My favorite part of our stay in Nha Trang was taking a private cooking class with Thuy, a sweet, soft-spoken, and knowledgeable sous-chef at our hotel. She humbly admitted that, although she had no formal training, the hotel chef invited her to serve on his staff because of her incredible knowledge of classic Vietnamese cooking, techniques, and dishes. Of course, she had learned to cook from all the women in her family and, as a result, had the natural, innate abilities and understanding that the best home cooks have.
Thuy was passionate about Vietnamese food, flavors, and ingredients, which made the lesson a real pleasure. After a few minutes of chatting, Thuy immediately understood that we were devoted enthusiasts of Vietnamese cuisine and was delighted to answer all the questions we had. She took the time to describe all the herbs and ingredients, how to best prepare them, and how to pick out the finest specimens at the market. She smiled as we took photos of unfamiliar ingredients and everything we made and as we asked her to judge whether Mark's or my rendition of Papaya, Squid, and Prawn salad was superior. It was a lot of fun. The below picture shows me holding a taro stem over a bowl containing fresh pineapple, chiles, and tai-to leaves.
Last week we decided to make one of the recipes we had learned from Thuy: Mixed Seafood in Black Pepper Caramel Sauce, or Hai San Kho To. The seafood is simmered in a full-flavored, complex, and unusual sauce of black caramel, fish sauce, and stock, along with a healthy amount of black pepper, chile, shallots, garlic, and scallions. Although there are quite a few steps to this recipe, the dish comes together rather quickly and it is a really lovely, accessible introduction to Vietnamese cooking.
It was fun to make near the eve of our six month wedding anniversary. I'm sure we'll be making it again soon.
Mixed Seafood in Black Pepper Caramel Sauce
This dish is traditionally made in a clay pot, prized for its heat retention. Since we don't have a clay pot, we used the next best thing: our enameled Le Creuset cast iron pot (a wedding gift from our dear friend Jyoti!). As for the types of seafood you can use, choose your favorites but beware that delicate fish, such as cod, will fall apart. We used a combination of halibut, shrimp, and squid, but next time I think I would leave out the halibut because the shrimp and squid were amazing.
Ingredients for fried shallot garnish
1/2 cup oil (canola or peanut are good)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Ingredients for the black caramel
10 grams sugar (about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
50 mL water (slightly less than 1/4 cup)
Ingredients for the seafood and sauce
3/4 to 1 pound of seafood such as shrimp, squid, or firm-fleshed fish
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock or water
1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon black caramel (see recipe below)
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 whole Thai chili (optional)
2 scallions, chopped
Cilantro, for garnish
Fried shallot, for garnish (see below)
To make the crispy fried shallot garnish:
- Heat a heavy skillet over moderate heat.
- While the skillet is heating, thinly slice the shallots with a sharp knife. Spread them out over a dry surface. It is important that the shallots are not wet, or they will splatter when you add them to the oil. Thuy told us that she dries shallots under the sun for 3-4 hours, but you can also let them sit in a hot oven for 5-10 minutes if you wish.
- Add the oil to the skillet. When the oil just begins to smoke, add shallots to oil, stirring until golden brown. Depending on how small your skillet is, you may want to do this in batches.
- The shallots will take about 3-5 minutes to turn golden brown.Transfer the shallots with a slotted spoon to a rack to drain.
- Toss fried shallots with 1/4 teaspoon salt. (Note: We keep the oil, which now has a nice shallot flavor, to fry potatoes on another day.
- Place sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.
- As it heats, the mixture will begin to bubble and darken in color. Watch the saucepan carefully and stir so that the caramel does not stick or burn. (A silicone spatula is your friend here.)
- The mixture will turn light brown, then dark brown, and finally black. Remove from heat, add a dash of water (1/2 tablespoon, I'd say) and stir to make a loose sauce. Set aside.
To make the seafood and sauce:
- Heat an enameled cast-iron pot, if available, or a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat.
- While the pot is heating, mince the shallot and garlic. Set aside.
- Prepare the seafood: peel the shrimp, cut squid into equally-sized rings, and cut fish into bite sized chunks.
- Once the pot is hot (remember, medium heat), add oil along with the minced shallot and garlic. Saute shallots and garlic until browned.
- Add seafood to pot and sear on all sides. The shrimp will turn pink and the fish and squid will begin to turn opaque.
- Add black caramel mixture, fish sauce, and stock to the pot and stir. Add the additional 1 tablespoon sugar and stir. The mixture will slowly thicken.
- Turn heat to low and let the mixture simmer until the seafood is tender and cooked throughout, approximately 4-5 minutes.
- Season with a few grinds of pepper (I like a healthy amount of black pepper so I did at least 6 turns) and add salt to taste.
- Garnish with cilantro and crunchy fried shallots and serve with steamed rice.