students, finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. While the food-systems research he is most interested in pertains to behavioral decision making and its policy implications, he’s excited to share his personal experiences as well. He looks forward to contributing regularly to the sprout. Eliot can be contacted at eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-52406289.

 

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Ackee: Jamaica’s Irresistible Delicacy

by Christine Sinclair

Ever heard of Jamaica? Yes? Ever heard of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt? Yes? Ever heard of ackee? No? Well, just like Jamaica and our international stars, ackee is a star in its own right. You don’t quite know Jamaica until you know ackee. So let me introduce you. Sit back, because you are in for a treat! Ackee has a rich history dating back to the slave trade. It has a delicious flavor, and a unique texture that you will want to add to your cooking repertoire. And the recipe below is Friedman approved, having debuted the recipe below to a group of students with rave reviews.

Ackee is a fruit that grows in clusters of three in a pod on large evergreen trees in tropical climates, namely on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and in other parts of the world, including West African countries, Haiti, and parts of South America. The outer shell of this fist-sized fruit is bright red, with hues of orange and yellow. It has a tough outer skin that protects its delicate inside. As ackee matures and ripens, it naturally opens up to expose its edible contents. This unique and bountiful fruit grows throughout the island and, in fact, is Jamaica’s national fruit and a main ingredient in the national dish, ackee & saltfish.

Ackee has been Jamaica’s national fruit for centuries, having made its way to the island during the 18th century, carried over on slave ships departing West Africa. Its name is derived from the West African Akye fufo and its scientific name, Blighia sapidawas, was coined by a man named Captain William Bligh, and has since become a staple food in the Jamaican diet. The yellow arils are edible, while all other parts of the fruit, including the seeds are discarded.

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee not only has an interesting history, but a unique and potentially dangerous toxic property. Ackee goes through stages of maturation and ripening. During these different stages, ackee has varying levels of a water soluble toxin called Hypoglycin A and B. These toxins produce a symptom called Jamaican Vomiting Syndrome (JVS) aka Toxic Hypoglycemic Syndrome (low blood sugar as low as 3 mg/dL), which can cause severe vomiting, abdominal pain, coma and death. But, wait! Before you run off dismissing this delicate treat, let me explain how ackee can be enjoyed with no toxic effects at all.

In unripe ackee, the concentration of Hypoglycin A is about 1000 parts per million (ppm). As the fruit matures, in addition to its exposure to sunlight, Hypoglycin A is drastically reduced to 0.1 ppm in the mature fruit. Ingestion of immature ackee (a.k.a. ackee not left to properly ripen and naturally open) produces the toxic effect in humans.

Ackee found in the United States is precooked and canned, and has gone through extensive processing checks by the USDA to ensure safe consumption. And these checks seem to work: There have been no known cases of JVS in the United States from canned, imported ackee due to these regulations.

Photo: Ackee stages of maturity

Photo: “Tastes Like Home,” Ackee stages of maturity

What are the health benefits of ackee?

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research on ackee—partly because it isn’t grown in the United States—what little literature we do have suggests that ackee provides many health benefits. People in Jamaica will eat ackee cooked or uncooked. The uncooked version is said to serve as a strong diuretic, helping move the bowels and keep them in good shape. While the uncooked version cannot be found in the United States, the cooked form can be found canned in international markets. And don’t worry, only mature ackee is canned for your eating pleasure!

Ackee in both forms is rich in the monounsaturated fatty acids, oleic acid (55.4%), palmitic acid (25.57%), and stearic acid (12.59%), and is low in calories (about 151 calories per 100g can of ackee). Ackee is also rich in many vitamins and minerals, according to the West Indian Medical Journal.

How is ackee prepared?

When ackee is cooked with different meats and spices, it takes on the flavors of what you pair it with—without losing its own unique taste. Many find it difficult to describe the actual taste of ackee, saying it has the consistency of avocado with a rich buttery flavor. After interviewing a number of people, the verdict is still out. The best way to know? Try it for yourself!

At Ackee Bamboo Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA, owners Marlene and Delroy Beckford prepare this staple dish for customers unfamiliar with ackee’s delicious taste and powerful history. Hoping to give them a true and authentic experience of Jamaica, they give out samples to convince the novice that they are in for a treat. As Marlene said, “If you say you have had ackee [and saltfish] you have been to the island.”

Ackee and Jamaican Culture

Ackee’s uniqueness, beautiful range of colors and its authentic and delicious taste describes the very essence of Jamaica. Ackee is Jamaica! Rooted in a deep history of the slave trade, revolution and liberation, ackee is so much more than a delicious meal. To try and put into words the meaning that this national fruit has is close to impossible. But, if you would like a bite size experience of a rich and powerful history, the next time you spot ackee in your local market or pass by a Jamaican restaurant, be sure to pick up a can or stop in and ask for a plate of ackee and saltfish with dumplings, green banana, yellow yam and callaloo!

