Mom’s Garden and Vietnamese Kitchen

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My annual summer visit to my parents in NY and to escape the scorching Dubai heat is coming to an end. It was supposed to have ended last Saturday but Hurricane Irene extended it for another week.

So Wee Scotch and I had one more week of spending quality time with my parents. One more week of visiting family in other boroughs. And maybe I’ll even have one more “last night out” in the city with my friends.

Last week, I spent what I thought was “last night out” with a casual dinner at Southern Hospitality BBQ on the Upper East Side before moving on to accidental debauchery (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Damn you Jägermeister!

Hangovers are never fun but they seem exponentially more painful in my 30s than in my 20s. I think I’ll skip the shots this time around.

An extra week at home also meant one more week of my mom’s home cooking and comfort food. Although we are ethnically Chinese, my parents were born and raised in Vietnam until they fled Saigon in their late 20s to come to America. So Vietnamese cuisine was and still is a very large part of their food repertoire.

Some of the highly requested meals from my mom by my sisters and myself include soup – lots of soup. I love the warming and comforting feeling of soup and growing up we often had it with dinner five nights out of seven. Chinese and Vietnamese soups are made from simple broths and are often clear or translucent in color. As opposed to stews or cream soups that Scotch is more used to.

I love it when my mom makes Pho, a rice noodle soup made with beef stock simmered for hours with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, onion and ginger.


Raw, thinly sliced onions and bean sprouts are placed in a bowl with the rice noodles (we prefer the 1/4-inch thick noodles) and then the piping hot broth is poured on top which cooks some of the rawness out of the onions and bean sprouts but they still retain their crunchy texture and flavor.

Finally it is topped with fresh herbs like Asian basil from my mom’s garden and finished with a squeeze of lime and sriracha hot sauce.

Some other ingredients that my mom will often include are beef tendon balls (fully cooked) and beef carpaccio (added just before the broth is poured into serving bowls essentially cooking the beef as well).

The spices make the soup nicely fragrant and the raw ingredients added just before serving gives it a fresh and light taste.

The other soup I often request is my mom’s Vietnamese Sour Soup, which I raved about in a previous post here.

Vietnamese Sour Soup
Vietnamese Sour Soup

Well, it turns out that the major, and most important, improvement that I needed to make was to use home-made broth instead of plain water or stock cubes (I was doing both to save time and this was before I discovered how easy it was to make chicken broth).

This is one soup that doesn’t require a long simmer so once you have all the ingredients at hand, just toss them in the broth and the soup is ready as soon as the shrimp (or other protein) are cooked.

I love all the flavors that the different ingredients impart on this soup: from the sweetness of the pineapples, and the tartness of the lemons and tomatoes, to the spiciness of the chilli peppers. We serve it over thin rice noodles or jasmine rice. Sometimes I slurp the soup right out of the pot before it even makes it to the dining table.

For these soups and more, my mom uses ingredients from her own garden. She spends most of her mornings tending to it and the results are bundles and bundles of fresh herbs for her daily cooking.

vietnamese herbs - rau dap ca and rau ram
Vietnamese herbs – rau dap ca (left) and rau ram (right)

“Rau dap ca” and “Rau Ram” are two of my mom’s favorite herbs but can be difficult to find in the stores unless she goes to a Vietnamese market. Both can be used in Vietnamese salads and we like to include them in our summer rolls

Rau dap ca has a flavor that I can only describe as fishy, but in a leafy sort of way….because, well, it’s a leaf.

Rau Ram, also known as Vietnamese coriander, has hints of coriander and citrus. I have a hard time describing it beyond that because the flavor is quite unique and you’ll have to taste it for yourself one day to find out. It grows close to the ground like spearmint and can spread far if not contained.

"Bac ha" - used in Vietnamese sour soup
“Bac ha” – used in Vietnamese sour soup

Bac ha” is a vegetable that my mom grows so that she can use it in her Vietnamese sour soup. It is related to the taro plant but only the stems are used, not the bulb nor the leaves. When cooked, the stems are spongy in texture and absorb the flavors of the dish it is prepared in.

