I better write about fish sauce

When I was researching for last week’s salsa post, I came across references to one of the earliest known forms of salsa, namely Garum, the pungent roman fish sauce. Then a friend posted a note about discovering that some kimchi she ate had shrimp in it, which she’s allergic to, (traditionally, it usually does include shrimp). That prompted a question about using fish sauce instead of shrimp in a kimchi recipe, (perfectly fine), and the fact that not all fish sauces are created equally. Then, a bit later, M and I were discussing that, when she noted that “proper use of fish sauce dictates that you shouldn’t taste it, (pretty much true, that), and, well – After all that I figured I’d better write about fish sauce.

While it’s enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, fish sauce is still not all that common in most kitchens, especially here in the U.S. Why that is becomes immediately evident when you open a bottle and take a deep whiff – Fish sauce is definitely funky – Yet the undeniable fact is this – If you’re looking for that certain je ne sais quoi to add salty and umami to a dish, fish sauce is the thing to reach for. And if that’s so, why did it die for so long? The answers are twofold – One, because of the fall of the Roman Empire, and two, fact is, it didn’t – It’s been alive and thriving in Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, for thousands of years.

Get yours here - Floor mosaic from a Garum shop
Get yours here – Floor mosaic from a Garum shop

It’s a reasonable assumption that humans have been saucing things since well into prehistory. Once we hit some form of civilization, that tendency multiplied in spades. Arguably no society has been more attuned to that trend than the Romans were. Roman chefs and diners seemed to disdain any food in its natural form – Everything had to be tweaked, poked and prodded into something else, and all of it was heavily sauced.

While the Roman Empire afforded its wealthy the chance to enjoy food, herbs, and spices from around the known world, the one thing that fueled everything was salt. It’s arguable that salt was in fact a tap root of their economy, as well as the key to their culinary hearts. In almost every place the Romans conquered, they looked for salt – in mines, evaporation projects, and boilers. Often enough, what they conquered was taken because of salt, because while the Romans traded in damn near everything, salt was simply a thing they couldn’t do without. First and foremost, it was a critical part of feeding and supplying the Roman Legions. Men and animals needed it to survive, let alone fight. It was also a huge part of what kept the lowly masses at bay – As long as they had salt and olives, and maybe a little bread, they were more or less quiescent, and that was critical for the ruling class to be able to remain thus.

Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made
Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made

Back to those sauces – What ruled back then, hands down, was fish sauce. It was in almost everything they ate, from Senator to plebeian. Now, that’s not to say that all fish sauce was created equally – Just as today some drink Veuve Clicquot and others Cooks, there was a wide variety of quality and price when it came to fish sauces. At the top of the heap was Garum, a relatively clear sauce made from the guts and gills of mackerel. This stuff was used at table, and could be fabulously expensive – The creme de la creme was called Garum Sociorum – It was made in Spain, and cost as much as an average Roman Legionnaire got paid in a year, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who got it and who didn’t. Next down the chain was Liquamen, basically, a sauce made in a manner quite close to the way it’s still done throughout Asia – The whole fish was salted and fermented, and a sauce was pressed from that after sufficient processing time. That was used by the cooks, and replaced salt in the vast majority of Roman dishes. Further down the chain came Muria, which as far as we could tell, would be the mixed dregs of the various higher cost fish sauces, pressed – and finally came Alec, which was literally a paste made from the sludge gleaned from cleaning a garum or liquamen making facility – Obviously, the plebeians got those last two products at their tables.

Fish sauces were so key to Roman life that production facilities were made anywhere and everywhere they could be. On the Italian peninsula, in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe and Great Britain, fish were set out in the sun, (basically, to almost get on toward rotting somewhat), and then fermented into the various sauces. It must have been a distinctly pungent experience, to say the least. There was even a certified Kosher version made in occupied Israel.

As fate would have it, in the late 5th Century, the German conqueror Odoacer became the first barbarian ruler of Rome, and the empire was a thing of the past. Along with the fall of the rulers came the fall of all that fish sauce processing – Turns out the Germans didn’t care for the stuff – So a huge network of cottage industries surrounding the production of fish sauce vanished in a relative heartbeat – Except that it didn’t.

It’s not a stone cold fact that the Romans made it to Vietnam, but they probably did. Ptolemy mentioned the garrison of Cattigara, which is likely Óc Eo, in modern day Vietnam. Roman artifacts have been found there, as well as throughout Southeast Asia – No surprise, given the depth and breadth of Roman conquest and trading practices. And it’s there, in Vietnam, and eventually throughout Asia, that fish sauce was firmly established and has remained in steady production. Whether it’s Núoc Mám in Vietnam, (among other variants, they make it out of everything else too – crab, squid, shrimp, you name it), Nam Pla in Thailand, (there’s over 200 different makers there), or Bagoong in the Philippines, it’s a sauce made by fermenting little fish, (usually something from the Herring or Sardine family), and letting them sit for months – The result is as popular as it was to the Romans, and they’ve been making it continuously for thousands of years.

Colatura di Alici di Cetara - Roman Liquamen royalty
Colatura di Alici di Cetara – Roman Liquamen royalty

And now to throw another wrench into the works – It turns out that the process and the sauce never completely left Italy after all – and the differences between what’s found there now and what’s found throughout Southeast Asia are profound and illuminating. In my pantry is a little round bottle labeled Colatura di Alici di Cetara. The contents are gorgeous, a rich amber liquid, obviously quite viscous. Open the stopper and wham! It is seriously fishy, funky and potent as the day is long. It’s not an acquired taste – You either dig this stuff or you don’t. Cetara is a little fishing village tucked into the coast of Campania, between Amalfi and Salerno. There, back in the Middle Ages, a bunch of local monks somehow rediscovered the recipe and process for liquamen and started producing it again, and the town has been doing so more or less every since. It’s made from anchovies caught between March and July, then barrel brined and aged until the late fall, when the precious stuff is pressed and bottled. This is as close to the real deal as you’ll ever get today – This is the stuff Roman cooks used to add salt and umami, (whether they knew it or not), to so many ancient dishes – And that’s the best way to use Colatura as well.

Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám
Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám

Back in Vietnam, what they produce is a far cry from Colatura. There, I’ll boldly call the pinnacle of the art the sauce produced by Red Boat Fish Sauce. Find yourself a bottle of Red Boat 40° N, and you’ll be good to go. This is made from black anchovies from the Phu Quoc archipelago, and salt – That’s it. They’ve been making it the same way for hundreds of years, and it shows. Open that bottle and you get a much more nuanced presentation than Colatura – A gentle caress of your cheek, as opposed to an open handed slap. The fish and funk are still there, but much subtler, and there are other overtones as well, hints of Asia and the smell of Vietnamese cooking. To me, Red Boat is the Garum of our time – I’ll happily sprinkle a little out of the bottle onto whatever I’m having, and it’s awesomely good.

Get yourself a bottle of each of the above, and you’re good to go for all your fish sauce needs. But, before we talk about what to do with them, let me say this about the general state of the fish sauce nation – Having made a resurgence in the culinary world, there are a boatload of products out there. Just like badly prepared calimari, folks who say they hate fish sauce have, nine times out of ten, had crappy fish sauce – God knows there’s enough of that for sale. Let me save you much strife – Most of what you find in the average grocery store is crap. You have no idea what fish they’re talking about, and they sure ain’t tellin’ – At worst, this stuff is truly nasty, and at best, it’s insipid – Avoid it all like the plague and go with my recommendations.

As for what to do? Well, that’s easy – Replace salt with a drop or two of Colatura in damn near anything, and you’ll get not only the Salt note you’re looking for, but a hint of something deeper. Same goes for Red Boat. Used properly, aka very sparingly, you’ll get wonderful, subtle notes without any fishiness whatsoever. An on that note, I refer back to M, who’s comments came following a visit to Vietnamese joint in Seattle that overdid the fish sauce on whatever it was she ordered – The rule is hard, fast, and simple – If it tastes like fish sauce, you used too much. Chances are real good, you won’t make that mistake twice.

House Made Sriracha

My friend Ken Bonfield, Guitarist extraordinaire, recently posted an online paean to the iconic hot sauce, Sriracha, and got me thinking that I’d never posted about house made sriracha. Time to correct that omission. The countries that make up the core of the long peninsula that lies south of China and east of India – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – represent an incredibly vibrant palette of stunning cuisines. In Fort Worth, Texas, there’s a little hole in the wall Vietnamese place in a strip mall off of Belknap Street named My Lan. Very often when we went there, we were the only white folks in the joint – the sure sign of authentic stuff. They’re still there, so go if you’re nearby, and if you want an adult beverage with dinner, stop at the liquor store across the road first – It’s a BYOB joint. What you’ll find is amazingly good food, not only in what they bring you, but in what’s already on the table when you sit down – Condiments, lots of condiments, many of them rocket powered, just the way it should be. Yet there’s one über popular Asian condiment you won’t find here – Sriracha hot sauce. This surprises many folks, but it really shouldn’t, because even though many assume that this iconic sauce is Vietnamese, in fact, it’s Thai, and the version you probably love isn’t quite how it’s made over there, either. Onward.

Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots
Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots

Sriracha, A.K.A. Rooster Sauce, isn’t American in origin, but thanks to David Tran, the arguably most popular version of this spicy condiment is. Tran, a former A.R.V.N. Officer, emigrated to California back in 1980, and shortly afterwards, began making a hot chile sauce from a little cubbyhole spot in L.A.’s Chinatown. Only 7 years later, Huy Fong Foods, (Named after the ship that took Tran away from Vietnam), moved into a 68,000 square foot production facility, and the rest is history. The company, still run by the Tran family, churns out their Tuong Ot Sriracha sauce, despite some recent legal battles with neighbors and the city of Irwindale over fumes from their plant. Huy Fong has sold tens of millions of bottles of the stuff, and recently things have come almost full circle – They’re now distributing the sauce in Vietnam. That’s full circle for Tran, but not quite for the sauce – For that, we need to go to Thailand.

A lot of Sriracha
A lot of Sriracha

Huy Fong’s ubiquitous red sauce, offered in a clear plastic bottle with white lettering and a bright green top, is far from the only player to carry that name, (or that look, for that matter.) Tran, for his part, has never trademarked his version, so literally anyone and everyone can and does produce hot chile sauces that carry the same Sriracha moniker. As such, some of those competitor’s wares are in fact exact copies of the Huy Fong recipe. This isn’t exactly a rip off, by the way, (so neither is your house made sriracha). The nature of Sriracha is such that there are only so many things you can put into it and remain authentic. Variation on the chiles theme is far and away the biggest variable in play – Tran’s original version used Serrano chiles, which were eventually replaced with red jalapeños, the chile Huy Fong uses to this day.

So, where does this stuff really hail from? A couple hours south east of Bangkok, down on the Bight, lies the district and village that bears the Sri Racha name. Who exactly first made the sauce that is somewhat in dispute to this very day. Sriraja Paniche, arguably the most famous commercially sold Thai version of the Sauce, was invented by a woman called Thanom Chakkapak, in the early 20th century. Encouraged by friends and family, she began to produce her sauce commercially, and it did very well indeed. However, according to the official Thai Sri Racha Lovers Association, it was Burmese woodworkers from that seaside town that first produced the red gold.

