Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chinook Salmon Poke

Though I was born in Hawai'i, I didn't have poke (Hawaiian raw fish, pronounce poh-kay) until I was an adult.  By far the two best poke I've ever had was the Costco in Lihue (really!) and the sea asparagus salmon poke at Overland Meat & Seafood in South Lake Tahoe.  Makes me want to go forage in a salt marsh!

Local, wild sustainably caught
Chinook King salmon
When my friend Lenore offered to coordinate a buying coop from a local sustainable fisherman last year, we went in for a whole Chinook King salmon which I filleted myself; i lucked out on getting 15 lbs of everyone else's scrap pieces which included bellies.  The head, collar, and bones made for a nice canh chua (tamarind soup, recipe forthcoming).  We reserved some of the fillet and the belly (toro) for poke.  (Other scrap pieces went to the cats and they were sleek and silky for days!).  

I made poke for the first time last year and it's become my daughter's favorite food; she refuses to eat cooked salmon anymore, more's the shame, so now we cook all salmon rare.  It's April and Chinook King salmon are back in season which means BREAK IT DOWN: STOP, POKE TIME!  

As far as seaweed goes, I prefer sea asparagus (actually a sort of salt marsh succulent)--which can be eaten raw or blanched--and/or wakame.  I happened to have hijiki on hand which works fine; the texture almost as crisp as salicornia, but the taste is a little more "earthy" than other seaweed.  When I buy dried, I go by the picture and choose a seaweed that is in a salad or dry dish over soup seaweed.

Note that "sushi grade" is not a regulated designation.  To avoid contamination, source only fresh wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish from a reputable, sustainable fishmonger and freeze at least 12 hours to kill bacteria and parasites.  Thaw the salmon in the fridge for about 4 hours.  Cut while it is still icy, but pliable.  I've substituted other ocean fish like halibut or swordfish as well.

Ingredients & tools
I picked up fishbone tweezers from Daiso (The Japanese "yen" store where everything's $1.50) to pick out any pinbones   And I eschew our expensive Chicago cutlery knives in favor of my trusty Thai-made Kiwi knife (under $3 at the Asian market) which just stays sharper.  Kiwi knives can be sharpened the old school way using the bottom of a ceramic bowl or with any knife sharpener.  (Also, my aesthetic aspiration is one day, my bowls will all match.)

I like the briny pops of coarse grey salt.
  • 1 fillet of salmon (~1.5 lbs), semi-thawed
  • 1 cup kelp (wakame/miyeok, hijiki,etc) or sea asparagus (salicornia)
  • 1 large hass avocado
  • 3-4 tbs toasted sesame oil
  • splash of rice vinegar
  • coarse grey or celtic sea salt
  • 3 tbs toasted unhulled sesame seeds
  • optional 1 tsp kombu powder
  • optional splash of gunmaijen sake
  • optional kanzuri paste (see comment below)*

If using dried seaweed, soak it for 30 minutes in room temperature water until reconstituted.  If using fresh seaweed, rinse thoroughly.

Use the tweezers to remove any pin bones.  Remove any skin.  I do this my laying the fillet skin side down. I slice down along any whitish tissue (on the left of the fillet pictured above) along the dorsal fin side removing it from the fillet without cutting through the skin.  Then I slice horizontally as close to the skin as I can.  Reserve the salmon skin.  Cube the salmon into 1/2 inch squares and put into a bowl.

Chinook wakame poke for lunch!
Drain the seaweed in a colander, rinse, and squeeze out the water thoroughly.  Add to the salmon bowl.

Cube the avocado and add to the salmon bowl.

Add toasted sesame oil, kombu powder, and 2 tbs of grey sea salt and toss together until mixed.  Cover with a plate and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.

Just prior to serving, add sesame seeds and another 1-2 tbs of coarse grey salt to taste.  Mix thoroughly.

Serve with kanzuri paste* as a condiment so folks can customize the heat factor.  

Poke can be served over salad.  My daughter likes to roll them up in korean toasted laver (kim) with brown rice and eat them like little kimbap/sushi rolls.

The remaining salmon skin can be cut into strips and lightly brushed with sesame oil and fried til crispy.  Sprinkle with sea salt and eat as you please.

Ăn Ngon Lành | Eat Delectably!