Mom's Garden
Clockwise from top left: Recao, Asian Basil, Purple Perilla, Spearmint, Garlic Chives

She still has recao (also known as culantro, ngò gai, sawtooth herb, or stinking herb) that I brought back for her from when I lived in Puerto Rico where the plants grew like weeds in my garden. It’s an annual plant that grows back every year but in my mom’s garden, it’s not as bushy or leafy as in the hot humid Caribbean air.

Mom's Garden 2
Clockwise from top left: Cucumber, Thyme, Cherry Tomatoes, Sweet Basil, Tomatoes

She’s grown so many cucumber plants that my dad sometimes takes some to work to munch on instead of his usual apples or bananas. He even shares them with co-workers. There should be a saying, “a cucumber a day…”

Our house cat sunning in the garden
Our house cat sunning in the garden

Wee Scotch “helps” my mom with the gardening every morning and as his reward he gets first dibs on all the ripened cherry tomatoes.

“May-to! May-to!” he excitedly exclaims every day as he points at the plump red fruit, expectantly looking at my mom.

My mom often tells me how Wee Scotch is a smart cookie – he knows that there is one particular tomato plant that has sour “may-tos” and he will refuse to eat from that plant if he sees that my mom has harvested a tomato from there.

Wee Scotch tomato

He can’t seem to get enough of “may-tos”. He’ll stuff 3 or 4 into his mouth at one time, making himself look like a chipmunk.

Sweet and juicy, the tomatoes always burst in his mouth with a popping sound and the seeds will squirt out and inevitably end up all over his clothes and the floor.

Wee Scotch tomato

When there is an abundance of herbs, my mom will buy some pork belly and shrimp to make Vietnamese Summer Rolls.

I don’t know where the term “summer” rolls came from but I would imagine it’s to distinguish these rolls which are made with moistened rice paper to it’s more greasier cousin, the “spring” roll.

For these rolls, my mom uses many different herbs from her garden, some of which she only knows the Vietnamese name for.

When I make these in Dubai, I use what I can source: spearmint, which is widely available (though not as fragrant as the varietal from mom’s garden), and Asian basil and garlic chives, which I get from the Thai grocery store in Karama.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls
Vietnamese Summer Rolls

This summer, my mom also showed me how to make a different kind of summer roll called, bì cuon, which incorporates shredded pork and shredded pork skin mixed with roasted rice powder.

I can never pronounce Vietnamese properly so for this dish, I just say “bacon” which sounds similar enough and well, both are pork based so easy to remember.

Shredded Pork and Pork Skin
Shredded Pork and Shredded Pork Skin Mixed with Roasted Rice Powder

I’ve never seen anyone roll a summer roll except my mom so I’d be interested to know if other people assemble theirs similarly.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls
Vietnamese Summer Rolls

She always starts with (1) the rice noodle as the base layer and this time she nested a cucumber next to the noodles. Then she (2) places all the fresh herbs on top of the rice noodles and sprinkles the pork mixture in front. She then (3) begins the wrapping process by encompassing the noodles and the herbs in one rolling motion, then folds in the two sides and continues to carefully roll so as not to break or burst the rice paper. Finally, (4) the summer roll is all rolled up and read to be eaten…

…but first it was to be dipped in Vietnamese fish sauce (aka Nuoc Mam Cham) to enhance and bring out all the flavors of the summer roll.

Nuoc Cham

Wee Scotch never misses out on an opportunity to eat so we made him his own roll with just shrimp and pork belly with a little bit of rice noodles and no herbs.

Wee Scotch and Summer Roll
Wee Scotch and Summer Roll

He picked out all the rice noodles and threw them on the floor (and he refuses to eat his vegetables if he sees that there is meat around). Wee Tyke.

As Wee Scotch and I prepare to say goodbye to my parents, I will miss not only the food but the pleasure of being around family and old friends again. I hope that it won’t be another year until we are back…

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  1. Mmm nom nom luscious food!! Love how pro your mum roll those viet rolls 😀 I guess you've probably picked up most of her cooking talents by now…

    1. I wish my mom had taught me to cook at an earlier age (instead of in my 20s!) so that I would have had more success in the kitchen and absorbed more talent…