Regardless of who first formulated the stuff, sriracha, (pronounced, by the way, See Rah Jah), is immensely popular throughout Asia, and increasingly, the rest of the world. Yet there are marked differences between the Thai versions and the Huy Fong style we here in the States are used to. In a nutshell, the various Thai versions I’ve tried are thinner, more pourable, and generally milder and sweeter than our version, although rest assured that there, just like here, there are nuclear options. While Thai food can be crazy hot, most Thai’s, like most of us, prefer a balance of heat and flavor over intense heat. Sriraja Paniche is made with Goat Chiles, over a period of three months, with specific measures of vinegar added weekly, while Huy Fong makes no more than a one month supply of jalapeños can produce, in order to safeguard the quality and ripeness of their chiles. For heat comparison, we consult the Scoville Scale – The fairly universal measure of chile power. The goats measure around 2,000 SHUs, while a Jalapeño is more in the 2,500 to 5,000 range, although some claim red jalapeños top out around 8,000 SHUs. For the record, the current leaders in that scale of fire score well over a million SHUs, so the heat level we’re talking about is well down in the heat weenie range, as far as true chile heads are concerned.

The Scoville Scale
The Scoville Scale

The bigger picture view is that ‘Sriracha’ or any derivative thereof, isn’t really a brand name, it’s the sauce name, like ketchup or mustard – The branding comes with who makes it and what they use for fuel. And speaking of use, what do the Thais do with the stuff? The home turf where this stuff originated is coastal, so seafood obviously came in to play – Initially, sriracha got used predominantly for seafood, then eventually branched out to other stuff, like Thai omelettes, rice dishes, and the like. Nowadays, its use is fairly ubiquitous, as it is here.

So, sure you can buy it, but why not make your own house made version? Home recipes and methods run the gamut from super simple, which is what we’ll do, to stuff that takes a good bit longer – fermented versions, like McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce. The base ingredients are the same for any authentic version – Chiles, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt. In the real stuff, the vinegar is almost always distilled white, the sugar almost always granulated white. That said, there are versions that use rice or cane vinegar, brown or palm sugar, and of course, the chiles run the gamut in variety and heat – Therein lies the beauty in home exploration – You don’t have to be authentic, you just have to be curious and build something you dig. Like things a bit fruitier? Use cider vinegar instead of white. Want sweetness with more substance? Sub agave nectar or good local honey for the granulated sugar. And chiles? Well, just go wild is my advice. In shopping for this piece, I went with Fresno chiles that made a fantastic sriracha, fruity, flavorful, and with a delightful ack of mouth heat finish. They sport a Scoville rating of 2,500 to 10,000, meaning the bottom end is about like a jalapeño and the top figure about double that of their green cousin. Obviously, you don’t have to use red chiles if you don’t care about your sauce being a different color, so go with what looks fresh and good to you for heat and flavor. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mixing varieties, either.

American Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh red Jalapeño Chiles (Anaheim will work great too if you like less heat)
1/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic
2 Tablespoons granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

UrbanMonique Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Chiles, (Serrano, Fresno, New Mexican)
2-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar*
1-2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

* Vinegar with the Mother acetobacter starter.

Thai Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Goat Chiles, (Red New Mexican, Hatch, or Anaheims will do nicely too)
3-5 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons light brown Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

For all versions, production is the same.

PRODUCTION NOTES: You may chose to roast or blacken your chiles and garlic prior to cooking if you wish. This imparts a deeper, more nuanced flavor profile to virtually any combination you chose. If you prefer a brighter, fresher flavor, leave off the roasting step. Try all three versions and go from there.

Chiles do not contain pectin, so thickening largely depends on the reduction step detailed below. Your results will vary depending on the variety and freshness of the chiles you choose. Almost all commercial Srirachas remove most if not all of the seeds and skins from the finished sauce, but you certainly don’t have to – We don’t, because we prefer a thicker, chunkier sauce. It’s further my belief that retaining everything you cooked provides better and deeper flavor all around. Do what you like – You can’t go wrong either way.

Speaking of pectin, you can substitute fruit for the sweetener for a less traditional, but every bit as tasty on option for any sauce variant. A quarter cup of fresh berries, plums, peach, what have you will do the trick.
Remove stems from chiles, smash garlic lightly with the side of a chef’s knife – remove the skins and trim the ends.

Rough chop the chiles.

Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender
Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender

Place everything into a blender and pulse until you have a nice, thick paste.

First sauce blend - Get a nice thick paste
First sauce blend – Get a nice thick paste

Transfer the sauce to a heavy sauce over medium heat.
Don’t clean the blender vessel just yet, you’re going to use it again soon.

Cook the sauce, stirring steadily, until the raw garlic and Chiles smells dissipate, about 5 – 7 minutes.

Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate
Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate

Check your consistency at this point – You can stop there if you wish, or continue cooking the sauce down to allow more thickening – Again, keep in mind that the sauce will thicken appreciably upon refrigeration.

Remove sauce from heat and pour it back into the blender vessel and process again until you have a nice, smooth consistency. Leave it as is if you’re happy with the consistency, or thin with water as needed, adding a tablespoon at a time.

Second blend gets your post cooked consistency
Second blend gets your post cooked consistency

When you’ve got the consistency you like, you’re done if you like things more rustic. As noted above, if you prefer a thinner sauce basically equivalent to Tabasco or Cholula, transfer the sauce to a single mesh strainer over a glass or stainless mixing bowl, and use a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula to gently work the sauce through the strainer, leaving the skin, pulp and rough stuff behind. NOTE: Many strainers have a quite fine mesh, and if your sauce isn’t particularly wet, you may capture more than you want to. A chinoise is a great alternative that will let more sauce through.

Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning as desired.

House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha
House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha

Allow the sauce to cool completely to room temperature before transferring it to a clean, glass jar with an airtight lid.