Pokemon slow jam

*Kanzuri (かんずり) is a fermented paste of red chili / chile pepper, rice malt (koji), yuzu and salt produced in Niigata, Japan.  The peppers are harvested, salted and left to begin fermenting in the snow, then they are mixed with the other ingredients and aged for 3 years to produce the finished paste. It's difficult to find stateside and I haven't seen it online at all.  Marukai Market imports it.  It's expensive and a little bit goes a long way.  It adds a bright citrus and japanese pepper note to the dish.  Yuzu paste is easier to source by contrast and would make an acceptable (very citrusy, not spicy) substitute.  Or you can use your choice of chile pepper flakes.  I favor Frontier organic chipotle powder myself, smoky is always a delicious note.   I also use Organic Harvest Foods chipotle habanero hot sauce because I love chipotle.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sprouted hummus recipe

[Caveat: Not a Southeast Asian recipe]  Like many urban West Coast folks, I love hummus.  Hummus became my go-to snack three years ago when I was trying to stabilize my blood sugar.  I found that store bought hummus (even the expensive artisanal, locally made hummus I got from Whole Foods Market) is too tart for my tastes from the efforts to preserve it with lemon juice or citric acid (which is not derived from citrus but is a chemically extracted corn product that contains free glutamates).  So I started making my own.  At first, I used tahini, but it required going to a Middle Eastern market not typically on my usual grocery run.  Since I had limited energy, I bought sesame seeds.*  It's not that much more work and it's cheaper.  I use organic unhulled sesame seeds which have a slightly bitter taste although my picky kid doesn't notice.  If you don't like that, you can try sprouting or toasting the unhulled seeds (I've never tried) or using hulled/white sesame seeds.

  • 1 cup of garbanzos (aka chickpeas) soaked & sprouted or 1 can of organic garbanzo beans, drained & rinsed
  • optional 1 inch of kombu or 1 tsp kombu
  • 1 cup of unhulled sesame seeds or tahini/sesame paste.
  • 1/2 cup or so of real olive oil (I use MoonShadow Grove Mission Estate Certified organic EVOO)
  • 1 clove of garlic if you like it spicier, I use 1/2 tsp of dried garlic b/c my kid is sensitive.
  • 1/2 to whole lemon juiced (to taste)
  • grey or celtic sea salt to taste
  • optional paprika
  •  1/2 to 1 cup of water
  • optional pitted olives

Soak garbanzos overnight in filtered water.  Drain and use the runoff water for your garden.  Leave in bowl or colander.  Rinse and drain daily until it sprouts.  It should sprout by day 3.  Cook garbanzos.  I put it in a pressure cooker for 10-15 minutes with 4 cups of water with the kombu (helps to breakdown the indigestible carbs that make us gassy) and let it naturally depressurize.   If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can boil them in 5 cups of water and kombu for 3 hours.

Add all the ingredients except for olives to a food process and pulverize until creamy.  Add water until the consistency is right for you.  Add olives and pulse until minced.

Makes about 2.5-3 cups.

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

*You have to have a food processor or powerful blender to puree the sesame seeds. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

I am realizing that my readership is growing beyond the 5 people I am hermetically connected to by marriage, blood, or friendship when I initially started.  I've started receiving questions or inquiries via email & Facebook so I thought it'd be handy to collect the responses (anonymizing the asker of course) here in a convenient FAQs page.

Why do you write this blog?

Why not?  Read my womanifesto, my declaration of real food and my talk on Ancestral Foodways.

Is this your job?
I make Life.  I nourish Life.  I am PRICELESS.
In so much as I cook for myself and my family almost everyday, yes, this is my job.  In so much as do I receive monetary compensation for such labor, then no.  I am a self-employed work-at-home/stay-at-home mom.  Like most of womanity the world over, my labor on behalf of my family (and the internets) is unremunerated.  Not that I am idealistic about that.  I have expenses and would be open to being compensated.  It can take anywhere between 2-5 hours for me to write a blog; and then as a wordcrafter, I continually revise and then there is backtracking links when I update.  I do some freelance writing that has been mostly unpaid (new economy, fie!).  If that status should ever change, I would be principled and transparent about it.   
If you see a product mentioned on my blog, it's because I have tried it.  I am not paid or sponsored to mention it. However, I am now a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to (as of  4/2017). Being an unpaid writer/blogger has all the feels, but as you might imagine is 100% unsustainable; it does not put bacon in my home, clothes on my back, or food on my table. Currently, I don't even make enough on the Amazon program to pay for a weekly coffee. So there you go. If you do chose to buy anything through my affiliate link, you make a contribution from your purchase thay does not cover the time I spend on each post, but certainly is appreciated.

Did you really heal yourself with only food?
I allude to healing myself with food (my womanifestomy declaration of real food and my talk on Ancestral Foodways).  I am planning to write a longer blog post about healing from autoimmune issues.  Meanwhile, food was/is a major aspect of how I healed my body but not exclusively.  Integral components of healing my whole self--mind, body & spirit--are detox, sleep, nutrition, hydration, and deep breathing.  

