This dish has been on my mind ever since I tried it for the first time. At work my colleagues and I have this ‘tradition’ in which each one will cook a feast for the others every 2 months. Needless to say we had fun with lots of dishes and this French classic dish has a lasting impression on me.
I’m amazed by how a dish without any kind of meat can have that tasty sweetness and how with just little salt added, the dish is great to eat with rice. For a Vietnamese like me who often eats rice with salty main and side dishes, this is a big discovery in how a dish which is seasoned so delicately can create a party of flavors with bland rice. I tried to recreate the dish for several times and now I think I found the right recipe. So today I will share with you my experience with this French homey delicacy. This dish is very simple with few ingredients, most of them vegetables, and doesn’t take much time to be cooked. It is really fitting when you’re short on time. Also this dish with its warm rich herbal, cheesy aroma will make you feel warm and refreshed in this slightly cold autumn weather. It smells like I’m having a pizza, only it's healthier.
While researching on this dish, I found many variations. You can stuff courgette with its tender meat and tomatoes only or with other added ingredients. Most of the recipes I can find also include mozzarella, onion and herbs. In this recipe I also add white mushrooms as I like to have something to chew on and because I find mushrooms, tomatoes and herbs make a great combination. Doesn’t any dish with mushrooms give you an autumn-y feeling? Let’s get started!
Ingredients: (for one serving)
1 average courgettes (choose the one that is evenly round from one end to the other)
2 small white mushrooms
¼ of an onion, about 10 gr
20 gr mozzarella
10 gr grated cheese (more or less, it depends on how thick the coverage you want to have)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 small portion of butter
2 tablespoons of bread crumbs
1 pinch of salt
Herbes de Provence
The well-known mix of herbs ‘Herbes de Provence’ consists of thyme, rosemary, oregano, savory and basil, all of them give a Mediterranean flavor and smell. There is no consensus about the kind of herbs in the mix, because sometimes bay leaves, marjoram and sage are used instead of basil. However, the official version has 26% rosemary, 26% savory, 26% oregano, 19% thyme and 3% basil. This mix of herbs is optional for this dish but I find that it really elevates the taste with its aroma.
Cut each courgette in half then use a small spoon (preferably a spoon for dessert) to scoop out the tender meat inside each half. Be careful to not pierce the skin, we want all flavors and aromas to be preserved in the courgette, not leaked out. Mince the meat and set aside.
For the tomato, we will remove its skin for this dish. To do that, make a cross on the tomato. In a pot, bring water to a boil then submerge the tomato for no longer than 30 seconds. Take it out and put it in cold water for 1 minute. You can now easily remove the tomato’s skin. Remove the seeds too before cutting the tomato into cubes.
Cut the onion into cubes, the mozzarella into thin slices. For the mushrooms, cut them into chunks or in a freestyle way, as you like.
Now we take care of the courgette ‘boats’. For this dish the French use a cooking method called “blanchir”, ie “to whiten”. It’s a method they usually do for vegetables before preserving them in the freezer. It consists of bathing the vegetables in boiling water for a couple of minutes and then submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking process. In the end you have soft partially cooked vegetables to preserve. For this stuffed courgette dish, the method has nothing to do with preserving vegetables of course. Instead this step has many purposes:
Put a pot with enough water to cover the courgette halves on high heat and bring to a boil. Boil the courgettes for 1 minute then take them out, immediately put them into a bowl of cold water for 1 minute. Put the halves on paper towel and wipe off the liquid that is left. Your courgettes are now ready to be stuffed.
Now for the filling, use a pan to stir fry the minced garlic with butter on medium-high heat. First add the courgette minced meat and let it cook for about 2 minutes then add the tomato and onion cubes and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add salt to taste and to speed up the cooking process. Stir constantly until the tomato cubes melt into a thick sauce. This step should take about 5 to 8 minutes. Add a pinch of 'Herbes de Provence' and the mushrooms, stir well. The liquid from onion and tomato ensures the filling won’t be burned on the pan, so no water is needed. When the mushrooms soften, take the pan off the heat and add bread crumbs. The bread crumbs will absorb the liquid and make the filling less runny. Alright, it’s time to stuff the boats.
Alternatively place mozzarella slices with spoonful of filling in the courgette boats until the boats are fulled. Finish them off with grated cheese on top. Preheat the oven at 190 C then put the boats in for about 15 minutes. I put the courgettes on the upper part of the oven for about 5 minutes more to get the golden color from melted cheese. Your dish is now done.
Serve the stuffed courgette with rice, or not. The cheese coverage will keep the filling beneath hot for a long time. The marriage between melted cheese and soft courgette is divine, not to mention the cozy aroma and delicate sweetness from the filling will make you come back for another taste. It is that delicious!
