Writing Day

writing corner-Chris Galvin

Turbulent. Overwhelming. That’s what this year has been, on the grand scale and in my own day-to-day life. With little time to write in 2017, I chose to concentrate on  query packages for my memoir manuscript. Submissions-wise, I sent out one flash fiction contest entry. Someone else won the prize and I went back to researching publishing houses. For the first time in nearly a decade, a year was about to close out without a single new publication credit for me. And then…writer-editor-publisher rob mclennan to the rescue…though he didn’t know about the rescue aspect when he invited me to contribute an essay for his my (small press) writing day blog project. My little essay went live a few days ago. Yay! A guest blog post does count as a publication, right?

Modelled after The Guardian’s occasional feature “My Writing Day,” rob’s project offers an opportunity for “those of us who might never appear in The Guardian”. What amazed me, on reading through over a dozen essays on the blog (there are over 40 and counting), was how varied people’s writing days are. Some writers simply park their butts just about anywhere and start writing; others have rituals to get them into the zone. Some write for hours at a time; others write in brief bursts shoehorned in between making breakfast for little ones, getting them off to school, picking them up again for lunch, baking banana bread with them . . . much like rob mclennan himself. His description of what his writing days look like is longish, and in the form of a one-day snapshot, but the form and detail are perfect for illustrating how one can fit writing and writing-related work into a busy, busy life.

Happy reading and writing in 2018, everyone!

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Writers Reading Writers

Imagine you’ve recently discovered an internet radio show where the host, a stuffed bear, pairs literary readings with music. (He might also pair readings with the occasional nip of whisky.)

Imagine the show is called Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon, and the tagline is “where the sky is evening-gorgeous, the drinks won’t cloud your head, and the cocktail nuts are poems.” The format is strong, and the tagline seals the deal: you become a regular listener. Imagine that you are scrolling through Twitter when a notification comes through: something you wrote will be featured on the show in one hour!

Now imagine how happy I was when I saw this tweet:

With all the crazy weather thanks to hurricanes in the Caribbean and the US lately, no wonder this week’s theme was rain and floods. I really enjoyed the readings and lots of new-to-me music. Unfortunately, I missed the first twenty minutes—only to discover Mr. Bear had opened with two songs followed by my piece, Flood Season  (published in Asian Cha’s March 2012 issue, and chosen as a finalist for that year’s Sundress Best of the Net Anthology.) I looked forward to hearing the podcast the following day.

At around the eight-minute mark, I heard the opening lines of Flood Season. A few paragraphs in, I thought: What a gorgeous reading! I continued listening. Just the right rhythm and lilt. Emphasis in the right places. Quite possibly better than I could read it myself.

And no wonder. Mr. Bear’s cohost and alter-ego is the multitalented Georgia Bellas. Creator of the Violet Hour Saloon, Georgia is a writer and voracious reader. She’s also a photographer, artist, musician, filmmaker, and ardent promoter of literature. She and Mr. Bear weave their violet hour magic at Boston Free Radio on Tuesdays from 8–9PM EST, and the podcast is archived at secretlives.podbean.com

Speaking about the show in various interviews, Georgia or Mr. Bear—I’m not sure which—has said that “Maybe the writers themselves would hear and know their words mattered, or maybe I’d just share these words with people who might not have come across them otherwise.”

The Violet Hour Saloon has nailed both for me. The show introduces me to great work by writers I had not previously come across, and pieces that are new to me by writers I admire. And I was thrilled to learn that my little memoir piece mattered enough to a well known, well loved powerhouse in the literary community that she read the whole piece on Boston Free Radio. It couldn’t have come at a better time—I’ve been so busy with life and with putting together query packages for my manuscript that I haven’t submitted any writing anywhere this year, except for one contest. (I didn’t even make the shortlist.) It’s such a lift to know that people are still reading and hearing my writing.

