Cookbook keeps Vietnam family recipes for future generations |

Cookbook keeps Vietnam family recipes for future generations

Mary MacVean
Los Angeles Times

Ann Le’s parents married in 1975, a week before the end of the Vietnam War and three days before they joined relatives in two boats for an uncertain future that led from South Vietnam to a Korean refugee camp, to Minnesota and finally to Southern California.

They were among the early residents of Little Saigon in Westminster, Calif., a lively culinary destination with 200 markets, bakeries and cafes in three square miles, Le says. The first restaurants, she says, were just dining rooms of private homes where residents served inexpensive, family-style meals.

Growing up, Le, her brother and their parents ate Vietnamese food almost exclusively, often heading to one restaurant (that’s no longer in business) at the end of her parents’ long workdays. “I recall almost having the menu memorized,” she says. “Everything was family-style.”

They usually ate steamed rice, a salad platter, a meat or fish dish and a consommé. But sometimes her grandmother cooked for the family – dishes such as braised fish, chicken salad and “bun rieu,” a soup with crab, tomato and noodles.

Fearing those recipes would be lost because they were not written down, Le began gathering them, finally producing “The Little Saigon Cookbook” (Globe Pequot Press), published not long before her grandmother died this year.

Le, 28, says it was a challenge to write recipes that her family and friends had only passed along orally.

“I hope people modify them,” she says. “That what’s we do at home. Everyone has their way.”

Her grandmother’s way with the sweet braised dishes called “kho” was among Le’s favorites. Especially braised catfish, cooked in a clay pot with lemon-lime or coconut soda and black and chile peppers. A nearly vegetarian version (except for the fish sauce) uses eggplant.

Le, who now lives near downtown Los Angeles, returns often to see her family – and to shop.

Pan-fried Spicy Chicken with Mint and Ginger

6 T. olive oil, divided

11Ú2 teaspoons ground white pepper

1Ú2 onion, finely chopped

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1Ú4 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves

1Ú3 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves

1 T. finely chopped fresh ginger

1Ú4 cup fish sauce (nuoc nam)

1 fresh Thai bird chile, finely chopped

11Ú2 teaspoons sugar

2 pounds bone-in skin-on chicken thighs (about 6 pieces)

Fresh mint and cilantro leaves to garnish

First make the marinade. In a large bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of the oil, the white pepper, onion, garlic, coriander leaves, mint leaves, ginger, fish sauce, chile, and sugar. Stir well until the sugar is dissolved.

Clean the chicken thighs and pat them dry. Put them in a large bowl or shallow dish and pour the marinade on top. Rub the marinade all over the chicken until each piece is evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Wipe the marinade off the chicken and reserve marinade. Find a heavy frying pan large enough to fit the chicken pieces in one layer. Pour the remaining 5 tablespoons oil into the pan and heat over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken, skin side down.

Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the chicken for 4 to 5 minutes until skin is golden brown. Turn over and cook the other side for about 15 minutes or until done. Test the chicken for doneness by pricking it with a fork; when the juices run clear, remove the chicken from the pan and keep warm.

Pour out the fat and return the pan to medium heat. Spoon in the reserved marinade and stir to bring up the brown bits on bottom of pan cooking 2 to 3 minutes. Add one-half cup water and bring to a boil. Turn down and simmer for a few more minutes. Return the chicken to the pan to reheat if necessary. Serve with steamed rice and garnish with fresh cilantro and mint leaves. Drizzle the pan sauce over the chicken and serve. Serves 3.

Green Papaya Salad with Shrimp

1Ú3 pound large shrimp, cleaned, deveined

2 T. olive oil

1Ú4 teaspoon salt

1Ú8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Juice of 1 small lime

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sugar

21Ú2 T. fish sauce (“nuoc nam”)

1Ú2 fresh Thai bird chile, finely chopped (1Ú4 teaspoon chopped)

1 T. oil

1 T. minced shallots

3 cups julienned green papaya

1Ú4 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves, divided

1Ú4 cup chopped fresh Thai basil leaves, divided

3 T. finely chopped, unsalted dry-roasted peanuts

Heat a grill pan or grill. Place the shrimp in a bowl. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper and toss to coat. Grill until opaque in the center, about 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill, cool and slice in half lengthwise.

In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, garlic, sugar, fish sauce and chopped chile. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved.

In a small skillet or saucepan, heat the oil. Fry the minced shallots until golden brown. Drain and add to the fish sauce mixture.

Julienne the papaya or mangoes into thin, matchstick strips 2 inches long until you have 3 cups. Place in a large serving bowl or platter. Pour the dressing all over the strips, evenly coating them. Toss with 2 tablespoons coriander and 2 tablespoons Thai basil.

Top the dressed papaya with cooked shrimp and garnish with the peanuts, the remaining coriander and basil. Serves 4.

Warm ‘Shaking Beef’ Salad

1 pound beef (filet or sirloin; best grade recommended)

5 T. olive oil, divided

1Ú4 cup fish sauce (nuoc nam)

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 T. oyster sauce

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

11Ú2 T. sugar

2 bunches watercress, stems removed, about 5 cups

2 onions, cut in half and sliced

1Ú2 teaspoon cornstarch

4 plum tomatoes, cut into quarters

Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes. Prepare the marinade in a bowl or container with a lid by combining 2 tablespoons of the oil, the fish sauce, black pepper, oyster sauce, garlic and sugar. Mix well until the sugar is dissolved, then add the beef cubes. Cover the bowl or container and shake the cubes to evenly coat the meat (or you can simply stir). Leave the cover on and let the container sit for 20 minutes on the counter.

Clean the watercress and arrange it on a large serving platter or dish.

In a large skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over high heat. When it is hot, add the onion. Saute for just a few minutes, then throw in the beef with its marinade and toss quickly. You need to cook for only 5 minutes over low to medium heat for the meat to be medium rare; continue tossing as it cooks.

Turn off the burner and stir in the cornstarch to thicken the sauce. Spoon onto the watercress and top with tomato. Serve steamed rice. Serves 6.