Harvest Day in Romania extends itself to be almost a month :) It usually starts around the end of September and it continues way into October until around the 20th. Also having been embraced by the Romans, along with their own celebrations, its origins are mostly Thracian and focused around an essential local activity around this time: vintage, the harvesting of grapes and preparation of the wine. The whole autumn harvest season is accompanied by festivals, fairs, tables of local products (fruits, vegetables, cured meats and cheeses), dance and music.
We built our own little celebration as we usually do, around the ultimate star of Harvest Day: must (vinum mustum, "young wine"). The must is sweet and enchanting, it contains the whole body of the grape, pressed, with seeds, skin and stems and it is the first gate of the alchemical transformation of the wine. Its name is a perfect mirror of its properties, since must is an elixir of youth, among its many other properties.
A glass of sweet, perfumed must by the end of September connects us with an ancient rite of passage from summer to winter that we share with nature, our ancestors and the future, an opening gate for an important metamorphosis happening around this time of year, that is meant to take us back inside, to preservation and transmutation of resources, and it prepares not just our body, but our soul as well, for this long journey through the regenerating cold.
In Romania, there is an old and widespread tradition to enjoy the must with mutton pastramă (pastrami, which in Romanian is connected to the verb "a păstra" - to keep), as the perfect combination of sweet-flavor-rich with salty and meaty. Pastrama is salted raw meat, brined, then dried and smoked, which can be eaten as it is or, just like we did here, barbecued. This way, pastrama also puts the fire where it belongs, at the center of such a rite of passage, as the hearth. Mmm I am carrying with me the smell of the smoke, the salty taste and the sweetness of căpșunică must until next year.
The main cast was not alone, there has been an entire firey preparation for us to become worthy of tasting them. Starting with hot tea with fallen silver fir needles...
...a very special guest, the amazing Iris...
and continuing with the help from pelin wine (Romanian bitter wine, fermented with Artemisia absinthium, making for a delicate aperitif taste similar to Aperol) and 3D (I think 45° of mirabelles - plums alcohol, a killer! not for the faint of heart), we managed to keep the fire going and enjoy the heart of autumn with a special mujdei, traditional Harvest Day delicacies like sheep cas, urda and telemea (don't despair, I am preparing a surprise when it comes to Romanian cheeses), Mau vegetables pie (recipe coming soon), lots and diversely marinated steaks and meats, among which a mutton chops specialty masterfully marinated by Bogdan with honey and secret ingredients, grilled harvested veggies, all crisp and perfect thanks to our master Grillman Alexandru, fruits, cookies and a divine Lavinia apple pie with ice cream. Sending you our autumnly love! Wherever you are, may your harvest be bountiful.
* Thank you, Fims, for the beautiful photos.
Today I’m going to inaugurate the "Try it!" section and what an honor it is!
I’ve been reading on Zazulete’s and Blessia’s articles for weeks and I don’t know about you, but for me it was a bit of a torture since I read them with a loud rebellious tummy. And so I decide it’s time to try one of their recipes. Since the purpose of our blog is to share our cultures mostly through our culinary journeys, actually cooking their recipes makes me feel closer to them, in a warmhearted moment of joy. As for the dish of my choice, the weather these days is fluctuating from warm hot to stone cold so I think it’s the perfect time to experiment with Zazulete’s summer chicken stew. It’s a stew of her invention in which she incorporates a harmony of summer and autumn flavors. You can find the recipe here.
At first I thought it was a simple recipe with basic ingredients for stew but when I actually noted down the ingredients, I discovered that this is really a concert, in more ways than one.
We know that stew is the perfect dish for the first days of autumn, especially when we combine the summer fresh herbal flavors with autumn legumes.
There are some differences with the original recipe:
When the stew is on the stove, it smells so warm and inviting I just want to dive in. And so I keep tasting the stew as an excuse, I couldn't help myself.
My thoughts about this recipe:
It’s a very healthy dish, the colors in and of themselves are a therapy for the eyes. The cutting and chopping part is so funny. There’s something very relaxing about cutting colorful vegetables into chunks, I had so much fun with it. What stands out to me is this stew is packed with flavors and lovely fragrances. The combination of zucchini, eggplant with bell pepper and potato enhances the taste of the chicken and gives the stew a richness that couldn’t be made by meat alone. The most surprising part is each bite has its flavor, one bite gives me the warm taste of ginger while another has the fresh flavor of dill and so on.
This stew is one of the most healthy dishes I’ve ever made.
It’s like coming to the doctor after a long period of binge eating pizza and deep-fried chicken wings and being advised to “eat more vegetables”, this dish will certainly be highly recommended. Honestly just looking at the stew makes me feel healthy.
So whether you’ve been eating a bit unhealthy and want to correct that or you just want to taste a stew packed with flavors when the weather is transiting from summer to autumn, try it! Just a little bowl of this stew will keep you full for hours long so it’s also the perfect dish to add in your diet. I will certainly cook this stew again next time with olives and peas for the full Mediterranean flavors.
