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Delightful Food Experiences in Vietnam

written by Marsha Seidelman, M.D.

When we were in Vietnam, we spent a few days in HoiAn, a town known for its silk and for its tailors who can create a dress or suit to your liking overnight. There's also a very successful chef and entrepreneur, Ms. Vy, who owns 5 restaurants. In any tour book, you can find information about her market tours and hands-on cooking classes.

Before the cooking class, we visited the market where many of the residents and restaurant employees shop. It was a huge open air market - table after table that in total is probably about the size of one of our supermarkets. The chicken and fish are so fresh that they're often still moving. There were pig's ears and other body parts that we don't usually see here. And the adjacent streets were lined with vendors selling beautiful fresh produce - the staple of the Asian diets. Although most dishes do contain shrimp, pork, beef or chicken, the plate is usually predominantly filled with veggies.

After our market tour, we also toured inside Ms. Vy's market/ cooking school. I was daring enough to try silkworms and grilled frog (which tasted just like chicken, as expected!). We saw how rice paper is made for spring rolls, and learned how to roll our own rolls for Bahn Mi.

Eventually, we moved on to our actual cooking class. Our chef-instructor told us, fish sauce is her best friend. It is used in almost every Vietnamese recipe. Five spice powder, used in the recipe below, is another very commonly used ingredient, which I favor over fish sauce. Of the other commonly used ingredients, one that is missing from this chicken recipe is ginger.

Five spice powder is a blend of spices that can vary, but it usually contains at least cinnamon and anise or star anise. The one I have from McCormick, for instance, has anise, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and ginger. Other versions might substitute fennel, Sichuan pepper, nutmeg or turmeric. Star anise, by the way, is one of the flavorings in pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup. It also happens to be the basis for Tamiflu, the medication we give to shorten the course of the flu. It could be better than grandma's chicken soup for nursing you back to health!

It's often said that you should date your spices and dried herbs when you open them, and should replace them every 6 months. With as many as I have, and occasionally use, that just isn't practical. But in the past week, I realized how much of a difference this could make. I brought home fresh five spice powder from Vietnam and bought fresh star anise from one of the Asian markets locally. Whereas the ones I had in small jars at home barely had any scent, the new ones were VERY fragrant and tasty. So, it may be worthwhile dating your containers and replacing at least some of them for special occasions, new recipes, or cooking for company.

The recipe below for Asian BBQ chicken does involve some preparation. I wish I could always cook at Ms. Vy's. As with most cooking classes, all of the ingredients were prepared in advance and our workplace was cleared as soon as we were done - no fuss, no muss! But, if you're cooking on your own, as most of us do, it helps to be organized, especially to prepare recipes with many ingredients.

To be most efficient, gather all of the ingredients, knives, other tools, measuring spoons and cups in one place. Keep a bowl or bag at your work area for all the odds and ends to be tossed or composted afterward, and, my favorite, have a paper towel under the area where you measure or mix. It makes cleanup a cinch! Maybe even more important, have some good rock and roll (or music of your choice) going.

In this recipe, if you're using fresh turmeric, you may want to wear plastic gloves to stop your hands from turning yellow. Even for the prepared powder, be aware that like curry or tomatoes, it can stain light surfaces or clothing.


Asian BBQ Chicken and Lime Leaves

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound boneless chicken thighs, skin off
1/3 cup fresh turmeric or 1 Tbsp ground turmeric
1/3 cup lemongrass, pounded
1 tsp sea salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp course black pepper
1/2 tsp five spice powder
4 lime leaves, sliced finely
2 Tbsp garlic, pounded
2 Tbsp shallots, pounded
1 tsp dried chili flakes
1 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp fish sauce

8 wooden skewers soaked in water 1 hour

Directions:

1) Cut thighs into 16 pieces. Place in a bowl. Add salt, sugar black pepper and five spice. Mix well.

2) Pound turmeric, add to chicken with garlic, shallot, lemongrass, chili, lime leaves, sesame oil and fish sauce. Mix well. Marinate for 30 minutes. Thread 2 pieces onto each skewer. Grill 4-5 minutes on each side on a low heat.

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