For my birthday, my son’s girlfriend gave me the most wonderful cultural food adventure. It took place during their extended July 4th holiday visit, when we enjoyed a Return of Traditional Summer Activities. We prepared two classic Vietnamese dishes; crepes and spring rolls with fish and peanut dipping sauces.
Meanwhile, my eldest son and husband combined a chemistry experiment with bar tending to create a unique clarified version of a classic cocktail to accompany the meal.
Prior to their arrival, V emailed me links to several different Vietnamese dishes she had in mind. Everything looked delicious, although I was unfamiliar with some of the ingredients. She explained what they were, assuring me what wasn’t found in an Asian food market or grocery store could be substituted with other options.
I looked forward to the experience and and some girl-only time for weeks!
On the last full day of their visit, V and I went together on a cultural shopping excursion, had a hands-on cooking lesson, and then served a wonderful meal. I was her enthusiastic assistant, taster, and table setter for dinner.
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Introduction to Vietnamese Cooking
Since first being introduced to Vietnamese dishes decades ago, I have been a big fan. A workmate of Mr. Buzz, hosted our gang of friends to what can only be described as an exotic and delectable tasting feast. It left a long-lasting impression.
Vong and his family were among the last to be airlifted out of Saigon. His father was in diplomatic service, and they first settled in Paris. There, Vinnie (Vong’s nickname) attended the Sorbonne. When his family later moved to the Washington DC area, Vinnie went on to receive an engineering degree at the University of Maryland.
After I moved to take a new job in Northern Virginia (and Mr. Buzz and I were juggling a long-distance relationship), Vinnie arranged for us to have another memorable meal at a Vietnamese restaurant in Old Town. One of these days, we have got to return to The East Wind Fairfax.
He was a dear, outgoing man who always had a smile on is face. I love the picture of Vinnie grinning while smoking cigars with hubby’s other workmates at our wedding reception. Sadly, he was taken from us many years ago; leaving behind his wife and young daughter. But I’m sure he was smiling down as V and I prepared several classic Vietnamese dishes.
According to Serious Eats, Vietnamese dishes make extensive use of fresh herbs, spices, and aromatics. Most salt is in the form of fermented fish sauce, and it’s in almost everything!
Typical in the northern part of Vietnam are stir-fires and noodle soups, influenced by China. Moving south, foods tend to blend flavors from Thailand and Cambodia. With a more tropical climate, southern Vietnamese food is sweeter.
“Despite the varied landscape of Vietnam, all of the cuisine contains this brilliant balance of aromatics, heat, sweetness, sourness, and fish-sauciness. As with other Asian cuisines, it’s all about the yin and yang; the sweet and the salty, the cooling and the warming, the fresh and the fermented.”Serious Eats
And then, there’s the influence of French colonization on Vietnamese dishes. Pho (pronounced fuh) is a fusion of Vietnamese rice noodles and French meat broths.
A few years ago, hubby and I enjoyed our first bowls of pho. We were with our eldest son at an indoor flea market in Brooklyn — right across from the Barclay Center.
Each of us ordered a different variety pho, and all were a feast for the eyes, nose and mouth!
While there, we also picked up a vintage parking meter for our younger son. He uses it as a decorative bookend.
Pho Personal Chef
Even better, was the oxtail pho V treated us to this past November! She and my son went shopping the day before for essential ingredients. I’m so glad I texted my friend Q for a store suggestion, because now we know there’s a small Asian market just a convenient five-minute drive from my house!
Q lives in my community, and owns the salons were I have my nails done. Both Q and her husband’s extended families immigrated here when they were young children. Over the years, she has shared numerous stories of her family and all the Vietnamese dishes they often prepare.
The two of us often lament that Pittsburgh continues to lack a really good Vietnamese restaurant. But now my family has the talented cook V, so who needs a restaurant lol?!
Although nothing like the markets and choices in NYC, V was able to get the specialty ingredients needed at the Asian market Q had suggested.
It was a whole day affair for the giant pot of broth to simmer — the key element of pho. In the picture below, you can see the condiments added on top of the oxtail and noodle laden broth. The raw steak cooked when added to the hot liquid. Happily the large, deep bowls I had were the right size for serving pho.
What a fabulous, hearty treat! We really appreciated all the love and effort V put into it. Additionally, it saved Mr. Buzz and I from having to prepare dinner the evening before Thanksgiving.