Are you a follower of ____ nutritional philosophy/diet? (fill in the blank: paleo, primal, Weston Price, ketogenic, GAPS, etc etc etc.)

As I indicated in my inaugural Real Food, Real Pho blog post, I am not an adherent of any particular nutritional diet nor am I dogmatic about it.  I take what aspects I find useful.  There are some elements of Weston Price Foundation's philosophy that I find helpful/works for me (research, techniques, bone broth, healthy fats, sprouting, etc) and there are other aspects I eschew (universality based on Euro-American normativity, dairy in all forms--raw, goat or cow, heavy grain reliance esp wheat, etc).  Just as there aspects of paleo/primal/ketogenic that resonate for me and other aspects that don't (universality based on Euro-American normatively; I eat low grain, whole animal meat from the rooter to the tooter including fat, very high sea salt intake) .  I find that adherents of any given nutri-diet philosophy have interesting things to say and far superior to the mainstream take on "healthy" (i.e. low fat, high carb, high processed) in terms of information and recipes but I am wary of any universal aggrandizing.  So I read/skim all sorts of blogs across the nutri-diet spectrum myself. I take what I read critically with a grain of seasalt knowing my own boundaries/needs.   As much as these nutritional diets claim to be discrete, unique, intellectually branded products, their fundamental commonality is a reliance on real food and exclusion of processed food.  
As I mentioned in the post link above, I think bio-individuality is important to acknowledge.  I do not claim that what works for me is a universal to all humanity which would be arrogant folly; nor is what works for me right now going to be what works for me in 5, 10, 20 years since I am not a psychic and have no way of knowing.  What works for my bio-systems may not work for yours. That's why my blog subtitle and summary is a list of what my dietary parameters (no wheat, dairy, refined sugar, corn, or additives) rather than claiming an allegiance to a branded diet.   
I've been called "kinda paleo" and sorta Weston Price, and my NP/acupuncturist has called it anti-inflammatory; if those labels help you to understand my culinary perspective then by all means use them but don't limit me to them.  (Source for comparing Weston Price to paleo.) 
That said, I don't try to disparage/dismiss everyone else's nutri-diets (ok, I do talk smack about the Standard American Diet, but it is truly killing people and is not nutritious) in an effort to elevate myself/my "brand" (I am a human being not a consumer product); I am not looking for converts to/consumers of my "new religion."  I hope never to resort to scare tactics and sensationalism and I'm relying on my readership to keep me honest.   Love is my religion.  So holla at me and use the comment form or email me!

What is GF/DF?

It's an acronym for Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free.  You may also see SF which is Refined Sugar-Free.

What's your cooking process?  Do you eat Vietnamese food everyday?

When I meal plan a week, it tends to work out better.  However, I am a gemini (pretty equal left-right brain split) and as the youngest child of three with a single, working mom (and then later a working stepdad), I am not very disciplined, so more often than not, I improvise.  Sprouting for example takes some forethought, like 2-3 days in advance.  So a lot of times, I don't sprout but can at least commit to soaking a few hours or overnight.  Not meal planning means I grab standard ingredients each week (kale, frozen fruit for smoothies, salad, carrots, cucumbers, organic chicken) and work off that.  I get into ruts a lot.  We eat a lot of chicken because I can roast them and then we can have them any which way.  We eat Vietnamese style food maybe once or twice a week.  We eat brown rice maybe 2-3 times a week.  Maybe I haven't quite mastered the technique of cooking other grains (millet, quinoa, buckwheat), but we haven't found another grain we love.  We eat a lot of sweet potatoes in lieu of rice.  

How can you cook real food on a budget?  What do you do for lunch on the go?

Cookie cutter brown rice "balls"
This comes down to source and compromise.  Source your organic meat & produce directly from the farmer when you can to reduce the middleman costs.  Use the Clean 15, Dirty Dozen guide to make decisions about which produce to buy organic and which to get conventional.  Rinse conventional produce with white vinegar & water, castile soap & water or those produce rinses to remove any pesticide/herbicide residue.  
For meat, the next best is Costco or halal markets.  Halal is typically conventional grain-fed, antibiotic/hormone-free, and humanely slaughtered.Meal ideas: Make a roast organic chicken. Shred it while it's still warm and pliable and reserve the bones. Then you have chicken for slaw/salad or wraps or GF pasta/rice noodles, etc for several meals. (TJ's has a decent quinoa brown rice pasta for cheaps. Costco too.). We don't like breast meat that much so I get halal organic chicken leg quarters for $2.29 at a local Indian market which gets their poultry from the same place as Whole Foods. Oh and once you've shredded the chicken, you can use the bones for broth and it maximizes the amount of food you can get for the price.  use the broth to make a soup with veggies, add shredded chicken.  Bone in roasts typically shoulder cuts are less costly than steaks.  Slow cooked and sliced or shredded, they can be versatile as well.  The bones can also be reused several times for a nutrient-dense bone broth.  Here's a great example of how you can stretch one pasture-raised chicken into 4 meals.

