Archive for the 'Thach' Category

Hà Tiên Quán – San Gabriel

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

Dining at a single restaurant on five different occassions in the span of two months has got to be some sort of record for me. While this type of behavior is generally considered quite normal, it’s really very notable in my world because food blogging tends to discourage restaurant monogamy—there’s always something newer, more exciting, or tastier just around the corner.

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel has reeled in my promiscuous dining ways with its tremendous Vietnamese cooking. The restaurant’s lineup of regional noodle soups never fails to warm and satisfy, while the vegetarian fare packs a wallop of flavor.

With nearly every Vietnamese restaurant in town serving up the usual pho, vermicelli rice noodles, and and banh mi, it’s been a breath of fresh air diving head first into Hà Tiên’s anything-but-predictable menu. Best of all, I’m constantly tasting new dishes that I didn’t grow up with or encounter while living in Vietnam. This place is my edible playground.

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

The family behind the restaurant is comprised of Larry Ta, his wife Thu Trang, and their daughter Carolyn. Thu heads up the kitchen, while Carolyn and Larry greet, seat, and tend to customers. Both Larry and Thu are from Ha Tien, a city on the western end of the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border. Hà Tiên Quán opened its doors last October.

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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.

Keep Your Cool

kem sma

It’s bloody hot in Saigon.

The dry-season is in full swing and the days of motorbiking in the rain while donning ponchos are now a distant memory.

Unlike most foreigners, I love the heat. It’s probably the product of my Saigon genes and SoCal upbringing. And even though it’s already suitably warm right now, temperatures will likely continue to soar until June. I hope I don’t melt.

On those occasions when a cool wet-nap just isn’t enough to keep the heat at bay, here are ten truly local delights to keep from going bananas during the long months before the rains return:

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1. Sinh To is Vietnam’s take on the western smoothie. Fresh fruits such as mangoes (xoai), soursops (mang cau xiem), papayas (du du), pineapples (thom) and avocados (bo) are blended with sugar, crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk until smooth and frothy. A serving of sinh to is an easy way to get a healthy dose of fruit while sipping the afternoon away. Depending on the market price of raw materials, a glass of sinh to ranges from 8,000-15,000 VND.

2. Che Nhan is made from nhan (dried longans) and suong sa (agar jelly) and served in a tall glass over ice. Although not the prettiest che on the block, it certainly has its merits. Che nhan‘s cool liquid tastes like a soda-less cream soda with hints of vanilla, while the jelly’s playful crinkly texture reminds one to take it easy or risk a stroke. Che nhan can be purchased from most che vendors for 2,000-6,000 VND per serving.

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3. Rau Ma (pennywort juice) is definitely not for everyone (myself included), but word on the street is that this green chlorophyll-intensive liquid is like coolant for the soul. At 2,000 VND a glass, everyone should take a swig at least once.

4. Unlike its ugly stepsister rau ma, Nuoc Mia (sugarcane juice) is not an acquired taste. Made from freshly pressed sugarcane with a squeeze of trai hanh (sour citrus fruit), nuoc mia is the next best thing to a headfirst plunge into a swimming pool. A cup (or bag) of nuoc mia on ice can be procured at numerous roadside stands around town for 2,500 VND.

5. There’s nothing like chilled Trai Cay (fresh fruit) on a hot day. Saigon’s proximity to the fertile Mekong Delta makes it possible for city residents to enjoy an abundance of wonderfully delicious and inexpensive fruits year round. From mangoes to custard apples to papayas and bananas, the possibilities are endlessly satisfying. Fruit vendors on every other block makes it possible to indulge in a plethora of trai cay without having to bother with slicing and dicing. For a little kick, try dipping tart fruits in a little chili salt.

6. Kem Trai Dua is served at a number of ice cream parlors around the city, but the best rendition is at Con Truong, located on the corner of Vo Van Tan Street and Pham Ngoc Thach Street in District 1. Sorbet-like coconut ice cream is served inside a fresh young coconut and adorned with crushed peanuts, dried bananas, pineapple preserves, and topped with a dried plum “cherry.” Chilled coconut juice is served on the side. Kem dua brings a taste of the tropics to a bustling and chaotic city. Priced at 24,000VND a pop, this “pricey” frozen treat is worth every dong.

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7. After bia (beer), Ca Phe Sua Da is probably Vietnam’s next most popular beverage. This classic Vietnamese drink is comprised of freshly brewed Robusta coffee sweetened with condensed milk and served on ice. The end result is a cold and creamy caffeine jolt. Pull up a stool at any of the beverage carts strewn around town for a cup of ca phe sua da and expect to pay somewhere between 5,000-6,000VND.

8. Nuoc Ep is a general term for fruit and vegetable juice. My two favorite drinks in this genre are winter melon (bi dao) and passion fruit (chanh day). While winter melons are a gorgeous mint green, their juice is strangely black. Served over ice, this dark liquid is a unique thirst quencher. Passion fruit juice is made to order, bright tangerine in color, and sweet and tart in all the right places. Winter melon juice goes for 2,000VND a glass, while passion fruit costs 6,000VND.

9. Hacked to order, Trai Dua (fresh young coconut) is a self-contained drink and snack in one. First, sip the cool coconut juice through a straw. Then ask the vendor to chop off the top, and eat the white flesh with a spoon.

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10. I often refer to Thach as Vietnamese JELLO due to its similar texture. The light dessert is made from water, sugar, agar agar and a variety of flavorings including coconut milk, coffee and pandan leaves. Thach oftentimes contains a number of different layers and flavors, but when eaten together, I find it impossible to differentiate pandan from coffee from coconut. To me, it just tastes sweet, refreshing and gelatin-y. Thach can be purchased from ladies pushing glass cases filled with small bowls on giant blocks of ice for 2,000-3000VND a serving.

Thạch

This my friends, is what I call Vietnamese Jello. The technical name is thạch, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like J-E-L-L-O. It’s a light dessert made of water, sugar, agar and a variety of flavorings including coconut milk, coffee and pandan leaves.

This particular version was made by the Golden Sea Hotel (a fantastic place to stay if you’re ever in Da Nang). The thạch was served at the hotel’s sumptuous breakfast buffet, which was prepared each morning for guests. What’s most notable about the Golden Sea’s thạch is the number of layers it contains—eight!

My Aunt Phuong and I made some thạch this past summer and encountered difficulty with the layers not adhering properly due to poor timing. Since we had trouble working with only three layers, I was quite impressed with the hotel’s eight layer execution.

Look at those beautiful layers—the white ones are coconut, the lime green one is pandan, the tan ones are condensed milk and coffee, the dark brown one is plain coffee and the orange one is gac fruit (I think). Eaten together, I find it impossible to differentiate between each individual flavor; it just tastes sweet, refreshing and gelatin-y!

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