I’ve heard some great poetry, fiction and nonfiction, old and new, on the show, but Georgia’s own writing is well worth a read. I love her short yet many-layered memoir piece Family Interpreter, recently published on The Coil.
Love, Cliff, in the Summer 2015 issue of People Holding…, surprised me with its unexpected angle.
Surrenders, in issue 24 of Literary Orphans, is full of beauty and melancholy.
You can learn more about Georgia and Mr. Bear in this lovely interview with Synaesthesia Magazine. They tweet as @MrBearStumpy.

Thanks to Mr. Bear for permission to post his photos here.


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X is for Xửng…Mè Xửng

me xung with tea in garden

In the Việt kitchen, the letter X is tasty. I considered writing about xào, stir-frying, or xoài, mango, or perhaps xôi, sticky rice. Then my in-laws sent a huge package of goodies from Huế. Among the many local specialties were two kinds of mè xửng, a sesame-coated nougat-style sweet made with peanuts, sugar, malt syrup and rice flour. It reminds me of peanut brittle, but soft and malleable, and much less sweet.

goodies from Hue

Mè means sesame. Xửng is a steamer tray, and some people say this was the traditional container for holding the freshly made candy. In some dictionaries, xửng is defined as the way sugar is cooked down—not quite caramelized—when making mè xửng.

me xung 2 kindsHuế people call the candy a symbol of their city, and give this local specialty as a gift for friends and family who live elsewhere. At Lunar New Year, I often spot it in the trays of sweets offered with tea for guests.

me xung round

Even my husband, who does not care for it, says there’s something special about the candy that reminds him of home. I can see why—one of Huế’s oldest and most popular mè xửng companies, Thiên Hương, is just around the corner from where he grew up, and we see their sign, the big blue and red letters appearing to float on the skyline, every time we cross the Gia Hội Bridge on the way to his parents’.

Me xung Thien Huong

Recipes vary, but not greatly; confectioners and home cooks follow a basic method. White sugar is poured into a large pot, followed by a slurry of rice flour combined with water, and the mixture is stirred over heat to melt the sugar. (Rice flour is usually used, but I’ve seen recipes with tapioca flour too.) At this point, some candy makers add lime juice for extra fragrance. The mixture must be stirred constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula to prevent sticking and burning.

After ten or fifteen minutes, a dough forms, comparable in density to a thick Béchamel. If the cook is preparing a large amount of candy, more sugar might be added now. After another ten minutes of stirring, scraping and folding with the wooden utensil, the cook reduces the heat and pours in the malt syrup, stirring all the while, and the candy turns golden brown.

To test for readyness, a chopstick is dipped into the bubbling mixture and lifted out. The candy should form a thin sheet hanging from the horizontal chopstick. (I’m guessing that this is probably somewhere around the firm to hard ball stage, 244° to 250°C°). The sheet is waved back and forth to cool it quickly, then gathered between the fingers. If it’s soft and maleable but barely sticks to the hand, it’s time to fold in the freshly roasted peanuts, usually chopped or ground roughly. A wooden spoon in each hand makes pushing the candy back and forth in the pan easier.

Now it’s time for the fragrant, toasted sesame seeds. These are spread in a thin layer on the work surface, traditionally a nia, a large, flat, round tray. The candy mass is scooped out of the pot and placed atop the seeds. Left to cool for five minutes, it flattens and spreads into a shapely circle.

