| Andrea Nguyen |
SOON after I posted a photo of Vietnamese grilled chicken legs on Instagram, this comment arrived, “Can you recommend an Asian market in the Bay Area?”
I’d described the recipe as deliciously simple, but the person nevertheless assumed that special, hard-to-find ingredients were involved.
Whenever I’ve had conversations about the feasibility of making good Asian food from regular grocery store ingredients, people react with raised eyebrows (scepticism) or a smile (pleasant surprise).
But the chicken legs are proof that you don’t have to shop at an Asian market to make great Vietnamese dishes.
In fact, I developed all the recipes in my new book using ingredients purchased at mainstream grocers and American supermarkets.
Despite the food cognoscenti thinking that supermarkets are plebeian, I’ve always loved them.
In May 1975, when my family and I visited our first supermarket in America, I was practically giddy.
Piles of polished apples and oranges, tidy aisles, well-labelled products, meat neatly wrapped in plastic: The situation was far from the chaos of the open-air “wet market” that I regularly visited with our housekeeper in Saigon.
I learnt to appreciate grocery shopping, super-fresh food and haggling in Vietnam but welcomed the sparkling calm of America’s mega-food palaces.
Our family had just fled Vietnam’s communist takeover, and one of my mom’s concerns was how to nourish our family with familiar savours.
At the Albertsons in San Clemente, California, she found cheap chicken backs, ginger and onion, which she fashioned into a fragrant stock and then harvested the fat and flesh to prepare comforting pots of chicken and celery rice that we gobbled up.
Unlike the unreliable sugar back home, American granulated white cane sugar is consistently fabulous for making bittersweet caramel sauce, a staple deployed for traditional Vietnamese braises of meat and seafood.
Perky lettuce, cilantro and mint were readily available for wrapping up fried and grilled morsels.
Swans Down cake flour proved to be a decent substitute for rice flour to make banh cuon (steamed rice rolls).
We relied on soy sauce until we could obtain fish sauce on excursions to Chinatown in Los Angeles. (Little Saigon in Westminster didn’t develop until later.)
Making do during those first years was a fun adventure.
Like many other refugees, we realised that culinarily, we could indeed be Vietnamese in America.
Because mainstream grocers helped my family resettle here, I remain fond of and fascinated by them.
I regularly roam the aisles to look for ingredients to use for Vietnamese dishes, much like my mom did when we first arrived.
In the past few years, I’ve noticed that supermarkets have become much friendlier to Asian cuisines.
Better and more authentic ingredients are available, as inventories have grown to an average of 40,000 items per store from about 9,000 in 1975.
Checking out the Asian food sections wherever I travel in the United States, I’ve found excellent fish sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, coconut milk and rice at such markets as Giant Eagle, Kroger and Publix.
Lemongrass, daikon and hot chilies are often found in the produce departments. Rice paper is easy to find, too.
How did those changes happen? I called Phil Lempert, founder and editor of SupermarketGuru.com and a food industry analyst for more than 25 years.
The trend started with the Silent Generation, many of whom served in the Pacific during World War II, he explained. After coming home, they wanted to continue eating foods that they had tried while abroad.
Their children, the baby boomers, wanted more Chinese and Japanese foods.
These days, with globalisation and the Internet, there’s broader knowledge, and people are more educated and curious.
“Supermarkets were losing market share to Asian markets.
“The distributors were doing volume at little stores,” he said.
“With demographic changes and more acculturation in food, retailers understood that they ought to carry more Asian products. The supers want to be one-stop shops.”
Young people have affected inventories, too.
“Millennials and Generation Z go to Instagram and look at a food photo and they re-create it. They’re willing to experiment,” Lempert said.
“They don’t care to be introduced to the chef in the backroom and would rather just have great food no matter where it comes from.
“They’re value-conscious, do not want to be overcharged and want great quality.”
Decades ago, the initial growth of food television resulted in many hip foods being sold at gourmet stores and associated with expensive restaurants and celebrity chefs.
“That has changed a lot. Look at the rise of Aldi and Lidl,” he said, referring to two popular discount grocers that have helped democratize food.
Increased interest in global flavours combined with a strong natural food movement has also pushed such ingredients as fresh turmeric, coconut water and virgin coconut oil to mainstream stores.
Those items may be wonderful health boosters to some people, but to me, they’re game changers for creating flavours that beautifully capture what I’ve enjoyed in Vietnam.
For example, I’ve long chased the alluring flavours of a golden-hued coconut rice that my parents adore.
Now, I can easily render the vibrant rice whenever I want.
When the rice noodle selection is poor or I want to enjoy noodles in whole-grain form, gluten-free pastas come to the rescue.
Brown rice capellini is excellent for refreshing bun noodle salad bowls and rice paper rolls; its heftier spaghetti sibling is perfect for spicy bun bo hue noodle soup.
