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Home away from home. World Cup fans can think back to the lands of their ancestors and use food to recall family memories. But what happens when you’ve moved overseas, specifically to Asia? Inevitably one of the first lists you start is the food you need to pack so you can bring that “taste of home” with you. For my wife, a specific brand of tea tops the list.
We have moved to major tea-producing countries in recent years, including China and India, yet she insists on bringing a stash of her favorite tea, arguing the tea bags of the same brand in our new home are simply not the same. And I have to admit, she has a point — manufacturers use different formulas for the same product to cater to local preferences and tastes.
I can guarantee that in the luggage of most expats moving between countries is some food item. These products often reveal a glimpse of the simple things that matter in your life, things you feel you cannot live without. Among your clothing purchases, hard-to-find toiletries and other belongings, there’s a treasure trove of goodies, such as wine gumdrops, marshmallow Peeps, Easter chocolates or your family’s homemade preserves or chutneys.
As you unpack your shipment, you may wonder what made you decide to bring certain items. One friend shared how puzzled she was that she had purchased a large quantity of Rice Krispies and marshmallows, as she did not regularly eat either. A few months later, she realized she thought she would have a regular craving for Rice Krispies squares.
As you settle into a new country, exploring local food markets and tasting new dishes are invaluable ways to learn about the culture and place you now call home. As exciting as this is, it can be a challenge for many to eat unfamiliar foods at every meal.
During the early days of what can be a stressful transition, or when you have a bout of homesickness, it’s natural to turn to the food that nourishes your soul, that you feel keeps you centered and provides you with the comfort of “home.”
Expats look to friends, family to deliver their favorites
When family or friends visit, they become food mules, transporting ingredients you can use to prepare a treasured dish. Sometimes they may be hesitant, as my Mexican friend explained when she shared the difficulty of acquiring freshly ground masa because relatives were concerned immigration authorities would think it was cocaine.
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Others will go to great lengths. I was privileged to share a meal at a friend’s house of “imported” Canadian beef that was frozen, wrapped in newspaper and packed in a visitor’s luggage for the 24-hour trip. It arrived fully frozen.
In talking with my expat friends, I’ve discovered that the longer you live overseas, the smaller and more focused your must-have food list becomes. It’s not that your cravings disappear. Many are simply satisfied on vacations or trips home. Rather, as expats, we learn to adapt our wants, finding somewhat suitable substitutes and becoming more resourceful or simply making do. You also learn that the limited space in your (or your mules’) luggage is valuable and reserved only for prized essentials.
Although more specialty shops are opening with a limited selection of imported goods, allowing expats to more easily access essentials like olive oil, olives, cured meats, cheeses, chocolate and occasionally specialty grains and flours, often the products are of average quality, sometimes stale and cost anywhere from two to five times the price you pay at home. Another challenge is they are not regularly stocked, and when they are sold out it may not be available for another few months or longer.
It’s that time of year when many of you are in a state of transition and thinking about what to bring with you to your new home. Apart from reading expat blogs or talking to acquaintances who have lived in your new country, the best resource to find out what staple ingredients are available is to consult a cookbook about the food of the country you are moving to. A quick read of the glossary and pantry section will give you a good idea of items you can easily and affordably purchase.
Below is a list of what I like to call “expat pantry essentials” — items either hard to find or that tend to be really expensive when living in Asia. Use it as a guide to help you focus your needs as you prepare for your move overseas and so you don’t question why you bought it when you finally unpack.
Expat pantry essentials
The greatest complaint I hear from expats is that their baking recipes do not work. Sometimes it has to do with poor-quality ovens, but I think most of the time it has do with the ingredients. Baking powder can be bought virtually everywhere, but the chemical composition of the ones overseas can be quite different than the ones you may be used to.
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Real vanilla extract
- Dry yeast
- Chocolate chips (cut-up chocolate bars are great alternatives.)
- Dried fruits (specifically currants, cranberries, pears, apples)
- Food coloring/dyes for icing
- Sprinkles for decorating cakes
Coriander, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom are generally available. If they are only found whole, they can easily be ground to make a powder. The spices and spice blends below are much harder to find.
