Savoring Saigon

Friday, April 8, 2016

Traditional Vietnamese Chicken Porridge (recipe below)

In the tiny village of Thu Duc, about half an hour from Saigon, Vy Tran grew up in the sheltering warmth of a large family who loved to cook. From a young age, she spent time in the kitchen with her mother who let her help with cooking rice, fermenting vegetables and making soup and yogurt. The magic of those moments in the kitchen stay with her still as she remembers "the smell of the spices, the crackling of the wood burning, and watching my mom de-bone a fish in a flash."

And then there was her grandmother who made the most delicious treats such as candied kumquat or jam while her aunt baked beautiful cakes for birthdays and weddings. And when the whole extended family descended on their home to celebrate an event, the kitchen became a flurry of activity as all the women "churned out a seven-course dinner in a few hours."

As Vy grew older, she knew she wanted to work in the medical field, but it wasn't until she was in college that she became interested in physiology and biochemistry, and chose to become a clinical pharmacist. She now lives in San Diego with her husband and son where she divides her time between her profession as a pharmacist, her passion as a food photographer and being a mommy. She carries on the traditions of her Vietnamese heritage in the foods she prepares, hoping to pass along this love of cooking and baking to their son.

Read on for my interview with Vy...

"I'm inspired by women who continue to live and hope in the face of adversity." -Vy Tran

Tell us about yourself, Vy.  I've been so lucky to call San Diego home for the past ten years. I originally moved here for pharmacy school from the Bay area and ended up falling in love with the place. There's something about the ocean that makes me feel at ease and inspired.

I met my husband, Vu, through a friend I worked with in college. We dated for nine years before getting married.  I credit him for my love of photography and blogging.  He taught me how to use a camera and got me hooked on food blogging.  We have a little boy together.  He’s a rambunctious little toddler who loves to get into everything.  We have a tradition where we spend time in the kitchen every Sunday baking together.  I let him help with whisking the brownie batter, rolling out dough, or mixing ingredients. Even though it’s more of a mess for me to clean up, I love seeing the curiosity and excitement on his face to do these activities.  I have so many beautiful memories of being in the kitchen with my mom and I hope that our son will grow up with many wonderful food memories.

On the weekend, my husband and I like to grab fresh produce from our local farmers markets in the morning then head to the beach in the afternoon.  I spend the majority of my time in the kitchen cooking, baking, and making ice cream - you’ll rarely find our freezer without homemade ice cream.  

Honey Blossom and Earl Grey ice cream. Click here for recipe.

You grew up near Saigon. Tell us something about your childhood.  My town of Thuc Duc, though small,  had a lot of markets and street food vendors.  In Vietnam, people go to the market everyday, sometimes twice a day, and I loved going to the market with my mom.  She liked to snack so we would stop at multiple vendors for savory and sweet eats.  For a kid who loves to eat, that was the highlight of my day.  Occasionally, she would let me pick out the fruits and vegetables.  Then we would head home and and start cooking.  Both of my parents were teachers with low salary so my mom sold ice creams and frozen yogurt as a side business.  My love of ice cream and yogurt definitely came from watching my mom whipping up the most delicious flavors--jackfruit, mango, soursop, durian, lychee, coconut, and definitely nothing like chocolate, strawberry, or cookies and cream.    

A fresh haul from the market - blood oranges!

How did you come to love cooking and baking? Growing up in a large Vietnamese family, food was at our core.  My maternal grandmother had seven children and my paternal grandmother had eleven children.  It was a full house at every birthday, wedding, and celebration.  All the women in my family knew how to cook. There was no such thing as ordering out or going to a restaurant. While I was surrounded with great cooks, it wasn’t until I left for college that I really learned how to cook for myself.  Living near the UC Davis campus, I found myself missing my mom’s home cooked meals since there were not that many Asian restaurants around, let alone Vietnamese restaurants.  I would spend hours on the phone with my mom asking her how to make pho, bun bo Hue, cha gio, thit kho, and many other Vietnamese dishes.  Now that my mom lives with us, I’m still learning from her everyday.  