Late last year, Whole Foods issued a trend report for 2019, putting strong bets on Pacific Rim flavours and citing dried shrimp and fruits such as guava, jackfruit and dragon fruit as ways for people to better experience “the world through their palates.”
More of the exotic and unfamiliar is moving from the margins into the mainstream.
American supermarkets welcomed my family more than 40 years ago.
We mined those grocers as well as Asian markets to replicate the flavours we feared had been lost. It was an issue of cultural survival.
Nowadays, I shop less frequently at Asian markets and see the future of Vietnamese food being buoyed by accessible ingredients, which allow more people to easily experience the cuisine’s brilliance.
The story has shifted from surviving to thriving, from being Vietnamese in America to shaping Vietnamese America. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post
Grilled lemongrass chicken chops
Lemongrass is a signature Viet flavour.
The chops can be also be done on the grill over medium-high heat (five to seven minutes, then the same resting period).
To make the marinade without a mini food processor, see the variation, below.
Serve these chops with rice and grilled vegetables, such as zucchini; season the veggies with leftover marinade, salt, pepper and oil, and then add to the stove-top pan or grill.
The chicken is also great sliced up for banh mi, rice paper rolls and rice noodle salad bowls.
The chicken chops need to marinate for at least 30 minutes (at room temperature), or up to one day, refrigerated.
Three cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (one tablespoon)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped shallot, or three tablespoons coarsely chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh lemon grass (from two medium stalks; tough outer layer discarded)
Two tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
Rounded 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
One tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons canola or other neutrally flavoured oil
One tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon molasses or dark amber honey
Four thin-cut, bone-in chicken chops (six ounces each), about 1/2 inch thick
1/2 cup nuoc cham dipping sauce (optional; see note below)
Combine the garlic, shallot or onion, lemon grass, brown sugar and pepper in a mini food processor; process to a fine texture.
Add the canola oil, fish sauce, soy sauce and molasses or honey; process until relatively smooth, to form a wet paste.
This is your marinade; transfer to a mixing bowl.
Use paper towels to blot excess moisture from the chicken.
Add the chicken to the marinade, turning to coat well, then cover and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Or, refrigerate for up to 24 hours; let the meat sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes before grilling.
Heat a cast-iron stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat.
Remove the chops, discarding any leftover marinade.
Do not wipe off the meat.
Add the chicken chops to the pan; cook for five to seven minutes, turning frequently, until firm and cooked through.
Transfer them to a plate to rest for five to 10 minutes.
Serve the chops warm, passing the dipping sauce at the table, if desired.
To make the marinade without a food processor, mince the garlic and shallot, transfer to a large bowl, then mix with three tablespoons grated or minced lemon grass (or store-bought lemon grass paste) and the remaining ingredients.
To make the dipping sauce, combine 1 tablespoon sugar (or 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup), one tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice and 1/4 cup warm water in a medium bowl.
Taste, and, as needed, add 3/4 teaspoon sugar (or 1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup) and/or 1 1/2 teaspoons lime juice; dilute with water if you go too far.
If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add two teaspoons of plain rice vinegar to fix the flavour.
Add 1 to two tablespoons fish sauce, aiming for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy.
If you want heat, add 1 thinly sliced Thai or serrano chile, or 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons chile garlic sauce or sambal oelek; for pungency, add one small minced garlic clove.
The yield is 1/2 to 2/3 cup.
Vibrant turmeric coconut rice
The key to making this dish properly is using coconut water – a tropical ingredient that, in recent years, has become incredibly popular in America. During cooking, the coconut water hydrates the rice without overwhelming the grains, and it imparts a delicate, sweet tropical lilt.
Coconut oil delivers the rich closing punch. If available, grate fresh turmeric for extra vibrancy; you can find it in more and more supermarket produce departments these days.
This rice is often served with curries, but it’s also terrific with grilled meats, seafood and vegetables. She packs leftovers for lunch.
1 1/2 cups of uncooked long-grain white rice, such as jasmine
1 3/4 cups of coconut water (see overview)
1 1/2 teaspoons of peeled, grated fresh turmeric, or 1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric (see overview)
1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of virgin coconut oil
Step 1: Wash the rice in several changes of water (which should go from cloudy to clear) or place in a strainer and rinse under running water, then drain well.
Step 2: Combine the coconut water, drained rice, turmeric and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat.
Bring to a boil, stirring to loosen the grains, then reduce the heat to medium and let bubble for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
Once the surface of the mixture is glossy, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let the rice sit for 10 minutes.
Step 3: Uncover, add the coconut oil and fluff with chopsticks or a fork to separate the grains.
Re-cover and let the rice rest for 10 minutes, or up to 30 minutes, to finish cooking process.
Step 4: Before serving, fluff the rice once again.