A Home Cooked Meal

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Monday, January 18, 2010

Sunday I was invited to the home of one of my Vietnamese friends for lunch. Knowing how much I like Pho, my friend Ngoc Anh asked me to come early so she and her mother could teach me how to make Pho. I have a cheater way of making it now (spice packet) but its very salty and doesn't have nearly the full, rich flavor that I get in the restaurants. So needless to say I showed at the exact time I was expected and had an armload of flowers. If I never learned anything from my parents, the one thing I did learn and try (not always successfully) to remember is a guest is to bring something to the home you are visiting. Since they don't drink flowers was the next logical choice. 
I knew it was going to be a good day when out of all the flower selling women on the street I randomly chose one and she immediately quoted me a fair price, so the need for bargaining was not required. And I love when I can say what I want in Vietnamese which I believe is the key to getting a fair price - if one takes the time to learn the language its greatly appreciated on their part plus I think it helps keep them honest because they don't know for sure what I know and don't know so they quote fairly.
When I arrived at their door the flowers brought out a big smile from the two women who quickly found a vase, trimmed and put them in water. The house already smelled of spices and pre-cooking prep. (is that redundant "pre-cooking prep"?) Well anyway the photos tell the story better than I can but the important thing is that I have a good handle on how its prepared  and am already thinking of how to lighten the fat content brought on by the chicken fat. I wonder if the stores have chicken broth cubes. If not - Hazel when you come bring me a case (haha) of chicken and vegetable broth cubes. That helps the fat but adds to the salt - any ideas out there from my cook friends would be greatly appreciated. 
How the broth is cooked and flavored is through the use of cooking an entire chicken (feet included) and some part is taken out that I was told was the "fat" and its lightly saute'd and then thrown in the pot of spices, vegetables and whole chicken. Small onions about the size of garlic cloves are browned whole on the stove fire along with small ginger root. Both are unpeeled then sliced and put into the broth. The interesting thing to me is when I saw Ngoc Anh trimming the cleaned roots off of the cilantro (it smelled like cilantro at least) I asked if she wanted me to throw it away, she laughed and said "no this part goes into the pot". So far when I've viewed cooking occurring here nothing is wasted, nearly everything is put in the pot to some degree. The leafy part is then finely chopped and used for the soup in the final assembly. Once everything is cooked and the soft rice noodles have been warmed the steps are as follows: first the drained noodles go into a large bowl, then a small handful of cooked and thinly sliced chicken pieces, followed by several scoops of chopped cilantro, then the broth is ladled on top to cover all the contents. The rest is a matter of personal tastes, as the garnishes and spices that are laid about on the table will show. The host of additions vary only slightly but the standard add-ins are: small whole or sliced chili's, garlic (whole cloves or slivers) soaked in vinegar, quartered limes or qweet (tiny oranges), chili sauce, sometimes black pepper either ground or as whole peppercorns and sometimes a fish sauce called Nuoc Mam. The Vietnamese use fish sauce to flavor their foods the same way Americans use table salt; it pretty much goes with everything. (The making of the raw Vietnamese fish sauce, Nuoc Mam, involves collecting the dripped liquid off of fermenting fresh anchovy fish. When the fish are placed in a barrel, the liquid drops to the bottom. That liquid is removed and poured back into the top of the barrel. After about 6 months, this makes a strong, salty liquid that is bottled and used to flavor other Vietnamese dishes. The fishy smell dissipates when the sauce is combined with other ingredients.)  My personal favorite combination of add-ins goes like this, squeeze two lime quarters, a small scoop of garlic slivers and approximately 2 tsps of chili sauce. As you can imagine I have tried nearly every possible combination but this is the one I always come back to as my preferred favorite. 
I had to laugh when I was told, through interpretation by my friend, that her mom thought I would eat 5 bowls. I've never eaten more than one bowl but today I ate two bowls and was happily stuffed. I jokingly told her mom I ate 5 bowls but she didn't see it because she was next door at the neighbors house collecting a small child for babysitting. I didn't think she'd buy it but she did and then raised the ante by saying that whenever I came to their house I'd be expected to eat 5 bowls. 
My afternoon was open and usually after a large meal like this a nap would be in order but I wasn't in my own home so I offered to take everyone to see Avatar which was showing at the Vincom towers within walking distance of their home. Ngoc Anh and one of the kids that stays with them said ok but once asked if his homework was finished it ended up being just Ngoc Anh and I. Once we got out on the street she said we needed to take a bus - another new experience for me. The bus arrived but didn't really stop. The doors open while it slowly rolls and you have to jump on (and off) like its a slow rolling train. I got on and immediately realized the ceiling was very close to the top of my head, maybe a 5 inch clearance. A young guy collects the money which is 6,000 dng (32 cents) no matter how far you go. This was a weekend so it wasn't very crowded. I've seen buses go by on my way to work in the morning and they are packed in like sardines. The Vietnamese don't have personal space issues so standing practically in your pocket is no big deal. 
I thought the movie was good but those d*mn glasses gave me a headache. On the way back she gave me a tour of a nice sized indoor market where its "bargain or go broke". Actually the prices are very reasonable but the way I look at it is if you can get a new leather coat for $7 why pay $27 for it, plus you'd miss out on the bargain banter. Anything you want is here plus a wide array of produce. I realized in looking around that I had quiet a lot of tastings ahead of me because about 1/3 or the fruit I'd never tried before and there were quite a few vegetables that I'd never seen before. Speaking of, I was told by Charlotte that the potato looking produce that I like is actually jicama. Thanks Chars. 
On the walk back to her house her mom called to ask if we wanted Pho for dinner or a rice dish. Not wanting her mom to spend so much time cooking I said lets just have Pho, again. So Pho it was again and like most dishes I've liked in my past the second time around is even better but this time I went without chicken. Starfruit and Du Cau (jicama) was in a dish to the side for dessert. Whereas starfruit is so expensive in the US, it is really cheap here, I mean REALLY cheap. For the cost of one in the US I can get ten here. 
Yuck, I'm catching another cold which I went to the Dr for immediately today and of course I've decided to take to the streets on my motorbike during the 3-4 busiest weeks of the year, pre-Tet.

Alrighty that's all for now - I hope everyone had a great weekend, I did. 

PS - Tuesday I get my Residence Card so I guess I'm Vietnamese now ha ha. I will like not needing to take my passport and visa every time I travel around Vn now.
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kwai_chang on

Well, that concludes another episode of Iron Chef Vietnam. Thanks for joining us. Tune in next week when we will show you how to fry a Twinkie and make homemade MoonPies just in time for the Tet holiday. We'll also show you about twenty different things you can do with that leftover dog meat, so that Fido doesn't go to complete waste. Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the Pho!

kwai_chang on

But seriously---"...the one thing I did learn and try...to remember is a guest is to bring something to the home you are visiting."---that is really cool and a nice testimony to your parents.

fareaster on

Yes, bringing something when you visit and/or a thank you note aferwards is
what i was taught. :)

You know, KC, dark colorerd fur dogs are supposed to be more tender ;)

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