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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Larb Neua - traditional lao beef salad

It's funny but the trigger that makes me publish a recipe is really the quality of the photo that will illustrate my recipe. Lione took yesterday this wonderful photo of my Larb, and therefore I am ready to publish it. This is a larb, that is, the traditional lao beef salad. The Thai also cook Larb, their own way, replacing Pah Dek which is really the lao signature, by Nuoc Mam.
I have found a very interesting page about Pah Dek on the Web : Lao Plah Dek
My recipe of the Larb is not the most orthodox, but this is is my experience after having tastes hundreds of different varieties of Larb.

This dish is often served along with a beef broth, greens and sticky rice (Khao Niao).

Since I was in Vientiane last week, I want mention my favorite restaurant in town. The broth that accompanies this dish is called Keng Khruang Nai (literally, "soup of stuff from the inside"). The Ban Kham restaurant which lies by the Mekong River side in Vientiane, if you ask me, is simply the best lao restaurant in Vientiane, and propose a very tasteful version of that broth. The restaurant prices are high for the country (a meal for 4 people costs 30 USD), but frankly it's worth it.

  • 300gr of beef (sirloin, tenderloin or any tender part of the beef)
  • a stalk of lemon grass
  • three shallots
  • 2 garlic cloves , minced
  • two or three tbsp of toasted rice powder (very common ingredient that you need to preprare on your own. Simply grill without oil some glutinous rice in a stove, and when the rice seed turns golden-brown, use a blender or a mortar to obtain a nice brown powder).
  • one or two red chilis
  • three slices of chopped galanga
  • a dozen mint leaves
  • three minced young onions
  • 5 leaves of saw teeth coriander (ngo gai)
  • 3 branch of coriander
  • 2 tbsp of lime juice
  • 2 tbsp of Pah Dek or if you don't have any, Nuoc Mam
For the beef broth
  • 500 gr beef brisket
  • 300gr of assorted beef entrails
  • one beef's bone marrow
  • one onion, cut into quarters
  • 5 leaves of Phak Yleuth (betel leaves)
  • three young ginger slices
  • salt, pepper, nuoc mam
For service
Herbs are an essential element of the recipe
  • young eggplant (as shown)
  • a sliced cucumber
  • Lao mustard greens (phak gaht). There are not in France, but curiously, what is the closest are the tops of radishes (the leaf of red radish). These leaves are rather bitter and little de
  • Salad for decoration
  1. Boil 2 liters of water in a pot. Once the water is boiling add the meat cut in pieces,marrow and entrails.
  2. Boil vigourously for ten minutes and discard this first broth.
  3. Put water in the pot, add the meat, marrow and entails bring to boil
  4. Add onion, slices of ginger, salt, pepper and nuoc mam.
  5. Allow to simmer on low heat for 2 hours.
  6. After the broth is done, add phak Yleuth, minced young onions, coriander leaves and allow to rest.
  7. Slice the chilli, two shallots and garlic and brown in a small pan. Once the shallots and garlic have turned brown, put them in a mortar and crush until you obtain a brown paste.
  8. Thinly chop the beef with a knife(a blender is really not appropriate here). In a bowl, place the beef, the chili and shallot paste, the chopped galanga, season with salt, pepper and 2 tbsp Pa Dek (or Nuoc Mam).
  9. Chop thinly the lemongrass, and mix with beef. Cover and let stand 20 minutes.
  10. Meanwhile coarsely chop the young onions, mint, coriander and saw teeth coriander.
  11. Wash and cut the eggplants and cucumbers. It is very easy to quickly decorate the vegetables with a knife.
  12. Ten minutes before serving, mix the chopped herbs and the meat, lemon juice and add a small ladle of broth. Mix well and adjust seasoning.
  13. Serve with the broth and vegetables.
NB: In Asia, Larb is often served slightly cooked, mainly because of basic rules of hygiene in these country. In Europe or in the States, we don't have this problem and crude meat slightly cooked by lome juice and broth is tastier. However, if you still want to cook the meat, heat a frying pan, and when hot, add the marinated meat without oil, stirring constantly.

Larb is like a national dish in Laos, and is often eaten by the numerous river side sala (terrace) at sunset. A few beers, Tam Mak Khung (papaya salad) and Larb will nicely start the evening.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Banh beo - steamed rice cakes with cotton shrimp

Today is saturday. This is the time of the week when we finally can spend more time in the kitchen as we normally do during the week, and cook for friends and relatives. So here comes today’s special, a typical speciality of Hue’s cuisine, if not the most typical: The Banh Beo. The Banh Beo is usually served among other steamed specialties like Banh Bot Loc, Banh Nam, etc.