Kid approved DIY salmon poke sushi

Sandwiches are tough. When we eat on the go, we use bento boxes or tiffins and have small meals.  You can make wraps with rice paper or corn tortillas. On my pinterest I have found a recipe for Indian lentil wraps that is decent but when best cooked fresh. Or you can make brown rice balls. If you get a larger roast like turkey, lamb, pork or beef, you can slice thinly and eat in a lettuce wrap (iceberg works best.) 
Another good budget meal is chili/curry made with organic beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, squash, whatever veggies as long as there's lots of it (seasoning is just cumin, garlic, onion, salt, and your fave herbs). You can stretch 1 lb of organic meat a longer way and with beans and amped up veggies, you reduce the grain-carb load. Also leave it in a slow cooker and there's little work involved. Take it to go in a thermos canister. We like to eat avocados on it in lieu of cheese to bump up the fat content. 

What's a gluten-free substitute for hoison sauce?

Hoison sauce (or plum sauce) has a limited use as a condiment in standard Vietnamese cooking.  To my recall it is just used as a condiment for southern-style phở and for making peanut dipping sauce.  As I mention here, I do not use hoison sauce myself.  Store bought hoison sauces vary in ingredients, but the basic commonalities are refined sugar, wheat/gluten, food coloring, and starch/binder.  Nary a plum to be found!  So there is little to no flavor beyond that of a thick sweetener (and apropos enough, my auto-correct keeps replacing hoison with poison).  My suggested replacement is a fruit syrup comprised of organic prunes (thar be plums!) or unsulfured apricots pulverized with a little water.

What's a gluten-free substitute for soy sauce?  Can fish sauce be used in place of soy sauce?

I don't use soy products very often because of the phyto-estrogens.  It's a very different flavor from fish sauce.  For years prior, I used to use Bragg's liquid aminos made from soy.  Then when I eliminated soy from my diet, I used coconut aminos which are sweeter and really taste different.  Now I just use gray sea salt (also called Celtic sea salt) which brings out the natural flavor of the food.  On the rare occasions I use soy (like this khao soi recipe, I try to use organic, non-GMO fermented soy.

Are you writing a book?

No, not yet. I would love to write a book. It'll happen when it is supposed to happen. I am an avid speed reader (~1100 words/minute; read the entire Harry Potter series in under 10 days last summer) and I love to craft words. I started reading at 4 and making little booklets shortly thereafter.  I published by first poem at 10; my first skit/play was performed at 16. I used to do more creative writing but with the advent of college and graduate school and email, I became more of an essayist. I write like I think, so I am very syncretic, eclectic, synergistic with lots of tangents, parentheticals, pop culture, literary references, and cheeky irreverence. My main writing influences are Stephen Jay Gould, Douglas Adams, bell hooks, Lewis Carroll, and many, many children's book authors who know the intrinsic value of irreverence, humor and unbounded imagination. 

Are you a medical professional?

Don't be offended this is all my opinion aint nothin that I say is Law.  This is a true confession of a life learned lesson I was sent here to share wit y'all.  So get in where you fit in, go on and shine, Clear your mind, now's the time.  Put it on the shelf. Go on and love yourself. Cause everything's gonna be just fine.
I've formed my opinion by research, reading, and phenomenological knowledge (i.e. lived experiences).  I read scientists, nutritionists, moms, acupuncturists, chiropractors, functional/integrative medicine doctors, chefs/cooks, health coaches, bloggers, etc.  Most importantly, I learn from listening to my body and how it responds.  I grew up being dairy-boarded.  When I thought as an adult that I was lactose intolerant, I tried lactase enzyme supplements but they did not "fix" it.  When I thought I was allergic to the cow casein proteins, I tried goat milk, sheep milk cheeses, raw cow milk, ghee and butter, and that did not fix it.  I can say with reasonable confidence, that I cannot consume non-human dairy in any form.  I make the infrequent exception for organic, cultured butter but in very very small quantities.  The last time I fell off the GF/DF wagon eating the hot buttery rolls at Connie & Ted's last year, I paid for it with a sleepless, agitated night and inflammation/bloating.  Once one has isolated a factor and made a correlation to a reaction, falling off the wagon becomes no longer worth it.
For more concerns about my opinion, please consult with my lawyer Bob Loblaw, Esq.