One of the many gifts for my birthday (lucky girl) was a degustation of Japanese desserts. It happened at Sushi Terra and it came after a delicious sushi feast that I am not going to torture you with or...maybe a little:
In Japan, crêpes are a common street food, with the basic dough being similar with the French original, and the filling mostly consisting of fresh fruits, whipped cream, chocolate, toppings, dried fruits or ice cream. The ones we enjoyed for my birthday were exquisitely delicious crêpe rolls filled with whipped cream and tropical fruits like mango, banana and kiwi. A fresh, light yet sophisticated dessert.
I can't say I didn't like them all, but perhaps I had a soft spot for the Passion fruit (Maracuya) mousse: a cold, refreshing, divine mousse with maracuya and dark chocolate sauce, topped with a pinch of orange.
Japanese ice cream
The inventive Japanese like to experiment with many flavors for their ice cream and they have recently discovered the secret non-melting ice cream. We haven't tasted that, but were delighted by black sesame, ginger, green tea ice cream, that went very well with a perfect lava cake.
It was very hard to decide between the coconut wonder and the maracuya, for my top degustation experience, but all I can say is that this special desert managed to keep on the palate a very strong coconut flavor yet being quite soft and silky. It almost felt like condensed coconut milk. The best!
Mochi ice cream
The most unusual dessert experience was Mochi. Mochis are confections made of mochigome paste (glutinous rice is pounded into paste sheets and molded into various shapes). Most Mochis are a traditional New Year's cake. In the case of Mochi ice cream, the mochigome paste is rolled around ice cream of various flavors, forming small balls rolled in potato or corn starch to avoid stickiness. The taste combines the flavor of the ice cream with that of the mochi paste and surprises with the explosive coolness of the ice cream, while the mochi remains at room temperature.
This is a long overdue article since I heard of Romanian sour soup. I was amazed that although the two countries are thousand miles from each other and have a whole lot of Eastern/Western differences, we do like the same thing: sour soup. I hope Anuca will reveal her delicious Romanian recipe one day, in the meantime let’s discover the Vietnamese version of sour soup.
Sour soup in Vietnam is a particular soup made with fish and herbs and a sour agent, be it herb, fruit or legume. Sour soup’s ingredients vary from North to South however: from the amount of the ingredients to the herbs and the sour agent, they are as different as day and night. For eighteen years I only knew of Southern sour soup, I thought it’s universal sour soup, in Vietnam that is. And then college years brought with them so many culture discoveries, I got to taste Northern sour soup for the first time and it is one of a kind.
The Northern version is a lot more simple in terms of ingredients. It consists of fish, tomatoes, dill and sour fruit called “tai chua”. This sour fruit is usually cut and dried before cooking, and beware, its sour taste is so intense that if you take a bite out of it, you’ll find yourself making weird noises and an endless grimace worthy of Jim Carrey's expression.
The Southern version is made with fish, tomatoes, pineapple, elephant ear stem, mung bean sprouts, a bit of banana blossom, okra, spring onion, rice paddy herb and young fresh tamarinds.
Comparing the two versions, I’d say the Northern version is more delicate in taste since it has few ingredients, you can’t hide the imperfection of your dish. The Southern version is a concert of flavors which is cheerful in colors and has the smells of warm weather. Both versions smell very different. The purpose of dill in Northern version is to disguise the natural smell of fish. As for Southern version, the smell of herbs are so far-reaching, even your neighbors will feel like dying for a taste. Yes yes let’s make your neighbors’s mouths, or at the very least your whole household’s, water today with this Southern sour soup.
Before we start, there are two things that we need to keep in mind about this dish. The specialty of the Southern sour soup does not lie in the fish or the vegetables, it’s all about the sour taste and the herbs.
The spring onion, rice paddy herb and tamarind when cooked release a fragrance so unlike that of any other Vietnamese dish. In fact you can always tell this dish apart just by smell only. Just give this dish a try if only to discover rice paddy herb. This herb originates from Southeast Asia. It tastes a bit spicy, a bit bitter if you eat it raw, smells fresh and the best part of it is it has anti-inflammatory effect.
The sour taste from fresh young tamarind is delicate with a barely noticeable smell. Sour soup is great for dinner because there’s nothing like a sour dish to make you focus after a tiring day and make your stomach ask for more. And because this dish is so healthy, you won’t even need to watch your weight eating it. To make this dish, it’s perfect if you can find fresh young tamarind. I can’t find young tamarind in France, only the tamarind paste made from ripe tamarind so I will make this recipe with it. The sourness of tamarind paste is more noticeable than fresh young tamarind, the color of it will make your broth turn a bit brownish in color but it all comes down to the taste. And your sour dish will taste as good as the original one. So let’s make it!