Back then, I was still recovering from foot surgery, in a cast, and using a clunky knee scooter to get around.
Personal Shopper Too
Fast forward to July. Knowing how much I loved the pho, likely gave V the idea of a personalized culinary adventure as a birthday gift.
First, she put together a shopping list of ingredients needed for the two Vietnamese dishes that would make up the meal. Cilantro, mint, basil, and chives came fresh from my herb garden.
Our first stop was the same Asian market. I really enjoyed having my own personal shopper to explain what was what. It was a fun, new experience! In all the years I had prepared international theme meals for our dinner group, I had never shopped for, or made an Asian dish.
Next, we headed over to our large supermarket for basic ingredients, with V making a few substitutions and additions.
Vietnamese Dishes: Banh Xeo
V explained that banh xeo (pronounced ban say-oh) is a Vietnamese crepe with a crispy golden crust. The yellow coloring comes from turmeric.
First, we prepared the batter so that it had a least three hours to set up (it can also be refrigerated overnight). Rather than purchasing large quantities of individual ingredients for the batter, V decided on a convenient Vietnamese pancake mix (see below). To that, a can of coconut cream (coconut milk may be substituted) was added.
One package made two crepes for each of us — eight large pancakes — with plenty extra batter leftover.
While the batter was setting up, we prepped and sliced the remaining ingredients for both the banh xeo and spring rolls (more on these in a minute). Chopped pieces of pork and shrimp were cooked and put aside.
Additionally, we made two dipping sauces; one for each dish. For the banh xeo crepes, it was a fish sauce called nuoc cham. It can be refrigerated and will last about a week. Hubby and I later used it as a marinade for shrimp kabobs on the grill.
My main contribution was setting the table using palm placemats and plates, turquoise swirl glasses and copper twig flatware. See more of the tableware showcased in Summer Jungle Table & Palm Leaf Napkin Fold, and Palms, Parrots & Paradise Tablescape.
The dipping sauce starts by making a sort of lemonade with water, sugar (bottled simple syrup) and fresh squeezed citrus juice (lime and lemon). Then you slowly add and blend the bottled fish sauce (Three Crabs brand see below). There’s regular tasting along the way to balance sweet, tart and salty.
To the liquid we added minced garlic and a small Thai chili for a little kick. Bits of chopped carrot and chives added garnish.
For the spring rolls, we also made a quick and easy peanut sauce using hoisin sauce, garlic, chili paste, and peanut butter. I could eat that stuff by the spoonful, lol!
Vietnamese Dishes: Bo Bia
While the crepe batter continued to setup, V showed me how to assemble the bo bia, Vietnamese spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. Thought to be an adaption of the Chinese roll, the Vietnamese version uses rice paper rather than wheat wrap, and is not fried.
Originally, V’s recipe called for Chinese sausages which are air-dried or smoked. Much to her surprise, none were to be found at our local Asian market. Instead, V smoothly pivoted to use fresh mango as a replacement, along with thinly sliced carrots, seedless cucumber, red-tipped lettuce, fresh basil, and fried scallions.
Since I’ve never had a Chinese sausage it’s hard to know how it would have tasted. But, I have to tell you, we all loved the flavor and texture of the mango! Dipped in the peanut sauce, the mango-filled spring rolls were the perfect compliment to the pork and shrimp in the crepes.
And, aren’t they beautiful too?
Once all the ingredients and sauce are prepped, bo bia is quickly assembled. A package of rice paper wraps (see below) is cheap, and there will be leftover wrappers for many spring rolls to come! We made two per person to have along wit the crepes.
All you do is fill a shallow bowl (wider than the round wrap) with water. One at a time, immerse a rice paper sheet under the water for a few seconds. The white paper becomes translucence and slippery; looking like a sheet of plastic. Taking care not to overstuff, place the fillings in the middle of the circle. V then showed me how quick it was to then fold and roll the bo bia.
Now that I know how easy and fun they are to prepare, I’ll be making them again — sure to impress and delight guests!
Finally, it was time to cook the crepes and serve dinner! No special cookware or appliance like my French crepe maker (ooh la la!) was necessary. V cooked the banh xeo in my large, non-stock pan over medium-high heat.
After pouring batter into the pan, she quickly tilted and rotated it so the batter evenly spread. There should only be a thin layer of batter that almost flakes off at the thinner edges.