- Smoky paprika/pimenton
- Kosher salt/Maldon-style sea salt
- Indian spice mixes or specialty spices (garam masala, chaat masala, amchur powder, anardana powder)
- Fenugreek seeds
- Dried fenugreek leaves (methi)
Chilies may not seem an obvious choice, but each chili has its own unique flavor profile. This is particularly important when trying to make dishes with a Latin American flavor.
- Chipotle chilies in adobo sauce or dried
- Jalapeño chilies in brine
- Dried chilies from the southern U.S., Mexico, Latin America and India
Grains, pulses and specialty flours
These items tend to be much more expensive than in your home country, especially if they are organic. When not regularly purchased by other expats, there is a greater chance of them sitting on the shelf becoming stale.
- Flax seeds (whole or ground)
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Pulses/lentils (Du Puy lentils, urad dal, black beans)
- Rye flour
- Bean and nut flours (chickpea, hazelnut, chestnut)
- Gluten-free flour mixes
Red, white, and balsamic vinegars are available. Specialty vinegars are not. Natural syrups are much more expensive. You may be able to find one or the other with marmite and vegemite, but lovers of each will tell you they are not the same. Scandinavians need the occasional taste of pickled fish.
- Pomegranate molasses
- White balsamic vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
- Natural peanut butter (low sugar; but a homemade version can easily be made)
Coffee and specialty teas
A comforting, familiar cup of coffee or tea each morning often helps prepare you for the challenges ahead in your day. Bringing your favorite from home eases the daily transitions.
- Coffee (specialty/decaffeinated)
- Rooibos tea
- Preferred tea brands from home
- Herbal teas
Specialty alcohol and bitters
Traditional liquors such as vodka, gin, rum, bourbon and cognac are typically available. National liquors such as aquavit, arak, pisco, schnapps, slivovitz, tequila or bitters will be much harder to find. A packed bottle or two and duty-free purchases are typical for the expat.
Seeds for vegetables and herbs
Small seed packets of hard-to-find vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, assorted lettuces or Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, sage, tarragon and Italian parsley are invaluable if you have an area to plant a small garden because it will be rare to find such ingredients in local markets.
Main photo: Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch
This is most likely the best and easiest snack prepared on the grill that you’ve never heard of. Although it’s a favorite after-school treat of Vietnamese youths, I can guarantee that once you have mastered this simple recipe your adult friends will swarm your barbecue as they sip on their beers and cocktails.
Bánh tráng nướng, rice paper grilled over coals and lightly topped with a variety of ingredients, is a relatively new snack to hit the streets of Vietnam’s major cities. It apparently originated in the hill town of Dalat before making its way to Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago and then spreading upwards to the center and north of the country.
The epicenter of bánh tráng nướng vendors in Ho Chi Minh City at the moment is found around Ho Con Rua, or Turtle Lake, a busy roundabout in the city’s third district, whereas just a few vendors can be found within the old citadel in Hue and from my knowledge there is just one in Hanoi.
Street food vendors create inventive and tasty treats
While the outer sidewalk of Turtle Lake is crowded with cafes and restaurants, the inner sidewalk hosts young and creative street vendors dishing out their own variations of grilled rice paper and a few other inventive treats, including bánh tráng trộn, an addictive and mouthwatering mélange of half-inch fingers of rice paper, shredded green mango, dried shrimp, beef or squid, herbs, peanuts, fried shallots and their cooking oil, hard-boiled quail eggs, squirts of calamansi lime, drizzles of annatto seed oil and/or fish sauce; or bánh trứng nướng, in which quail eggs are fried in a round mold with triangle compartments then topped with tiny dried shrimp, sliced sausage (a Vietnamese version of the Chinese Lap Cheong), green onions and fried shallots and then covered to cook for a few minutes before being plated and finished with some sprigs of Vietnamese coriander and chili sauce. Hồ lô nướng, skewered and grilled pork and sausage balls, and bắp xào, stir-fried corn kernels made to your liking, are also prepared by surrounding vendors.
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The basic Ho Chi Minh City version of bánh tráng nướng tends to be a spoon of cooked ground pork, sliced green onions and a cracked quail egg spread evenly over rice paper and toasted over the heat of a grill. After a few minutes, when it is no longer translucent, it is drizzled with a sriracha-style chili sauce and folded in half.
