Thursday, September 3, 2009

Culinary Tour of Little Saigon with Chef Robert Danhi

Chef Robert Danhi
Southeast Asian Flavors, Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore

Saturday September 19, 2009 launches the first of three culinary tours in Little Saigon, guided by Thai food expert Chef Robert Danhi. The 19th is a tour of Northern Vietnamese cuisine, Saturday October 17th is Central Vietnam, and Saturday November 21st Chef Danhi will lead guests through the cuisine of Southern Vietnam.

Chef Danhi's book, "not a cookbook, a food book"

On Saturday August 29th, Chef Danhi led a group of media people, writers and bloggers on the Northern Cuisine Vietnamese Tour. Our participation in the tour was negotiated by the wonderful Vanessa Kristal of JS² Communications. Also in attendance were Esther of e*starLA, Josh of Food GPS, Emma of LAWeekly's Squid Ink, Eddie from Deep End Dining whose wife is awesome, as well as writers from Bon Appetite (Alisa) and Gourmet magazine.

We started the tour sharing bahn mi & icy Vietnamese coffee at Lee's Sandwiches on Brookhurst at Westminster. Often called the "McDonald's of bahn mi" on Chowhound and elsewhere, I have no issue with Lee's. I used to dine there for bahn mi when working in the Westminster school district. Nowadays, I might seek advice from experts in Little Saigon gems to venture toward a more mom & pop shop, but the food at Lee's tastes good to me. More on Lee's in a later post, maybe.

After leaving Lee's, iced coffees in hand, we headed toward Thuan Phat Garden Grove Super Store.

First stopping at a mini store-within-the-store, Vua Tra Vua Kho Bo, Chef Danhi shares a small amount of Vietnamese with us. Kho refers to things that are cooked in sweet soy, while Bo apparently stands for lots of snacks made from meats. We said a quick hello to the owners.

This family has had the store for more than 20 years and now has 16 locations.

Vua Tra Vua Kho Bo is much, much, much more than meat. They also carry an astonishing array of dried and spiced fruits and candies in giant clear plastic bins, as well as teas in shelves along the walls.

First we tasted a beef jerky, dry with Vietnamese spices. This had a sweet, slightly smokey flavor and the meat was chewably soft.

Our second tasting was an Americanized version of the same beef, cured for a more Western taste bud. This was sticky and damp, a little more chewy with pepper flakes. A little sweet, more spicy.

We also tried dried jack fruit, which someone suggested tastes like Juicy Fruit gum. I didn't get that from the jack fruit, but it was crunchy and fairly dry. To me is tasted like a cross between a banana and a peach.

Last, the owner wanted us to all try their green tea jello. There were a lot of people in the group, and no one jumped to grab the jello quickly. Chef Danhi was firm with us, she wants you to try the tea jello. The message was clear, we were to experience her hospitality. I appreciated his firmness and gobbled down a refreshing jello shot, it was delicious. If you are a green tea drinker, the flavor will not be foreign to you.

Our small tidal wave of humans headed to the right once deeper inside the store, strolling toward the produce section with Chef Danhi leading the way. Lychee fruit, one of the most beautiful flavors on the planet.

Chef Danhi is passionate when describing a myriad of herbs. The entire area reeks of mint, its freshness is not only pungent but the amount in one small area is mind-boggling.

Chef Danhi introduces us to perilla and several related herbs in the same family as both mint & shiso seen frequently in Vietnamese restaurants. Wiki discusses this useful family of herbs, Lamiaceae,

"The plants are frequently aromatic in all parts and include many widely used culinary herbs, such as basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, thyme, lavender, and perilla. Some are shrubs, trees, such as teak, or rarely vines. Many members of the family are widely cultivated, owing not only to their aromatic qualities but also their ease of cultivation: these plants are among the easiest plants to propagate by stem cuttings. Besides those grown for their edible leaves, some are grown for decorative foliage, such as coleus. Others are grown for food purposes, but seeds are utilized instead of leaves, such as with chia."

Chef Danhi also shares with us an herb called "fish mint" (I think, in this photo). Fish mint has heart shaped leaves and a metallic fishy flavor, like "fish with aluminum", he says. Danhi also shares with us that many herbs are mislabeled as mint. If a produce labeler doesn't know what has come in, it will often be labeled generically as mint. He tells us as he walks through the long section of herbs that he sees at least 11 items mislabeled as mint.

Chive blossoms, I would love to cook with these but there is no time to hit up Epicurious for a recipe or even to run a few items to the register.

Chef discusses with us a family of plants called rhizomes, whose main body is its root. Many cultures use the root of rhizomes in cooking such as ginger and galangal (also known as blue ginger).

