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
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.
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 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
- 8 to 10 ounces peeled,
deveined large shrimp
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely
- 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.