Magazine article Sunset

Saigon Comfort Food

Magazine article Sunset

Saigon Comfort Food

Article excerpt

Eric and Sophie Banh make it easy to cook great Vietnamese at home.

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, when Sophie Banh couldn't find the Vietnamese dishes she was craving in Seattle, she persuaded her brother Eric to open a restaurant with her. Called Monsoon, it was the first of several restaurants from the Banhs that have introduced Seattle to a modern Vietnamese cuisine grounded in traditions from their childhood in Saigon.

"It makes Sophie and me happy to cook what we remember," says Eric. Even though they depart from their grandmother's dishes by using Northwest ingredients, "it's not really fusion," he says. "The smell of her cooking is still there."

On a recent drizzly day, Eric and Sophie welcomed Sunset into the kitchen of their more casual restaurant, Ba Bar, to show us how to cook some of their favorite at-home dishes. Although the more exotic ingredients they use (broken rice! shiso! pickled leeks!) can be substituted with easy-to-find choices, a trip to the Asian grocery store is a worthwhile part of the cooking adventure too.

In the Banhs' pantry

* BROKEN RICE Byproduct of processing rice; stickier and softer than whole-grain

* LITCHI PURÉE Prom juicy litchis, a fruit native to China

* MINT A staple; always used fresh

* OOLONG TEA Falls between black and green tea, flavor-wise

* SHISO (perilla) Aromatic, notch-edged herb; is red or green

* thai basil Narrowleafed, with purplish stem and anisey scent

* VEGETARIAN "OYSTER" SAUCE Eric prefers this variety, made from mushrooms, to regular oyster sauce for its more consistent quality.

* VIETNAMESE FISH SAUCE Pressed from salted, fermented anchovies. Mild Three Crabs brand is fine for cooking, says Eric; for bolder flavor, he likes single-press Red Boat.

* VIETNAMESE PICKLED LEEKS Crunchy and mildly spicy-sweet

SOPHIE & ERIC BANH at their Seattle restaurant Ba Bar

2 STIR-FRIES

Bean Sprouts & Chives

Asparagus & Shrimp

STIR-FRIED BEAN SPROUTS and CHINESE CHIVES

SERVES 4 TO 6 20 MINUTES

Sautéed bean sprouts and Chinese chives are a true comfort dish that every family in Saigon makes. It's ultrasimple, deliciously crunchy, and ready in a flash. If you can't locate Chinese chives (see photo at right), use green onions instead.

1 tbsp. fish sauce, preferably Red Boat

2 tsp. soy sauce

1/2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 rounded tbsp. minced garlic

6 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and dried

5 oz. Chinese chives, ends trimmed, cut into 2-in. lengths, or green onions, dark green part only (cut lengthwise in half first)

Salt and pepper

1. Blend your cooking sauce: In a small bowl, mix together fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine.

2. Have your other ingredients lined up next to the stove: oil, garlic, bean sprouts, and Chinese chives. "For extra flavor, use the oil left from frying the shallots for the salad," says Sophie (salad recipe is on page 94). You'll also want salt and pepper handy.

3. Heat a large - 12 in. or wider - heavy skillet or wok over high heat. Swirl in oil. Toss in garlic and fry, stirring constantly, until it just begins to brown, about 15 seconds. Add bean sprouts and cooking sauce and fry, stirring and tossing, about 90 seconds. Sprinkle in chives and cook, tossing well, 30 to 60 seconds. "The chives should be barely cooked - darker but not wilted," Sophie says.

4. Remove pan from heat and stir in a couple of pinches of pepper, plus salt to taste. Lift the sprouts out of the hot pan and onto a platter quickly, so they don't continue cooking. "That keeps them crunchy. And putting them on a platter instead of in a bowl keeps them from steaming."

PER SERVING 143 CAL., 33* (47 CAL.) FROM FAT; 7.7 G PROTEIN; 5.4 G FAT (0.5 G SAT.); 20 G CARBO (3.4 G FIBER); 340 MG SODIUM; 0 MG CHOL

TIP

Make sure the sprouts are creamy white. …

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