The Dalat version is more elaborately prepared on a thicker rice paper; it features a cracked chicken egg topped pizza style with slices of sausage, tiny dried shrimp, assorted cooked seafood, green onions and cheese. My favorite, and the recipe I share below, is the first version I tasted when visiting Hue.
A few simple rules need to be followed to achieve a well-toasted, flavorful treat that doesn’t fall apart during cooking. First, it’s best to grill the rice paper gradually over a medium-heat charcoal barbecue. A gas-flamed barbecue will do, but keep away from the flames so as not to burn the edges of the rice paper. If you are also grilling the main course, you’ll want to set aside part of the grill for the rice paper and cook them short-order style, one or two at a time.
Second, a simple tablespoon or two of flavorful toppings is all that is required. With too much, the paper may break under the weight. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure not too much egg is spread on the rice paper because it will make it soggy and prevent it from properly toasting or remaining crisp.
Once you have mastered the cooking technique, I encourage you to play around by adding different toppings, remembering they should be dry, or relatively free of moisture, and customize the flavor profile to your own or your guests’ preferences.
Don’t be surprised if this addictive crunchy snack becomes a staple this barbecue season.
- 12 (8-inch) round rice paper
- 6 ounces coarse country-style paté
- ¾ cup thinly sliced spring onions
- 12 quail eggs
- Sweet chili sauce, such as sriracha
- Place a sheet of rice paper onto a plate or tray and top with 1 tablespoon each of paté and spring onions.
- Crack a quail egg over the paté. Using the back of a spoon or knife, spread the mixture evenly over the entire surface of the rice paper.
- Place the rice paper onto the grill, positioning it over a spot where the charcoal is of a consistent medium heat. Use a pair of tongs to rotate the rice paper as you see and hear parts of it toasting.
- After a few minutes, when the rice paper is no longer translucent, drizzle some chili sauce on top.
- Fold the grilled rice paper in half and serve.
- Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Note: If quail eggs cannot be found, this can also be done with chicken eggs. Scramble two eggs in a small bowl and replace each quail egg with just 2 teaspoons of uncooked, scrambled egg.
Prep time: 5 minutes, plus preheating grill. Cook time: 3 minutes per rice paper
Main photo: Some bánh tráng nướng vendors prefer to fold the grilled rice paper in half instead of cutting it into wedges. Credit: Cameron Stauch
One of the first indicators of spring’s emergence is a visit to your local farmers market, and being greeted with fresh, vibrant stalls overflowing with farmed and foraged spring green vegetables such as asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps and pea shoots. For me living in Vietnam or for shoppers at Asian and Latin grocers, abundant displays of green mangoes signify spring’s arrival and that summer’s heat is rapidly approaching.
Unlike the short-lived availability of delicate spring vegetables, the green mango season lasts several months — from April to September depending on where the mangoes are from. Mangoes are cultivated in tropical and subtropical locales from South Florida to Central America to South and Southeast Asia. Ripe mangoes are prized for their sweet, fragrant flesh, but the inclusion of a green mango in a recipe brings a crisp tartness to the plate.
My North American and European friends in Asia rave about the ambrosia of a perfectly ripe mango, yet too many are unfamiliar with the numerous ways a green mango can be transformed. In places such as India and the Caribbean, green mangoes are often used to prepare chutneys, spiced pickles or tart sauces. They are also add a touch of sourness to regional curry dishes.
Green mangoes commonly used in India
In India, green mangoes are boiled or roasted, and the resulting puréed pulp is sweetened and enlivened with cumin and sometimes mint to make a refreshing, cooling drink called aam panna. Indian dishes that sometimes require additional tartness benefit from a last-minute sprinkle of amchur, dried and powdered green mango.
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Southeast Asian cooks prefer to use the raw flesh in salads, often producing an addictive dish by combining a handful of sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients. Occasionally, a little bit of grated green mango will be added to a meat marinade because its flesh contains an enzyme that helps tenderize meat. Most recently, I have started to use it as a substitute for apples, peaches and even rhubarb in baked desserts such as crisps and pies.