Galangal. Used in the cooking of dog in some areas of Vietnam. Also used to cook Tom Yum soup, which I am sure you recognize as a popular soup in Thai restaurants. Definitely the reason it is located for sale on the shelves here in the United States, I would be thinking. It is also considered a stimulant and an aphrodisiac. Woot!

Demonstrating the banana blossom. Each blossom produces dozens of bananas. If you peel back each top leaf, banana-style, the blossom reveals little banana buds.

Banana blossoms are shaved thin and used in salads. Having a rather astringent quality they are often used to balance out sweet flavors. Sometimes they are simply placed uncooked on the table, eaters adding them at will to their dish as they see fit tastewise.

Chiles need no explanation.

This is done in several locations in the produce section. Everything needed to make a dish is packed together. This is so Whole Foods style. Who did this first? Where did this trend generate?

Star fruit-giganticus. That's tiny e*star in the back, miniaturized next to the huge fruit.

I was astounded at the sheer volume of meatballs, and no less at the many varieties.

Fish balls.

Balls of pork.

Chicken and mushroom balls.

Shrimp balls. Who knew shrimps had balls? I want to try them! Next time I am in Garden Grove or near Little Saigon, most likely for work coming up sometime soon, I am stopping in and experiencing a shopaganza.

Other Asian cultures are represented at Thuan Phat. Korean potato chips. Or so I assumed. These are made by a Japanese company, Uwajimaya.

Japanese mochi, the nonfrozen type.

Chef Danhi lectured us happily about MSG, monosodium glutimate. He said there is no proof that MSG causes migraines or headaches, and in 95%+ of the kitchens he spent time at in Asia used MSG. MSG boosts the sense of protein in a dish, elevating the flavor of protein artificially enables restaurants to keep their costs low enough for people to be willing to eat there. Dining in Vietnam is a fine balance, I surmise. There are literally restaurants or food venues everywhere. Danhi says it is amazing, you cannot walk 20 feet without seeing some place to eat. Competition and low wages combine to force food providers to keep costs low. It is natural that some tricks would have been found along Vietnam's developmental route starting as a thriving Paleolithic culture 20,000+ years ago.

Our group, dressed for the searing heat outside, listen raptly as Danhi waxes on about different qualities of condensed milk. Longevity is the most common brand found in Vietnam, but the quality is more about what is in the can, not on the label. Longevity Gold is highest quality, with 1% fat instead of the more common .5%. However, also common and less expensive is "filled" condensed milk. Oil is added to this version, making it a less expensive replica of what we think of as condensed milk. Chef Danhi advises against using it in your cooking, but says it does not necessarily taste bad. He is careful when discussing trends and choices in Vietnamese cooking not to make judgements about cooks' choices and money saving techniques. I appreciate his levity and cultural/economic sensitivity.

Chef holds up a noodle I find intriguing, the thinnest width rice vermicelli.

This extremely thin rice vermicelli is like gauze or cobwebs, he says.

So many kinds of rice noodles in so many shapes and sizes and thicknesses.

They also stock an entire section of Japanese noodles.

And some of the best Italian sauce.

Straying from the herd somewhat, D and I explore the frozen meats section. I am intrigued by the black chicken. What the hades is black chicken? Alive, this breed is called a Silkie. A client recently derided Wikipedia bitterly in front of me, and despite knowing wiki is not always reliable, I find so much joy there.

"The black meat of a Silkie is generally considered an unusual or unpalatable attribute in European and American cuisines. In contrast, several Asian cuisines consider Silkie meat a gourmet food. Chinese cuisine especially values the breed, but it is also a common ingredient in some Japanese, Cambodian and Korean dishes. Areas where Chinese cuisine has been a strong influence, such as Malaysia, may also cook Silkie. As early as the 7th century, traditional Chinese medicine has held that chicken soup made with Silkie meat is a curative food. The usual methods of cooking include using Silkie to make broth, braising, and in curries. Traditional Chinese soup made with Silkie also uses ingredients such as wolfberries, Dioscorea opposita (white yam), orange peel, and fresh ginger. A few fusion restaurants in metropolitan areas of the West have also cooked it as a part of traditional American or French cuisine, such as in confit."

Wiki also shares that Silkies made their way west from Asia along the Silk Road, showing up in accounts of Marco Polo while traveling the region and also in some regional Italian cooking. Apparently the breed posses so calm a temperament they are often kept as pets.

Deer flank. D asked if I would eat it, and I replied not only that I would but that I would love to have Adam Horton from Saddle Peak Lodge cook it for me.

I am Cornholio.

A wild guess tells me that pork bung is the larger part of the pig's intestinal tract, the lower portion.

And the beef pizzle?

I am not sure what I thought it was, but now I know for sure and am willing to share if you need me to. Who knew? And I am also willing to take a wild guess at what "pin" means in Vietnamese. I could be wrong.