Meyer Lemons. Can we bet they're going into ice cream?

What do you love about your life?   My job can be stressful at times since I take care of very sick patients in the intensive care units.  On the flip side, it’s incredibly rewarding when I can advocate for my patients and improve their care.  Another perk of working at the hospital is meeting people from all over the world and learning about their culture, especially about their food.  I’ve picked up random tidbits and recipes from my co-workers that I couldn’t have otherwise gotten my hands on.  Besides my full-time job as a clinical pharmacist, I also work as a freelance food photographer.  I’ve been blogging for about seven years but things didn’t snowball until I got on Instagram last year and people started noticing my work.  It’s been such an exciting and rewarding experience to work on some projects that I really love.  I’ll definitely share more of that as they’re close to completion.    

Garlic noodles with shrimp. Can you think of a better lunch? I didn't think so.

What is your favorite food to cook currently?  I’ve been making a lot of Spanish food lately.  Having taken four years of Spanish in high school, I fell in love with the culture and the food.  I’m still working on perfecting the different paellas and tapas dishes and trying to cook through Tapas Revolution by Omar Allibhoy.  My friend, Gail, and I throw a seasonal dinner with a specific food theme so our next one might focus on the foods of Spain.  Think gambas al ajillo, pescaito frito, croquetas, gazpacho, paella Valenciana, crema Catalana, and churros with chocolate - a lot of shared plates to be enjoyed with good wine, sangria, and great company.   

Lovely tarts filled with a yogurt and mascarpone mixture, topped with caramelized figs and pistachios.

What inspires you?  I’m inspired by strong women who continue to live and hope in the face of adversity.  When I see other women on Instagram who live in war zones and still cook and bake the most delicious looking dishes, I’m inspired by their strength and resilience.  My biggest inspiration is my mom.  She survived the Vietnamese war, two battles with uterine cancer and breast cancer, and the loss of my sister.  Instead of letting those events define her, she lives every day to the fullest.  It’s not so much the big things but the little things she does that shows the world she’s unstoppable.  She loves food and cooking, and she still cooks everyday, even at the age of 70.   

Asian braised short ribs in a bath of cinnamon, lemongrass, ginger, anise, rice wine and soy sauce.

Do you have any funny cooking stories? Back in college I brought some chocolate chip cookies to a potluck that were over-baked.  One of my classmates tasted them and said he would never marry the girl that made those cookies, not realizing I was within earshot of his comment.  My face turned bright red while another friend couldn’t hold back his laughter as he credited me with making those  cookies. Then it was my classmate's turn to blush. In the end we all had a good laugh and I didn’t take it personally.

Vy Tran and son.

If you could recommend a cookbook, which would it be?  Gosh, this is a hard one!  I have so many favorites in mind but the one cookbook that I continue to learn and enjoy cooking from is Mastering Pasta by Marc Vetri.  This book opened my eyes to a whole new world of pasta.  Besides giving you a good grasp on the fundamentals, chef Vetri featured new flavor combinations for pasta using mint, saffron, parsley, swiss chard, porcini, chestnut, and so much more.  The power of a great cookbook is to inspire, to teach, to transform, and to put us in the mood to cook and Mastering Pasta does exactly that.  

"The power of a great cookbook is to inspire, to teach, to transform, and to put us in the mood to cook." 