Although cooks in each of these regions have found different culinary uses for green mangoes, a common sight in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia is street-food vendors selling finger-sized lengths of green mangoes tossed with a seasoning of salt, chilies, sugar and lime prepared with and adjusted to local ingredients and tastes.
Half-ripe or under-ripe mangoes are purposely found and sold in Asian or Latin grocers. However, many of the mangoes imported to the United States that are intended to be eaten ripe are in fact under-ripe upon arrival at chain grocery stores and can still be used in a recipe calling for green mangoes, such as the Vietnamese green mango salad included in this story.
When looking for green mangoes, select fruits that are hard and firm and do not give when pressed with your thumb. Green mangoes have a uniform green skin and a pale flesh that ranges from cream to pale yellow. Likewise, the level of tartness of the flesh is dependent upon the variety of the mango.
On your next trip to the grocer, consider how hard it must be for green mangoes to be regularly passed over for their sweet siblings. Purchase a few and discover just how versatile, flashy and delicious they can be.
Preparing and cutting the firm flesh for a salad can be quick and easy. A vegetable peeler is the best way to peel a green mango. Try to resist using the large holes of a cheese grater because it is preferable to have long, thin strands instead of short, stubby pieces.
Techniques for cutting the unripe mango
In addition, you can cut an unripe mango into matchstick-sized pieces in three ways. In my opinion, the easiest and quickest way is to use a Japanese mandoline, with the middle-sized exchangeable blade securely fastened.
The second method is to use a Southeast Asian handheld grater. The graters are multipurpose tools with a peeler on one end, a rippled blade on the other and a sharp medium-sized zester in the middle. They are perfect for julienning green mangoes, green papayas, carrots and other fruits and vegetables. They are sometimes sold in Asian grocers and are easily found at fresh-food markets throughout Asia, making a great culinary souvenir of your trip.
To cut a mango using one, hold the mango in your hand at a 45-degree angle and firmly pull the zester tool down along the flesh of the fruit. Continue this motion, regularly rotating the mango, until the majority of the flesh is removed from around the pit.
The final option is great if you do not have either of the tools needed for the other two methods. Traditionally in Asia this is done by holding the mango in one hand while cutting the flesh with the other. A safer way is to use a cutting board. Place the peeled green mango on a cutting board and starting from the bottom stem and ending at the top, make a cut all the way to the pit. Repeat this type of cut every ⅛ of an inch all the way around the mango. You will have to flip the mango over during the cutting. Use a vegetable peeler to slice the cut mango from top to bottom resulting in rustic julienned mango pieces.
Vietnamese Green Mango Salad
Although this recipe is a vegetarian salad, fish sauce can easily be used by omitting the rice vinegar, adding 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and reducing the water to 1 tablespoon. No matter what version you choose to make, first taste a piece of the mango. The variety of mango and time of the season will affect its sweetness, and you may need to adjust the amounts of lime, sugar and vinegar/fish sauce to balance the dressing. It is also recommended that you first make the crispy shallots before dressing and mixing the salad.
Serves 4 as a side dish
For the mango salad:
1 green mango, peeled and cut into matchsticks
½ cup jicama, cut into matchsticks
½ red pepper, seeded and julienned
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 or 2 Thai red bird’s-eye chilies, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup Thai basil leaves, roughly cut or torn if the leaves are a large size
¼ cup coriander leaves
¼ cup mint, roughly cut or torn if leaves are a large size
2 tablespoons fried crispy shallots (see instructions below)
2 tablespoons peanuts, roasted
For the crispy shallots:
½ cup shallots
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the mango salad:
1. Place the green mango, jicama and red pepper in a medium-sized bowl.
2. Spoon the sugar, water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice and salt in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add and mix the chopped chilies and garlic into the dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
3. Toss the herbs into the bowl and pour the dressing over the mango mixture. Mix well.
4. Place the salad into a serving dish and garnish with the crispy shallots and peanuts.
For the crispy shallots:
The instinctive reaction to get shallots crispy is to fry them over high heat. But cooking them slowly and gradually over a medium to medium-low heat gets the best results.
1. Thinly slice the shallots across the grain to get small shallot rings. Use your fingertips to separate the rings from one another.
2. Line a plate or baking sheet with some paper towels.
3. Heat the oil in a medium-sized frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add the shallots and gently fry, stirring occasionally.
