Archive for the 'Family Gatherings' Category

Bò Nướng Vĩ – Lemongrass Beef Grilled Tableside

One of my family’s all-time favorite Saturday night suppers is bò nướng vĩ—a Vietnamese version of fondue with an additional DIY element. Tabletop braziers serve as the centerpiece during these special dinners.

With so many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in my family, it is impossible to fit everyone into one table. And there’s no way one measly brazier can handle all of our appetites. On this particular evening, we had a table in the family room, another in the dining room and four braziers on full blast to accommodate the hungry masses. Here’s my grandpa tossing some raw onions onto the buttered brazier to get the party started.

The highlight of bò nướng vĩ are thinly sliced pieces of beef marinated with lemongrass and a bit of oil. The oil keeps the meat from sticking to each other and the hot plate.  My family downs mountains of meat like no other.

A lovely plate of ultra-fresh squid and shrimp. The shrimps’ skins, tails and veins are carefully removed beforehand, while the squid is scored and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Once we’ve melted down a knob of butter completely, in come the onions, meat, shrimp and squid. This dish is very communal—it’s not unusual for multiple chopsticks to be in the brazier at once! Eating bò nướng vĩ always reminds me of my cousin Andrew. Growing up, Andrew needed my cousins and I to alert him when a piece of meat was done because he was colorblind, and could not tell. Sometimes we tricked him into eating raw meat. Just kidding!

The butter caramelizes the onions just right and permeates the meat, shrimp and squid. Mmm, boy!

Bò nướng vĩ accouterments include rice paper, fresh lettuce leaves, mint, cucumber spears and most importantly, nuoc mam.

Here’s my grandpa carefully wrapping up the goodness in a sheet of cool rice paper.

Dip, bite, repeat.


Final Feast @ Bà Sáu's


The day before The Astronomer and I departed from Saigon for Hanoi, Ba Sau (my grandma’s younger sister) invited us over to her home in Phu Nhuan District for a final feast. Throughout our year in Vietnam, Ba Sau treated us to fabulous homemade eats, and this last lunch was no exception.


Ba Sau and her daughters-in-law worked all morning to prepare this amazing spread. I had some of my best meals in Vietnam at Ba Sau’s lovely home. I fondly remember the time she made a special version of bo bia when my friend Liana came to visit and the time she prepared banh tet from scratch during Tet. Her generosity and mad kitchen skills are unparalleled.


My Uncle Son’s (Son is his name) wife made xoi gac—sticky rice flavored subtly and colored intensely with gac fruit. The prune-looking garnish is actually a gac seed.


Ba Sau made one of my all-time favorite dishes, thit kho—caramelized hunks of braised pork legs and hardboiled eggs. The layer of fat is pure lusciousness.


Ba Sau’s ca ri ga—chicken curry—is the stuff dreams are made of. The rich, creamy and slightly spicy broth tastes amazing poured upon vermicelli noodles or dipped with a fresh baguette.


The feast would not be complete without Ba Sau’s signature dish cha gio—Vietnamese egg rolls. Each cha gio is the length of one’s pinky finger and filled with a mixture of ground pork, spices (fish sauce, pepper, etc.) and taro root. The crisp and blistering golden skins are my favorite part. I asked my grandma back in the states why our family doesn’t make cha gio like Ba Sau’s and her reply was that it was just too labor-intensive.


The mi xao gion—crisp noodles topped with a light gravy and chunks of vegetables (cauliflower, bok choy, carrots) and various meats (beef, squid, shrimp)—was also fabulous. My aunts kept on refilling my bowl everytime I finished a serving. I gladly gobbled up everything set before me.


And last, but certainly not least, khổ qua nhoi thit—bitter melon stuffed with pork. True to its name, bitter melon is usually too bitter for my tastes, but Ba Sau’s rendition was surprisingly palatable. I didn’t quite get the exact details about how she extracted the bitter from the melon, but somehow, someway, the melon tasted slightly sweet and just a bit bitter. Ba Sau does wonders in the kitchen.


Family—Cau Minh and Son (top), Di Phung and Mo (bottom, left), Cau Son and his wife. We left Saigon with full bellies and huge smiles upon our faces. I seriously cannot wait to get back to Saigon—Ba Sau’s hospitality is nothing short of five stars.

Ancestor Veneration

In addition to spending time with Ba Sau (my grandma’s sister) in Saigon, The Astronomer and I also see a lot of Ong Ty (my grandpa’s brother). Ong Ty lives in the house that my mom grew up in on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3. How cool is that? We usually meet him for lunch, but sometimes Ong Ty invites us to his home for special occasions, namely ancestor veneration.

