Top 3 Vietnamese food finds

Even the chef who rejected the Michelin star team uses them.  There, see the little brown pile atop the fish fillet?

It has been used in Southeast Asian cooking for a long time, but people elsewhere have discovered its myriad uses too.  I’m talking about freshly fried shallots and where to find them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  So, to backtrack…

Last week, in Feasting in the Know…

…I shared a little secret in How to get your hands on the best Chinese food: to find exciting, authentic, seasonal foods in a mom-and-pop Asian food store, you don’t always have to rummage through endless jam-packed aisles like this…

…because you can find some fresh and delightful items out front…including these toothsome treasures at the cashier’s counter of Chinese grocery stores:

This week, let’s go shopping at the cashier counters of Vietnamese food shops.

Vietnamese Discovery #1:  Fried shallots (fresh!)

These sliced shallots have been freshly deep-fried by a local person, then supplied to selected Vietnamese grocery stores (eg. in Cabramatta, $5 or $6 per box).

Fried shallotsIf you see it, buy it!

That’s my advice, unless you enjoy slicing onions by the dozen with stinging eyes, then standing patiently before a wok of smoking oil, like so:

My cooking class student sweats at the stove, frying shallots with aplomb.

My cooking class student sweats at the stove, frying shallots with aplomb.

But, on special occasions, I do actually make these at home, because:

  1. Making my own means I get not just the fried shallots but also the ambrosial shallot oil.
  2. Just like whistling, freshly fried shallots and shallot oil can make most things better (well, savoury dishes, anyway).
  3. They are indispensable to dishes I make on special occasions, eg. Chinese New Year lucky fish salad and the ever-popular Thai minced chicken salad.
  4. I can slice shallots till the cows come home, yet shed nary a tear.  Here’s the secret in 1 minute (and how to make fried shallots in your kitchen):

If you prefer buying to frying, please learn to identify the fresh local stuff.  I steer clear of the more easily available imported fried shallots.

Like President Obama and President Putin, they are vastly different despite having the same label.

Identify freshly fried shallots like this:  any Vietnamese shop that stocks them will:

  • display them at the cashier’s counter (never buried in a shelf at the back of the shop); and
  • have them in takeaway boxes (never in bottles or plastic packets with “imported” on the label).

Away from the cashier’s counter, nestled among the hoi polloi on the shelves, are sealed plastic packets or bottles also labelled “Fried shallots” or “Fried onions”.

I shun them.

They emit an inevitable slight whiff of stale oil.  I’d rather omit fried shallots from my dish than use these.

But many eateries use the imported stuff.  When I encounter a rare eatery that uses the fresh stuff, I am especially impressed.

Can I name a savoury dish that won’t benefit from a sprinkle of fried shallots or a splash of shallot oil?  Hah.  I struggle.

Fried shallots improve an endless list of dishes – veggie, meat, steamed fish, tofu, braises, soups, stir-fries, noodles, congee, rice rolls and more.

When I toss steamed broccoli with shallot oil, pepper and salt, my daughter will sniff out that “crunchy onion smell” at 10 paces and swoon.  Cue tasty vegetarian (even vegan!), gluten-free food.

Fried shallots aren’t uniquely Vietnamese, as they’re ubiquitous in Singaporean and Malaysian households too.  But in Sydney at least, your chances of scoring the fresh stuff are highest in Vietnamese grocery shops.

Vietnamese Discovery #2:  Fried tofu chips (also fresh!)

Tofu?  More-ish?  No way, right?

Well, M.O.T.H. (Man of the House) had these laid out, ready to fry with vegetables.  But before he had finished processing the greens, we had scoffed half the packet of tofu chips.

tofuchipsbestbeancurdvietnamesefriedtofu They’re nothing fancy, just strips of beancurd that have been deep fried.  Look at the label: there are just 4 ingredients (all in English, no numbers) listed above the bar code.

Pictured below is the tofu chip’s big sister: fried soft tofu (bigger piece, bigger pack).

They’re great stir-fried with green vegetables or added to noodles, soups or braised meats.  My fuss-free way to eat them?  Straight from the pack, dipped in oyster sauce.

Vietnamese-style fried tofu has a fragrant browned skin and a soft, creamy interior.

Don’t confuse it with Chinese style tofu puffs.  Chinese-style tofu puffs (pictured below) are drier and spongy inside, best for soaking up flavoursome broths and sauces (eg in laksa and soups).

Bak kut teh (herbal pork rib broth)Vietnamese-style fried tofu is made by – have a guess – specialist Vietnamese tofu businesses.

I am very fond of the Như Quỳnh brand with its distinctive yellow and purple label.  They’re located in southwestern Sydney’s Yagoona.  Numerous times a week, they deliver just-made stock to shops in Flemington, Cabramatta and Bankstown.

Don’t be alarmed to find it on the cashier’s counter instead of in the fridge.  That’s because they are delivered fresh (but do keep them in the fridge when you get home).

Another tip:  visit Vietnamese grocery shops in the morning and you might also find warm bottles of freshly made soy milk – the kind that contains just water, soy milk and sugar.  Not like the soy milk in Western supermarkets which I realised, to my horror, contains added oil (why?!).

Vietnamese Discovery #3:  Sweet, sticky cakes

Steamed cakes, rice paper rolls and one-serve meals are often found on the cashier’s counter of many Vietnamese food shops.

Among my favourites is yet another version of the sticky rice cake (an obsession well-documented in last week’s post).  You’ll find them in clingwrapped styrofoam trays or takeaway boxes.

The shiny, taut clingwrap on the soft cake is an inviting look – I just want to poke it!  Some remind me of steamed cakes called nonya kueh (kuih) I grew up eating in Singapore.

They are sweet, soft and sticky, made with glutinous rice flour, sugar and often coconut milk.  They come in a wide range of shapes and colours, though many taste the same.

Still, I am irrationally fond of the layered cakes.  I get a crazy kick out of peeling off each layer to eat separately:

Here’s a warning if you are a homesick Singaporean or Malaysian.  Vietnamese cakes usually don’t contain any fragrant pandan (screwpine) extract, so Vietnamese cakes won’t cut the mustard if you’re craving kueh.

For your nonya kueh fix, go to Alice’s Makan instead.

Coming up next time…canny catches in a Korean grocery shop.


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