4. After about 5 minutes, some of the edges of the shallots will begin to take on some color. For the next 5 to 7 minutes, stir more regularly to move the shallots around. Once the shallots are uniformly golden brown, remove them by briefly tilting a spider or spoon against the side of the wok or pan to let any excess oil drip back into the pan. The shallots will continue to cook out of the oil, so it is best to take them out when they are a light golden brown instead of a darker color, which may make them taste bitter.
5. Place the fried shallots on the paper towels and spread them out. Over the next 5 to 10 minutes they will cool, crisp up and be ready to use.
Main photo: Vietnamese Green Mango Salad. Credit: Cameron Stauch
I couldn’t help myself. I licked the meaty, fiery juices from my hand, not wanting to waste them on a napkin. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter and eagerly raised my index finger, motioning for her to make me one more. I had tasted Vietnam’s most delicious bánh mì sandwich, and I didn’t want this moment to end.
Before moving to Vietnam, I had tasted a handful of bánh mì sandwiches prepared at Vietnamese-owned restaurants. Honestly, none thrilled me enough to prompt a return visit when hit with a craving for a satisfying sandwich. This disappointment continued even upon my relocation to Hanoi. The sandwiches were fine, but by and large they lacked personality and barely filled my hunger. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has served me a couple of satisfying bánh mì, one from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, stuffed with assorted Vietnamese charcuterie, pickled carrots and daikon, chilies and fresh herbs, and the other a remarkable vegan version that could stand up to any meat-filled baguette. Yet none, until that finger-licking moment, had reached the point where I would get on a plane with eager anticipation to hold this 7-inch flavor bomb in my hands.
The south-central coastal town of Hoi An is most commonly known as a beloved tourist destination where vacationers soak up the history and architecture of this once-prosperous trading port, but I know it as the Vietnamese town with the best bánh mì vendors.
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A recent trip back to Hoi An reinforced this belief, and I have the sandwich-juice-stained shirts from my bánh mì tasting tour to prove it. Happily gorging and investigating these sandwiches, I discovered that the best vendors, Bánh Mì Lành, Madam Khánh and Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, make most of their ingredients in-house, as opposed to the majority of vendors, who rely on ready-made condiments.
For the best of the best: Bánh Mì Phương, the sister of the above-mentioned brother-run Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, is the vendor who sets the bar in preparing Vietnam’s best bánh mì. Knowing that it may be a while before you get to wrap your lips around one of these layered gems, I thought it best to break down and share what sets this bánh mì apart from all the rest — with the knowledge that you may want to try and re-create it in your own kitchen.
Bánh mì bread
The French colonialists brought their love for bread and pastries with them to Vietnam. Vietnamese bakers played around with the recipes, ultimately creating a lighter, fluffier thin-crust baguette — making it a perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. A typical French baguette won’t suffice because the crumb is denser and the crust is thicker, forcing your jaws to work and chew your way through the sandwich. This may be one of the rare times you even consider buying one of those fluffy grocery-store-baked baguettes.
Phương gently warms her baguettes in a wooden box by the heat of slowly burning coal embers. You can replicate this in your home kitchen by warming the baguettes in a 200 F oven as you prepare the fillings.
Homemade super sauces
Phương forgoes bland ready-made mayo and takes the time to make a rich, creamy and eggy homemade mayonnaise. Mortar and pestle are used to pound tương ớt , a fresh, long red chile sauce. Instead of using basic light soy sauce or Maggi seasoning sauce, she has concocted her own nước siêu, or super sauce. This is one of those recipes Phương definitely will not share. However, from deduction I have concocted my own version. Heat ½ cup water, ¼ cup light soy sauce and ¼ cup sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Then add a shallot and a quarter of a tomato, both roughly chopped, along with a finely chopped red chile and green onion and then sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame seeds. It may be worth playing around to find a ratio of ingredients pleasing to your taste and keep it stored in a small jar in the fridge so it is easily at hand.
Meats and pâté
Her most popular sandwich, bánh mì deluxe, consists of three types of pork: thin slices of roast pork loin, ham and cha lua, a pork sausage loaf. She also prepares a pork liver pâté that is wrapped in caul fat and sautés some ground pork, which is stored in its fatty juices for added flavor.
