"Where would we be without salt?"

Ah, kosher salt. We like the feel of it between our fingers; it measures easily, it has a pleasant crunchiness under the tooth. But it's not to be found in local groceries here - I'm talking about the Co Ops and Vinmarts.  I'm sure if I look really, really hard I can find someone who carries it, like perhaps An Nam (the Vietnamese version of Whole Foods) or one of the supermarkets in District 2 (the vast, bizarre area that Western expats call home in Saigon).  But I'm not going to spend a whole day looking for kosher salt. I sucked it up and started using refined iodized salt, which is readily available, something I haven't used since I first started watching Good Eats back in 2000.

an Italian-looking chef riding the Vietnamese salt wave


If you haven't used regular salt in a dog's age, you're in for some fun. I've had to adjust my recipes, since a teaspoon of iodized salt isn't the same as a teaspoon of kosher salt. I've found refined iodized salt to be less salty than kosher, so I've had to add boatloads of extra salt to my dishes, which screams against every bone in my body. As a chef, you can eyeball and "feel" how much a teaspoon of kosher salt is supposed to look and feel like. But iodized salt is just weird. Sometimes I end up under salting my food (totally fixable), but that's not as bad as over salting (unfixable). Unless you're on Top Chef, then under salting without tasting a dish before sending it out will get you a Greyhound bus trip home.

I've also started liberally using fish sauce in most of my Western dishes. It brings a savoriness you can't get with salt alone.  Rule number one when it comes to fish sauce: There's fish sauce, and then there's fish sauce.  You want the latter. So what's the latter, you ask?

I think I can confidently say that the best fish sauce in the world comes from Vietnam, and the best fish sauce in Vietnam comes from the island of Phu Quoc, on the southern coast near Cambodia.  In the States, you want to seek out Red Boat brand, which I've seen at Whole Foods, but I think other shops are now starting to carry it due to the upswing of American celebrity chefs promoting it.  A good fish sauce has two ingredients, anchovies and sea salt. That's it. And a good fish sauce has something on the bottle which says it's higher than 30N (the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of sauce). 30N is okay; 40N is better. Though fish sauce smells, well, fishy, a good fish sauce shouldn't smell too fishy. You shouldn't have an aversion to it if you pop off the lid. If yours makes you gag and recoil in horror, get rid of that shit. If you can't find Red Boat, spend some time looking for two things, the ingredients list and the amount of nitrogen listed: Anchovies. Sea Salt. 30N or greater.

apparently someone in the apartment had a good time last night.

While Red Boat is made in Vietnam, it's not actually sold here under that name. The stuff I use is called Quoc Huong, and comes in a glass bottle. Buy yours in a glass bottle, and keep it in the fridge. I read an article a while back about keeping stuff like that, including soy sauce, in the fridge; so just do it.

soy, sesame oil, sambal oelek, tonic water, something of questionable
provenance, and Marou chocolate. What do you keep in your fridge?

I go to the markets and groceries and unconsciously, automatically, look for familiar things. They are there, but there's more an abundance of unfamiliar vegetables and fruits.  This can be both exciting and daunting. What to do with some of these weird things? My two local markets carry a huge variety of greens, most of which I've no idea what they're called in English.  I tend to look in other shoppers' baskets to see what they're buying.  They also look in mine to see what the American is buying, which is kind of funny because I think I disappoint them.  My usual shopping list (procured every day or so) consists of a boatload of limes, coriander (aka cilantro), rice noodles, a variety of fruit, pressed tofu, and some kind of fresh fish or pork product.  On one such a trip, I encountered a type of flowering green, which I'd no earthly idea what it was. I'd seen it at the corner restaurant but couldn't figure out the name.




They're called Tonkin jasmine flowers, or bong thien ly in Vietnamese (there are other Western names for it, but Tonkin is the name I remember).  They're delicious and slightly crunchy. And I treat them the same way I would with broccolini or snap peas or kale or collards: quickly sauté with garlic, red pepper flakes (or fresh Thai bird's eye chili), olive oil, salt and pepper. For last night's dinner, using my trusty mortar and pestle (you can use a food processor, but I don't have that luxury here, plus bashing shit up lets out my aggressions), I bashed up some lemongrass, garlic, coriander (cilantro), sugar, black pepper, and fish sauce. Then marinated the lot with some thinly sliced pork and prawns (aka shrimp - hey look at me getting all Australian on you), before stir frying for a minute or two and tossing in the Tonkin jasmine another minute or two before the end. Really vibrant and delicious. I'd never seen it in the US, though to be fair I've never looked for it; but if you do find some, say, at Buford Highway Farmers market in Atlanta or another Asian market near you, get some. Remove the tougher stems from the flowers first (discard stems) , give the flowers a quick rinse, and sauté away.


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