Allow the sauce to marry, refrigerated, for a couple of days before use. This is a critical step to the final flavor you’ll achieve – As an example, ours went from quite sweet and hot to much more subtly so, with the Garlic slightly more notable, within 48 hours.

It’ll last up to 30 days in the fridge.

Banh Mi

Asked for reflective advice shortly before he died, the venerable rocker Warren Zevon thought for a moment, and then replied, “enjoy every sandwich.” There’s sage advice in that simple thought. Few things tell more about a chef than what kind of sandwich they offer, and the same goes for the choice a diner makes. Given the incredible depth and breadth of options out there, I’ll just come straight out and say that you’d be absolutely hard pressed to do better than an authentic, house made Banh Mi sandwich.

When we dive into sandwich history, invariably we come to the old saw regarding John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived in the seventeen hundreds, and reportedly ‘invented’ his namesake treat. Montagu, during an epic poker game in the winter of 1762, called for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn’t have to break away from the game to eat. His culinary trick caught on, and subsequently, the thing began to be referred to as a sandwich – Now, all that said, there’s no doubt the dish has roots far deeper and broader than one game of five card draw.

Whether it’s a Reuben in Omaha, a torta in Mexico, smoked meat in Canada, vada pav in India, katsu sando in Japan, medianoche in Cuba, chacarero in Chile, or doner kebabs in Turkey, they’re all variations on the sandwich theme, and they’re all delicious – And none more so than a perfectly constructed banh mi.

Banh Mi is, of course, Vietnamese, with some foreign influence integral to the sandwich. The foreign would be French, who, like so many other empire builders, (Us Merkans, for instance), were eventually drummed out of Vietnam, but if they left some good behind, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine was undoubtedly it. Bread was non-existent in Vietnam before the French – Now baguette shops are ubiquitous throughout the country, (In Vietnam, baguettes are made from rice flour, by the way, so a real Vietnamese baguette has a delightfully light taste and crumb). Onions, potatoes, asparagus, and meat broth were adopted heartily, the latter leading to arguable the most famous Vietnamese culinary export, the joy that is Pho.

That said, don’t by any means assume that Vietnam was a culinary backwater prior to colonization – Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Vietnamese have always excelled at not only surviving, but thriving in good times and bad – A key part of that adaptability is the willingness to try and adopt new things – especially true when it comes to food. Vietnam and their largest neighbor, China, have cross pollinated culinarily for thousands of years. Everything from noodles and won tons, to chiles and corn made their way south from China and were adopted heartily by the Vietnamese.

That said, there are key aspects of Vietnamese culinary philosophy that color everything there, including the banh mi. At the core of this cooking is the balance of distinct, strong flavor profiles – spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Per the Vietnamese culinary tradition, each flavor corresponds with an organ in our bodies – gall bladder, small intestines, large intestines, stomach, and bladder, accordingly. The mantra of five continues further – Vietnamese cooks strive to include five essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish. Finally, a balance between what is thought of as the heating or cooling properties of various ingredients is considered – The juxtaposition of jalapeño and mayonnaise in a classic banh mi, for example.

That classic banh mi is far simpler than what you probably have tasted. Banh mi thit nguoi, sometimes called the special, (Dac biet), is a baguette, sliced in two and given a hearty schmear of house made liver pate – That’s how it was for many decades and still is, in many Vietnamese deli’s. Banh mi has evolved, however, to our great fortune. Nowadays, you’ll find subtly complex sauces, pickled and fresh vegetables, and proteins from tofu, to char siu pork, roast chicken, or grilled pork, and of course, beef here in the states. Almost any protein you dig will work, which makes banh mi the perfect vehicle for leftovers. The veggies vary as well, but almost always include chiles, cilantro, cucumber, and a tart-sweet pickled daikon, carrot, or onion. That fancier, loaded version became popular in south Vietnam, especially in Saigon, and it’s that version that has spread around the globe more than any other.

Two of the things needed for a classic banh mi are things that you probably don’t have laying around your kitchens – One you’ll have to make, and the other buy, or sub for. They are the daikon or radish pickle, and Maggi seasoning. The pickle is easy as all get out to make, and we’ve got a recipe for you below. That’ll need at least an hour before you use them, and a couple to a few are even better, so consider making that ahead of meal time. The Maggi seasoning is, frankly, pretty much pure MSG and sodium, although the recipe varies depending on where it’s made, (Maggi is ubiquitous in Asian cooking, but it actually originated in Switzerland back in the 1800s). If you have an Asian grocery, you’ll find it there, and of course it can be bought from Amazon as well. It comes in various sizes, from around 5 ounces on up to 28 and 32 ounce bottles – If you decide to try it, get a small bottle – A little goes a long way. I’m going to assume you don’t have Maggi, and as such, I’ll offer a sub that’ll work just fine and taste delicious to boot. Finally, we like a light cabbage slaw on our banh mi, so I’ll shoot you a recipe for that as well.

Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi
Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi

For the Pickled Daikon.
You may sub regular radishes if your grocery doesn’t have decent daikon, as ours did not when I wrote this post.
5-6 Radishes
1/2 Cup White Vinegar
1/2 Cup cold Water
1/2 teaspoon Bakers Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

Rinse and stem radishes, then slice into 1/8″ thick rounds. If you use daikon, slice those into matchstick size, and the same goes for carrots if you decide to go that route – Use the same brine on all three options.

Combine all remaining ingredients and stir briskly to dissolve salt and sugar.

Place radishes in a non-reactive container, cover with the brine and allow to sit for 1 to 4 hours prior to use.

For the Slaw
2-3 1/4″ thick slices Green and Red Cabbage
1 small Carrot
1-2 slices Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt

Slice the carrot and onion – Onion into thin slivers, and carrot into match stick size.