- 400 gr fish of your choice (I use basa fish today)
- 1,5l of water
- 2 average tomatoes
- 1 piece of pineapple of 100 gr
- 2 average elephant ear stems
- 200 gr mung bean sprouts
- 100 gr okras
- 50 gr rice paddy herb
- 50 gr spring onion
- 30 gr tamarind paste
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot
- 1 red chili (optional)
- Fish sauce, salt, sugar, black pepper, vegetable oil
This dish takes no time at all to cook, only 25 minutes at most. First peel and mince the garlic and shallot then divide them in two parts. Use one part of it to marinate the fish with black pepper and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. Let it sit while we prepare the rest of the ingredients and prepare the broth.
Cut the tomatoes into wedges.
Peel the elephant ear stems and cut diagonally into pieces of about 1 inch.
Do the same for the pineapple.
Remove the two ends of the okra and cut diagonally into thin pieces (thinner than elephant ear stem pieces).
Chop the rice paddy herb and spring onion finely as this is for garnish purpose.
Then comes my Center Vietnamese signature: red chili always goes hand in hand with fish. Red chili is spicier in soup than in sauce so proceed with care. If you use red chili like me, cut it into slices.
Time to make the broth! First we need to sautée the garlic and shallot to extract their fragrance. Now on medium heat, add a dash of vegetable oil in your soup pot and sautée the rest of the minced garlic and shallot. This will take about 1 minute or less depend of the thickness of your pot. When those pieces release their fragrance, add the tomatoes and pineapple. Let it sautée for 2 minutes then add the water and bring to a boil on high heat. At this stage you can add salt and fish sauce, half a teaspoon for salt and 3 tablespoons for fish sauce. They will help the water boil faster and serve as a base for our soup since we will add tamarind paste and sugar later.
When the water is boiling, take a small amount of this water and put it in a bowl along with tamarind paste. We need the paste to soften so that we can separate the tamarind meat from the seeds. This takes about 3 minutes, use a spoon to crush and dissolve the meat until all big chunks left are the seeds.
Back to the boiling pot, add the marinated fish in and let it cook for 5 minutes or until the fish is cooked. Don’t lower the heat when you cook the fish, the high heat ensures that that the smell of fish will be reduced. After 5 minutes, take the fish out. This step is to preserve the shape of the fish. If we let it in the pot to cook with other ingredients, the fish will become overcooked and eventually break from its original shape. Set the fish aside.
The soup pot by now is still boiling. Pour the bowl of tamarind water that we extracted earlier into the pot using a food filter to remove all the seeds. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar in the soup and stir.
Now add the elephant ear stems, okras and mung bean sprouts in the pot. This is when you should taste the soup and add fish sauce or salt or even more sugar if you like. Remember to never add in fish sauce when the water is boiling or the fish sauce smell will overwhelm the dish.
When the soup boils again, add the fish back to the pot along with chopped spring onion and rice paddy herb. Let it boil again for 3 minutes then take off the heat. And it’s done!
Serve the sour soup in a big bowl to eat with rice, the fish should be served in a separate plate with raw fish sauce and chili slices. No vegetable side dish should be served with this whole pot meal. Everything you need is in that flavorful, delicate bowl of soup.
One day, Apollo, the sunny god, mocked Eros's power and was struck for his naughtiness with one of his love arrows, while his victim, beautiful virginal nymph Daphne received a lead one instead. Like all Greek gods, inflamed by the passion hidden in Eros's golden arrows, Apollo began to chase her relentlessly. Daphne asked her father, river god Peneus to set her free of Apollo's chase and she was turned into a laurel tree. Struck with grief and desire, Apollo vowed to love her to eternity and thus turned her into an ever green tree.
Laurus nobilis properties:
-treats rashes, colds and rheumatism
I'm presenting you two recipes with the laurel (bay) leaves I picked myself from the legendary tree in the Roman Forum.
SUMMER CHICKEN STEW
A rustic, delicious stew gathering summery flavors and colors, like a threshold between summer and autumn. You can also try the vegetarian version, by not adding the meat. I was delighted to stumble upon some organic mixed cherry tomatoes for this recipe and I encourage you to try it with whole cherry tomatoes.
Ingredients (4 servings)
6 chicken legs or wings
1 large chicken breast ( or two small)
500g cherry tomatoes
1 small eggplant ( I only used half of what you see)
2-3 large mushrooms
bell peppers mix (about 4)
250 frozen or fresh peas
1 large onion or 2 small
4 medium carrots
1/2 kilo potatoes
a few hot peppers ( to taste)
150g Kalamata or natural olives
fresh grated ginger (or frozen one, the best way to preserve fresh ginger is in the freezer. You can grate it whenever you need it and then put it back)
dry celery leaves
3-4 bay leaves
The purpose of the recipe being laurel tasting, we may add more leaves than usually, for this quantity. Cut the vegetables in chunk pieces. Leave the tomatoes and hot peppers as they are. Stir fry the chicken legs in a pan (I use a wok), with olive oil, remove and put them in a pot. Add the chicken breast, squarely cut and stir fry until golden, by adding a little bit more olive oil. When almost ready, throw in the olives and leave them for 3-4 minutes. Remove and place in the same stew pot. Add all the vegetables and the spices in the same pot, except for turmeric. Cover and let cook for about 30 min, at medium heat, by constantly stirring. 25 minutes into cooking, add and mix the turmeric. When the potatoes are ready, so is the stew. Serve with a good bread and sprinkled dill. Enjoy the summer essence and the Mediterranean flavors!
SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH VEGGIES, MELTING CHEESE AND BAY LEAVES
Ingredients (2 servings)
1 bell pepper, 1 mushroom and 1 small tomato
80g of your melting cheese of choice. I used cascaval, a delicious Romanian cheese ( I will soon write about it) resembling Mozzarella or Cheddar.
optional: 1 hot pepper, unseeded
1 crushed bay leave (use a mortar)
Mince the vegetables. Beat the eggs with the oregano and the crushed bay leave. Heat a pan with olive oil and stir fry the vegetables for about 5 minutes. Throw the egg mixture in, together with the melting cheese, broken into pieces by hand, and scramble your eggs on medium heat. Served here with lettuce, parsil and green onion salad (with lemon dressing). Pofta buna!
As I am saying goodbye to the last days of summer (or saying hello to the first days of autumn), I crave more and more hearty dishes that are full of flavors. Since the weather is beginning to turn breezy and a bit cold, last week I made Adobo, the national Filipino dish introduced to me by my co-blogger Blessia. If you haven’t known about it yet, discover this delicious and easy recipe here and I’m sure you’ll be eager to try the dish as much as I was, and I’m addicted to it by the way. The sour zingy taste of Adobo makes me think of a similar Vietnamese dish that I will present to you today: sweet and sour pork ribs.
The first time I tasted this dish was when I came to visit a Southern Vietnamese friend and she cooked this dish for dinner. Needless to say that I immediately fell in love and have been trying to recreate the dish since then. This dish originates from Southern Vietnam because as you will see, we use sugar to create a sweet taste. For me nothing is better than a sweet and sour dish, perhaps it is only topped by sweet and sour and spicy dish. In this article I will add red chili and sriracha for that spicy boost, that wow moment that makes you breath out fire but can’t wait to dive in for more.
When it comes to the success of the dish, no taste can overwhelm another and should work well with the natural juicy taste of pork. In order to achieve the light sour taste which blends perfectly with sweetness from sugar, a special ingredient is used: tamarind paste. Tamarind is another sign that the dish is from Southern Vietnam as the people usually use it to create sour taste, either with fresh young tamarind or the paste made from ripe tamarind that is easily preserved.
I myself find using tamarind paste for this dish creates a bitter aftertaste, so I use apple cider vinegar instead. You can do this too if you can’t find tamarind paste. I recommend not to use white vinegar as the sour taste is too sharp for this delicate Vietnamese dish. For this dish you will need:
500gr pork ribs, chopped into small pieces
3 tablespoons of fish sauce
3 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or 1 cube of tamarind paste of about 10 gr
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon of sriracha or 1 red chili (optional)
Black pepper (optional)
And that’s all, it’s a very simple dish.
If you use tamarind paste, you will need to soften it in order to make it into a sauce. Heat the water and put in the tamarind cube for about 3 minutes. The harden paste will soften so that you can use a spoon to blend the paste with water. When the paste is dissolved in water, use a food filter to remove the tamarind seed and meat chunks. The tamarind water that we get is now ready to be made into sauce by combining the rest of the ingredients apart from pork ribs.
If you skip the tamarind paste and use apple cider vinegar instead, just stir it in water and add in fish sauce, sugar with sriracha and/or black pepper.
Now for the pork ribs, some people like to first poach them in boiling water because they want to remove possible clumps released from the bones as well as the occasional strong pork meat smell.
If you like to do that, simply put pieces of pork ribs in a pot with generous amount of water to cover them and bring it to a boil. Let the water boil for 3 minutes and you will see the foaming chunks floating on the surface. Take the pot off the heat and remove water, keep only the pork ribs and clean them off of any sticky foaming chunks with fresh water. The purpose of this step is not to cook the pork so don’t worry if the pieces come out a bit pink and soft. Use paper towel to pat the pork dry.
If you skip the step above, it doesn’t matter, your dish will still be delicious.
Regardless if you boil the meat first or not, you need to fry pork ribs in order to help them absorb the sweet and sour sauce better. Now we don’t deep fry them but will only make a golden sear around the ribs' edges. Use only a small amount of oil, just like when you sautee vegetables. Sear each piece thoroughly in a pan on medium heat until the edges are golden brown then remove the excess oil, we don’t want the dish to look all fatty.
In that same pan, put all the seared pork ribs in along with the sauce that we prepared earlier and red chili if you want then let it simmer for about 20 minutes. The amount of sauce will reduce over time, the texture of it will become thick and the color will turn into dark honey, that's what we want. If the sauce becomes too thick too fast, you can add in water and taste again by adding more fish sauce or vinegar to your liking. When the pork meat is firm and easy to separate from the bone, it is done and we can dive right in.
