Preserved tofu or fermented tofu, called “chao” in Vietnamese, is tofu cubes marinaded in rice wine, salt, vinegar and other spices. The ingredients cost next to nothing at all so in Vietnam it is considered food of the poor. It can be an excellent dip for steamed vegetables or to eat with hot rice with a creamy smooth texture that melts in the mouth and with quite a special, faint smell. Like most Vietnamese I am smitten with chao though not all of my English friends like it. My husband Laurie is a chao addict however.
If the idea of fermenting anything terrifies you, chao is one of those things that could smell strange uncooked but once used to flavour a dish it would come out at the other end smelling wonderfully. Just like fish sauce (if you are a fish sauce hater too I don’t know what you are doing reading a Vietnamese fusion food blog). At the end of the day, cheese is fermented milk so get over it.
Chao comes in jars filled with brine, usually red from chillies but you could get them without the heat too. They can be found in most Asian supermarkets.
To make chao into a dip break 3-4 chao cubes into a mush, add in a tablespoon of its brine, 1 teaspoon sugar & a dash of lemon juice then mix well. Hmmm. It goes best with boiled morning glory. Honest and simple.
Another great way with chao is to use it to marinade meat. Vịt nướng chao or chao roast duck is a popular dish. It is quite a longer than usual list of ingredients but they are all basic pantry staplers: vegetable oil, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, lime, Chinese five spices. All you need to do is mix these together then rub all over your duck – breast, legs or crown, doesn’t really matter – ideally leave over night but an hour will do too, chuck your duck in the oven and go watch TV or play with your cat. Depends on how much duck you want to make but with this recipe for 2 with 3 duck breasts it took me under 20 minutes, 180C degree.
I made some spiced rice to go with my roast duck although you could have this with just plain rice or noodle or on top of a salad. To make the spiced rice, cook your rice as you would normally but 10 minutes before it is done add in a dash of ground cumin, ground turmeric, salt, pepper. I also added some finely chopped white mushroom but it is not a must.
You Will Need
3 duck breasts
For the marinade:
3 chao cubes
1 tsp sugar
1 clove of garlic, finely grated
A small thumb of ginger, finely grated
1 tsp Chinese five spice
Dash of lemon juice
Dash of sesame oil
1. Preheat the oven, 180C.
2. Mash the chao cubes and mix it well with the rest of the ingredients. Rub it all over your duck breast including under the skin.
3. Put a little vegetable oil on a hot pan, medium heat and put your duck in, skin side down. Wait until the skin is well browned and crispy then turn over and seal the meat of the other side.
4. Put the duck in a roasting tray including its juice from the pan and put in the oven for 15 - 20 minutes, depending on how well done you want your meat.
5. Eat it with hot plain rice or spiced rice (instruction above).
It’s been a lovely weekend in my household. We are buzzed with excitement! We are going to adopt a rescued cat whom we’ve decided to name Gene Hunt after my husband Laurie’s TV hero. He still has to stay at the animal shelter for another week to clear his health bill before he can go to his forever home with us. Many may say he is not the best looking cat out there but boy, do I tell you, he’s one cool tough kitty. More on this later.
We spent the afternoon visiting Gene at the cat shelter then watching Marvel’s The Avengers which I totally loved. Even though the weather has been a bit gross Laurie and I still had such a good time. On days like this I always think of one of my favourite songs – Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. It’s a slow & sweet melody that tastes like its words, “sangria in the park”. Lou Reed wrote a few songs that I could listen to any time, any day, no matter how many times; songs whose every lines I feel I could understand completely his under meaning.
Sometimes I like to imagine if we interpret a song into food (because I can be silly like that), which dish a song would be. And since I thought of Perfect Day today, I made a sweet & heart-warming salad with so subtle a hint of melancholy. Or not. Maybe there is no dish that could be as beautiful as the song, but there you go – I’ve tried.
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You Will Need
For the dressing:
1 table spoon of olive oil
1 tea spoon of honey
Salt & pepper
For the salad:
Some halloumi cheese, cut into thick slices
1/2 Granny Smith apple
Mixed leaves (ideally with some rocket)
2 happy people
Whisk honey & the juice of one lemon & olive oil together with a pinch of salt & pepper to make the dressing.
Slice the shallot very thinly then put in the dressing to marinade while you prepare the salad.
Cut cucumber, tomato & apple into thin slices then put on a bed of leaves.
Grill halloumi cheese slices on a griddle and put on top of your salad, finish with honey lemon dressing on top.
