International Thursday: Vietnam

  • Vietnamese Coffee (Cà phê đá)
  • Herb Noodle Salad with Grilled Texas Peaches
  • Grilled Vietnamese Pork Chops (Thịt Nướng)
  • Vietnamese Coconut crème caramel (Bánh Flan) 

On the morning of my birthday, my little guy announced he’d figured out the best birthday present for me—and it cost nothing.

“I’ll let you pick the next International Thursday country,” he said. Then, in what should have been an aside, stemming from a (long-standing and deepening) concern about “stealing” animals’ lives: “I hope no meat is eaten there.”

A few days later, I let him know that since we’d been exploring a lot of nations in the West, and touched several places in Africa, we should vicariously move over Asia. My choice was Vietnam.

He groaned. “Is that like Chinese?”

“Yes and no,” I told him, and then went on to explain Vietnam’s rich but bloody history. Chinese dynasties clutched the Southeast Asian land for nearly a thousand years, but it also witnessed interventions by the Mongols and the Dutch. Then, the French took over for nearly a 100 years, before the Japanese invaded what was then known as “Indochina” during World War II (“There was another world war?” he interjected with incredulity. Yes, I said, and it was horrifying. The world has never recovered, and Vietnam fared badly.)

Under a peace pact in 1954, the country was split in two, with the north embracing communism, and the south—bolstered by the U.S.—assuming a democratic republic stance. But attempts to reunify the country—and complete a Communist takeover—were thwarted by the south, which had U.S. military aid.

The Vietnam war ensued, and many millions died.

So. It turns out that explaining war and communism and democracy to a six-year-old, even the keenest listener, can never have the dire effect you’d want it to.

What he really just wanted to know, in the end, is if they ate meat.

Yes, I said. But not always.

+ ___ +

My own preoccupation with Vietnam comes from a very different place. Some years ago, I had the honor of interviewing a Texas City refinery worker who belonged to a large Houston-based community of “boat people”—refugees who fled the country after the Vietnam War by boat in a perilous journey. His ordeal was shocking—heartbreaking—and I can’t help but draw parallels with the exodus of the battered people of Syria and surrounding lands. I do not want to use as a political pulpit, but how integral Vietnamese immigrants have become to Houston’s cultural fabric is worth studying, in particular, by Texas’ shameful governance, which seems to have a vendetta against people of a non-conformist faith.

Vietnamese food, in particular, is such a large part of the city’s gastronomic heritage for me that if I were to move to Kenya, for example, I would shed sweat and tears for those grilled pork banh mi’s (especially from Roostar’s, where crusty white baguettes are individually wrapped in cellophane to keep their insides soft and moist), and steaming pho bo noodle bowls from Pho Saigon Noodle House, where every massive bowl is served with a platter heaped high with crunchy bean sprouts, lime wedges, sliced jalapeños, cilantro, mint, and basil leaves.

+ ___ +

And that’s where we start this journey.

We’re in Texas and it’s the end of summer. That means, stone fruits are aplenty, but peaches, in particular, are at their peak of ripeness, their absolute juiciest. I considered an herbed plum salad, but the choice was obvious.


The salad is a typical melange of Vietnamese herbs—torn mint, basil, and cilantro—along with zucchini noodles (bean sprouts were hard to source, big shock), and grilled Texas peaches. This was dressed by a simple sweet, sour, and aromatic concoction of :

  • the juice of 2 limes
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • ⅓ cup apple juice
  • 1 tsp of minced fresh ginger
  • 3 minced cloves of garlic.

Our grill finally conked out, by the way. One East African Chicken Tikka piece, too many, I suppose. And terrible timing, too, because the char on this marinated pork chop would have lent a caramelized flavor that can never be replicated in the oven. The marinade is, again, a blend of sweet and sour and spicy.

  • 3 tbs minced shallots (or onions)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 2 tbs oil


I searched obsessively for a dessert recipe, and on that quest, chanced on a number of fascinating bloggers who are fired by a curiosity about food and culture. I’m most intrigued by Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen. She’s on a journey to understand the nuances of cooking—and her approach is almost scientific. Just the thing to satisfy my inner-nerd.

The dessert I finally decided upon is possibly the best thing I’ve ever made for our study of the world: Vietnamese coconut creme caramel (Banh gan). 

I did change up the recipe slightly, using four eggs instead of five because the idea of an eggy custard makes me balk. I almost skipped this recipe because of all the eggs it required. Also, I cut the brown sugar to a quarter cup.


If you’ve ever had a crème caramel, you can imagine its textural magic. The way I see it, this flan has three components (versus the two in traditional crème caramel): the caramelized sugar syrup; a delicate custard of eggs and milk, coconut milk, and vanilla; and toasted coconut flakes.

Releasing the custard from its mold is a delight on its own. The amber liquid douses the soft custard in a shocking instant and coats the bottom of your dish. At first bite, the custard melts into a diaphanous bittersweet cream, and having lightly sopped up the golden liquid, the toasted coconut lends a chewy, nutty element that keeps the flavor on your tongue. Until the next bite. And the next. And all of a sudden, it’s all gone.


It happens just like that. One moment, you’re fretting about an imminent dusk, while trying to take a photo of a half-eaten crème caramel, and the next moment, you realize there’s just too little to photograph.

In case you’re wondering, there could never be an International Thursday post about the best pick to date without fresh-brewed Vietnamese coffee. I think I picked up these second-hand individual coffee brewers a decade ago on a whim from a Middle Eastern meat shop. I can’t think why we haven’t used them since.


+ ___ +

Thank you, my sweet potato, for what turned out to be an incredible birthday present. I hope you will remember, as I learned, that an experience can really be uplifting, and if you take the time to chronicle it, it will always stay with you.



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