Banh Beo
The recipe is part of my father’s family legacy, and I got this recipe from my father’s mother an excellent cook and a native from Hue. She had written a collection of her recipes in a notebook for her numerous children and I remember the day my father solemnly handed me this previous manuscript, saying: "you're the only one cooking the Vietnamese traditional cuisine in the family, I am sure you will get something out of these". Unfortunately, the manuscript was written in Vietnamese. Furthermore, the recipes were anything but rigorously quantified directions. However, it certainly described valuables tricks and techniques she had spent her lifetime to invent or collect.

Banh Beo - steamed rice cakes with pork and shrimps id=
Anyway, it took my five years before I could finally find in my stepfather, who was also a Hue native and a great great cook, the ideal translator.
He went to Vietnam as he did every year, and came back six months later with the complete translation of the previous manuscript in his luggage. Actually it was much more than a translation: he enriched the recipes with valuable quantified directions and filling-in the gaps. During a whole week, we didn’t leave the kitchen until we had resurrected together one by one, recipe by recipe, all these masterpieces of Vietnamese gastronomy, these treasure of culinary and secular tradition. At the end of that week, we even invited my father and his brothers and sisters to come in my place and taste again the cooking of their mother, who had passed away 15 years earlier.
Do I need to describe how the emotion overwhelmed these three generations that a few dishes of traditional cooking had brought together? I believe that this episode is a brilliant testimonial to the importance of cooking in our Vietnamese family.

Among all the Hue’s cuisine specialties, this one is undoubtedly my favorite. I don’t know any restaurant in Paris that serves a decent Banh Beo. I knew one from the Opera district, but it had closed two years ago.

The principle of the recipe is very simple: steamed rice cakes topped with ‘shrimps cotton', crushed crispy pork’s fat and green onions. Cotton shrimp is the most interesting part of the recipe: it is obtained by rapidly drying gently crushed shrimps over a hot pan, transferring it back to the mortar and repeating this operation several times until the shrimp’s texture becomes like cotton. The recipe is not particularly complex, but surely requires a lot of work. Then of course, comes the Nuoc Mam sauce, which is very specific to this dish.

Ingredients for 40 cakes
You can usually serve 4 cakes per person, but I guess that some would get frustrated if they could not have some more.

For the dough
  • 2 bowl of rice flour
  • 2 bowl of hot water
  • 2 bold cold water
For the topping and sauce
  • 10 young onions
  • 100gr of pork fat (cut out from the pork brisket)
  • 6 tbsp of dried shrimp
  • 2 minced red chilis
  • 4 thinly chopped garlic cloves
  • 5 sugar cubes
  • Nuoc Mam
  • 15 fleshy shrimps
  • 1 big shallot, finely chopped


We begin by preparing the dough.

  1. In a large bowl, place the rice flour, add hot water and mix well without leaving any lumps forming.
  2. When the mixture is completely liquid, slowly add cold water, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Allow the paste to rest for at least half on hour.

Preparation cotton shrimp and topping
  1. Boil three glasses of water in a saucepan and dip the shrimp very quickly, so they are barely cooked. Save the cooking broth for later.
  2. Transfer the cooking broth in a bowl and allow the dried shrimps to swell for twenty minutes.
  3. Drain cooked shrimps removing the shells and deveining. Keep the shells of the shrimps to improve the broth.
  4. With the flat of a knife, crush the shrimps.
  5. Heat a non-stick pan, and transfer the mortar content in it. Stir constantly. The aim is to dry the shrimps, not to cook them. If the pan gets too hot, remove from the heat.
  6. Transfer the shrimps back to the mortar and crush gently.
  7. Repeat this operation 4 or 5 times, until a the shrimps turn pink and their texture look like cotton. Reserve the shrimps cotton in a bowl. Cover the bowl with cellophane to prevent the cotton from drying, and keep it in the fridge.
  8. Remove the dried shrimps from the broth an drained using paper towel.
  9. Thinly chop the dried shrimps (eventually with a blender) until it turns into an orange powder. Set aside in a bowl.
  10. Chop the pork fat into small pieces.
  11. Transfer to a frying pan and heat (medium heat) stirring constantly until the fat produces oil, and the crispy pork fat get a nice golden-brown color.
  12. Drain trough a sieve and return the oil to the frying pan.
  13. Chopped thinly the crispy pork fat with a knife, and reserve in a bowl.
  14. Remove the white part of the green onions and mince into 5mm long sections.
  15. Thinly chop the shallot.
  16. Heat the pork fat oil, and when the oil is hot, add the green onions and the shallot. Stir quickly and remove for heat.
Preparation of the Nuoc Mam sauce
  1. Return the broth to a saucepan,
  2. add the shrimps shells and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
  3. Dissolve 5 sugar cubes in the saucepan,
  4. add the thinly chopped garlic. From now on, the sauce must not boil.
  5. Add the Nuoc Mam (10 tbsp should be fine) until it fits your taste.
  6. You might as well add one thinly sliced red chili, depending on your taste and experience.
  7. Finally add one tbsp of shrimps cotton, and one tsp of chopped dried shrimps to the broth and reserve.
The sauce is ready.