Picture: Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled dumplings and greens

Picture: “Pinterest,” Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled
dumplings and greens

Ackee Recipe

Ingredients – 4 people

1/2 lb saltfish (dried, salted codfish)*

12 fresh ackees or 1 (drained) can of tinned ackee

1 medium onion

1/2 tsp black pepper

3 tbsp of butter or cooking oil

1/2 a hot chili pepper (ideally Scotch Bonnet)

1 bell pepper (red, green or both)

1 chopped tomato

1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme

Optional ingredients: 2 cloves of garlic 4 scallion (green onion)

*Eliminate the saltfish to make this recipe vegan

Preparation

  • Cover the saltfish in cold water and let it soak overnight (minimum 8 hours) changing the water several times (this removes most of the salt)
  • Bring a pan of cold water to boil and gently simmer the fish for 20 minutes (until tender)
  • Chop the onion, bell pepper, chili pepper and tomato
  • Remove the fish from the water and allow to it cool
  • Remove all bones and skin then flake the flesh of the fish

Cooking

  • Melt the butter or add oil in a frying pan and stir fry the onion, black pepper, bell pepper, chili and thyme for about 3 minutes
  • Add the tomatoes and flaked fish and stir-fry for another 6 minutes
  • Add the ackee and cook until hot throughout and tender. Stir gently to avoid breaking-up the ackee

Serve with yam, green banana, or fried dumplings

ackee4

Christine Sinclair is a second-semester NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program whose family is from the beautiful island of Jamaica. She is an avid health enthusiast who loves challenging activities such as boxing, cross-fit, and distance running. If Christine isn’t cooking, she is eating, or talking about food. 

Curry Salmon and Cauliflower Rice: A Yummy Way to Get Omega 3s

By Katherine Pett

Having purchased a bunch of individually wrapped, frozen salmon fillets at the grocery store, I was searching for a way to cook them that would be both delicious and out of the common way.  Having read earlier posts on the benefits of turmeric and hoping to maximize my intake of health omega-3’s, I experimented with a curry recipe for salmon.  After a couple months of tweaking, this is what I came up with!  Try it out and let us know how it goes!

Curry Salmon

Ingredients: 

  • 1 pound salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 inch piece of ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 bag (about 8 oz) of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of coconut milk (the full-fat kind)
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp of coconut oil
  • 1.5 tsps paprika
  • 1.5 tsps curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 1 pinch black pepper (or more to taste)
  • 1 pinch salt (or more to taste)

Instructions:

1. Mix all your spices thoroughly and set them aside.

2. Add ginger (peeled) and garlic cloves to food processor and pulse until fine.  Then add frozen spinach and mix all ingredients til they are finely chopped.  If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works fine.

(If you’re working light on kitchen tools, buy frozen chopped spinach beforehand, then just chop ginger and garlic as finely as you can).

3. Heat your tbsp of coconut oil in a skillet over medium heat.  When melted, add your spinach mixture to the pan.  Saute until the ginger and garlic are becoming a clear consistency and frozen spinach is fully thawed and hot to the touch.

4. Add in your bowl of spices and mix thoroughly in the pan.

5.  Add coconut milk, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix.

6.  Once the mixture is simmering, add your fish.  Then bring to low heat, cover the pan, and cook for up to 10 minutes or until the salmon flakes easily with a fork.

Cauliflower Rice

This is a nice way to serve your curried dish and get another serving of non-starchy veggies into your day!

Ingredients:

  • One head of cauliflower
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

1. Cut cauliflower into manageable chunks, then process in a food processor until it is the approximate size and shape of rice.

2. Then, heat a tbsp of olive oil in a pan on the stove, add your cauliflower rice and stir until the cauliflower is cooked through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

If you don’t have a food processor, your best bet is to make a mashed cauliflower and use that as a base instead.  Instead of processing the chunks of cauliflower, steam them in a large pot first.  Once pieces of cauliflower are very soft, mash them in a large bowl.  It won’t be grainy like the rice, but it will taste just as good!

I like to serve my curry salmon over the cauliflower rice for a meal that’s high in vegetables and healthy fish!

This recipe should make 5 servings.

Here are some (non-artistic) photos of the process!

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What you need to get started.  I cut those salmon down until they were in cubes.

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Add your spices to the mixture before the coconut milk (although I’ve messed up and added it after and that was fine, too!)

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This is what it looks like with the salmon added!  Once salmon is cooked through, serve it over cauliflower rice (or the starch of your choice) and enjoy.

Katherine Pett is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program at The Friedman School.  She can be reached at katherine.docimo@tufts.edu and on Twitter @smarfdoc.