Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Cooking with Hương

Today's dishes:
  • Cá Bông Lau Kho Tộ (Catfish Braised in a Clay Pot)
  • Bò Lá Lốt (Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf)
  • Cải Xoong Xào (Stirfried Watercress)
  • Xúp Tôm Thái (Thai Prawn and Lemongrass Soup)
One thing that continues to impress me about Vietnamese cooking is how the most complex flavors are created through the simplest of means. The first time I ate Cá Bông Lau Kho Tộ (Catfish Braised in a Clay Pot), I was sure it must have been concoted through the same mysterious alchemical process that turns water into wine, and copper into gold. I was feverishly raving about this dish to my friend Hương, when she nonchalantly let drop, "Oh, I can make that. It's easy." Without missing a beat, I immediately invited myself over for another installment of...Cooking with Hương!

There are two keys to this dish: the first is the dry heat that comes from the tộ, a clay pot that functions like a Vietnamese Dutch Oven. The second key is the coconut caramel sauce, which, along with the lemongrass, galangal, and chilis, coats the fish with a burnt, savory, caramelized glaze. As with most Vietnamese dishes, there are regional variants; in the south they add garlic, and perhaps a little bacon, but the basic technique remains the same. Dry cooking is essential, as this is what allows the sugars to caramelize, and the catfish to brown.

To make the caramel sauce, Hương mixed about 1/4 cup of water with 1/2 TB of sugar, a squirt of nước mắm (fish sauce) and some gia vị (Vietnamese spice mixed mentioned in earlier postings). She then dipped the tip of a chopstick – no more, or the sauce develops a harsh, burnt taste – into a small bottle of nước hàng dừa (coconut caramel), and added it to the sauce. A little tasting and adjusting and the sauce had a nice balance of salty, sweet, and malty flavors.

The rest was a simple matter of assembly. A few stalks of lemongrass were crushed (to relase their flavors) and then chopped into roughly 1-inch pieces. About an inch of galangal – a magnificent rhizome used throughout Southeat Asia – was sliced and added to the mix. For those who are unfamiliar with it, I would describe galangal as a milder, more citrusy ginger, with elements of pepper, mustard, and pine. Hương lined bottom of the tộ with some lemongrass and galangal, added the catfish, filled the gaps with more lemongrass and galangal, poured in the sauce, and topped it all off with some minced chili and a dash of white pepper. The tộ was then covered and placed directly over a medium flame for 40 minutes.

When completed, most of the moisture from the sauce was gone, leaving a sticky, caramel glaze, scented by lemongrass and galangal, that seared the outside of the fish, keeping the meat inside perfectly moist. The flavors complemented, but did not overwhelm the fish; it was a remarkable balance of seafood with aromatic spices that could only have come from Vietnam.

To accompany the meal, Hương made Bò Lá Lốt, which has become one of my favorite street dishes at cơm bình dân joints throughout Hanoi. Bò Lá Lốt may be translated as "Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf", but lá lốt (Piper sarmentosum) should not be confused with Piper betle, the leaf that is used to wrap "betel nut" (the seed of the Areca palm) and lime, and chewed as a mild stimulant throughout Asia. The lá lốt leaf has a subtle flavor that is at once bitter and fragrant, with a hint of incense in the aftertaste. It serves as both a culinarily and visually satisfying wrapper for the beef.

The ingenious part of the Bò Lá Lốt is in the wrapping. To make the meatballs, Hương pounded together about 150 g. of ground beef with 100 g. of pork – the pork adds fat as well as flavor, and keeps the beef from drying out during cooking – with four or five garlic teeth and the usual spices: gia vị, pepper, sugar, fish sauce. She then steamed the meat until it was mostly cooked. To make one wrap, she filled the back side of lá lốt leaf with a spoonful of the beef mixture. Rolling the beef over – and this is the ingenious part – she used the leaf stem to secure the roll in place and...Voila! A perfectly wrapped meatball. With a little pan-frying, the leaf wilted around the meat, and I got to experience the best damn Bò Lá Lốt I've had since I've been in Hanoi.

Hương completed the meal with a simple watercress (cải xoong) and garlic stir-fry, and I contributed by making Xúp Tôm Thái (Thai: Tom Yum Goong), a spicy prawn and lemongrass soup I learned to make years ago in Thailand. It was the first time I'd made this dish since leaving the states, and having access to authentic Southeast Asian ingredients like galangal and kaffir lime leaves allowed me to make it exactly as I remembered it. As you can see, the meal turned out beautiful! But you'll have to take my word that it was every bit as delicious as it looked!


  1. We'd like to make a reservation for a day in July.

  2. Dear Mr Medrano,

    Apologies for this slightly unrelated comment but I can't quite figure out how to send you an e-mail (I figure for spam-control related purposes) so I thought this was the best way of getting in contact.

    I just want to thank you for your wonderful insights into life in Hanoi. I've stupidly been in love with Vietnam, a country I've never visited, for about two years now and writing like yours has sustained me as I've worked to save for my first big trip overseas (I'm an Australian university student). Now I've finally scrounged enough to travel to the country so strangely fascinating to me and will be arriving in Hanoi on 23/12 after spending just over a month introducing myself to South East Asia in Thailand and Laos.

    As a token gesture of my gratitude, and if you have the time, I'd be honoured to get together and shout you a meal and drink sometime while I'm in Hanoi (of course, I'd also welcome any recommendations and advice you can offer...I really want to experience Vietnam and Hanoi in particular as completely as possible, and from your writing it's only too evident your local knowledge goes way beyond what's commonly offered to ignorant tourists like me).

    If you simply don't have time or are uninterested, I completely understand. Otherwise, feel free to contact me at caffeinated.matt[at] .

    Thanks in advance, and whatever happens, for the love of god, please keep writing...your website continues to inspire and excite.


  3. First things first, please go on writing forever. Your words, even without the interesting photos, are so evocative of places and experiences; as I have said before, your writing is truly a transporting experience.

    I love your blog entries about food you and Huong make, or about the street food that you have extolled. I have to admit that the first time I finally tried this Vietnamese restaurant near me, I thought of you. The food was....okay....I would go back and will one of these days, but it wasn't as good as what you describe and besides, it costs a lot more than around $3 for a meal (more like $50 or so, if you throw in a glass of wine, as I did).

    Anyway, thank you for your wonderful posts, and many good wishes to you this holiday season and in 2010. In the new year I will still be reading you from afar.

  4. P.S. Hal, speaking of "transporting experiences," a phrase I borrowed from Zagat, have you ever thought about someday, maybe not soon but someday, coming back and opening a restaurant? Perhaps even in NYC? Just a thought. Right now I am very much in re-invention mode (of myself), but this stray thought occurred to me about you. Hope I wasn't overstepping any boundaries.

  5. Good job man, I like your blog. It makes me more interested to come and visit or live for a while. If I can do anything for you, let me know. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from Los Angeles

  6. I like this food. Welcome to discovery new vietnamese food in Vietnam.

    Tet is coming. Cheer


  7. I met Matt in Ho Chi Minh city at the "beer shop". Do you remember me and my friends who drink with you at beer shop? Huy from HCMC