Rough chop the Cabbage slices.

Transfer all to a mixing bowl, add the vinegar and salt and toss to coat.

For the Sauce
1 Cup Mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Cider Vinegar
3-5 drops Fish Sauce
1-2 drops Worcestershire

Combine and thoroughly whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes prior to use.

For the Banh Mi
1/2 Pound Protein of choice
Fresh Baguette
3-4 Jalapeño chiles
1 Cuccumber
5-6 sprig Cilantro
Banh Mi Sauce
slaw
Pickled Radishes

Banh mi - a study of balance and flavor
Banh mi – a study of balance and flavor

For whatever protein you decide on, (we used beef for ours), slice very thin.

Cut baguette into roughly 6-8″ long chunks, then slice in half. It’s customary to take the soft gut of the bread out, leaving more room for goodies.

Stem and seed Jalapeños, then slice into very thin rings.

Slice cucumber into very thin rings.

Rough chop cilantro.

Arrange all the goodies so that each person can load their own banh mi.

Put a generous amount of the sauce on both sides of the baguette, then layer up, starting with your protein and ending with the slaw.

Banh mi, final assembly
Banh mi, final assembly

Now, you’ve got your balance of flavors and colors, (The Soy in your Sauce handles the black, btw), and you’ll make all your organs happy!

Banh mi
Banh mi

Fold ’em up and dig in.

Goes great with a local lager or pilsner.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Well, here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten us into… So, a slight diversion from the mother sauces, again by popular demand.

Being a tease the other night, I posted some Instagram pics of dinner, and ended up with a lot of y’all asking for a recipe, so here it is. If I’m gonna tease, I gotta come across thereafter. So here’s that dish – Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables.

This is a recipe that I literally threw together when some amazing sugar snap peas came ripe in Monica’s garden. You can often find really nice ginger chicken wontons for sale locally, but they’re also pretty easy to make at home, if you’ve got the time – They can certainly be made in less than half an hour with store bought wonton wrappers.

Ginger Chicken Wontons

1 Pound ground Chicken
1 large Egg
1/4 Cup Spring Onions, fine diced
1″ fresh Ginger, minced
2 cloves Garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon Hoisin Sauce
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
3″ to 4″ wonton wrappers
Small bowl of ice water

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and knead by hand to thoroughly incorporate.

The key to making wontons is to have a nice, open prep space; arrange all the components so that they’re right at hand, then get after the production.

Wonton wrappers are square, which messes some folks up – don’t let it, it’ll work out just fine.

Spoon a heaping teaspoon of the ginger chicken mixture into the center of a wrapper.

Dip a finger tip into the ice water, and then run the wetted finger tip along the top and right edges of the wrapper.

Now get hold of the lower left corner of the wrapper and pull it up over the filling to the top, right corner.

Smooth out the wrapper so that all the air is squished out and the wrapper is tight all around the filling.

Dip your finger tip back into the ice water and dab that onto the right corner, then grab that corner and bring it around to the left one, and give them a pinch to seal everything down – viola, you got a wonton, (or, for that matter, a tortellini.)

So, now it’s cooking time, which means it’s time to decide what to add to your wontons. We had those amazing peas as our center piece, so I chose other stuff that complimented that, and here’s the drill. If you’ve got one, use a cast iron frying pan for this.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Browning the wontons

Ginger Chicken Wontons With Summer Vegetables
1 Cup Sugar Snap Peas
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Cherry Tomatoes, sliced roughly 1/4″ thick slices
1/4 Cup Sweet Red Pepper, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/8 Cup fresh Cilantro, chiffonade
1 Tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
1 small lemon, halved
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Peanut Oil to coat the pan

Prep - get your mise en place
Prep – get your mise en place

Put a cast iron frying pan on medium high heat, and coat the bottom of the pan with peanut oil.

When the pan is up to heat, add the onion and peppers.

Season lightly with sea salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the onions begin to turn translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Transfer the aromatics from the pan into a small plate and set aside.

Always start with the aromatics - That's the foundation for great flavor
Always start with the aromatics – That’s the foundation for great flavor

Add oil to recoat the bottom of the pan and allow that to heat through.

Add the wontons and sauté on one side for about a minute. Use a wooden spoon or fork and flip the wontons, and sauté for another minute or so until golden brown.

Add the chicken stock and allow to heat through.

Once the wontons and chicken stock are simmering, add the peas and tomatoes, reduce the heat to just maintain the simmer, and sauté for about another 3-4 minutes until the veggies are heated through.

Add the basil and cilantro, stir to incorporate and a heat through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Letting everything marry

Squeeze the juice from the halved lemons and stir to incorporate.

Taste the jus and adjust seasoning with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Allow everything to heat thoroughly through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Serve piping hot.

Pad Thai

Good food, iconic food, is often a bit of a mystery, if for no other reason than the roots of such stuff are hard to unearth in any definitive way. Take Pad Thai, (AKA Phat Thai, or Phad Thai), as a shining example; the ubiquitous noodle dish that, as far as we generally think, hails from its namesake country. Best guesses would indicate that the dish was introduced to what is now Thailand some time in the 14th or 15th centuries, when the area was known as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The introduction may have come from Viet Nam, or China, but we’ll likely never know for sure.

Way back when, when Pad Thai arrived
Way back when, when Pad Thai arrived

What we can be sure of is the stone cold fact that Pad Thai, done right, is stunningly delicious, and uniquely Thai, so much so that Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the Prime Minister of Thailand in the middle twentieth century, heavily promoted Pad Thai as a vehicle for nationalism, when he was leading the charge to change Siam into modern Thailand. At the time, Chinese influence was strong in the region, inlcuding the popularity of wheat noodles. Phibunsongkhram championed rice noodles in an effort to reduce that influence, and the east is history. American, British, and Aussie soldiers exposed to Pad Thai during WW II brought the love home with them, and the dish quickly conquered the world. For many casual diners, Pad Thai is the one dish they unerringly identify as Thai. In 2011, a CNN pole place Pad Thai in the top 5 of the ‘world’s most delicious foods.’