More Questions?  Post a comment below or email me at realfoodrealpho @





  • Omnivore’s Dilemna by Michael Pollan
  • Never be sick again by Raymond Francis


Ăn Ngon Lành | Eat Delectably!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ancestral Foodways: My way

I was honored to be invited by my inimitable friend Loan to give a short talk today on the topic of Food & Culture to her Asian American studies class at the U Mass, Boston through the magic of the internet and the Borg technology of google. This is the talk I gave with additional links and visuals.

Ancestral Foodways: My way

It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way and shootin' no blanks
I just refute what you think, a quite unusual thing
Yes it's a mutual thing 'cos it's the root of all things and we aims to be
Blackalicious feat. Lyrics Born "Do This My Way"

My name is Leilani.  I am Vietnamese American mother, childbirth educator & matrescence doula, and writer.  There’s a lot of other things I do and am but that covers the main points.  I’ll be talking to you today about my blog Real Food, Real Pho and why I write it.


My ma, aunty, big bro & sis, and me

I’m a second/third generation refugee.  My maternal grandparents became refugees for the first time in 1954 leaving North Vietnam to settle in the Central region.  My entire maternal side grandparents, aunties, uncles were sponsored as refugees in April 1975 by my eldest aunty who was married to a US serviceman and living in Honolulu.  My mom was 8 mos pregnant with me at the time.  I was born a few weeks later and we lived there for several years.  My mom owned a mauna pua truck selling siau pau (pork buns), ice cream and candy; nowadays it’s what would be called a food truck and it would be trendy, but back then, it was grey market (not strictly legal) and the city eventually shut them down.

My phamily eventually resettled in San Diego in the 80s because there was not a lot of work in Hawai'i.  It's not paradise when you don't have prospects.  My mom was a single working mom.  We were on food stamps for a number of years.  This was before there were any Vietnamese grocery stores so we ate a lot of american processed food because that is what you could get with food stamps--velveeta, powdered milk, processed food stuff (which means food altered in factories which destroys nutrients, especially the “whites"--white rice, white flour, white sugar).  Even when there was fresh Vietnamese produce and ingredients to be had, american processed food became a regular part of our diet because single mom + three kids = not a lot of time to cook.  We wanted to be like other kids and eat McDonald’s, spaghetti, pizza, soda.  My mom’s cooking too was very fusion which is probably influenced by living in Hawai’i where there is a meld of culture and cuisines; we ate lettuce and greens in our spaghetti.

Eating roasted rice paddy mice
 in the Mekong Delta 2007
f sustainable free range

When I went to college, I double majored in Anthropology and Linguistics and this is when I first started cooking for myself. I later went on to an intensive doctoral program in Anthropology where I focused on the culture of emerging modern society in Vietnam at a time when the market was opening up from state-owned enterprise to more international capital.  As the years went by, I found myself focused more on community organizing where I lived and left academia to become a research analyst for almost a decade, serving grassroots organizations, indigenous groups all over the US, and for a low wage workers union.

For a long time, my philosophy in life was DIE for what I believe in, this was the value I inherited from my biological father, and it was killing me.  I burned out.  So I quit my job to be at home with my daughter and to learn how to LIVE for what I believe in.


A surprising fact is that most of the American population is malnourished and dehydrated in spite of eating so much, because of what they are eating (Standard American Diet or "SAD") is nutritionally empty and/or depletes nutrients.  I was no exception.  I was malnourished which is weird to think since I was not underweight or starving if anything I was thick, but there were signs through food cravings which are a way of one's body telling one that one is need something (example: a craving for carbs/pastries is a really a craving for shortterm energy because you don’t have enough reserves of the long term energy like healthy fat & protein), other signs were the vertical ridges in my teeth & nails, all the health issues I was experiencing, but going back to childhood and fetal development, even my tongue tie, my inherited overbite and lower teeth crowding was an indication of at least three generations of malnutrition.

This widespread phenomenon of malnutrition that comes from eating large quantities of "food" instead of malnutrition from the absence of food as in a famine or poverty, is recent in human history.  It's part of the industrialization of food production.  After centuries of extractive agricultural practices or chemical contamination, the soil is depleted of minerals and nutrients.  Food is being chemically altered if not genetically altered in factories. Vitamins and minerals that are destroyed in the processing are being added back synthetically in the form of vitamin fortification that is not bioavailable (easy for body to assimilate) and contributes to a toxic overload for our livers along with environmental toxins.  Processed food is essentially nutritionally empty.  We’re not taught much about real nutrition.  Popular culture references calories.  Calories are meaningless; it’s the nutrients that matter and where they come from matters most.