The candy maker flaps over the circle’s edges on four sides to form it into a square, flips the candy to coat it entirely in seeds, and positions a square wooden mold over it. With a wooden pin, the mixture must be rolled and pressed to fit the mold and embed the sesame seeds. The mold is removed and the cook continues to roll and press until satisfied that enough sesame is embedded in the surface. After it sets and cools awhile, around 30 minutes, the candy is cut. If pressed into U-shaped curves with the fingers, the mè xửng should be soft enough to slowly relax and become flat again. After the cut edges are pressed into the sesame seeds, the candy is wrapped. In the past, candy makers cut mè xửng into small squares and wrapped the sweets in banana leaves, but now plastic wrapping is typical and candy makers offer other shapes and textures too.

closeup me xung 1Mirror mè xửng, black sesame mè xửng, and especially, crunchy mè xửng are popular variations. The crunchy kind is a little less sweet and, instead of sporting a sesame-seed coating, is sandwiched between two toasted bánh đa (rice crackers). I like these best. When I bite into one, the crisp cracker and mild candy melt in my mouth, a pleasant contrast of textures. Perfect for sharing with a group of friends over a steaming pot of tea!

closeup me xung 2

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N is for Nghệ / Turmeric

IMG_3674 resized

“After women give birth,” my Vietnamese mother-in-law explained, “they get coldness. Turmeric heats the body and protects against colds or flu. Also,” she said, “turmeric makes the skin soft and beautiful again. Any woman who just had a baby should apply a turmeric mask and eat meat or fish kho nghệ (stewed in fish sauce with turmeric), or chicken simmered with turmeric.”

Over the years, various pregnant friends and relatives in Huế have told me they worried about how their skin would look afterwards. Almost all of them used a postpartum mask of fresh turmeric, usually prepared and applied by their mothers-in-law, to heat the body, soften the skin and clear away acne and even melasma, the blotchy brown facial discoloration sometimes called the mask of pregnancy.

Turmeric rhizomes at ̣Đông Ba Market in Huế_Chris Galvin

A member of the ginger family, turmeric has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Several varieties grow in Việt Nam. Perhaps the most common are those referred to as yellow turmeric (the one most familiar in the West), red turmeric (with its deeper orange flesh verging on red, and a darker peel), and black turmeric (for medicinal uses only, with a very dark skin and purplish flesh). Both the fresh rhizomes and dried, powdered turmeric are used for cooking and curative purposes. My family mainly uses the yellow variety, Curcuma longa. These roots were for sale at Huế’s Đông Ba Market. 

close up_turmeric at the market in Huế_Chris Galvin

A few days after Trinh, wife of my youngest brother-in-law, had her first baby, Mother grated several chunks of turmeric and soaked the shreds in water. She worked them and squeezed them, discarded the fibres and combined the water with yoghurt to make a thick paste, which she applied to Trinh’s face. When it was dry, Mother rinsed it off and warned Trinh to stay out of the sun, “because you’re more likely to get sunburn or sunstroke.”

“Did your skin turn yellow?” I asked Trinh.

“No, it became paler. The yoghurt stops your skin from turning yellow.”

My husband’s other sister-in-law, Oanh, told me she couldn’t use a turmeric mask. “I tried, but my system is too hot. It gave me acne.”

In Việt Nam, turmeric has a long history as a healing agent, used both internally and on the skin. Andrea Nguyen, in her first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, mentions that fresh turmeric “was traditionally rubbed on cuts or bruises to promote healing.” Today, turmeric skin creams are sold for treatment of mosquito bites and heat rash,  prevention of scars, and more. Some friends in Huế use masks made with fresh or powdered turmeric to cure acne, although as Oanh discovered, it can also cause acne in people with a sensitivity.

Việt Nam has recently become one of a handful of countries using nanotechnology to produce a turmeric-based drug called Nano-Curcumin, used to treat cancer. Curcumin, the anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory chemical in the plant, can suppress growth of cancerous cells, but it isn’t easily dissolved in water and therefore not easily absorbed in the body. Combined with nanoparticles, the curcumin becomes more bioavailable.

The vibrant colour and earthy flavour of turmeric feature in various Vietnamese dishes, from stews and curries to the southern bánh xeò (sizzling pancake—a crispy yellow pancake stuffed with fresh herbs, pork and shrimp) and its smaller, denser Huế cousin, bánh khoái (happy pancake). To make the batter for bánh xèo, I combine dried turmeric with rice flour and coconut milk.