Like many signature dishes, (think pasta in Italy, stew almost everywhere, you get the idea), every Thai cook has an authentic recipe, and who are we to argue about the ‘most authentic?’ There are some fundamental elements and processes you really need in order to make great Pad Thai, but after that, the sky’s the limit – It begs for creativity, and is designed to take advantage of what’s fresh and available.

In Thailand, Pad Thai is largely street food, made by cooks who have been perfecting their signature version for decades, if not generations. In such a highly competitive market, you’ve simply gotta be really good at it, or you don’t survive. In America, all too often what passes for Pad Thai wouldn’t last a day in Bangkok. Often overtly oily and heavy, that version is the antithesis of truly great Pad Thai. The real stuff is fairly dry, light, and light reddish-brown in color – a perfect balance of the complex flavors that make it up, salty, sweet, sour, umami, and heat in harmony. Pad Thai is wonderful done vegetarian style. If you like proteins, try fresh, local tofu in a batch. By the same token, almost any protein will shine as well; fish, shellfish, or poultry will do nicely.

The seasoning is the thing, and the mix is thus – rice noodles, stir fried with tamarind (sour), fish sauce (salty), chiles (heat), and palm sugar (sweet), is the magic trick that makes this wonderful stuff. There are many more things that can and do get added to Pad Thai, but the essence of the dish is a stunningly good umami (savory) creation.

Tamarind paste - the heart of Pad Thai
Tamarind paste – the heart of Pad Thai

As with all things wonderful, the quality and freshness of your ingredients absolutely defines the dish. In preparation for making great Pad Thai, take a field trip to a local Asian grocer, and ask for help – Chances are good you’ll get some great tips on what’s best, and your dish will shine as a result. Without question, your rice noodles should be as good a quality as you can find, as should the fish sauce – The latter available to us in the United States runs the gamut from sublime to horrid, so check out this excellent primer from Our Daily Brine, and heed their findings. The bad stuff is ubiquitous here, and it’s really, really bad – stuff like Three Crabs or Squid smell and taste horrible, and can easily kill an entire dish. On the other hand, really good fish sauce, like the superlative Red Boat, smells and tastes wonderful all by itself. Note for vegetarians – You’ll want to sub soy sauce for the fish sauce, and here too, the better the quality, the better the dish.

Red Boat, the King of fish sauce.
Red Boat, the King of fish sauce.

Finally, you’ll want a wok to do this dish justice, with a truly hot burner throughout.
Real Deal Pad Thai
Serves 4 to 6

1 package Thai Rice Noodles
1/2 Pound Protein – Tofu, Baby Shrimp, Chicken, etc
1 Cup Chinese Chive
4 Tablespoons Tamarind Paste
3 Tablespoons Peanut Oil
3 Tablespoons Peanuts
2 Tablespoons Fish Sauce
2 teaspoons Palm Sugar
3 cloves Garlic
3 Spring Onions
2 teaspoons White Pepper berries
2-3 teaspoons Thai Chiles
2 medium Eggs
1 fresh Lime
Optional –
1 Tablespoon Preserved Turnip
1/2 Cup Bean Sprouts

In a large mixing bowl, cover the noodles with lukewarm water by at least an inch. Let them sit for 5 minutes or so, then pour out the water and add fresh again. Let the noodles soak while you’re prepping the other ingredients. When they come out of the package, the noodles will be springy, kind of plastic feeling – When they’re ready to fry, they should feel flexible, but in the least mushy or soft – This is the big key to great Pad Thai noodles – They should be on the dry side when they hit the wok – and you can always add moisture, but you can’t fix mushy noodles!

Cubed proteins - we used chicken thighs
Cubed proteins – we used chicken thighs

Cube your protein to bite size.

Get your Mis together - Pad Thai prep
Get your Mis together – Pad Thai prep

Mince the garlic, cut spring onions into 1/4″ thick rounds, rough chop peanuts, quarter the lime, (Mince the preserved turnip, and rinse the bean sprouts if you’re adding those, and set aside).

Have fish sauce, tamarind, and sugar ready to go, with a measuring spoon right at hand.

Combine pepper and chiles in a spice grinder and pulse until they’re a nice, even consistently. Set aside.

White pepper and Thai chile blend
White pepper and Thai chile blend

In a hot wok over high heat, add the peanut oil and heat through.

Fry the peanuts light golden brown
Fry the peanuts light golden brown

Add the chopped peanuts and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove peanuts with a slotted spoon and set them on clean paper toweling to drain.

Add the garlic, half the spring onion, and half the chives to the wok and fry, about 1 minute.

Proteins at work
Proteins at work

Add your proteins to the hot wok and fry until lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes.

Noodles as they hit the wok - flexible, but not soft.
Noodles as they hit the wok – flexible, but not soft.

Drain the rice noodles and add them to the wok. The noodles will start out stiff, so give them a minute or so to absorb the heat and steam from the wok, then fold them into the other ingredients. Stir steadily throughout.

Noodles starting to soften, time to incorporate them
Noodles starting to soften, time to incorporate them

Add the fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, pepper, and chiles to the wok and stir vigorously. Squeeze half the lime in as well.

Make room on one side of the wok and crack the eggs into it, scramble them quickly, then incorporate.

When the rice noodles have softened to al dente, taste the Pad Thai and adjust seasoning if necessary – You want a nice, even balance of all the flavors. The noodles should be soft and quite dry.