Rather than mixing the green onions into the batter at the last minute, she simply sprinkled them on top of each crepe in the pan. To that V added a single-size portion of the already-prepped bean sprouts, onions, pork and shrimp.
Then the crepe is covered with a lid for about three minutes; or until the bean sprouts and batter are slightly cooked. Since the pancake won’t be flipped, this step steams and warms the top side of the batter and fillings.
Next, the lid is removed to release that steam. With the heat reduced to medium-low, cook another five to seven minutes — until the crepe is crisp. Lastly, fold in half and serve.
Banh xeo means something like, “sizzling cake” and are meant to be served hot-from-the-pan. Before we all sat down at the table to eat, V made four large crepes, or one per person.
Meant to be eaten with your hands, torn pieces of the crepe are sprinkled with fresh herbs, wrapped in lettuce, and dipped into fish sauce. Extra mango, carrot and cucumber slices were also extra condiments.
We all eagerly and patiently waited as V made us each a second delicious crepe. When serving banh xeo at home, it might make sense to place the finished crepes on a parchment-lined cookie sheet in an ultra-low oven to keep warm before serving.
These Vietnamese dishes did take a fair amount of organization and prep time. But what a fun culinary cooking experience and fabulous tasting meal! Thank you V for my wonderful birthday gift!
Have you ever prepared any of these Vietnamese dishes and sauces? Or had them at a restaurant?
While V and I were prepping and preparing dinner, son R and Mr. Buzz were experimenting with a new type of cocktail. Instead of a classic pina colada that is creamy white, they took it into a new direction. A clarified version was done by curdling coconut cream with pineapple juice, and then filtering it into a clear syrup.
After being treated to clarified cocktails at friends, R was anxious to try the process himself. My engineer husband and science/math-loving son had a great time conducting the chemistry experiment in our kitchen.
“But why go through all that hassle, you may ask? Well, in very simple terms, the process of clarification helps you “trap” and remove insoluble matter from a liquid. That insoluble matter can influence flavor, the visual appearance and the mouthfeel of your drink. By clarifying it, you can take a drink you know well in a completely different direction.“Punch
There are multiple ways to clarify cocktails, and the guys applied a simple filtration method using a blender, strainers, and cheesecloth. They began with the coarsest filter for the big particles, and then gradually moved to the finest type — a paper coffee filter.
It was a slow process, taking three filtrations until for the liquid was clear and ready to serve — drip, drip, drip! But the tropical pina coladas were amazing clear and smooth in texture!
From Full House to Empty
Because he had a six hour drive home across the state and wanted to get ahead of holiday traffic, youngest son unfortunately missed the special meal and cocktail. My Scottie puppy, Whiskey, moped around the house missing D and his dog Bentley.
At 4:30 AM the following morning, dear hubby drove eldest son and V to the airport to catch their flight back to NYC. Later, he headed off to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. All of a sudden it was just Whiskey and I. Our house felt quiet and empty.
Whiskey jumped up on the couch as I was reading the morning paper. I took that Scottie head tilt to mean, “where did everybody go?”
Then he turned and stood on his back legs to look out the window. Realizing they were all gone, he sadly rested his chin on the back of the couch. I felt pretty much the same, sniff!
The following day, however, my blogger friend, Bev Carter of Eclectic Red Barn, came for a quickly organized get-together. She had driven all the way from Florida to visit her elderly mother and one of her sisters who live in the area.
I dashed to Trader Joe’s for cheese, crackers, nuts, and their yummy Meyer lemon cookie wafers. Than I made a batch of rose petal iced tea — a gift from my thoughtful college roommate and BFF. She knows how much I love to drink tea, but can’t tolerate much caffeine.
Bev and I had never met in person or spoken on the phone. You wouldn’t have guessed that by looking or listening to us lol! We chatted non-stop until realizing how late it had become. And, Bev had a long, solo drive back to Florida the next day.
Whiskey, an Energetic & Playful Scottie Puppy, could not contain his excitement and settle himself — despite repeated opportunities to behave so he could join us on the porch. But, dog lover that Bev is, she didn’t seem to mind him jumping up or planting her with kisses.
She’s such an interesting, smart, lively and warm person! I really appreciate the time and effort she took for us to meet and get better acquainted.
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