Serve this dish when it’s still hot. It is meant to be eaten with rice and soup or sauteed vegetables. You know when this dish is getting on your taste bud when you marvel at how you can consume all that pork ribs in such a short time.
Golden September is here and we are drawn towards cozy, complex places and foods, blending the hotness of summer with the promise of winter holidays and the explosive harvest feeling and glamorous nostalgia of autumn. Thalia is such a place, my Thalia is right on my street corner, in a beautiful Neo-Romanian inn, and one thing I like about them is how they positively evolve with time. I like food places that take on the pulse of the street. Here you can taste traditional Romanian dishes such as ciorba, tochitura, sarmale, papanasi, a few essential Hungarian dishes (such as gulas) and their own tasty version of international dishes and in-house creations.
Name is self-explanatory: good steak! but what I like about it is feeling the love in how the dishes are cooked and served. It's a special feeling that creates a vision of the staff smiling. It might help that Steak Up is right in the middle of the flower section of Dorobanti Market. Thank you for the smile :) and keep it up.
One of my favorite comfy food place, the Moldavian (Basarabian) franchise. Placinta means "pie" so you can imagine this is first and foremost about delicious salted and sweet pies. With shepherd cheese, cabbage, meat, potatoes, apples, sour cherries and other wonders. Yet the surprise comes from their other dishes, which are equally creative and delicious. My La Placinte is in Blvd. Titulescu.
This is the place to be for the best burger in town. In the heat of a busy intersection, pumping with street spirit. One more lucky break for me to have them just around the corner (and more laps :D for that matter). The guys at Furgoneta are very special street chefs and so is their food. Burgers, hot dogs, quirky sauces and drinks, and first of all, gourmet personality.
Have a tasty September!
Today is one of the biggest celebrations in Vietnam and it is called Vu Lan. I’m so excited to bring this tradition to you – the first among many more to come. I didn’t mean the celebration is on the 4th September respectively because almost all traditional Vietnamese celebrations take place according to the lunar calendar. Every year, the people celebrate Vu Lan on the lunar 15th July, the day of the Full Moon, and it just happens that this year it falls in September.
Vu Lan celebration originated from Vietnamese Buddhist practice. The Vietnamese Buddhism, although derived directly from the Indian Buddhism, is a whole entity on its own. Buddhism first made itself known in Vietnam around the III and II centuries BC by Indian monks who crossed the sea to deck on the shore of the country. Since then it has grown to become the main religion of Vietnam. From the first day through its long history of influence, the original Buddhism merged with pagan traditions and belief and pervaded all aspects of the population’s life. And that’s why many of our celebrations derived from Buddhist myths and practices, one of them is Vu Lan.
The origin of the story
Vu Lan is an official day to offer respect and gratefulness to our parents.
In Vietnamese there’s an expression to describe the love one has for one’s parents: “hieu thao”. There’s no translation for this term in English, or in French. This moral code finds its origin in Confucian teachings and the Chinese influence. This practice is encouraged and celebrated as a way of life, the right thing to live by and to strive for. By the way, my name is originated from this expression if you haven’t noticed. I should write about Vietnamese names and surnames and their meanings as it’s another interesting cultural tidbit but let’s leave that for another article.
Back to our Vu Lan day, there’s a Buddhist myth leading to this tradition.
A story in a story - the Buddhist aspect of the tradition
The story began with a man named Muc Lien. Our hero, initially practiced another religion, converted to Buddhism and diligently committed himself to its teachings and practices. Like the Yogis training themselves in adverse environment, Muc Lien did the same and achieved magical powers and became one of the best practitioners.
In the mist of this spiritual journey, he found himself thinking about his late mother and how he missed her. Using newly acclaimed magical power (some say it was clairvoyance), he found his dead mother, now a miserable spirit, in hell. Because she did wicked things when she was alive, his late mother was condemned to stay in hell as an evil spirit with nothing to feed, forever hungry. Dismayed by what he saw, Muc Lien stepped down to hell to offer his mother a bowl of rice. But strangely, when his mother tried to eat the rice it suddenly transformed into a blaze of fire.
Grief stricken, Muc Lien came to Buddha and asked how he can save his mother. Buddha replied that Muc Lien couldn’t do it on his own even if he had magical powers or even if his love for his mother moved the heaven. He would need set up an altar on the Full Moon of July and asked for the monks from all corners of the world to pray with him, in doing so he would not just save his mother but would also lift any bad karma caused by seven generations of his family. Muc Lien did as he was told and the truth came to past, his mother was forgiven.
This ceremony, the way to set up the altar, the prayer and also the story itself were called Vu Lan. Since then, Vietnamese Buddhists celebrate every year the Full Moon of July as the day about love and gratefulness toward their parents, the Vu Lan day. People would set up an altar in their home or attend big ceremonies in temples. It doesn’t matter as the ceremony will process in the same way: the altar will be set up with dishes (often vegan dishes), people burn incense and offer prayers. It’s the day to stop one’s busy life and be thankful for one’s parents, either they’re still alive or passed away.
