Jim Hillibish: You’re missing out if you haven’t tried Vietnamese

Jim Hillibish

With recipe

It happens in every war, declared or undeclared. Food knows no friend or foe.

My first sergeant years before got so hooked on Korean chow, he married the cook. His first sergeant probably fell for German or Japanese cuisine, and on and on, back to the first war, when Eve got hooked on apples.

The exception is Iraq. Perhaps it’s because Americans are fairly isolated over there, or the food is simply terrible to Westerners.

Vietnamese-Americans throughout the nation are playing a big part in the revival of Asian cuisine. There are many great stories here, of people fleeing refugee camps, arriving here with nothing and within a few years of hard work usually involving the entire family, they’ve got a flourishing business.

I have a notion that if capitalism had been invented in Asia, we’d all be working for them now.

Although you can get Peking duck right down the street, try finding a piquant Vietnamese dish. Forget it. This is a shame.

The time is right for Vietnamese food. It’s often based on today’s hot sellers -- chicken and fish. The flavorful sauces and taste contrasts can leave the more bland Chinese behind.

In the restaurant vacuum, you can try cooking it yourself. Problem here is not in the preparation but in digging up recipes and ingredients.

Finding Ingredients

If you befriend a Vietnam¬ese-American and wheedle a dinner invitation out of him or her, that’s the best way. Otherwise, you’ll have to travel to places with large concentrations of Vietnamese, large enough to support grocery stores. Washington and Toronto are good choices. You’ll even find a few Vietnamese cookbooks in the bookstores and a good selection of restaurants.

Many of the ingredients are preserved and will last a long time, so don’t worry about doing your shopping 300 miles away. Just stock up when you’re visiting.

Some of the basics are banh trang, the thin rounds of rice-based wrappers for cha gio (deep-fried spring rolls); citronella or lemongrass (substitute is lemon zest); laos or galangal, a mild, gingerlike root, and the often used-fermented fish sauce or nuoc mam. Chinese fish sauce is a substitute.

Surprising Contrasts

Vietnamese cuisine is one of surprises. You’ll have a searing chicken dish served alongside some rather bland steamed fish, punctuated by a popping-hot soup and vegetables stir-fried only in oil. Here are shrimp and cayenne pepper, trout with chillies and coconut cream, sharp sauces with lemon juice and lots of garlic and more hot peppers.

Delta Vietnamese cooking can be similar to our own Cajun. Both are hot and dependent on cayenne and peppers for their kick. If you adore Cajun, you may go nuts over its Vietnamese counterpart.

Caramelized Chicken

And now for a recipe, Ga Xao Sa Ot. Don’t let the name throw you. It’s basically caramelized, stir-fried chicken, and then some.

Skin and bone a pound of chicken thighs and a pound of chicken breasts. Cut into bite-size pieces.

Make a marinade of three tablespoons of fish sauce, a dash of dried, red pepper flakes or cayenne, two cloves of minced garlic and a teaspoon of lemon zest. You could substitute soy or oyster sauce for the fish sauce, but it definitely will change the taste. Or use hot bean paste thinned with soy and cut down on the pepper. Pour this over the chicken pieces and marinate for an hour or so in the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, combine two tablespoons of sugar with two of water in a saucepan. Stir constantly until the sugar begins to melt. Remove from heat when amber and stir in a teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Finally, fire up your wok or frying pan. Add a tablespoon of oil (peanut is preferred) and flip a piece of crushed garlic around to flavor the hot oil.

Remove garlic before it burns.

Drain and reserve the marinade and throw the chicken into the wok, stirring rapidly, for about two minutes. Then dump in the marinade, adding a bit more fish sauce or soy sauce and more pepper if you like it, a little water if you don’t.

After about three minutes, reduce the heat. Add enough of the caramelized sugar to coat the chicken. Then throw in a handful of peanuts or cashews and stir. Continue cooking on low for another five minutes or so, being careful not to burn the caramel.

Garnish with fresh coriander leaves if you have them, parsley if you don’t.

Serve with rice or rice noodles.