There’s this emerging branch of science now called epigenetics and it looks at how environment
(toxins, nutrition or malnutrition) can alter the expression of your genes.  An example would be nutrition and dental formation.  There was a dentist named Weston Price  at the turn of the 20th century who noticed increasing problems with cavities and bite and connected it to the rise of industrially processed food like white flour and sugar.  He travelled all over the world and documented the introduction of processed food and its impact on dental health.  In families where they ate native foods, the children had robust facial structure, straight teeth, few to no dental issues.  In families where they ate processed foods, the children had smaller jaws, overbites/underbites, cavities.  In other words, humans are evolutionarily programmed to have straight teeth that can fit into their jawbones.  No animal species could survive if they didn’t have teeth that were functional.  Dr. Price understood that nutrition was critical in bone formation and to optimal health.  He developed a philosophy that can be paraphrased as “eating what your ancestors ate”.  Nowadays, we have the understanding to say the malnutrition from processed foods affected the epigenetic expression of dental formation and it degenerates with each successive generation.

Stress and psychological trauma is also something that can be inherited behaviorally and epigenetically.  Stress affects the sympathetic system--the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, pituitary gland--which generates the fight, flight or freeze response.  Stress is also changes epigenetic expression and is passed on to the next generation in gene expression as well as behavior.  Scientists have done research on the children of survivors of Nazi death camps on behavioral inheritance of PTSD and more recently on the epigenetics of mice exposed to stress; stress/trauma affects the genes that are inherited by the next generation.  Your parents' experiences and reactions to stress predisposes your own sympathetic system and depletes or inhibits your body’s absorption of nutrients.  So my family history means that I have 150 years (+/-) of colonization and war trauma coded in my DNA.  It’s no surprise that my adrenals (adrenal glands make the master hormones that we need to survive) were worn out; so at my lowest, even though driving in traffic typically makes me anxious, I would experience near accidents and not feel anything.  This wasn’t a zen response.  I could feel a click like an ignition but nothing turned on.  My fight, flight or freeze reaction was not happening.  I didn’t get the burst of adrenaline to help me react to a situation and keep myself safe because my adrenals were not functioning.


So I burned out.  I had developed systemic, auto-immune issues, that’s when your body becomes so stressed out it attacks itself--for example, allergies, skin issues, diabetes, in extreme cases, cancer.  My adrenals just about shut down,  and I was pretty close to being bedridden.  I had barely out enough energy to drag myself out of bed and sludge through my day.  You ever watch Shaun of the Dead?  It was the first zombie romantic comedy.  The opening montage (minus the peppy music)?  The working dead.  That's what it felt like.  Life was flat.  All the ailments I had were beyond the scope of Western medicine to heal; Western medicine is about masking the symptoms, not getting to the root causes.  I had to heal myself.  And I did.  A huge part of that healing process is FOOD.  Food is my medicine. (I believe medicine is anything that heals your body, mind, and spirit/soul; this can be music, talk story, wisdom, plants, love, spiritual/ancestral connection, and food among others.)

I considered myself a healthy eater up to that point.  We ate mostly homemade cooking with a lot of white rice, fresh vegetables and meat at every meal, some processed food everyday; processed food is anything that did not recently come from the earth or an animal.  We didn’t eat too differently from the way we were raised, lots of stir-fries.  But the lifetime of stress, inherited stress from war/refugee trauma in prior generations, coffee/sugar dependence, and processed foods (donuts!) had depleted my body, weakened my organs & systems.

Something had to change and that something was ME.  No one else could tell me how/why.  I was my own personal health investigator.  Over the last 5 years, I tried a lot of holistic alternative medicine like naturopath, chiropractor, muscle testing, acupuncture, osteopath, yoga, breathwork & meditation, read a lot of articles and blogs, reset my circadian rhythm, and those all contributed, but food and more specifically nutrition is where I experienced the most changes.

Instead of popping a multi-vitamin (which I had “allergic” rash reactions to but were really my liver being overloaded with toxins and passing into the blood stream triggering an histamine immune reaction), I had to replenish my nutrients from eating whole, real foods--food that recently came from the earth and from animals, not from a factory or a lab.

homemade dưa chua
pickled mustard greens
I started off eliminating wheat and dairy, and my seasonal allergies went away.  I went organic and my skin, digestion, and hormones improved.  I gave up alcohol, coffee and caffeine (oh this was hard, no more cà phê sữa đá!) and the migraines and vertigo stopped.  I added healthy fats and my brain function and memory came back.  I eliminated sugar and reduced grains, added more veggies, green smoothies, and my blood sugar stabilized and I lost a little weight and girth (really it's volume from inflammation more than weight).  I drank more water spiked with sea salt, and my skin improved and I could sleep at night without waking up from hormonal surges feeling hot, dry & hungry.  I eliminated additives like MSG or preservatives that are neuro-toxic and my mood stabilized, my stress/anxiety levels normalized, the agitation & anger/irritability reduced and sleeping regularized.  I added homemade fermented foods dense with natural probiotics like sauerkraut, pickled mustard greens, and the ridges in my nails have smoothed out.  I stopped eating processed foods, I even gave up supposedly healthy organic processed foods, the organic blue tortilla chips, the organic gluten-free breads because they were just organic empty calories; I gave up most restaurant food because of the sugar and additives.  There’s the saying you are what you eat.  When I eat processed foods, conventionally grown meat, I get sick.
Local sustainably caught
Chinook salmon