The white rose, the pink rose and the red rose
Well, it has nothing to do with the war of the Roses in England. In this Vu Lan day, it has become tradition for each person to wear a rose on their chest.
This practice is recent in Vietnam, raised by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in the 60s. The rose is a symbol of love and a noble heart so there is no other symbol more appropriate for Vu Lan day. One wears a white rose if one’s parents passed away, a pink rose if one lost one’s mother and a red rose if both parents are still alive and well. The white rose stands for our love and respect for the ones who passed away, missing them and therefore striving to do the right things in life. The pink and red roses are a reminder to appreciate our parents and love them while we still can.
The pagan practice
There’s another practice which is independent from the Vu Lan celebration but people hold both ceremonies together on the Full Moon of July. It’s the pagan day of forgiven homeless spirits.
The pagan Vietnamese belief, just like those of other South East Asian countries, believes that human is made from two distinct elements: the body and the spirit. And unlike the body which will eventually decompose and “return to sand and dust”*, the spirit itself is eternal. The human world is closely linked to the spirit world and the deeds that we did in the human world, either good or bad, will be judged and rewarded (if good) or punished in hell (if bad) in the spirit world.
It is said that on the Full Moon of July, punished spirits in hell were forgiven and were free to roam the earth. The homeless forgiven spirits which have no one to set up altar and pray for them are believed to will be up to mischief. And so on that day, people set up altar facing their house entry with sweets and puddings as an offer for homeless spirits in hope that they will leave peacefully. Incense will also be burned for this ceremony and when it ends, the children in the neighborhood are invited to “sack” all the treats like the devils they are. I’m just half kidding since the image of children running rodshod over the treats is not so unlike that of homeless spirits sampling the offering. We can call this the Vietnamese Halloween day.
Although both ceremonies are performed on the same day, they are unrelated and often people celebrate Vu Lan more than the pagan day of forgiven homeless spirits. It is because the meaning of Vu Lan etches deeply in Vietnamese culture, not as a religious ceremony but as a way of life. More often than not one’s family is a part of one’s identity.
I hope you enjoy this article about Vietnamese traditions and their layers of meaning and origins. Now please excuse me, I have to go buy myself a rose.
* a Vietnamese description of death
It’s time for me to present to you one of the traditional foods of Vietnamese culture: crispy rolls. It is not to be confounded with fresh spring rolls, the unfried ones. The English translation hasn’t done these two dishes justice, since they are as different as day and night: different in ingredients, the way of cooking and even the sauces to eat them with. I will eventually get to fresh spring rolls “goi cuon” but today I will talk about crispy rolls.
I call crispy rolls the traditional food of Vietnam because from North to Center to South, all cuisines have them. Although they’re named differently (“Nem” in the North, “Cha Ram” in the Center, and “Cha Gio” in the South) and people may add additional ingredients here and there, the main ingredients remain the same. Furthermore, all big celebrations, memorial days are never complete without crispy rolls. This dish is popular to the extent that some Vietnamese claim if you don’t know how to make crispy rolls, you don’t know how to cook. So what is so special about this traditional dish that it becomes the standard for Vietnamese cooking?
I can’t pinpoint the exact time Vietnamese started making crispy spring rolls. The history of the country shows it was first a small land in the North and extended to the South through an immigration process. And since crispy rolls are presented everywhere in the country, it’s just logical to say the recipe derived from the North. Some may say our crispy rolls originated from Chinese spring rolls. But Vietnamese crispy spring rolls are different from the Chinese spring rolls/egg rolls. Chinese spring rolls are made with flour/starch wrappers and sautée vegetables, usually cabbage, to celebrate spring and that’s why, when the Brits took govern of Hongkong in the XIX century, they called these spring rolls or egg rolls. The Vietnamese rolls however are made with thin rice sheets and uncooked vegetables until the frying process, not to mention the sauce to eat them with is purely Vietnamese. And the rolls are not just to celebrate spring, they’re for celebrations in general. When the Brits saw these two kinds of rolls with seemingly similar wrappers, they called them both spring rolls. But by now we know better. So from now on in this article I will call the Vietnamese rolls “Nem” when it is clear they’re not just another kind of “spring rolls”.
The main ingredients of Nem are minced meat, carrot, onion, vermicelli, wood ear mushrooms and rice sheets. The Northern version also has mung bean sprouts and eggs, the Southern version: sweet potatoes. Today I’m going to show you the simplest version of Nem using only the main ingredients. Let’s begin!
- 200 gr of pork, shoulder part with a bit of fat
- 1 medium carrot
- 25 gr of Vietnamese vermicelli/ glass noodles
- 2 to 3 wood ear mushrooms
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 shallot
- Salt, pepper
For the sauce:
- Fish sauce
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 chili pepper
- Lemon juice
- A bit of water
My rice sheets have a diameter of 18 cm and I made around 20 rolls with this amount of ingredients.
