Many people assume that Vietnamese food is highly influenced by French traditions. While that is true to a certain extent, the Chinese also influenced Viet foodways big time. Vietnam was a colony of China for nearly 1,000 years! Plus, there are legions of Vietnamese-Chinese people who’ve helped to shape Vietnamese food for generations. (Interactions via trade routes and with Vietnam’s neighbors factor into the mix too.)
My friends, Sophie and Eric Banh (below), the brother-and-sister team behind Monsoon and Ba Bar restaurants in Seattle could be the poster children for how Vietnamese food has blended with Chinese traditions. The Banhs grew up in Cho Lon in Saigon and speak Vietnamese and Chinese (as well as English!). They immigrated to Canada and found their way to relatively warmer climes in Washington State. Their flagship restaurants, Monsoon Capitol Hill and Monsoon East, help to define modern Vietnamese food in the Pacific Northwest.
Sophie and Eric have a loyal, dedicated staff that’s been with them for years – a rarity in the restaurant industry. Casually upscale Monsoon offers warm hospitality and good food whereas rock ‘em sock ‘em Ba Bar is for the early morning and late night crowds who want street food and drink.
They cook from memory, Eric said last September when I came up to do Asian Tofu events in Seattle, one of which was at Monsoon Capitol Hill. The Banhs prepare food based on ideas gleaned from their parents and grandmother. I’d eaten plenty of Eric and Sophie’s food in Seattle but I’d never cooked their food.
The March issue of Sunset gave me an excuse. The magazine featured the Banhs in a story on Vietnamese comfort food. It’s asparagus season and their asparagus shrimp stir-fry interested me.
I’ve stir-fried asparagus before with oyster sauce (there’s a recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen) but the recipe that Sophie and Eric had in Sunset reflected their Chinese-Vietnamese-American, chef/restaurateur roots. As I made the dish I parsed it this way:
- Fresh asparagus – We only had canned asparagus in Vietnam so in the States, fresh is best. (I use fresh asparagus in my version of Viet crab and asparagus soup and the stir-fry mentioned above.)
- Soy sauce + oyster sauce + fish sauce – Their trifecta of umami seasonings that combines Viet and southern Chinese cooking. I’ve used oyster sauce with fish sauce but the soy sauce added a pleasant caramel quality.
- Frying garlic and shallot till golden – This is a lovely Viet approach, particularly that of southern region where caramelized shallot and garlicky goodness is extra appreciated.
- Adding the seasoning sauce twice – A great restaurant method for layering flavor.
- No cornstarch-thickened sauce – Noo velvety or gloppy sauce, a Viet-Chinese approach to stir-frying.
The earthy dish that came out of my wok was splendid with lots of rice. It’s earthy, a brilliant little stir-fry to celebrate spring’s bounty of fresh asparagus.
Asparagus Shrimp Stir-Fry
Serves 2 to 3 as a main course, 4 to 6 as a side
- 1 1/4 pounds asparagus, woody ends snapped off, stalks but on diagonal into 2-inch pieces
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce, preferably Three Crabs brand*
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- Scant 1 teaspoon vegetarian "oyster" sauce or regular oyster sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon plus 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 8 to 10 ounces peeled, deveined large shrimp
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing cooking wine
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
- If you haven’t washed the asparagus, do so, then set aside to drain. For the seasoning sauce, in a small bowl stir together the sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon of oil. Set near the stove.
- Heat a large wok or skillet over high heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the garlic and stir-fry for about 15 seconds, until the garlic begins to brown a bit. Add the shrimp, cook about 30 seconds, then add 1 tablespoon of the seasoning sauce. Combine, stir, and cook for about 2 minutes, till the shrimp are nearly cooked through. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- Rinse or wipe the pan clean. Replace it on high heat, then add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the shallot, cook for nearly 1 minute, until a little browned. Dump in the asparagus, then pour in remaining seasoning sauce. Stir-fry the asparagus to a tender, slightly crunchy state, 3 to 5 minutes. Add back the shrimp mixture and cook to reheat. Off heat, stir in the rice wine. Transfer to a plate, garnish with pepper, then eat immediately.