Overall, my body was less inflammed which I can quantify by looking at my white blood count which used to be through the roof and are now in the low end of normal.  Along with the loving support of my family, yoga and deep breathing (which not only changes your brainwaves, but also affects epigenetic expression!), my creativity is re-emerging, and I feel whole again.


real phở

When I eliminated wheat and dairy, I thought well, I’ll keep it easy and cook Vietnamese/Asian food following the food philosophy of "Eat what your ancestors ate" because my ancestors were not eating macaroni & cheese from a box.  And you think of Asian food and you think of rice, not wheat.  And then as I started reading the labels, I realized how much processing goes into Vietnamese food--not just MSG, but MSG in all its iterations (hydrolyzed wheat protein, "natural flavor", soy protein, etc), wheat derivatives, refined sugar, preservatives (not just banned formaldehyde, but FDA approved preservatives), food coloring.  This is not how my ancestors ate.  So I had to find ingredients that didn’t contain additives, wheat, dairy, refined sugar, minimally processed.  I had to decolonize my diet.

xôi gấc—red sticky rice in a 
traditional Lao steaming pot
I had to learn how to truly make food from scratch using ancestral foodways that maximize nutrition instead of shortcuts that comes from modern living always being in a hurry and on the go, that can be counter-nutritive.  I couldn’t find a single source for recipes/blogs that made Vietnamese food using whole ingredients and ancestral foodways.  Some ancestral foodways I saw my grandparents practice, other things I pieced together from blogs about homesteading or whole foods cooking.  So that’s when I started blogging, to reclaim and sometimes remake ancestral food ways.  

Sprouted brown rice
I’ll take as an example, rice.  I went from eating white jasmine rice every day 1-2 times a day to eating brown rice, then organic brown rice every day to now eating organic brown rice maybe 2-3 times a week and soaking and sprouting the rice 2-3 days to reduce the anti-nutrients like phytic acid which are inherent in all seeds and to leach out the arsenic from soil contamination that is endemic to all arable land all over the world; seeds contain all the genetic information for new life, so they have innate self-defense in the form of anti-nutrients like phytic acid.  Sprouting changes the rice from a seed to a plant and releasing its nutritional value.  Sprouting is an ancestral foodway that has been lost in the translation/export of food.  I could go on about the globalization and misappropriation of "super foods" and the sometimes fatal stripping of foodways and cultural context but I’ll leave it there.  (My blog post on corn gets into this a bit.)

Growing native corn
I am not a professionally trained chef.  Like most home cooks, I came to cooking as a necessity when I started living on my own in college. I learned by calling my mom on the phone, reading cookbooks, recipes and blogs, through tips from friends and strangers, learned through making mistakes.  I cook for my family, I cook for me, for my community of friends.  For me, it started with phở which I grew up eating at family gatherings every Sunday. But I've experimented with all kinds of cuisines from American to Moroccan to Irish.  I've rendered lard, made corned beef by fermenting organic grass-fed beef over a week; I've made pozole by growing, harvesting and nixtamalizing maize (which is a process of alkalizing the kernels to release the nutrients similar to hominy) and stewing an entire hog's head (which is a very gnarly experience.  The snout!  The teeth! The eyeballs!).  Somethings I've made better than others.  A lot of things I've botched.  But more than expertise I’ve found what matters is the ingredients.  Real food, sustainably grown, tastes better and is more nourishing.  It can be costly, but there are frugal strategies, like growing your own vegetables, joining buying coops and buying straight from the farmer (called Community Supported Agriculture).  Organic, grass-feed beef which can cost up to $25/lb at the store, costs $5/lb buying a sustainably-raised whole steer from a local farmer, and then paying the butcher.  It's more expensive than conventionally raised cows, but I don't get boils from the antibiotics and growth hormones that they feed them (not to mention the stress hormones from their living conditions and manner of slaughter). It’s a damn sight cheaper than the thousands of dollars I was spending on health care, supplements, and short term fixes.