At home in Vietnam, we have leftover rice on almost a daily basis. It’s normal when that is the staple diet of Vietnamese cuisine. Sticky rice, long grain rice, broken grain rice etc… Rice in mains, rice in desserts, rice for snacks, rice flour, rice milk, even glue made from rice – there are thousands of things you can make with rice.
In my family we like to make this dish on weekend mornings when everyone has time to sit down together for brunch. It basically consists leftover rice and whatever left in the fridge! You can make it with newly cooked rice but it won’t be as nice since the dish needs to be dry and fluffy, not sticky. The other popular ingredients are lạp xưởng (Chinese sweet sausages – can be found in any Asian supermarket), eggs and spring onions. But you can put anything you like as long as it’s not something that produces a lot of juice when cook. Green beans – great! Carrots – do throw some in. Bacon – you clever thing. Frozen peas – amazing. But tomato, for example, is a no-no.
The method is simple, chop everything up into cubes in similar size, throw them in the pan one after another depending on how long it takes them to cook. Put your rice in last. Season with salt or stock granules. I love to fry some whisked eggs then use my spatula to cut them into small pieces and mix in the fried rice afterwards. Crack A LOT OF black pepper on top. Get yourself a steamy bowl of it – remember to pick most of the eggs and sweet sausages just to annoy your sibling.
You Will Need
2-3 bowls of leftover rice
4 Chinese sweet sausages
A few sprig of spring onions
Salt & cracked black pepper
Any other dry ingredients you have lying around really (though have some common sense and don't throw weird stuffs in there)
Mum, dad, you & your annoying sibbling
Chop your veg & meat into cubes in similar sizes
Whisk the eggs, season with some salt and pepper
Get a few cloves of garlic in a hot pan with some oil, pour the whisked eggs in and fry it like an omelette, then use your wooden spoon / spatula to cut it into small pieces, put aside.
Chuck in your chopped ingredients one after another, depending on how long they need to cook.
When they're done put rice in, mix well with the vegs & sausages, season with some salt or stock granules.
When the rice is heated through, crack some black pepper on top & enjoy.
Look grandma, I am writing about your favourite dish for the world to see!
So, there goes the first line of the first entry of my too long a-coming blog, and it just has to be for my late grandma whom I was named after, for she was a fine lady and she was that giant piece of my childhood. But more on that later.
This soup recipe is my grandma’s trademark. You talk about her, you talk about it. She’d have it for dinner and send some to little me and my brother. We loved it so much that she gave my mum the recipe. She’d serve it to people when they came over the house. When our family cat gave birth to some kittens and they were too little with no teeth, grandma even gave them this soup (back then, people had to think hard about what they could afford for dinner let alone paying for manufactured cat food).
It is necessary to mention the fact that in Saigon where I grew up, especially those early years after the war when Western food was not at all popular in Vietnam, this soup was definitely a strange dish to many. In our family, we called it “súp Tây” or “Western soup” instead of chicken soup or potato & carrot soup like what I now call it to you, because nobody was making it in Vietnam, nobody knew what it was, nobody but grandma Trần. And I never ever recalled any person who had this soup and did not like it, strange though it was to Vietnamese cuisine.
I see grandma in my dreams often, and when I do I’d always talk to her about stupid random things. If I could talk to her again now, I’d ask her where she’d learned to make this wonderful soup, after asking where she’d been off to all this time… That is of course impossible. All I can do is to guess that she’d learned foreign cuisine during her time abroad alongside my late granddad who was an ambassador for the Northern Vietnam government. I won’t bore you with the Trần’s family history though.
Learning to make soup is not difficult but what made this recipe clever was grandma had adapted a foreign soup using Vietnamese ingredients while keeping the taste as good as it should have been. Grandma had used rice instead of (possibly) double cream to give the soup a creamy texture.
Living in London nowadays, I have had so many wonderful types of soup but, no offence to minted pea soup which is just amazing, grandma’s recipe is definitely the best to me.
Some potatoes, some carrot, chicken breast and a half a handful of long grain rice
All in a casserole pot.
World’s best chicken soup
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You Will Need
2 medium potatoes
2 medium carrots
50gr long grain rice (or jasmine rice for a nicer texture)
1 chicken breast
750ml chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
2 - 3 hungry men
Chop chicken, potatoes and carrot into big chunks and put them in a casserole pot along with the rice. Add the chicken stock. Season with salt & pepper.
Simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes or until everything is cooked through but the vegetables isn't necessarily soft enough to eat. Stir occasionally so the rice doesn't get burned at the bottom of the pot.
Transfer everything to a blender or food processor and blend well. Pour the content back in the pot and simmer for another 10 minutes, add salt & pepper to taste.