First we need to prepare the filling.
Submerge the vermicelli in warm water to soften it because we will cut it short. After 15 minutes, the vermicelli turns soft so use a knife or scissors to cut it into pieces of 3 cm/1 inch long.
Do the same and submerge the wood ear mushrooms in warm water for about 10 to 15 minutes. When they are soft and regain their original shapes, cut them into thin slices then mince.
For the pork, ground the part where the meat has a bit of fat. This fat will help keeping our filling moist when the rolls are fried.
Grate the carrot into thin slices. Dice the onion. Mince the garlic and shallot, they’re to make our filling more fragrant.
Put all the ingredients that we prepared (vermicelli, grounded pork, carrot, wood ear mushrooms, onion, garlic and shallot) into a big bowl and then season with salt and grounded pepper. I use the black pepper here. And then comes a very important step: mixing. Use your hand to mix everything well, really well. You should make sure that there is no lump of meat or vegetables sticking together so that when the roll is cooked and you take a bite out of it, you can taste everything from carrot to vermicelli to mushroom and onion.
I mentioned earlier that for the Northern version, people add mung bean sprouts and eggs to the filling. Mung bean sprouts are meant to add water and make the filling moist, not dry. And because mung bean sprouts may make the filling watery, they add eggs for everything to stick together. The purpose of using sweet potatoes in Southern version is the same, to stick the filling together, and also to add a natural sweetness and creamy texture to the rolls. I myself find the main ingredients stick together well without having to use eggs or sweet potatoes, thanks to the grounded meat; and the fat in the meat keep the filling sufficiently moist so I decided to stick to the main ingredients. But you’re welcome to try other versions for the rolls. Using sweet potatoes to substitute meat is also a great way to make vegan Nem, the rolls are delicious!
And now we roll…the filling.
Prepare a big bowl of water enough to submerge a whole rice sheet or at least a half of it so we can turn it around and wet the other half. We can’t roll the filling in rice sheets when they're in their dry state. They must be softened by water first. The water should be cold or warm? It depends on the thickness of the rice sheets. If they’re thick, you should use warm water to speed up the softening process.
You can use a plate as a base for rolling. I like to use my wooden cutting board for this because they also absorb excess water from wet rice sheets. Now let’s start! Quickly dip a rice sheet in the bowl of water and put it on the plate/cutting board. Use a tablespoon to scoop a small amount of the filling and place it at the end of the wet sheet, as showed in the photos below.
Span the filling evenly and start rolling from the side that is closer to the filling to the other side, remember to close the two “edges”. Do the same for the other sheets until you ran out of fillings. From time to time use a napkin to wipe the excess water on the plate/cutting board away. It wouldn't do if your rolls are squishy with water, they will break.
If you make a lot of Nem and couldn’t eat them all, you can store them in the freezer in their unfried state. You will never run out of Nem this way. When you want to eat them, just defroze them and fry them like you would normally fry the rolls.
It’s time to fry the rolls. Nem must be deep-fried, there’s no other way to cook them. They’re originated from the North and as I said in another article, Northerners love deep-fried food.
In a small pan, put in a generous amount of vegetable oil, enough to submerge each roll, and put it on medium heat. The oil should not be too hot. If it is, the rice sheets will be burned before the filling can be cooked. And if the oil is not hot enough, the rolls become a squishy pale lump. You can test if the oil is ready by putting a wooden chopstick in the oil, when you see bubbles appear rapidly around the chopstick, it’s time to fry the rolls.
Lightly put in the rolls one by one in the hot oil pan. You will notice the rice wrappers become thicker and harder. Roll the rolls around for them to cook evenly. If they stick together at this point, do not worry and just let them cook until the wrappers harden. By then you can separate the rolls without breaking the wrappers. It takes about 3 minutes to cook each roll. When the rolls are cooked, take them out and put them on paper towel. Do the same for the whole batch.
And now comes the secret for crispy Nem: we deep fry them a second time. When you fry the rolls the first time, it is to slow cook the filling without breaking the wrapper. When you fry the rolls for the second time, everything is cooked so this step is all about making the wrappers as crispy as possible and giving them a golden color. This step won’t take much time, just about 2 minutes. You will know if the rolls are done when you touch them with your chopsticks: they feel hard as rocks. But don’t worry, that means they’re crispy.
For the fish sauce, you can follow the recipe here without adding the pickles.
Serve Nem when they’re still warm with salad and herbs.
A dish of Nem is deemed successful if the rolls are crispy not burned, the rice wrappers still intact not broke and the rolls are similar in size and shape. The complexity of Nem made it an aristocratic dish long ago then gradually it became a common dish served in ceremonial occasions to offer love and respect for our ancestral origin. A plate of Nem is not just another exotic dish, it’s a happy celebration of Vietnamese culture.
Cover photo: Thao Uyen
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!