Real Deal Pad Thai
Real Deal Pad Thai

Sprinkle the peanuts, remaining chives and spring onions on top and serve immediately – we bring the wok to the table and let folks dish up from that.

Have fish sauce, chiles, and palm sugar at the table so folks can Doctor their plate as they see fit.

And yes, it’s even better the next day.

House Made Char Siu Pork

With fast Asian a rapidly rising dining option, there are likely few carnivores out there who don’t know and love Char Siu pork, the ubiquitous ‘Chinese Barbecued Pork.’ Served with nose-searing Chinese mustard and toasted sesame seeds, it’s not only a killer snack, it’s fabulous in fried rice, or with fresh apple slices and sharp cheddar cheese. To know Char Siu is to love it, but perhaps not so much the price – an 8 ounce package of the stuff from anybody good can set you back $8 to $12, or a whopping $16 to $24 a pound. Any time prices get that stratospheric, it’s time to get sensible and make your own at home. There are subtle variations, but the essence of the dish is known, reproducible, and easy to make.

The Char Siu we know and love has its roots in Cantonese cooking, that which comes by way of Guangdong province, and its capital city, Guangzhou. Good Cantonese cooks are revered throughout China and the world. The hallmarks of the style are fresh, local ingredients, well balanced dishes, and preparations that compliment, but never overpower, the star of the show. Unlike many other Chinese cuisines, Cantonese cooking doesn’t use a lot of fresh herbs, relying instead on a litany of dried and prepared spices and sauces. Many of these are so mainstream that they are widely considered ‘Chinese’ by neophytes – everything from Hoisin, Oyster, and Plum sauces, to sweet and sour, black bean sauce, and shrimp paste. The master sauces from which a wealth of dishes spring is reminiscent of classic French cooking, right down to Master Stock, used for braising and poaching meats and fish.

Char Siu is, in fact, one of those master sauces, used for pork, chicken, and wildfowl. The combination of sweet, savory, and exotic is the fuel that makes the barbecued pork so damn good. There are a few things you must put into a Char Siu marinade in order to faithfully reproduce what’s in your minds eye, and a few others you can use if you wish – As with many dishes and cuisines, there really is no one right way – If you like it, make it that way, it’s all good. Traditionally, Char Siu is cooked over charcoal, and that is also for my mind, a must do when you make it at home. The meat isn’t smoked, per se, but it does get, (and need), that certain je nais sais quoi that only cooking over coals can provide. What’s often perceived as a smoke ring with this meat, a la American pit barbecue, is actually all brought on by the marinade – There are a lot of commercial makers who add some kind of red food coloring to the mix to enhance that effect – Naturally, we’re gonna pass on that option.

Here then is our spin on Char Siu. We recommend using pork tenderloin for the meat. It has the perfect size, fat to lean ratio, and relatively quick cooking time for this dish.

Char Siu Pork

1 1/2 to 2 pounds Pork Tenderloin.
2 Tablespoons dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons Honey
1 1/2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce
1 Tablespoon Red Fermented Bean Curd
1 Tablespoon Peanut Oil
2 teaspoons Rice Wine Vinegar
1 teaspoon Oyster Sauce
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1/2 teaspoon sweet, smoked Paprika
Optional:
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Onion Powder

Combine all marinade ingredients in a small sauce pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
As soon as the sauce starts to simmer, remove it from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature – The cooking help homogenize the sauce, and the cool down allows flavors to further marry.
Place the pork and marinade in a ziplock bag and expel as much air as possible, (and if you’ve a vacuum sealer, so much the better.)
Gently massage the marinade onto the pork, coating evenly and thoroughly.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to 24 hours – The longer you go, the more pronounced the effect of the marinade on the pork.

Char Siu Pork Marinating
Char Siu Pork Marinating

Light a lump charcoal fire in a grill and allow the coals to become white hot.
Set up a two zone grill, with the coals all on one side, and a drip pan only under the other side – This is indirect grilling, and makes not only perfectly roasted meats, but almost eliminates the possibility of burning expensive flesh – Kinda like a convection oven, only way cheaper…

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Open the bottom vents on the grill about half way.
Place the marinated tenderloins over the drip pan on the cool side of the grill.

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Give them a baste with a little more of the marinade.
Place your lid on the grill, with the top vents over the meat, on the cool side.

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Open the top vents about half way.
You do not need to turn the meat; check on it, and baste a bit, about every 10 to 15 minutes.
Use all the remaining marinade to baste.
When the internal temperature of the tenderloin reaches 155° F, remove it from the grill and set it aside to rest for 15 minutes – DO NOT cut into the meat until it rested!

House Made Char Siu Pork
House Made Char Siu Pork

Cut the tenderloin on a bias, at about a 45° angle, and serve with rice and steamed veggies.

House Made Char Siu Pork
House Made Char Siu Pork

Real Deal Fried Rice

The difference between authentic, regional Chinese cooking and the Americanized versions most of us were exposed to in the Twentieth century is vast indeed. That said, we were raised on the latter before discovering the former, so there are times when we jones for the cheap seats. Nonetheless, there are genuine roots to all that Americanized stuff as well – Even sweet and sour whatever, or chop suey. Dishes made famous, (infamous?), here were generally a far cry from their authentic roots, due predominantly to a lack of proper ingredients. While Chinese immigrants often brought, grew, or made the tools and supplies needed for authentic cooking with them, those were neither truly desired by nor fed to American diners for many decades.