Chicken Porridge

Chicken Porridge and Cabbage Salad (Chao ga voi goi)
3 ½ - 4 pound chicken, washed and patted dry
4 knobs of 1 inch ginger, crushed
1 small white onion
12 cups of water
1 cup of broken Jasmine rice, rinsed
2 tbsps fish sauce
1 tsp salt
½ tbsp sugar

freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup of scallions, sliced
¼ cup of cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tbsp of ginger, sliced thinly
2 tbsp fried shallots
2 bird’s eye chiles
1 lime, cut into small pieces (optional)

1. In a large pot, add 12 cups of water, the onion, ginger pieces, and chicken and bring to a boil over medium to high heat over 15 minutes.  Skim and discard any impurities from the surface.  
2.Cover the pot with a lid and continue cooking the chicken on medium heat for another 45 minutes.  
3.Remove the chicken and let it cool enough to handle.  Debone the chicken, shred the meat  with two forks or your fingers, and throw the carcass back into the pot.  Save the thigh and leg meat for the cabbage salad and the breast meat for the porridge.
4.Add the rice to the pot and let it cook for 30-40 minutes or until tender.
5.Season with fish sauce, salt, and sugar to taste.  Add the reserved breast meat back into the pot.  Turn off the heat and let it cool down.
6.When ready to serve, ladle the porridge into individual bowls and garnish with scallions, cilantro, ginger, fried shallots, and chile.  Serve the porridge with the chicken and cabbage salad and dipping sauce.

Dipping sauce (nuoc cham)
6 tbsps water
2 tbsps fish sauce
1 tsp lime juice
2 tbsps sugar
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, chopped
1 bird’s eye chile, sliced thinly

1.To make a dipping sauce, use a mortar and pestle to smash the garlic, ginger, and sugar together.  Transfer everything to a small serving bowl  
2.Add water, fish sauce, and lime juice to the serving bowl and mix well to combine.  Set aside.

Chicken and Cabbage Salad

Chicken and Cabbage Salad
½ cup of red onion, thinly sliced
3 tbsps white rice vinegar
3 tbsps water
1 ½ tbsps sugar
⅛ tsp salt
8 oz of cabbage, thinly sliced into ¼ inch ribbons
½ cup of Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), coarsely chopped (you can also use Thai basil or mint leaves if you can’t find rau ram)
1 cup of chicken thigh and leg meat, shredded
2 tbsps fried shallots

1.To make the red onion pickle, in a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt.  Add the red onion and let it stand at room temperature for an hour.
2.In a mixing bowl, combine the cabbage and onion pickle juice.  Use your hands to massage the cabbage for 10 minutes.  Add in the shredded chicken, pickled red onion, and rau ram and toss to combine.
3.Put the chicken and cabbage salad on a serving platter and garnish with fried shallots.
4.Serve the salad along with the dipping sauce and porridge.

Chao ga voi goi

Blood Orange and Chocolate Chip Sorbet

Blood Orange and Chocolate Chip Sorbet
½ cup of simple syrup
2 ½ cups of freshly squeezed blood orange juice, strained
pinch of salt
¼ cup of your favorite dark chocolate chip, chopped

2:1 simple syrup
1 cup of sugar
½ cup of water

1.To make the 2:1 simple syrup, whisk water and sugar in a small saucepan and cook on medium heat and stir until the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has dissolved completely.
2.Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it cool completely.  
3.To make the blood orange sorbet, add the simple syrup, orange juice, and salt in a saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat.
4.Remove the mixture from heat and let it cool completely.
5.Refrigerate the mixture for 4 hours or overnight to let the flavor develop.
6.When ready to churn, pour the blood orange mixture into the your ice cream machine, stir in the chocolate chip, and churn according to the manufacturer’s instruction.  (My machine takes about 25-30 minutes to get a lovely soft serve consistency.)
7.When the sorbet is ready, scoop it into a freezer proof container.  The sorbet can be served after 4 hours in the freezer or stored up to two weeks.

Sorbet, anyone?

All photos courtesy of Beyond Sweet and Savory and used with permission.


  1. I love this article. I have had the pleasure of following Vy for quite some time and am always impressed with her graciousness and her unique gift to allow other women to shine as well. Her story is so beautiful and inspiring and I was delighted to have a window into her life. Im touched about the way that she loves and champions and appreciates women . BRAVO

  2. These dishes are ver yummy and most delicious. really love your article. Thank you for you is the great post.

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