Only the GPS and lunch made Mom pause the conversation. “I packed dumplings,” she announced. At a rest stop, she revealed individually packed banh khuc, snowball-size sticky rice dumplings filled with mung beans, fried shallot and porky nubbins. She’d resteamed them before leaving the house, knowing that they’d stay soft and warm until our midday break. We were driving in December from my parents’ home in San Clemente, Calif., to Las Vegas, where my dad was scheduled to receive medical treatment.
A chilly wind swirled all around us as we sat in the car nibbling away, using airline-size metal forks purchased from a thrift shop. “They’re dainty, reusable and perfect for travel,” she explained.
The scene might seem surreal to some, but it was typical of the hyphenated foodways that defined our family for more than 40 years. Just as good as ones I’ve had in Vietnam, Mom’s dumplings featured a jade-colored dough prepared from fresh spinach and Japanese rice flour milled in California, American work-arounds that didn’t compromise Vietnamese integrity.
Born in the 1930s in northern Vietnam, Tuyet Thi Nguyen has had a life defined by displacement, diaspora and determination. Cooking and feeding people were a coping strategy. For our family’s escape from Saigon to America in 1975, she carried a handbag containing a survival kit of family photos (reminders of our roots), instant noodle packages (for our inevitable hunger) and a handwritten recipe notebook (so we could savor familiar flavors).
That notebook seeded my cookbook-writing interests, and her endless parade of homemade food kick-started my love of eating. She also gave me my first cooking lesson (rice). Ask me who inspired my food career, and I’ll immediately respond that it’s my mom.
But Mom’s culinary diligence and fervor came with a heaping cup’s worth of control. To ensure that the rice was sufficiently rinsed, she made 10-year-old me count the four rinses aloud before inspecting the water clarity. She routinely barked out orders so my sisters and I would prep and present food to her specifications. Precision and propriety were key in her household.
Mom, now 83, has thankfully mellowed a bit. As my career has evolved, we’ve become food pals, regularly sharing tips and recipes. “I have a different relationship with each of my children,” she noted.
She talked nearly nonstop for the 4½-hour drive, briefing me on family gossip as we made our way through the suburbs into the desert. Her memory remained sharp, like a tape recorder. In Vietnam, she worked in logistics for the U.S. Agency for International Development and is amazing with details and organizing information.
Settling in the States involved preserving her culinary DNA. Working the phone lines, she and her friends traded insights on using locally available ingredients and tools to prepare charcuterie for banh mi, steamed rice noodle rolls called banh cuon, noodle soups like pho and bun bo Hue, and festive foods like banh chung Tet sticky rice cakes. As the Vietnamese-American approaches gelled, she wrote down recipes and meticulously filed them. She also perused bootleg copies of cookbooks published in Vietnam.
She’s socially conservative (she’s had the same Viet lady hairdo for more than 50 years) but eager to explore the unfamiliar. After we dropped off my dad for his treatment, I wanted to check out a handcrafted Chinese noodle shop, and Mom was game. We were seated at the counter, but soon she was standing by a kitchen viewing window, mesmerized by the cooks pulling, twisting and slapping dough into skinny chewy noodles.
“They work the dough about a dozen times,” she said later, as though she planned to make the noodles herself. My mom taught herself to cook well by learning from others and practicing a lot. She remembers all the people who taught her something new and lasting, like the work colleague she targeted in 1955 for a lemongrass-y beef stew recipe that’s been a family favorite ever since.
A sense of duty and showmanship fueled her desire to bridge culinary and cultural divides. When my father was a provincial governor in Vietnam during the early 1960s, official state dinners were part of Mom’s first-lady duties. “I had to have command of Vietnamese, Chinese and French food. Plus I had to do public events. I was young and scared at first, but I did it,” she recounted one night. “Figuring things out on my own was like finding my way from pitch darkness into light. Vietnamese cuisine is just as good as any other.”
America’s bounty of butter and flour led her to perfect puff pastry from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (Mom refers to Julia Child as “Julie”). She deployed the pastry for Viet-Franco pâté chaud, savory hand pies filled with pork and cognac that we ate for breakfast, as well as her version of Paul Bocuse’s legendary truffle soup, a wowza dish that she offered to special guests. The elegant jade bracelets on her wrist belied her skills in cleaning barnacle-laden conch, subduing feisty crabs and fashioning intricate Chinese moon cakes.
When we visited Las Vegas’s International Marketplace, a warehouse space devoted to global foods and cookware, she spotted live blood clams. “I haven’t seen those since Vietnam!” she gleefully said. If I could, I would have bought a bunch for her to cook up.
