People think of Asian cooking as existing on the West and East Coasts but that's not true. Asian people are everywhere and these days, you can get the basic ingredients to prepare Vietnamese food in many parts of the country. There's a lot going on in the Midwest, a part of the country that many foodie Americans poopoo but I think is fabulous. If people are preparing and enjoying Vietnamese food in America's heartland, then you know we've made it!
Candy, a resident of Bloomington, Indiana, has been cooking her way through my cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. When I asked her about getting ingredients, she responded, "Bloomington is a university town with a very diverse population. We don't have a lot of Vietnamese here which is why we go up to Indianapolis where there are several restaurants when I don't want to cook. It is about an hour away. We have several international markets with a strong Asian presence. We do have a lot of Koreans, Japanese, and Thai here. For a town this size to have three Korean restaurants and three Thai restaurants (one of which has received an award from the Thai government) is amazing. Plus one of the few Tibetan restaurants in the US. The Dalai Lama's brother was on faculty here and his children and wife have a few restaurants." Okay, major university towns do have advantages over smaller locations, but when in doubt, ask a Vietnamese person or the owners of your favorite Vietnamese restaurant for guidance!
I was honored and delighted when she emailed photographs of her progress, including a batch of tasty corn and coconut fritters (cha bap ran, above). Those YOWZA good fritters are fabulous this time of the year when corn is at its peak. She made several batches for an event and they were all eaten up. (My mom is known to make a gargantuan amount of these tasty, fragrant fritters too!)
Candy also contributed Vietnamese dishes to an Asian theme potluck. She wrote, "A couple of the photos are from the Asian themed Pot Luckmy dining group had a few weeks ago. You can see your banana cake, cha gio (fried imperial rolls), corn fritters, shrimp toasts among things. It was a fun evening with 20 people all bringing their favorite dishes and some trying something new." Please note that the super easy banana cake toward the back of the photo makes terrific use of a hefty 1 1/2 pounds of super overripe bananas.
And, that Candy wrapped her cha gio rolls in rice paper and not lumpia or spring roll skins. (Hurray!) She's more authentic than a lot of Vietnamese-American delis and cooks who've taken to encasing the filling with crispy skins made of wheat flour instead of chewy-tangy rice paper.
Another dish that has graced Candy's table is the splendid shrimp in spicy tamarind sauce (tom rang me, above, right). It's a delectable southern Vietnamese dish that is testament to Vietnamese cooks' penchant for preparing seafood. I understand clearly when she writes that, "The shrimp in tamarind sauce I have made several times, the page has becomequite spattered."
This past weekend she make the cucumber and shrimp salad (goi dua chuot) and loved how crunchy the vegetables were. That's what you get when you do things the old fashioned way -- you have to make moisture-rich vegetables like cucumber release their liquid so that they're dry like sponges. Once you apply the dressing, the cucumber sucks up the seasonings and becomes imbued by the tart-savory-spicy hot flavors of lime, fish sauce, and chiles.
Candy's experience highlights how in 21st century America, ethnic markets, mainstream supermarkets, and farmer's markets have many of the elements for cooking Vietnamese food. Plus, many 'normal' American ingredients can be combined to make dishes with Vietnamese flair. What goes into these foods are pretty run-of-the-mill kinds of ingredients like -- corn, regular and unsweetened coconut milk, salt, bananas, butter, and sugar. The popularity of Thai cooking has made fish sauce readily available too.
With that in mind, I'm rather famished. Thanks Candy, for sharing the pleasures of the Vietnamese table with us!