Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Multi-ethnic food craze

Last year during the Q&A after a university guest talk I gave, one of the UMB students asked me about eating food from former colonizer countries. In addition to talking a little bit about power dynamics and contextualization/historicity, I tried to get at the idea that food and by extension, culture does not happen in hermetic vacuums. Food/Culture is dynamic and constantly changing based on local context (availability of ingredients), historical conditions. 

We have only to look at one of the world's oldest diasporic communities of Chinese immigrants to see how Chinese cuisine varies by country Viet Chinese food is very different from Singaporean Chinese food is very different from Cuban Chinese food is very different from American Chinese food. These differences do not make the localized cuisines any more or less authentic (which itself is a rigid Western cultural construct rooted in the Cartesian logic of dominance that is NOT universal to all cultures btw), it just makes it different. And yet they are all united under this imagined community rubric of Chinese-ness.

At any rate, I came across this fantastic little piece about L.A. Food Culture which really captures the fluidity in food-making in a multi-ethnic society. I think a little historicity about how this has been going for centuries, even millennia is in order (see reference to diasporic Chinese food) but otherwise a great little write up about contemporary multiethnic food.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Chả Lụa | Silky pork sausage

Chả Lụa is a classic & ubiquitous Viet sausage roll that is traditionally pounded into a silky paste, wrapped in banana leaves, and boiled. It's found in bánh mì | VN sandwiches, bánh cuốn | rice rolls, among many other dishes. Like deli meat it can be eaten as a snack; one of my favorite ways to eat it is a mini-sandwich with bánh dầy | mochi.

Typical store-made Chả Lụa has MSG/hydrolyzed wheat protein and potato-/wheat-/cornstarch (likely GMO) and they also wrap the roll with a final layer of plastic wrap  or aluminum foil before boiling or use nylon twine--all of which release toxins/carcinogens when heated. So Chả Lụa has been off my menu for several years now unless I've got my additive-busting supplements with me.

This was a team effort. My thoughtful husband made the first batch when I was enduring first trimester ravening hunger pangs. I made the next round.

Like many of these traditional dishes that seem so challenging, I found that making Chả Lụa itself was not hard, but it required time investment in the wrapping & cooking. Because I like my modern tools, I used a food processor to render the meat and fat into a paste (similar to what one would do for meatballs). It only takes 10-15 minutes to get through 3 lbs. Easy peasy. We tried the grinder and it was double the work to then process the grind, so skip that step altogether. 

The first round, my husband tried the recipe from Bach Ngo's The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam; he wrapped with one layer of banana leaf and boiled the 3-4 rolls for 40 minutes. We ended up with a lot of waterlogged rolls. It was a good effort, but even without the waterlogging, why add water to recipe and then starch to firm in the first place? Also it was not salty or flavorful enough but that could be the waterlogging issue. The next time, I eyeballed Charles Phan's recipe and considered it too plain (only 2 tbs of fish sauce?!), pork belly too fatty and more headcheese-like with pork belly skin-on, which is a different and also delicious variety of Chả Lụa  called chả bì. So I fused some of the simplicity of Phan (added salt, no water, no starch, no additional refrigeration) with Ngo's recipe (more fish sauce, baby!), and per my usual modus operandi, we used higher quality ingredients. I believe the quality of the ingredients truly makes or breaks a recipe. 

The trickiest part is wrapping it to make it waterproof. We can source fresh banana leaves in the Bay Area at Latino/Caribbean markets or people's gardens, but typically I buy the frozen imported kind at the Viet or Latino markets. The banana leaves need to be rinsed and wiped down to remove any chalky residue. My mom recommends blanching the defrosted banana leaves in boiling water to make them more pliable, less likely to tear. [2/1/2015 note: Mom also says use banana leaves from Thailand, not the Philippines and to cut off the rib for pliability.]

We are still working on wrapping technique; I used double or triple banana leaf layers and wrapped it like a burrito (i.e. rolled and tucked in the ends which are held in place by twine). I only used a single criss cross which was't snug enough; I would recommend the roast tying method. I also went with Phan's steam cooking to reduce the waterlogging though I employed my pressure cooker to shortcut the time.

I picked up nice country ribs (butt) from Whole Foods; this is a flavorful fatty cut from sustainably raised pork and in the bulk pack (3 lbs+) it's a reasonably priced $4.99/lb comparable to what one would get buying direct from the farmer. If you must use conventionally-raised pork, my mom recommends soaking it with lemon juice and water overnight to "sweeten" the meat before marinading. The acidulation helps to break down the tough meat fibers from of chemically laden, stressed out pigs.

If the banana leaves are too much for you, I suppose one could substitute parchment paper though I have never tried it. Also, you can shape these into 1.5 inch balls (invest in a cookie scoop!) and make Thịt viên | meatballs. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Boil in water until cooked through before adding to soups, noodle dishes etc. Freeze the extras.


(Makes 3 rolls)

1.5 tsp unrefined sea salt (Celtic/grey or Himalayan/pink)
1.5 tsp fresh ground organic black pepper
1 tbs organic coconut palm sugar
1 tbs baking soda
6 tbs Red Boat fish sauce

3 lbs sustainably raised pork country ribs (butt), cut into 1.5 inch squares

1-2 tbs of fish sauce
1-2 packages of frozen banana leaves, cleaned, blanched, and wiped dry
kitchen twine (each strand should be 4-5 lengths of the roll)

In a  bowl, mix all the marinade ingredients together. Toss the cubed meat with the  marinade. In the ideal world, marinade for 4 hours. 

Working with small batches, use a food processor or a very high powered blender to make a fine meat paste (approx 3 minutes of processing) and reserve in a large bowl. Add any leftover marinade juices and mix in. Work quickly to keep the paste cold. When it warms, the fat melts making it more difficult to roll.

Lay out the banana leaves on a tray or cutting board. You will need 2-3 layers of leaves. Use 1/3 of the meat paste and shape into a cylindrical roll. Use a silicone pastry brush and brush with fish sauce. Roll snugly in the banana leaves, adding more leaves to patch any tears. Fold down the ends and tie with twine using the roast method.

Steam in a pressure cooker for 40-60 minutes. Steam in a regular pot for 1.5 hours or boil for 40 minutes. (If you make smaller rolls, it'll need less cooking time.) The interior should be cooked through--that greige meatball color. Some pink is okay if you are using sustainably raised meat.

Slice as needed. Store uneaten roll whole in banana leaves in an airtight container in the fridge. Extra rolls can be frozen, banana leaves & all. Steam in the banana leaves to reheat.

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!