Vegetables and herb salad
All the bánh mì stalls use a fresh, vibrant-tasting herb mixture consisting of sprout-sized coriander, mint, rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and green onions. Lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon and thinly sliced cucumber lengths are also ubiquitous refreshing additions.
Layering of flavors
Phương and her staff don’t just haphazardly stuff the fillings into the sliced baguette; rather, they methodically assemble each bánh mì in identical fashion. First, 1 tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, followed by 1 tablespoon of pâté along the bottom. Two teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce are drizzled along the crumb of the bread. Then, ⅓ of a cup of herb mixture, sliced cucumber and a few pieces of pickled daikon and carrot make a nest to support the three sliced meats. A tablespoon of the warm ground pork mixture is spooned over the top, then finished off with a touch of fresh chili sauce, if desired, and another couple teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce. I believe it is this specific layering that produces the addictive harmony of flavors that brings her such a loyal following.
Note: For those planning a visit, Bánh Mì Mi Phương has moved because of construction at the main market, and she intends to remain permanently at this new location: at 2B Pham Châu Tring St. in Hoi An.
Main photo: Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
Back in 2008, I visited Pondicherry, a small coastal city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As the former capital of French India, I was interested in finding out about its French colonial culinary legacy.
While talking with a chef about such influences, he mentioned an Indo-Viet woman who had recorded the recipes of the Pondicherrian kitchen. He also noted there were a few older women who sold chả giò, Vietnamese spring rolls, door to door. I didn’t have time to go in search of them, but this “in-passing” culinary connection between India and Vietnam remained with me and came to the fore again during a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, another French colonial capital.
While there, I took some time to uncover more about these connections and the origins of South Vietnamese curries, cà ri and bánh xèo, which is reminiscent of a dosa, particularly in its preparation.
Vietnamese chicken and seafood curries, cà ri gà and cà ri đồ biển, are most likely descendants of Khmer curries, but goat curry, cà ri de, and vegetarian curry, cà ri chay, have more obvious Indian influences. The flavoring for vegetable curry cà ri chay comes from the use of a mild Madras-style spice mixture and curry leaves, from trees planted in the Mekong Delta by Tamil shop owners. Unlike the other curries, which are typically served with rice or the French-influenced baguette, the aromatic coconut milk broth is served with bun, vermicelli rice noodles.
With their rich histories, curry dishes share similar flavors
As I tasted my way through the various Vietnamese curries in Ho Chi Minh City, one thing stood out: The spicing was consistent with virtually each dish. It turns out the cooks I met all bought their spice mixtures and curry leaves from the same spice vendor at Ben Thanh market. Anh Hai spice shop, run by third-generation Indo-Viet brothers, has been blending and selling spice mixtures for these curries since their chef grandfather started the shop sometime after his arrival in what was known as Saigon in the 1920s.
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To begin to understand the evolution of South Vietnamese curries and bánh xèo, you need to look at the history of the region. From the 7th century to 1832, the Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa was based in the south-central coastal region of today’s Vietnam and southern Cambodia. The Cham, seafaring people dedicated to trade were integral to the movement of goods along the Spice Route, which extended from the Persian Gulf to southern China. Through the centuries, the Cham people were heavily influenced by their trading partners in Cambodia, India, Java and China.
In the mid-19th century, with the French having control of the major port cities of Pondicherry and Saigon, extensive maritime trading of goods occurred between the two French colonies. Naturally, along with this came the movement of Indians from British and French Indian territories to Saigon, with total populations reaching almost 6,000 by 1939. During this period, “Indian shops,” mainly run by Tamil Muslims, were ubiquitous in the large Vietnamese urban centers of Saigon and Cholon and also spread through the smaller towns in the rice-growing regions and transport hubs of the Mekong Delta.
For me, it is in Vietnamese goat curry where the Indian influence is strongest. The dish relies heavily on the same curry powder as other curries, but instead of solely using coconut milk some cooks I spoke with also use cow’s milk in their recipes, including a couple of older Indian sisters who grew up in the former Saigon and still sell their curry near the Dong Da mosque. Why cow’s milk? This is most likely a result of increased demand for dairy products by the Vietnamese created by the European presence — a demand met primarily by Hindu Tamils.