Ancestor veneration is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese regardless of religious denomination (Buddhist or Christian) have an ancestor altar in their home or business.

In Vietnam, traditionally people didn’t celebrate birthdays (before western influence) but the death anniversary of a loved one was always an important occasion. Besides an essential gathering of family members for a banquet in memory of the deceased, incense sticks are burned along with hell notes, and great platters of fruit and food are made as offerings on the ancestor altar, which usually has pictures of the deceased.

These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional festivals, the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel, and is a hallmark of the emphasis Vietnamese culture places on filial duty.

Earlier this year we recognized my grandfather’s father and a couple weeks back there was a gathering for my grandfather’s mother. My American upbringing becomes very apparent during these occasions because I’m not too handy with the joss sticks or bowing on my knees (if you know what I mean). As a result, I pretty much just watch from the sidelines, which isn’t a big deal.

The most notable difference between ancestor veneration in Saigon and back in America is the day of the week it takes place. In Vietnam, ancestor veneration is held on the exact death anniversary, while in America, my family gathered on Saturdays and Sundays due to jobs and other commitments.

After everyone pays their respects to the deceased by lighting joss sticks and bowing on their knees, we feast! Here’s a close-up of the altar.

Another big difference between ancestor veneration here and back home is the food. Back in California, grandma makes the meal from scratch, but in Saigon, Ong Ty calls in the caterers. I’m pretty sure that the majority of Vietnamese households still make their spread from scratch, but Ong Ty’s wife isn’t much of a cook.

Dinner started off with a platter of head cheese and force meats, mostly of piggy origins. The usual suspects were present including cha, nem chua, ham and xa xiu. It was a little funny eating cold cuts without its good friend banh mi, but tasty nevertheless.

Next came a seafood soup with white asparagus. I’m not that enthusiastic about gelatinous soups, but the Vietnamese love the stuff.

My favorite dish of the evening was comprised of flaky fillets of white fish battered, fried and topped with a tomato-based sauce and fresh watercress. I have only encountered this dish at Ong Ty’s house—a most rare Vietnamese dish indeed.

Is a multi-course Vietnamese meal truly complete without hot pot? I think not. This seafood-based broth was served with chrysanthemum leaves and egg noodles.

And lastly, a dessert of Vietnamese JELLO (thach). Ong Ty and his wife also packed goody bags for all the guests to bring home that included xoi (sticky rice) and fruits.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. Ancestor veneration is sort of like a frat party (that ends at eight o’clock). Okay, not really. But there are a lot of beers involved. It’s true both in Vietnam and America that a little alcohol makes family gatherings a lot more sprightly.

Tết Đoan Ngọ


Asians are a ritualistic bunch.

This past Sunday was the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The “double fifth” day represents the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The Chinese celebrate with dragon boat festivals, the Koreans have Dano and the Japanese recognize kodomo no hi.

In Vietnam, we celebrated Tết Đoan Ngọ:

Tết Đoan Ngọ (literally: Tết: festival, Đoan: the start / straight / middle / righteousness / just, Ngọ: the seventh animal of the Chinese zodiac- the horse), Tết Đoan Dương (Dương: yang), Tết Trùng Ngũ (Trùng: double, Ngũ: the fifth), Tết Đoan Ngũ, Tết Trùng Nhĩ or Tết Nửa Năm (Nửa Năm: a half of a year) is a festival celebrated at noon on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This day is the day when the Great Bear star’s tail direct exactly to the south. At this time, the universe brings the greatest amount of yang yi in the entire year. Therefore, creatures and people must become stronger in both their health and their souls to overcome this.

Ba Sau (my grandma’s sister) invited us over to her home to celebrate the holiday with a midday feast. We indulged in sticky rice, barbecued pork, banh hoi, chicken porridge, boiled chicken, bo bia, fried rice and goi.

The two traditional foods of the holiday are banh u and com ruou. Banh u are pyramidal sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. They are oftentimes stuffed with mung beans, but the ones we had at Ba Sau’s were plain, so we dipped them in sugar. The banana leaf essence is the dominant flavor.

Com ruou, which literally translates as “rice wine,” are little balls of fermented rice bathed in wine. My aunt told me that com ruou is eaten early in the day to fight the “worms” in one’s stomach. In addition to being ritualistic, the Vietnamese are also very superstitious! Com ruou is very strong and quite delicious. I think the worms in my stomach were properly extinguished after consuming three balls.

The Astronomer and I are thankful to have Ba Sau in Saigon to introduce us to these wonderful local foods, traditions and customs. She’s the best!


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