Why are sea creatures so mysterious to humans? I am sure the differences in our oxygen delivery systems has something to do with it. Sea food departments entrance me.

Candian snails.

I have no idea what these mollusks are. Can anyone help me out here?

Teaming masses of crayfish. A still did not do them justice.

We all drove from Lee's parking lot a couple miles across Little Saigon Swingers' style, arriving near the Dong Phuong tofu factory.

Greeted at the door by the freshest fried tofu, one plate seasoned with lemongrass and one with chile flakes.
Fresh soy milk, just squeezed from the soy bean, is put hot right into the dairy case. They must sell a huge amount of soy milk in Little Saigon, because everywhere I looked there were full cases of freshly made.

Tofu cakes. Tofu is made from soaking dried soy beans, then extracting the liquid. Gypsum is used as a coagulent to solidify the liquid, which is then pressed into shapes.

Tofu treats in the hot case.

These ladies were so kind and generous to our group, and one asked to have her pic taken. Lovely. She seemed to be having a great time with her guests.

Sweet goods made from soy beans.

After the tofiesta, we walked through a few blocks through Little Saigon amid the continually elevating mercury.

And arrived at Ha Noi, a clean little cafe filled with people of all ethnicities getting their Vietnamese lunch on.

Chef Danhi gave an up-close-and-personal cooking demo of a Northern specialty, Bo Luc Lac or Soy Glazed Shaking Beef Salad with Pickled Onions. Above is his not-unproblematic demo station.

He adds caramel to the cubed beef. Vietnamese cooks often have this thick, vicscous caramel sauce handy to add to meat and stews. Sometimes the caramel is added to dark soy sauce to aid in the darkening and thickening. Traditionally, the darkening and thickening of the soy sauce is done mechanically through the brewing process of the sauce, water continuing to evaporate as the sauce reduces. However, as a short cut caramel is sometimes added instead.

While quickly and expertly chopping a red onion, Chef explains that after 100 years of colonization, the departing French left behind many traces of their culture including baguettes, coffee, yogurt and ice cream, but sadly not knife skills. He advises, when cutting an onion consider what you want the onion to do in the dish. If you cut with the grain, the chopped onion will hold its shape remaining intact. If you cut against the grain the whorls of onions will break down and thicken the sauce or broth you are cooking them in. Both methods work well for different purposes. I like knowing this, and it may cause me to be more purposeful in my use of the onion.

Danhi passed out reusable chopsticks, which I am carrying in my handbag right now. 150k chopsticks are discarded daily in Japan alone. China, experiencing a timber shortage, buys wood from Canada for their disposable chopstick habit. Carrying one's own chopsticks not only helps with deforestation, but also helping to limit carbon emissions by boats carrying wood from Canada to Asia. The chef kindly pre-washed our sticks for us so they were cleanly ready to eat with. I would have eaten with them without him having washed them, because I am untidy like that. I will probably die of some easily prevented communicable disease or from ingesting food past its prime. At times, I am shocked to find myself still alive.

Ha Noi served the hot tourists tall cups of ice cold sugar cane juice, flavored slightly with citrus. To extract the juices, they put the cane through a machine that looks like a pasta machine, and press the juices out turning it with a handle. Different kinds of fruit juices can be added, and when Danhi was at culinary school one chef tried red onion rather successfully. Ah, curiosity. The mother of culinary invention.

The cane juice I sipped from at Ha Noi tasted reminiscent of an Orange Juius at the mall in the 1970's. Fresher, and not as syrupy sweet. Beautifully bright, actually. But I definitely was reliving Dittos and the 5-3-1 store.

Spice station.

My serving of shaking beef as prepped by the restaurant kitchen.

Chef Danhi cooks on his faulty induction burner. He wanted to lift the pan and show his saute method, but everytime he lifted the saute pan the burner turned itself off. He is one good natured and patient chef, which are odd qualities in a chef, IME anyway. Maybe he is an imposter.

Chef's Shaking Beef. His was far more darkly succulent looking, more deeply caramelized. No longer hungry, my mouth watered nevertheless.

We were served tiny pho despite the heat, and despite the ambient temps and the heat of the soup the meal was perfect. I really experimented with my Pho. He suggested NOT using hoisin sauce in ones pho, even though it is quite commonly used. Hoisin replicates the umami flavors in the broth, which is why people use it. However, if you have a good broth you drown the flavors out with a dark sauce. Better to take advantage of the bounty in front of you in terms of herbs, onions and chilis...some people poured hoisin and sriracha onto little plates and dipped their noodles and meat into the sauces, myself included. I also benefited from sitting across from Alisa, a writer for Bon Appetit. Always having a hard time negotiating pho, I received a lesson from a pro via mimicry.