Baking the rice flour cakes
Traditionally, each Banh Beo is cooked in a small hollow plate.
Some time ago, my father got me a curious steam cooking pot at the flea market. It is unclear where it comes from or what it is intended for, but it is just perfect to cook Banh Beo cakes. Besides, it allows me to cook 20 cakes in a row, thus in four minutes!
Here is a picture of the pot. If anyone knows what is purpose is, just tell me, it is a mistery to me, since the product is clearly made in France.
The pot is composed of a stack of trays with 4 hollow cups each, and the whole fits in a steamer with valve.

If you do not have this equipment, a couscous seamer pots will do it.

  1. With a paper towel, grease the pans well with the fat pork oil. It is important to ensure that the cakes won’t stick to the mold after cooking.
  2. Using a small ladle, fill each plate with paste (approximately 3mm height of paste). The dough will rise, and there must be enough place in the plate.
  3. In a large Couscous pot, boil water in the lower part.
  4. Once the water boils, place the steamer on top, and put the small banh beo plates in that upper part. Close the lid and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Cooking is complete when all the cake has become translucent. The cakes must be firm and translucid.
Put the plates on a tray, it will be served on the table after the topping is set.

Adding the topping
  1. With a small spoon, spread a little pork fat oil on top of each cake.It will help to keep the shrimps cotton in place.
  2. Add a little crispy pork fat
  3. Add the cotton shrimp
  4. Add a little bit of dried shrimp powder
  5. Finally add a few slices of young onions from pork fat oil
The cake should look like the picture above.

This dish should be served warm, as starter. In Vietnam, it is often server along with a plate of sliced Cha Lua (vietnamese pork sausage). You can buy it from asian stores, although it is not as good as the one which is served in Hué cuisine and which contains more pepper. Anyway…

And voilà, you're ready for a memorable meal. I wanted to publish this recipe a long time ago already, but as you can see, it takes a long time to transcript. Besides, I didn’t have the photos to illustrate. A few days ago, I cooked some banh beo, took the photos, and even more, I filmed it. Sorry it is in French, I will someday add some subtitles. Or maybe I can find some nice fellow to volunteer for this task.

I have the impression of having accomplished something great today.

Chicken Pho Noodle Soup Recipe (Pho Ga)

First things first, the pronunciation of the soup’s name Phơ, which should be pronounced Fuhu (like cup). Click here to hear the properly pronounced vowel . The main advantage of cooking a Pho with chicken instead of beef, is that you can prepare this soup in the afternoon for the evening dinner, since it is rather quick and easy to prepare.
In comparison, the beef Pho needs to be prepared the day before.

Pho Ga- chicken Noodle soupPho Ga -
Chicken noodle soup
What is remarkable in my recipe,
is the color of the broth, which is mainly
due to the inclusion of cinnamon and grilled onions.

The Pho is the most traditional soup in Vietnam, especially with beef. One might say that this soup is the number one dish exported throughout the peninsula. In Laos for example, there are Pho at every corner, both literally and figuratively. Something remarkable about this soup, is that everyone cooks Pho, but the best Pho are served in restaurants that have this only dish in their menus. And although there is quantity of Pho all around the city, only a few are really famous. As a consequence, in Vientiane, when you specify which Pho you plan to eat, you just tell the name of the area in which the restaurant lies. We say Xi Pho Khai (near Vientiane’s airport), Pho Phon Kheng (next to Electricity Of Laos premises) or Pho Silhom. These Pho are famous all around the city, without being more expensive and it is not unusual to see large queues in front of a Pho stall while the stall right next to it remains desperately empty. This should be a good indicator when looking for a good place to eat.

I remember that incredible Pho restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city, which I tasted 6 years ago. My stepfather drove me there, and believe me, I knew a great deal about Vietnamese food. I don’t have the address, but hopefully I took a photo of its shop sign. If you are lucky enough to be in Ho Chi Minh city, take the time to stop by and report back to me please!

As for Paris, unfortunately, since the closure of the "clandestine" Pho Video, rue Claude Bernard in the 5th arrondissement, I haven’t been able to find a Pho that worth the noble appellation. I'm not saying that it doesn’t exist, but rather that I haven’t found it.

