Fruit + Alcohol = Delicious Sauces
My tough journey to becoming known as “the Vietnamese chef who cooks for the stars” started right here in Ho Chi Minh City.
As a boy, I was exposed to the fine flavors of the old French cuisine as well as the abundance of local produce. Having been away for so long, it’s truly humbling to get back to my roots and witness the great changes that have taken place in this country – but the thing that amazes me most is that even after so many years, its culinary heritage has remained just as it was, with perhaps even more varieties of fresh food available now than there ever was when I was growing up here.
For me, the most awe-inspiring part of any Vietnamese market is the fruit section. After years of cooking and experimenting with fruit in the US – where I was most interested in its role in improving health – I’ve found rediscovering the boundless resources of exotic fruit here a study in constant amazement. Fruit is more than just nutritious, it’s a natural remedy for imbalances in the body, and consuming delicious fruit has a marked effect on both health and beauty. Forget Botox and plastic surgery – nurture your body from the inside, and the effects will show up clearly on your skin.
As a culinary artist, returning to Vietnam has allowed me to explore the surprising contrasts of taste that are available in this country, and I’ve discovered that applying some basic Western cooking techniques on concoctions of local fruit with alcohol results in some surprising sauces. Intrigued at the thought of hitting upon some as-yet undiscovered possibilities, I started shopping at Ben Thanh Market with all the tourists except sticking closely to the areas selling meats, seafood, fruit and vegetables. I would talk to the locals around me about the benefits of each fruit, and they would tell me that people in Vietnam generally only use it for juices and fruit platters. Using fruit to make sauces and soups was unheard of. So I realized that I had to try all these exotic fruits for myself before I made a fool out of myself in the kitchen.
Dragon fruit, soursops, mangosteens, golden apples, green mangoes, green starfruit… the research was wild, and it was hard to hold back. I ended up eating so much fruit that I was ill for several days. But over the course of my overindulgences, I’d learned so much about each fruit’s flavor and texture. I started to carefully pair each one with an alcohol to make for the most flavorsome base, and then eventually developed them into sauces to match each protein.
My little French-Californian kitchen has now become irrevocably Vietnamese, with a fresh watermelon soup, a vu sua dressing (I dare say it’s Vietnam’s first Caesar Salad dressing), a passion fruit sauce for my foie gras, short ribs infused with guava, and a langoustine with soursop sauce. For those of you who enjoy cheffing (and eating) out there, I encourage you to join me on my quest for healthier eating in Vietnam – and to think outside the box while you’re staying here. We’re living in a tropical seaside country, so let’s push even the simple things to the edge – everything we need is just beyond the north gate at Cho Ben Thanh.
I’d like to propose a toast – in fact, let’s make it something even more exotic with a little kick for good measure.
Watermelon seafood martini
Watermelon – 1
Lemongrass – 2 stalks (rough cut)
Onion – 50 gm (chopped)
Thai chili – 2
Lime – 1 tablespoon
Mint – 20 gm
Cilantro – 20 gm
Tom yum paste – 1 tablespoon
Fish sauce – 1 1⁄2 teaspoons
White wine – 1⁄2 cup
Chicken stock – 2 cups
Skewer: Scallop or salmon; Olive or tomato; Shallots
Heat up the pot
1. Add oil
2. Add onion, lemongrass, chili, watermelon, tom yum paste, mint, cilantro
3. Add white wine and reduce by 1⁄2 4. add chicken stock and cook for 20 minutes
5. Add lime, fish sauce to taste 6.add1⁄2tspofoilonpan, medium high heat
7. Season scallop or salmon with salt & pepper
8. Sear each side for 2 minutes 9. Skewer olive, cooked seafood, pearl onion, and baby tomatoes
Be sure to strain the soup before serving. Bon Appetit!
*Vietnamese chef Jack Lee (www.chefjacklee.com) has served a host of Hollywood A-listers from Angelina Jolie to Barbra Streisand, and recently returned to chef for Acacia Veranda Dining (149-151 Nguyen Du, D1). His biography You Don’t Know Jack by Oi writer NPD Khanh will be released later this year.