Novel foods don’t appeal. For instance, spying bottles of Sriracha ketchup, she snarkily commented, “Why not mix your own?”
Before leaving Vegas, she suggested we buy banh mi for the drive home. It was a light lunch, and she later took me to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where she ordered roast duck. I’d never dined alone with my mom.
Initially, she used chopsticks to grab the bone-in duck, but that proved unwieldy for eating. I reminded her that she’d told me long ago to enjoy food with gusto and grace. With that in mind, we used our fingers to gingerly pick up the duck and polish off every bit.
Nguyen is the author of five cookbooks, including “The Pho Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, 2017), which won a James Beard Foundation Award. She lives in Northern California.
You can use a regular pressure cooker or an electric multi-function cooker such as an Instant Pot. It can also be cooked in a Dutch oven; see the VARIATION, below.
Serve with a baguette or over boiled wide egg or rice noodles (select a pappardelle-size noodle; A Taste of Thai is a brand sold at some markets). Add a green salad for a complete meal. If Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), is available, garnish with it.
MAKE AHEAD: This dish tastes even better after a day or two of refrigeration.
3 pounds bone-in short ribs (6 or 7 pieces, about 8 ounces each)
1½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 teaspoons packed light or dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce, or more as needed
2 to 3 tablespoons canola or other neutrally flavored oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger root
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (1 cup; may substitute shallot)
1½ cups canned crushed tomato in puree (may substitute 2 cups chopped peeled tomatoes from a 28-ounce can)
2 large or 3 medium stalks lemon grass, trimmed, cut into 3-inch lengths and bruised with a meat mallet or heavy saucepan
1 bay leaf
2 whole star anise
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1½ to 2 cups water, or more as needed
1 pound carrots, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut into 1-inch chunks (turning and cutting on the diagonal looks nice)
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, mint and Thai basil (may substitute Genovese basil; see headnote)
Combine the short ribs, five-spice powder, brown sugar and fish sauce in a mixing bowl. Toss to coat evenly.
Heat a 6-quart stove-top pressure cooker over high heat until very hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil, then add the beef in batches, searing it on all sides; this should take no more than 2 to 3 minutes per batch, and add the remaining oil as needed. Use tongs to transfer the short ribs to a plate; reserve any leftover marinade.
Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low; add the garlic, ginger and onion, and cook gently, stirring for 3 to 4 minutes, or until no longer raw-smelling. Add the tomato, lemon grass, bay leaf, star anise and salt. Increase the heat to medium-high or high, then let it cook for 4 to 6 minutes, until the mixture resembles a rough wet paste. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
(Alternatively, choose a high-heat setting to sear the beef in a multi-function cooker. For example, adjust the SAUTE function on the Instant Pot or select the BROWN setting on the Fagor Lux. Reduce the heat settings accordingly to cook the garlic-onion mixture, then increase it for the tomato and other ingredients. Between heat adjustments, you may have to turn off the machine.)
Return the beef and reserved marinade to the pot. Give things a big stir, then add the water to barely cover. Lock on the lid, then bring to high pressure. Adjust the heat to maintain pressure, then cook for 40 minutes. Slide to a cool burner and depressurize naturally for 15 minutes before releasing any residual pressure.
(For a multi-function cooker, add just enough water to barely cover, then program the machine to cook at high pressure for 40 minutes. Turn off or unplug, naturally depressurize for 18 minutes, then manually release pressure.)
Unlock the lid, tilting it away from you to avoid hot steam. The beef should be chewy-tender; press on a chunk and it should yield but still feel firm. Skim off any fat, as needed, then add the carrots. Once the liquid has begun bubbling again, cook (uncovered) for about 30 minutes, until the beef and carrots are both tender, and the sauce flavors have intensified. (For this step, choose medium or low heat in a multi-function cooker. For example, adjust the SAUTE function on the Instant Pot, or select the SAUTE or SIMMER setting on the Fagor Lux.)
Rest, uncovered, for 5 to 10 minutes before tasting. If needed, add salt or a splash of fish sauce to intensify, or splash in water to lighten. Divide among shallow bowls, removing and discarding the lemon grass, bay leaf and star anise (warn guests of potentially lingering bits, too). Garnish with the herb and serve.
VARIATION: To prepare the short ribs without a pressure cooker, use a five-quart Dutch oven or similar pot. Follow the same steps but cook with about 3 cups of water, covered, for 2 to 2½ hours, until chewy-tender. Uncover, skim off the fat, add the carrots and finish cooking as directed.
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