Anyway, the only Pho I care to eat nowadays is the Pho I cook at home. I will someday post on my blog the much more complex recipe of the Beef Pho which I got from the owner of that fantastic Pho restaurant of rue Claude Bernard. The man died ten years ago, but left me his recipe before leaving.

You should know that the following recipe is a very personal recipe of mine, which might not correspond to the pure Vietnamese tradition. Besides, my recipe is largely inspired from the Beef Pho recipe I mentioned earlier.

After this long introduction, let’s have a look at the recipe.

Ingredients (for 7 bowls)
  • 1 yellow farm-raised chicken or roaster (industrial poultry will give nothing else than insipid broth, not worth trying)
  • 1 large piece of ginger (1/3 of a hand), minced
  • 4 large onions, halved lengthwise
  • 2 large onions chopped
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 10 leaves of Saw tooth coriander (Ngo Gai in vietnamese)
  • 10 star anise
  • 2 big garlic cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 8 cardamom seeds (crushed in mortar)
  • 1/2 tablespoon of freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 10 tablespoons Nuoc Mam (fish sauce)
Vegetables for serving
  • thai basil leaves
  • Coriander
  • Saw tooth coriander (very important)
  • roasted peanuts lightly crushed in mortar
  • fresh or boiled bean sprouts
  • young onions
  • lime ctu in wedges
  • Thinly minced chili
  1. In a large pot (70 cm at least), cook a large quantity of water (about 8 liters) with the coarse salt.
  2. Cut the chicken: Remove the legs and divide in two at the joint, remove the wings, separating cut carcass in half. Put all pieces in the boiling water. Very important: the boiling should never be too important or the broth will loose its clarity.
  3. Remove the foam the boiling will produce in the first ten minutes, and remove the fat as well. Keep two tablespoons of fat to cook the noodles.
  4. The broth should now be clear and boil gently in the soupe pot.
  5. Meanwhile, Cut onions in quarters and put them on a dish, and under the grill in the oven. Allow them to grill until their skin turns brown. You can also use a pan to do this, adding a little peanut oil and stirring occasionally. When the onions have turned brown, add them to the main pot. These grilled onions will slightly sweeten the broth..
  6. Minced the ginger in the mortar, add cardamon seeds and crush thoroughly. Transfer to the broth. Add star anises, cinnamon, pepper and Nuoc Mam
  7. Boil on medium heat to keep in order to keep a gentle boiling
  8. After one hour, remove chicken pieces, separate flesh from bones and put the bones back in the broth. With your fingers, “cut” the wings and legs flesh into bitable chunks, thus preserving flesh structure. The chicken breast can be minced using a knife. Keep the meat in the refrigerator.
  9. Allow the broth to simmer for another one and a half hour or two hours. Then filter the broth through a sieve and return to the soup pot. Remove from the heat.
  1. Heat the broth until it boils, then add 4 sliced onions (do not be frightened by the amount of onions used, it is a very important contribution to the taste of the broth), 5 leaves of Saw teeth Coriander and two new ginger slices.
  2. Heat a large quantity of water to cook the noodles. When boiling, add a tablespoon of fat (removed earlier from the broth while degreasing) and salt. Add the fresh noodles, stirring from time to time. When noodles are done “al dente”, filter out the noodles pouring cold water to stop the cooking process.
  3. Distribute the noodles in the bowls, add chicken flesh and cover with a few ladles of broth through a sieve. After a few minutes, filter out to return liquid from the bowls back to the main pot. This operation allows serving hot bowls of soup.
  4. Finally, add the broth through the sieve until the chicken flesh is 1cm under level of the broth. The easiest way to filter the broth, consists in immerging the sieve in the main pot, and to fill the ladle in the sieve.
  5. Add fresh grounded black pepper using a pepper mill in each bowl. Add minced young onions, and coriander leaves on top of each bowl.
  6. Quickly soak fresh bean sprouts in the boiling broth and drain before serving on the table, along with sliced onions dipped in white vinegar, lime cut in wedges, thai basil, crushed peanuts, sliced green chili.
A variant used in this famous restaurant in Saigon, is to soak the onions in the fat that was removed from the broth and serve. Not adequate for a diet though, but quite delicious.
And that's it.

If you have enough broth to make some additional bowls, you are lucky since this soup is even better after a day rest.

There are a few precautions though : pass the soup through a fine sieve (filter), cover and store in a cool place if possible. The next day, before serving, add two onions cut in slices and 5 leaves of saw teeth coriander, a slice of ginger and two crushed cardamom seeds.