In her thesis, doctoral student Natasha Pairaudeau highlights that from the beginning of French colonial rule in Cochinchina, Hindu Tamils tended to cattle and sold milk door to door. But why not continue to solely use coconut milk for the goat curry? It may be the result of Vietnamese wives, married to some of the Tamil milkmen, being resourceful with leftover milk or limited finances.
Bánh xèo probably did not travel from modern India — the Indo-Vietnamese families I spoke with did not eat dosas as part of their predominantly Indian diet. Nor is it influenced from the French crepe, as commonly suggested, as it requires neither eggs nor milk. One needs to simply compare the ingredients used in preparing the thin, crisp shell to those of an Indian dosa to see that these are close cousins, although comparisons stop there, as the fillings reflect accessible ingredients and local tastes.
Traditionally, both separately soak rice and a pulse — hulled mung bean for bánh xèo and urad dal for dosa — overnight before grinding each batter separately and mixing together. Dosa batter is left to ferment overnight, while bánh xèo requires a short, half-hour rest before cooking.
Chef Bobby Chinn, previously based in Ho Chi Minh City, believes the Cham probably picked up the dish trading along the Indian Ocean. He indicated to me that as they were forced to move south, so did bánh xèo. This seems to be supported by Nguyen Thi Le Thuy, the owner of Bánh Xèo 46A, known as the first modern bánh xèo restaurant in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy said her grandmother brought the recipe with her from Quy Nhơn, which was the next Cham capital of Vijaya until 1471. Notably, there is the strikingly similar Cambodian dish banh chao – again the Cham legacy.
Cơm nị, a biryani-style rice dish cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, spices, lemongrass and coconut milk, is another dish most likely brought to Vietnam via the Cham people. The name of the dish most likely comes from the Vietnamese word for turmeric, nghệ.
Very few Indo-Viet — and no long-term Indians — remain in Ho Chi Minh City. The community was ostracized after independence from the French and then post-Vietnam War, but their legacy remains in the food we associate with Vietnam today.
Goat Curry (Cà Ri Dê)
The following recipe is from Hanoi-based, chef Tracey Lister‘s upcoming book, “Real Vietnamese Cooking,” which will be published by Hardie Grant in April.
It is a variation of a dish by famous Vietnamese chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. Goat is a strong-tasting meat and available in many Asian and middle-eastern butcher shops. This is a big-flavored curry, and if you can’t get goat, try duck and replace the eggplant with sweet potato.
4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, finely chopped
1 long red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped
4 tablespoons curry powder
4 cups milk, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) diced goat, preferably the shoulder
2 onions, finely diced
¾ teaspoon salt
800 milliliters (two 13.5-ounce cans) coconut milk
5 lemongrass stalks, white part only, cut in half lengthways
2 medium-sized eggplants
150 grams (⅔ cup) butter
½ handful coriander sprigs
Oil for frying
1. To make the curry paste, fry the lemongrass and chili in a small amount of oil until fragrant. Add the curry powder and stir for 1 minute to prevent the spices from burning and becoming bitter. Add 250 milliliters (1 cup) of the milk and the sugar and bring to the boil.
2. Remove from the heat and let cool before pouring over the diced goat. Allow the goat to marinate in the curry paste for 30 minutes.
3. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Then, add the marinated goat and season with salt. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly until the meat has browned. Pour in 2 cups of milk, keeping aside the remaining cup of milk to add at the end. Add the coconut milk and lemongrass stalks and simmer the curry for approximately 1 hour until the meat is tender.
4. While the curry is cooking, cut the eggplant into 3-centimeter (1-inch) chunks. Place them in a colander and sprinkle with extra salt and let them sit for 30 minutes to remove the bitter tannin. Wash off the salt from the eggplant and pat them dry with a paper towel.
5. Heat some oil in a frying pan and cook the eggplant in batches until it is an even, golden brown color. Then place the eggplant on a paper towel to remove excess oil.
6. When the goat is tender, add the eggplant and the remaining milk and butter. After the butter has melted, transfer the curry to a serving bowl and scatter with the coriander leaves.
7. Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.
Top photo: Goat curry. Credit: Cameron Stauch