Happily, here in the 21st century, most, if not all of what you need to cook authentic regional Chinese dishes is readily available. Even in relatively small towns, there is often a thriving Asian market, and if not, it’s all there in online stores. Naturally, the recipe resources available to home chefs has blossomed as well; there are myriad cookbooks for virtually every Chinese cooking style and region, let alone classes, online videos, and groups dedicated to the exploration thereof.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

Without a doubt one of, if not the most beloved Americanized dishes, is fried rice, and for good reason. The combination of proteins, veggies, fruit, and sauces is almost limitless, and few dishes are more satisfying when made well. Add the fact that it’s a perfect use for leftover rice, and you’ve got a perennial winner. Naturally, this begs the question – Where did fried rice actually originate?

Frying rice in some form or another has been done for as long as man has been eating cereals, and recipes harken as far back as the sixth century AD. The most well known variety is often called Yangzhou, after the city in the east central coast of China; it includes roast pork, prawns, scallions, and green peas. This is still considered one of, if not the signature version of fried rice, served at Chinese restaurants throughout the world, and called either House, or Special fried rice. That popularity doesn’t necessarily apply to China herself – There, myriad variants of the dish are found, especially in the south where rice is a major staple – Everything from heavily sauced Fujian and Cantonese versions, to Chāhan flavored with Katsuobushi, (Bonito flakes), and the red and white, yin-yang Yuan style. And that’s just China – There are signature versions from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Europe. There’s a Hawaiian version with Spam, and an ‘American’ version in Thailand served with hot dogs and catsup, and more varieties from South America and Cuba as well.

While you certainly can and should check out those recipes, the ubiquity of the dish certainly encourages exploration in the kitchen. Like spaghetti sauce, or mac and cheese, every household has a signature version that’s the best, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t add one of your own.

The real trick to great fried rice lies no so much in the add-ons, but in what rice you use – for the best results, you want cold, day old rice – or even frozen, (and that should be all the reason you need to save leftover rice every chance you get). The reason is moisture, or lack thereof. If you’ve ever tried making fried rice from fresh stuff, chances are you ended up with something soggier than you wanted. Using refrigerated, day old allows the rice grains to dry out somewhat, yielding nicely separated grains, and the slightly chewy texture we’re after. For longer storage, freeze rice in a ziplock bag with the air sucked out. Either way, once you’ve got your base material squared away, building whatever you like becomes a quick and easy task.

Long grain white rice is best for frying

Next question – what kind of rice is best? Long grained white will dependably cook up plump, distinct grains. This is due to a couple of important starch molecules, namely amylose, and amylopectin. Long grain white rice contains the highest concentration of amylose. This starch does not gelatinize when rice cooks, so varieties rich in it yield that fluffy stuff we’re after. Amylose also crystallizes and hardens when rice is cooled after cooking, but melts readily upon reheating, again lending itself perfect to frying over high heat. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice that is sticky and softer, and while that’s perfect for risotto or paella, it’s not so much for fried. Medium and short grain varieties are richer in this starch, while long grain white has significantly less. Thai jasmine rice is also long grained, but has less amylose, so can get a bit sticky. If you like the slightly sweeter taste of jasmine, Basmati might be a better choice for frying.

Restaurant woks at work

And finally before we cook, what about the best vessel for the job – to wok or not to wok, that is the question. The answer is, not absolutely necessary, but if you want the real McCoy, then only a wok over a really hot flame will give you that certain je ne sais quoi – the slightly grilled, smoky, almost burnt flavor notes great fried rice flaunts. When the weather allows here, we cook ours in a wok over the same propane powered burner we use for roasting coffee, outside – There’s no way I know of to get a hot enough flame inside, unless you’ve got a pretty serious commercial quality gas range.

A carbon steel wok on a propane burner

Cooking in a high carbon steel wok also imparts a certain flavor note of its own, just as cast iron does. It’s a subtle thing, but certainly notable and for my mind, highly desirable. If you don’t own a wok and decide to buy one, go with a 14″ like ours, with a flat bottom and double handles, one long, one short. Take great care to read up on the proper initial cleaning and seasoning of a new wok – failure to do so can literally sink your investment before you even get started. Now, all that said, you can do a perfectly fine job in a heavy skillet, but in any event, use the biggest thing you’ve got in your kitchen – a big cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is a fine alternative.

Alright, now that we have our pan chosen, here are a few basic guidelines for the overall process.

Get your pan as hot as you can safely get it, and use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or avocado. Those elusive grilled/smoky notes depend on it.

Use the biggest pan you’ve got – this is why even good home woks are 14″ – an overloaded pan won’t get hot enough to do the job right. If you’re cooking for more than two, do so in batches, as you would when deep frying.

Don’t overdo the sauce – Too much of a good thing will overpower the flavor of delicate ingredients, and will make your rice mushy as well. Note: most soy sauce you find in stores is considered dark, even if it doesn’t say so – Light soy is notably saltier and more assertive in taste, so should be used sparingly.

Alright – Here’s our version to get you started.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice
4-5 Cups cooked Rice, (1 Cup of dry long grain white should yield just right)
1/2 Pound Chinese Pork, fine diced
2 large Eggs
4-6 Scallions, trimmed and diced
1/2 Cup Chinese Long Beans, trimmed and diced
1/4 Cup Carrot, fine diced
1/4 Cup sweet Pepper, diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas
1-2 Tablespoons Avocado or Peanut Oil

For the Sauce
1 Tablespoon steaming hot Water
1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Honey or Agave Nectar
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients and whisk with a fork to incorporate. Allow flavors to marry for about 10 minutes before use.

Scramble eggs until fluffy, remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat your wok/pan over medium-high until it’s fully heated through.

Gently massage the cold rice by hand, to break up any and all clumps.

Turn the heat up to high, add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and let it heat through.

Add the carrots and peppers to the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the scallions, peas, and long beans and fry for another couple of minutes, until heated through.

Add the rice and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the sauce and the eggs, stir to incorporate and heat through.

Serve piping hot.