Making bánh xèo at home_Chris Galvin

I made these bánh xeò—as I always do—based on Nicole Routhier’s recipe in The Foods of Vietnam. I also love her recipe for bánh tôm chiên, crisp nests of sweet potato and shrimp with a whisper of turmeric. Here’s a shot of some bánh khoái I enjoyed at one of my fave places for this dish in Huế (Bánh Khoái Hạnh, 11 Phó Đức Chính).

banh khoai 4 CROP

From the north comes chả cá (turmeric fish with fresh herbs), and from the eponymous Hà Nội restaurant, the famous Chả Cá Lã Vọng, so delectably described by Kim Fay in Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.  Andrea Nguyen offers a delightful and easy version of chả cá in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen that features notes of turmeric, galangal and dill.

turmeric fish_Chris Galvin

Fresh turmeric is wonderful in a marinade and flavour paste for grilled or stewed fish. I was delighted to find a recipe very similar to one I’d learned from a chef in Huế on Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Thai cooking blog, She Simmers. Leela’s Turmeric-Roasted Fish (ปลาอบขมิ้น) includes one ingredient—coriander root—that I’ve yet to see in Viet cuisine (though I’m sure recipes exist that use it). Leela serves her fish with nam pla prik on the side, a simple dipping sauce of chilies and fish sauce that is right at home in the Viet kitchen. (Leela’s 2014 cookbook, Simple Thai Food, also has some great recipes featuring turmeric, like hot and sour chicken soup with turmeric, and personal fave, turmeric grilled chicken—a fabulous recipe that, when prepared using chicken wings, closely resembles a dish I couldn’t get enough of at a friend’s drinking party in Châu Đốc!)

turmeric fish 2_Chris Galvin

My cousin-in-law Thủy makes a wonderful vegetarian curry loaded with potatoes and carrots, while sister-in-law Ta makes lòng xào nghệ (bún noodles with turmeric and offal), a popular Central Vietnamese dish for late-afternoon snacking or for nhậu (drinking beer or other alcohol and snacking).

A language note:
Lòng means variably the organs in the abdomen, the intestines, bowels or guts, but it figuratively means the heart or soul. In English, you have a good heart, learn something by heart, or have a broken heart; in Vietnamese, you have a good gut (lòng tốt), learn by gut (học thuộc lòng), or have pain in the gut (đau lòng)—or as my go-to online Viet dictionary puts it, you “have heart-breaking bowels.” Hm, lost a bit in translation there…or maybe gained something.

Whenever anyone mentions bún xào nghệ, I picture Ta grating vibrant orange mountains of turmeric, her hands tinted deep yellow. It’s best to wear gloves when handling turmeric, and use glass or steel implements. It will leave a stubborn residue on these materials, but with hot, soapy water, the orange-yellow film can be removed. It will, however, stain plastic irrevocably. If you stain your hands, rubbing with either sugar, oil or lemon juice is said to clear up the colour, but I’ve had no success with any of these. If, like me, you still can’t get rid of the stains, you could try Caroline Lange’s suggestions on the Food 52 blog.

I asked several friends and relatives for their bún xào nghệ recipes. My friend Hiền sent me a video of herself making the dish, but since I can’t upload videos on this blog (one day I’ll upgrade to the paid version), I took a still (below) of her sautéeing the offal with turmeric.Hien saute bun nghe

When I asked my sister-in-law for her recipe,  she explained her method and said, “If you like a particular ingredient, put more.” Three relatives offered estimates of the quantities they typically use, from which I’ve compiled a list of ingredients with approximate measures, followed by Ta’s instructions, a note, a link to a cold-busting turmeric tea, and a few words on growing your own.