Mint, lettuce, perilla. Many of these baskets were spread down the long table Vietnamese style. Danhi informed us that these herbs are not typically added during the cooking process in Vietnam. Instead they are simply placed on the table, eaters adding what they need according to their own likes. This is a spiritually generous way to dine.

Ha Noi's kitchen also prepared for us a fritter dish with sweet potatoes and shrimps. This is made traditionally only in Hanoi, using shrimp fished from the waters of the Red River that flows from Southwestern China, through Vietnam and into the Gulf of Tonkin. Shrimps are fried and served with their soft shells on, and the potatoes are cut to look like pommes frites. Quel surprise!

In huge pieces of lettuce with a few perilla leaves, like a mini burrito, you wrap some potato and shrimp and roll. Then dip into the sauce below, filled with carrots, papaya and rice wine vinegar. Deliciousness. One of the best things I have ever tasted. The perilla tastes so much like a shiso, I really don't see the difference. While I don't love shiso on my sushi, I loved the similar tasting perilla with these Vietnamese flavors. Every flavor stood out and contrasted nicely with one another. If they had a/c working I would be going to Ha Noi for dinner tonight. D and I will definitely be hitting Ha Noi again.


We were also served a fried Ha Noi springroll, a vermicelli noodle and pork dish with woodear mushrooms, deep fried.

This was a sultry dish, a little oily and very hot. I ended up wrapping it in lettuce with perilla just like the fritters.

Fried roll peeks out from beneath its lettuce bonnet. I eat.

Bun Cha Ha Noi. Bun is the noodle, cha is pork belly. This dish was actually grilled pork slices underneath pork belly cakes in a hot brown broth. Place some meat atop vermicelli and spoon some of the car broth on top. Delicious meat flavors, yet still light in taste and feel.

Right before making our imminent escape from the endlessly fascinating tour we were served little bowls of Vietnamese yogurt. Unlike any other yogurt I have tasted, this one is made from condensed milk and has live yogurt cultures. The recipe for this is in Danhi's book, Southeast Asian Flavors, Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore. His assistant swears if you follow the recipe exactly, yours will taste just like mine did. Delicious.

Below is the press release announcing Chef Danhi's tours of Little Saigon. I learned so much on my tour and enjoyed it so thoroughly, I bought my mom a copy of his book and plan to take her on one of the three tours.

Always wondered what’s happening in Little Saigon? Good food…that’s what! Now you have a chance to taste it first hand on a tour guided by one of the countries leading authorities on Asian food, Chef Robert Danhi. This James Beard nominated author of Southeast Asian Flavors–Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore will lead you through markets, sample treats at small shops, visit a tofu factory for samples. Finish the tour at a local restaurant where Robert will demonstrate a recipe from his book. It doesn’t stop there; at the end of the tour you will receive one of chef’s books, enabling you to continue to taste the flavors of Southeast Asia in your own home.
Some Things You Get To Taste on the Northern Cuisine Tour
  • Fresh Sugar Cane Juice – Nuoc Mia
  • Ice Vietnamese Coffee – CafĂ© Sua Da
  • Sweet Potato and Shrimp Fritters – Banh Tom Co Ngu
  • Soy Glazed Shaking Beef Salad with Pickled Red Onions – Bo Luc Lac
  • Hanoi Style Spring Rolls – Nem Ran Cua Be
  • Grilled Pork Patties with Rice Vermicelli & Green Papaya– Bun Cha Hanoi
  • Vietnamese Style Yogurt – Sua Chua
Each Tour, Food, Beverage and a signed copy of Southeast Asian Flavors ($45 value) all for $75
Come on all three adventures for $175 includes one copy of Southeast Flavors


SinoSoul said...

I don't have the heart to work through the entire post but.. you actually took a pix of MSG. Hilarious.

Food, she thought. said...

SS: Yes, it is one long ass post. Chef Danhi is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Vietnamese cuisine. He is enthusiastic and fascinating. I also took a picture of an ox penis.

Gastronomer said...

I loved reading a new perspective on this very familiar subject. It sounds like you learned a whole lot! Bung and all. Btw, I love his description of banh hoi -- it's TOTALLY like a gauze pad!

pleasurepalate said...

This looks like an awesome tour and it looks like it's so worth the price. I'm definitely going to try and make at least one of them. :)

Gary Allen said...

Can't say for sure... but those unidentified shellfish appear to be conch (or scungilli, for Italians).

Food, she thought. said...


Kevin from calls them sazae, or turban shell. A sea snail. But I would buy conch. I thought conch shells were lighter on color and a little smaller.

Robert said...

Next trip is coming May 30th... hope to see some of you there!!!

Go to for more details.

Robert Danhi

oregano oil said...

That was a long but really good post. Enjoyed looking at the photos. Your tour showed how diverse Southeast Asian cuisines can be!