A chicken in Vietnam is a high-value asset. Keep it laying eggs for you as long as possible. When guests come over or when you want a special meal, serve a whole chicken. That was my mom’s attitude toward keeping and serving poultry to our family. We tried to raise a little flock in our Saigon home long ago. Mom brought home a bunch of baby chicks but unfortunately, our housekeeper stepped on one and all us kids freaked out. Vietnam in the 1970s were already stressful. My parents didn’t need a bunch of squealing, squeamish kids, let alone a flock of squawking chickens in the house. The chicks disappeared.
Soon after we fled the turmoil that hit Saigon in April 1975, we arrived in California at Camp Pendleton Marine Base. My dad decided to resettle in San Clemente, CA, where President Richard Nixon retired. It was a low-key, lovely Southern California beach town near the Marine base.
One of the first things our family did was check out a supermarket. My mom was astounded by all the chicken available -- whole ones, cut up parts, tubs of liver, trays of backs. The chicken backs were the cheapest, around 25 cents a pound, perhaps. Being a resourceful cook, Mom saw countless opportunities in chicken backs. They were part of her American food gold mine.
On many occasions, she’d buy a bunch, make rich stock from them and then picked the meat off the cooked backs. The little bits of cooked chicken along with chicken fat rendered during brewing the stock figured into a pot of rice flavored by lots of celery. It was the best. Fragrantly rich and slightly greasy.
We were eating like kings whenever we at that dish. Think of all the chickens it took to make our pot of rice, we marveled. And what a deal we got on the backs!
My best friend Julie Strauss (pictured at the top) lived in the apartment across the way. Her family enjoyed frozen spinach souffle and tuna casseroles topped with potato chips. Those were exotic foods to me at the time. I was never envious of her because we had chicken back and celery rice, our stripped down version of Vietnamese com ga.
Times were tough for our family when we were starting out in America, but my parents knew how to eat and live in a thrifty manner. They taught me the value of perusing thrift shops, weekly grocery store mailers, and discounted food shelves in order to stay within a budget.
I've never written about chicken back and celery rice because it’s a bit ghetto. It’s a poor family’s food. Nevertheless, every couple of years I get a hanker for it and prepare a batch, most often with chicken backs saved from cutting up my own chickens. (I am my mother’s daughter like my aunt Bac Thoa said.)
Today I cooked down memory lane and the house filled with the aroma of chicken fat, rice, and celery. A couple of guys are laying tile in our guest bathroom and asked what I was making. I served it to them for lunch, with a slightly apologetic explanation for what they were eating. They heartily ate it up. “Delicious,” James said. “Ghetto food is my kind of food.”
Here’s the recipe for you to savor. I suppose you could substitute canola oil for the fat, canned broth for the stock and about 3 ounces of cooked chicken to get into the spirit. You can add the celery and chicken to the sauteed rice along with the hot stock, but watch the liquid content, or the rice could turn out a little mushy.
What are your 1970s comfort food?
Chicken Back and Celery Rice
Yields: 4 side dish servings
- 2 1/2 pounds (1.125 kg) chicken backs, wings or other saved bits
- 6 cups water
- 1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices
- 1 inch (2.5 cm) knob ginger, cut into thick coins and smacked
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups (15 oz / 450 g) raw jasmine rice
- 5 ribs celery (8 oz / 240 g), thinly sliced on diagonal
- Fish sauce, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- Bring the chicken backs and water to a boil over high heat. Skim the scum, then add the onion, ginger and salt. Simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours to yield a flavorful stock. Strain, then pick off the meat from the bones. Skim and save the fat from the stock; you should have about 1/3 cup (90 ml) of chicken fat. (Or refrigerate overnight and lift off the fat layer.)
- Wash the rice then set aside to drain for about 20 minutes. Measure out 2 1/4 cups (of stock into a saucepan. Season with fish sauce then bring to a simmer.
- Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of the fat in a wide pot over medium heat. Add the rice then lightly fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until chalky and dryish looking. Add the hot stock, stir and let bubble and sizzle. Lower the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 2 to 4 minutes. Lift the lid occasionally to stir. When a few craters form at the top, lower the heat to low, cover and let cook for 10 minutes.
- As that happens, heat 2 tablespoon of the chicken fat in a skillet over medium heat. Add the celery and cook for about 2 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the chicken and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to heat through. Off heat, season with salt, a sprinkle of fish sauce and black pepper.
- Turn off the rice but leave it on the hot burner. Add the celery and chicken. Replace the cover and let sit for 10 minutes to continue cooking. Fluff the rice and stir in the celery and chicken; if the rice is dry, add 1 to 2 tablespoons stock. Let rest 10 more minutes to finish. Taste, tweak, and fluff before serving.
Related posts on the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975:
- Revisiting the Fall of Saigon 40 Years later - how my family and others escaped
- Cooking Vietnamese Food in 1970s America: Things We Were Grateful For - drinking water for one...
- Inside My Mom’s Book of Domesticity: Recipes and Stories - what she brought from Vietnam, how I was inspired to write cookbooks
- Gratitude Fried Wontons Recipe - we made wontons and threw a party for people who helped us resettle
- Revisiting Saigon Now: Memorable People and Places - what the future holds for Saigon residents now