Tôi yêu tiếng nước tôi từ khi mới ra đời, người ơi,
Mẹ hiền ru những câu xa vời…
I fell in love with the sound of my land from the moment I left the womb, the resonating words of my sweet mother’s lullaby…
More than what is perceived on American television and in the dusty history books, Viet Nam is a very real place for me. In one word, it is home. Viet Nam beckoned me like the tight pull of an umbilical cord, and like a docile child, I answered. Twenty-two years later, I still answer, whether it’s a strong need to be home for Tết, or the desire to hear the beautiful language spoken when I’m in a foreign country, or the cravings for dishes slathered in fish sauce and pungent shrimp paste. Whenever she calls, I still answer.
Quite possibly, the worst part about being in New York City (besides the ridiculous weather, the rent-is-too-damn-high, etc.) is that there is no access to delicious Vietnamese food. Where do I get a bowl of delicious Phở on a cold winter night, filled with different cuts of beef and garnished with sweet basil and cilantro? How do I satisfy my craving for crispy bánh xèo, filled with meats and bean sprouts, unceremoniously wrapped in lettuce then dunked in a bowl of nước mắm? And why do I have to pay $12 for bánh mì thịt nguội? I just want a simple Vietnamese baguette stuffed with Vietnamese ham and pâté, then filled with crunchy pickled daikon and carrots, then topped off with thin slices of serrano chili and sprigs of cilantro. Heck, add a dash of black pepper and a splash of Maggi, and I could be in heaven. Is that too much to ask for? And the thing I miss the most – gold old humble thịt kho, or caramelized meat, and a bowl of fragrant Jasmine rice – a staple in any Vietnamese household. Vietnamese food is all about contrasting textures and bright, bold flavors in every dish. Influenced by Chinese cuisine, French pastry, Thai and Indian ingredients – (I say this with no hesitation) Vietnamese cuisine is the world’s greatest fusion.
And because I miss home and particularly my mama’s cooking, I made caramelized Tilapia – fresh pieces of white Tilapia are nestled in a simmering liquid consisting of mostly fish sauce and sugar. The liquid caramelizes and thickens as the fish cooks, taking on a beautiful amber brown color; the fragrance permeates the room (heck, even the whole apartment floor), and you are left with a delectable salty-sweet pieces of flaky fish – just spoon both that liquid and browned fish over Jasmine rice, and you are all set for a delicious meal. The smells linger long after I finish my meal and wash the dishes, but it is SO WORTH IT because I miss home THAT MUCH.
Vietnamese Cá Kho
There are only about a million ways to do this. Traditionally this is done in a claypot, but your usual saucepan works just fine. You can pretty much use any meat, or even whole boiled eggs, or any type of seafood. Some people like a really dark and thick liquid, and so caramelize the sugar first before adding fish sauce. Some people add coconut juice and/or coconut milk to give the liquid more depth – this is called kho tàu. When David’s mom does cá kho, she adds galangal while the liquid is simmering and cooks her salmon steaks until almost all of the liquid is absorbed into the fish. The recipe here is the simplest and most basic cá kho you will ever find, and a good base with tons of room for improvisation. Serves 2.
2-3 fillets of tilapia, cut into cubes
1/4 c fish sauce
1/4 c granulated sugar [or to taste]
1 tbs ginger, peeled and diced
< 1/2 c water
Sambal Oelek Chili Paste [optional, to taste]
In a saucepan, add sugar and ~1 tbs of water and cook over LOW HEAT (or else it will burn), stirring constantly until brown and caramelized. Add fish sauce and ~1/4 c water, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Lay fish cubes flat along bottom of saucepan and sprinkle ginger over fish. Continue on med-low heat, and bring liquid up to a rolling boil. There liquid should NOT be covering the fish, but rather the same level with the fish. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of your fish pieces. My Tilapia probably took 5 minutes, but thicker salmon or beef or pork, will certainly take longer. If the caramel liquid becomes too thick, drizzle in additional water, a tablespoon at a time. I like a spicy sauce, so I tend to add maybe 1 tsp of Sambal, and top with a dash of ground pepper before serving. Serve immediately over Jasmine rice. Enjoy.
I ate this with homemade kim chi, and actually used some of the kim chi liquid in the caramelizing sauce – added a nice brightness and extra heat factor. Vietnamese food is all about big flavors and big textures, so it is pretty common to see people eat thịt kho with other pickled vegetables, like cucumber or bean sprouts.
Sneak-peek of my homemade Kim Chi
Today, I really miss home, home style Vietnamese cooking, and Viet Nam in general. Lucky for me, Nhi and mommy are visiting for Veteran’s Day, and David will be here Thanksgiving. Maybe they’ll be able to sneak me some Vietnamese food in their carry-ons, because I am having the hardest time finding Vietnamese ingredients here.
PS. Also, I recently came back from DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, so look out for those upcoming posts and pictures.