Bún Xào Nghệ

  • 250 grams offal
  • a handful of coarse salt for cleaning the offal
  • 2 turmeric roots
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1  onion
  • 1– 2 TB fish sauce
  • Pinch msg (optional—my MIL uses a heaping TB)
  • 1 TB hạt nêm (optional—may be replaced by increasing the other flavourings)
  • 1– 2 tsp dried chilies
  • 2 chopped fresh bird chilies
  • bún noodles (if fresh, enough for two servings; if dried, about 100 grams per serving, soaked 5 hours – overnight)
  • salt to taste
  • 2 handfuls ram răm and a handful of chopped green onions

Method, in my sister-in-law’s words, translated:

Rinse offal with coarse salt. Scrape peel off the turmeric (with a spoon or the blunt edge of a knife), then grate the root. The quantity depends on how much you like turmeric—if you love it, put more. One rice-bowlful (about 3/4 cup) should be just right for two to four servings. You need a lot because the turmeric will shrink when you sauté it. (My mother-in-law, on the other hand, says a bowlful is too much for two servings, and recommends “one lạng” of turmeric. Which presents another problem: depending on whom you ask, a lạng can be 100 grams or about 38 grams, a confusion arising from old and newer measuring systems.) Chop garlic and onion.

Heat oil in frying pan. Sauté garlic and onions until aromatic. Add grated turmeric and keep stirring until the mixture starts to get dry and tends to stick.

Add flavourings: fish sauce, msg, hạt nêm (flavour granules)* ground dried chilies and some chopped fresh chilies, according to taste. It should be a little salty.

Finally, add fresh (or soaked and cooked) bún noodles. Toss to combine well and allow the noodles to absorb the flavours. Taste to see if it needs salt. Add rau răm (persicaria herb, sometimes called Vietnamese coriander, pictured below) and green onions and toss again. All that’s left to do, says Ta, is get it into some bowls!

rau răm leaves_Chris Galvin

*My in-laws use this chicken flavour hạt nêm and this mushroom-flavoured one, but several other companies make various versions too. While hạt nêm literally means flavour granules, the product seems to be very similar to, if not the same as, instant broth base in the West. Usually, only a tablespoon or so is added to a dish that will serve a whole family. Most hạt nêm contain plenty of msg and salt, so those on low-sodium diets would probably prefer to omit it.

After going on at length about bún with turmeric and offal, I must admit that as a non-fan of offal, I do not crave this dish. My in-laws sometimes do though, and the colour and texture are so appetizing that I am happy to share the offal in my serving with the others, and gobble down the noodles. My friend Thạch suggests asking for the bún nghệ cháy—literally, burnt turmeric noodles—the layer of noodles from the bottom of the frying pan, almost burnt, crisp and intensely flavoured.

In Việt Nam, fresh turmeric is used to prevent or fight colds and sore throats. Slices may be candied, or boiled and the resulting liquid mixed with sugar for a hot beverage. Robyn Eckhardt wrote about her personal experience with the magic of Vietnamese candied turmeric a few years ago. Her method for making it sounds much like the way it’s done in my family and—bonus—the turmeric cocktail recipe she developed to use up the leftover simple syrup is a winner. Robyn’s husband, photographer David Hagerman, has developed a turmeric-based cold-fighting tea that works. Despite fairly robust ingredients, Dave’s Miracle Tea has a delicate flavour and aroma, and is comforting to sip when a cold threatens to ruin a week of your life. I batched some up last week. Here are the ingredients, a little blurry in the steam rising from the pot.

Dave's Miracle Tea

Turmeric is easy to grow from fresh rhizomes bought at a health food store, especially if they already have tiny growing nubs. Give the rhizomes a quick rinse and pot them up. Keep the soil lightly moist, not soaked. It can take a while for the shoots to push through the soil. During this stage, too much water will rot the roots. I plant mine in tubs that I can put outside until the temperature falls to around 10°C in fall. I harvest only pieces the size I need, trying not to disturb the rest. When I bring it in for the winter, sometimes the leaves all dry up and fall, and sometimes a few keep growing, much like the ginger I grow the same way. Both turmeric and ginger roots keep very well in soil—much better than in the fridge or on the counter. Here are some turmeric plants about two months after I planted the rhizomes.

turmeric plants_Chris Galvin

Both turmeric and ginger freeze well, so a good option is to buy them when they look fresh (plump, not wizened and dry-looking), give them a rinse, let them dry and pop them into the freezer, ready for grating or slicing off just the amount you need. For some dishes, though, nothing beats the fresh roots, and in my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Huế, which didn’t even have a fridge until around ten years ago, only fresh turmeric will do.