The soul of my cooking is a love of food and family.  For me, cooking Vietnamese food is the way I remember my grandparents who were self-sufficient, subsistence farmers before the wars and who transplanted here to the US, had a subsistence garden no matter where they lived in the hood and carried on foodways and traditions of cooking from their upbringing.  Cooking is how I honor their legacy, and make it meaningful and present for my daughter. There is a story in each meal, a rich history in the making of it, and quality in the eating of it. Taking the time to make something from scratch using ancestral food ways infuses the food with more flavor, more nutrients, more tradition, and more love.

Vietnamese culture is some 4000 years old give or take.  The cuisine is inflected with the rich cultural and historical influences from several millenia of globalization.  The native palate (fish sauce, hot/sour/salty/sweet), Melanesia/Polynesia from antiquity, over two millenia of influence from countries of that are now called India & China, from the conquest and absorption of the Khmer and Champa kingdoms 400 years ago, Portuguese missionizing 16th c-18th c, and then, the less than 150 years of influence from French colonization, a blip of less than 2 decades of American war, more recently aspirations for japanese/korean modernity.

Conventional Bánh da lợn |Pigskin cake
made with white sugar, food coloring
& flavor extract
My Bánh da lợn| PIgskin cake
Made without additives
Food is constantly evolving.  I don’t claim to cook authentic as it was made 100 years ago by my great grandmother. There were adapted foodways that my grandparents practiced that I eschew like food coloring, karo corn syrup or white rice flour in favor of more nutritious practices.  The results are not like we are now used to eating; the appearance, colors, taste, texture are wildly different. And, I live here in the US, this is my context.  I have a food processor and I use it.  I eat kale with everything even my phở.  I have a family to feed and I don’t always have all day to cook so I do make shortcuts, but I try not to compromise on nutrition.  It’s been a learning process for me to challenge myself where I feel daunted (Bánh Chưng! hog’s head!) and to reinvent.  So this blog is my take on ancestral food ways and LIVING for what I believe in.

From the rooter to the tooter--hog's head broth

It's such a beautiful thing, this musical thing
When I can do it my way
Ain't shootin' no blanks
I just refute what you think
A quite unusual thing, Yes it's a mutual thing
Cos it's the root of all things, and we end.

Q &A from the class (paraphrased)

What is organic? 

Organic is a certification that the food is sustainably raised without the use of toxic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and is not genetically modified. 

Do you use measurements? 

I tend to be a freehand, improvisational cook, even when I am using a recipe.  I eyeball it.  The way I learned from my mom was "use a rice bowl (or handful) full of ..."  or "put as much as you like" so it's very relative.  That also means, sometimes my results are not consistent especially with a new recipe.  But then I also have interesting surprises because I don't stick to recipes, even when I use someone else's recipe.  I do try to use measurements for most of my recipes that I share with folks. 

Are nutrient supplements or vitamins bad for you? 

There are two kinds of vitamins--synthetic and food-based.  The synthetic kind are made in a laboratory from who knows what kind of material; it's not as bio-available and usually you see/smell the excess sloughed off in your waste (i.e. that weird urine color/smell).  Food-based vitamins are extracted from real food in a laboratory.  They are better (and more expensive) than synthetic chemicals.  But the best way to get nutrients is from eating real food.  It's like taking bromelain as an anti-inflammatory supplement when you can eat just eat a pineapple instead.  But if you have to choose a vitamin, choose the food-based one.   
4/8/2014 Another thing about vitamins... medicinal herbs are another great way to get vitamins and minerals that are bioavailable and inexpensive.  Dandelion for example (not a weed, but medicine!) is a good source of iron, calcium and potassium and it supports liver function. Dandelions can be eaten (cooked), taken as a infusion/tea, or made into a tincture with brandy.  I take it ever take this whenever I need liver support in flushing out excess toxins because it helps to support the liver. Also it makes a good post-drinking tonic.  Just saying'.  Nettle is another good one that supports the kidneys/adrenals, is great for allergies (seasonal and other) by helping to flush the histamines, and is a milks analgesic (pain relief).  It has Vitamins A, C, D, K, calcium, phosphorus, iron, sulphur.  You can generally find medicinal herbs at a natural food store or online in bulk or in tea packets.  Try to source it organic.  You could also go out to a meadow where you are reasonably sure they do not spray herbicides and harvest it there (this is called wildcrafting or foraging).
Green smoothies are a great way to increase your vegetable intake and boost your vitamin/mineral intake.  I have one for breakfast every day (chia seed, coconut flakes, flax seed, carrot, cucumber, cooked spinach or kale, blueberries, pineapple, a pinch of sea salt, and sometimes ginger powder,).  I cook my leafy greens because of the oxalic acid and other anti-nutrients/goitrogen in raw greens.

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

For resources and further reading, check out the resources section in my FAQs.

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