Lily Buds, Tree Ears, and Fish Sauce

It hasn’t overtaken Mexican food yet, but exotic, pungent Vietnamese cooking is making a mark on Texas.

A few months ago I started dropping in every now and then at a Vietnamese grocery store in Austin called My Thanh. I went there for the first time out of curiosity—I’m a grocery store buff. Why? I like to window-shop for food, but also, to put a higher tone on it, I believe that food is anthropology. If you’re curious about a culture (regional or ethnic), its grocery stores are a good place to get a feel for it.

Two things have brought me back to My Thanh. First, it has the best seafood in town: really fresh redfish and red snapper and speckled trout, shrimp that have never been frozen, low-priced exotica that the fishmonger gives names to, like “goo fish” and “spot fish,” and, on lucky days, nearly unobtainable treats like whole kingfish and bushel baskets of big, live blue crabs. The fishmonger will filet or scale your fish at no charge and pack it in a bag of crushed ice, which nobody else seems to do anymore. And the prices hover between half and two thirds of what they are everywhere else.

There’s a small meat counter next to the fish counter and a tiny vegetable counter next to that. Then there’s a section that sells Vietnamese movie-star posters, records, and videocassettes. The rest of My Thanh—this is the second reason I keep going back—is given over to aisle after aisle of Vietnamese foods in cans, bottles, and packages, all of which are completely mysterious to Americans. Dozens of varieties of translucent noodles, sacks of glutinous rice and nonwheat flours, tree ears, lily buds, bamboo shoots, dried squid, strange amber sauces—you get the idea. I decided to take the next step, after going there just for redfish, which was to try cooking some of that stuff.

Several cookbooks have a few Vietnamese recipes as part of an overview of oriental cooking, but there’s only one I could find that’s all Vietnamese: The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam , by Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman, published by Barron’s and still in print. It’s both serious, in the sense of refusing to compromise for the sake of American tastes, and charming, because of the slightly dotty effusiveness of its description of the food (“In the minds of many, these time-hallowed delicacies are the brilliant jewels in the magnificent mosaic of precious gems”). I began to bring it along on my trips to My Thanh, and over a few weeks I made a dozen or so Vietnamese dishes.

For Americans there is one screaming tabloid headline about authentic Vietnamese cooking that we had better deal with right away: FISH SAUCE, or, in Vietnamese, nuoc mam . “Fish sauce is to Vietnamese cooking what salt is to Western and soy sauce to Chinese cooking, “ says The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam . “It is included in practically all recipes.” On one of my trips to My Thanh, a Vietnamese man saw a bottle of fish sauce in my shopping card and started giggling. I asked him what was so funny. “Americans don’t like that,” he said. Well, maybe so, but you can’t blame us. Fish sauce is made by putting alternating layers of anchovies and salt in a wooden barrel. After three months the liquid is drained from the bottom of the barrel and poured back in the top. After another six months the barrel is drained again to produce the finished product. Fish sauce comes in quart bottles that cost less than $1; it is dark and strong-smelling (not to mention -tasting).

I had some early tragic experiences in my Vietnamese cooking, all involving fish sauce. I would especially like to forget a dish called simmered fish, in which a catfish filet is sautéed and then poached in a mixture of pork fat, fish sauce, garlic, and sugar. At one point I resolved to make only those few dishes that didn’t use fish sauce. Then I got a grip on myself, and slowly I made my peace with fish sauce. I had initially bought a brand called Phu Quoc, but I tried a second brand that turned out to be much milder, called Ca Com (“ ca com ” is used as a brand name, but it also means “anchovies,” the fish preferred in the brewing of fish sauce). I found I had better luck with recipes that used fish sauce by the teaspoon than with ones that were up in the tablespoons. Also, oddly, fish sauce goes much easier with meat than with fish. The case for it is that it gives food a distinctive taste—a sweet ripeness or pungency, which, once you get used to it and when it doesn’t overpower, is addictive. The faint of heart can leave it out or substitute tuong, a soy-and-rice-based paste that you squeeze out of a plastic tube.

Even aside from fish sauce, Vietnamese food is completely different from other oriental food, not to mention Western food. It uses no butter at all and hardly any oil, and the cooking method is usually steaming or braising or dry-roasting rather than stir-frying. On the other hand, if that sounds healthy, a common ingredient in main-course dishes is white granulated sugar, and it’s not used bashfully either. Often there will be a hot-sweet effect, as in Texas jalapeño jelly. The main starch is rice (used most often in the form of noodles), and the main spices are scallions, garlic, mint, ginger, cilantro, lemongrass, and a couple of exotic mushrooms. One of my favorite Texas conceits is that you have to come to love Texas, because its charms, though profound, aren’t on the surface—therefore anyone who appreciates Texas must be deep. Well, I have come to love Vietnamese food, despite its off-putting aspects. It has stayed with me. I’m captivated by the constant mixing of textures in single dishes and of meat with seafood—both principles that better cooks than I am might use to explore the frontiers of American cooking.

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