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Photo set: Canada, Việt Nam

chris galvin nguyen 1_Excercise_in_the_mist

Between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m., the streets of Huế abound with people walking, jogging and excercising. When in Việt Nam, I’m often outside by 5 for a walk with my mother-in-law. . . When I took this photo of a group warming up in front of Huế’s flag tower, I could only just discern the flag in the mist.

This image is part of my photo set Canada, Việt Nam, published in the June 2016 issue of Asian Cha. To see the other five images and read about them, please click the link.

My thanks to the editors for kindly including the set.

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Runner-up in Briarpatch Magazine’s Writing in the Margins Contest!

briarpatch logoI’m pleased to announce that my personal essay Bombshell has been chosen as runner-up for the 2015 creative nonfiction prize in Briarpatch’s fifth annual writing contest. Thank you to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who judged the creative nonfiction entries.

Bombshell faced some serious competition. The winning CNF entry, Living Death by Siku Allooloo, held me glued to my screen, absorbing the words. When I reached the end, I read the piece a second time.

Laurel Albina’s thought-provoking poem Energy Series: Surface Mining won the poetry category, with Phillip Dwight Morgan’s powerful piece Free Trade Agreement chosen as runner-up by poetry judge Stephen Collis.

Iryn Tushabe won the Best of Regina category for her story Gone.

Congratulations to the winners, whose pieces have been published in the March/April issue of Briarpatch, available now. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive! Congrats, too, to my fellow runner-up.

Read more about Briarpatch, an award-winning Canadian magazine of social justice, politics and culture,  on their website. And do pick up a copy if you can! This is a magazine of writing that matters.

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V is for Vả Figs

imageWe tend to think of Vietnamese cuisine as a single entity, but really it’s made up of many regional dishes and ingredients. The cooking of Huế features a variety of such foods, and a variety of locally grown fig is one of these. The vả fig, Ficus auripculata, is only cultivated in the central region of Việt Nam, although it’s also grown in other parts of Asia, including China, Thailand, and Malaysia, as well as in Australia.

Vả are picked well before they are ripe, while still bright green on the outside, with white flesh surrounding a hollow pink centre. At this stage, they are hard, crunchy, faintly sweet and a little bitter. Their flesh is somewhat meaty, somewhat nutty. In Vietnamese, this mouthfeel is described as bùi, a word that has no equivalent in English but is sometimes translated as “rich” or “nutty”. They are also quite astringent, like a green banana.


In Huế, several different dishes are most typically prepared with this fig: raw vả are combined with slices of green bananas as well as unripe star fruit and assorted herbs and lettuce to accompany bánh khoái, a crisp rice pancake filled with pork and shrimp, or nem lụi, grilled pork sticks, or with a side of tôm chua to eat with thinly sliced boiled pork; they are made into a spicy blended appetiser/salad served with crunchy rice paper crackers, popular for both meals and snacks and as a dish served to accompany beer; they are used in soups and kho dishes (which are eaten with rice and have a thick, salty sauce). These dishes are sometimes called poor people’s food because the figs are so affordable, but in reality, all of them are seen both on the family dinner table and in expensive restaurants.


Vả trộn, a favourite salad-type dish in central Việt Nam, is mildly sweet, mildly salty, and spicy according to taste. If you want to prepare this dish, boil the vả until quite soft, then peel and slice very thinly. Drain and then squeeze them to remove excess water and work the figs gently by hand until they begin to fall apart. Toasted sesame seeds, boiled shrimp and lean pork cut into thin oblongs, fish sauce, salt, pepper, powdered dried chilis, and if you are a true Huế cook, a little MSG, are necessary flavourings, as are shredded mint and persicaria leaves (rau răm).

Combine everything and top the salad with coriander leaves, caramelised sliced shallots, green onion sections, and toasted lightly crushed peanuts. Serve with bánh tráng (crunchy toasted rice paper crackers). Invite guests to break the crackers into pieces big enough to scoop up mouthfuls of the salad. No need for forks or spoons.


Luke Nguyen, in his book The Food of Vietnam, recommends using green jackfruit to make his version of vả fig salad since it’s rare to find the fruits outside central Viet Nam. In the photo above, the white slices with seeds are young jackfruit, right above the slices of green bananas


Vả kho sườn heo is a simple dish of stewed pork ribs and vả figs. In the old days,  this type of stewed vả dish was commonly served to nursing mothers, because people believed that it helped increase milk production.


The vả tree is unusual in that the fruits develop in bunches on stems born right on the trunk and branches, just like jackfruit. Its beautiful large leaves make it a good shade tree even if it doesn’t grow very tall. I’ve seen vả trees in people’s courtyards,in the woods, and at possibly every pagoda I’ve visited in Huế. The trees are easy to grow, require little care, and produce fruit pretty much year round, though the main season is from December to March, bracketing the Tết holidays.

The raw figs were never a favourite for me, but after over ten years of nibbling at them, I’ve learned to like them. The spicy salad, on the other hand, I’ve never had trouble eating.

When served raw or prepared for pickling, vả should be peeled and bathed in salt water to prevent oxidization turning them brown, then either cut into thin slices for salads or brined before pickling. My in-laws and neighbours in Huế often prepare sweet and sour vả pickles for Tết. We put up several jars of them to serve guests during Tết celebrations for the Year of the Monkey, which began yesterday, February 8. Happy Lunar New Year!


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Sweet and Sour Tamarinds for Tết

imageHard work. Peeling sour green tamarinds to make sweet and sour Tết preserves. My sister-in-law and I have already spent a couple of hours on this, and we still have hours to go. When tamarinds are ripe, the shells separate from the fruits and come off easily, but when they are green, we have to pick them off, bits at a time, with the tip of a knife. The biggest challenge is to avoid cutting through the four long fibers that run the length of each pod, or cutting nicks in the fruit, either of which would make the finished product less pleasing to the eye.

We still have to remove the seeds, another challenge, because the fruits are firm and easy to break, like pieces of a hard apple. The brown pods on the left are soaking in water to make them just a little easier to work with, and the peeled ones on the right are soaking in salt water. Later, my mother-in-law will show us both the right proportions of vinegar and sugar to add to the seeded fruits, and then we’ll leave them to pickle for a week to ten days.

In the meantime, we’ll be making all kinds of other Tết preserves, including sweet and sour vả (a type of local fig), and of course dưa món, assorted dried vegetables in slightly sweet fish sauce, which we eat with the Tết sticky rice cakes. In the photo below, the white round shapes in jars on the left are vả figs, the long white shapes in jars at the top right are tamarinds. The mixture of multicoloured vegetables in jars is the finished dưa món. Below are the dried vegetables for making dưa món at home for people who don’t have time to cut and dry their own carrots, spring onion bulbs, garlic, chilis and other vegetables according to taste that go into this preserve.


I’m not too crazy about the tamarind preserve because it’s bland and more sweet than sour. My sister-in-law feels the same and says she prefers it with chilis added, so that it’s spicy, sweet and sour at once. We have decided to suggest this to our mother-in-law tonight. Hopefully, she will agree.

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T is for Tôm Chua (Sour Shrimp)

imageThe cuisine of Việt Nam’s old imperial city of Huế features a number of local specialties that aren’t so well known in the rest of the country. The lightly fermented shrimp condiment called tôm chua, sour shrimp, is one of these. My in-laws tell stories of visitors from Sai Gon eyeing the plump pink shrimp in reddish sauce, wondering what main dishes it goes with and how to eat it.

Although the shrimp are fermented, they look so fresh you’d think they’d been caught moments before making their appearance on the serving tray.image

My mother-in-law says the best tôm chua is prepared with shrimp grown in the brackish water of the Cầu Hai lagoon, about an hour outside Huế by motorbike. She says the carefully chosen shrimp are rinsed, their heads removed, and they are left briefly to marinate in rice wine, then transferred to a strainer to dry off. In the next step, they are combined with the necessary flavourings: thinly sliced garlic, shredded galangal and fresh bamboo, red chilis cut in thin lengthwise strips, sticky rice, and fish sauce. Amongst all the flavourings, galangal and chilis are the ones that give the tôm chua its characteristic flavour.

The ingredients are placed in a ceramic jar to ferment for seven to ten days in a cool place, preferably where the temperature can be kept steady. Some people even keep the jars buried to maintain the ideal cool atmosphere for the shrimp to ferment. The steadier the temperature, the tastier and more fragrant the final product. The fermentation turns the shrimp a reddish colour, as if they’d been cooked, the same way lemon juice or vinegar will “cook” fish.

At this point, the cook will add honey and maybe more galangal for extra flavour. Now, the shrimp are ready to bottle in clear jars that show off the lovely colours: pink or orange shrimp in red sauce dotted with yellow bamboo shreds, ruby red chilis and white garlic nubs. My mother-in-law says the condiment offers the perfect yin-yang balance, and all the important flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, and bùi (best translated as richness), linger on the palate.image

Tôm chua is most typically served as a side dish with boiled pork sliced thin and arranged in overlapping concentric circles, and sautéed bean sprouts or boiled rau muống (water spinach). Alongside these, finely sliced local vả figs, a type of astringent green banana called chuối chát, and sour unripe starfruit top a pile of herbs including basil and coriander, and of course, more red chilis. The result is an eye- and palate-pleasing feast fit for the Nguyễn kings who once ruled Việt Nam (in some cases as puppets) from the old imperial city of Huế.



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M is for Mãng Cầu (Custard Apple)

imageIt’s mãng cầu seaon in Huế right now. I spotted these ones next to a pile of bright pink dragon fruit at the market. My mother-in-law knows how much I like to eat them, and often buys them in threes just for me. She tells me to hide them before someone else eats them up.

This fruit, Annona squamosa, called sweetsop or custard apple in English, originated in the West Indies and tropical Americas. An old Mexican name, ate, is still reflected in the fruit’s name in several Asian languages, while in others, the common name obviously finds its roots in the Latin genus name. In northern Việt Nam, mãng cầu is called”na”, possibly from the genus name Annona. 

imageAnother species of Annona, A. muricata, is called  mãng cầu xiêm, and friends have explained that the word xiêm comes from Xiêm La, meaning Siam. Its English name is soursop. The flesh is similar, but there are many more of the hard shiny black seeds to spit out, and the fruit is juicier and messier to eat.


The custard apple, mãng cầu, is one of four symbolic fruits  offered to the ancestors for Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The others are coconut or dừa, papaya or đu đủ and mango or xoài. With a little word play, these words take on new meanings. Mãng cầu implies cầu, to pray. The word for coconut, dừa, sounds like the southern pronunciation of vừa, meaning “just right”. The second of the two syllables for papaya, đủ, means “enough” when used on its own. The word for mango, xoài, sounds a lot like “xài”, especially when spoken with a southern accent, and xài means “to spend / to use.”

Put together, the words form the phrase “cầu vừa đủ xài” – “We pray for just enough to use”.


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