Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Vietnamese Market

I must confess - I have a deep enthusiasm for Vietnamese inspired food. I'm not sure what the root of this may be, as the closest I ever got to the country was a holiday in Thailand. Now, you might be thinking, eh, food wise, it's the same thing. But oh, it is so not. For me, Vietnamese food-love started about ten years ago while living in Seattle and frequenting a certain group of Pho restaurants on a bi-monthly basis to fill up on massive bowls of noodly goodness. While of course also indulging in the staples of spring rolls and bánh mi sandwiches, Pho remained my gateway drug.

After moving to the Czech Republic I was overjoyed to learn of its largest non-European immigrant population. Yep, you got it - the Vietnamese. And while there are a handful of social and integration issues here, I was really looking forward to some good food. But what? To my surprise I couldn't see any big windows with that sought-after word: Pho. At least, not outside of Prague, and not in the main city areas.

What I discovered was that there are some Vietnamese restaurants tucked away in some outlying city areas. In fact, I was in Karlovy Vary the first time I saw a sign for Pho. I don't think my husband has ever seen me so excited by a stairway descending into a dark doorway, opening into an dank and empty bar. But I was. And yes, I ate there. And it was pretty darn good. Fresh cilantro, lime, and all the expected sauces. I tried to graciously thank the proprietor in the best Czech I could muster up at the time. I felt he was doing such a great service by making the effort to gather together such hard-to-find ingredients. I know now that it's not as difficult as it seems, as many Czech cities have Vietnamese markets, which mostly sell cheap goods, but also some great nibbles and sauces.

Last week I ran over there to grab some cilantro, and I found a great big bag of shrimp for a fantastic price (along with some jackfruit chips as pictured, which held me over while this dish was simmering). For me, Shrimp + Cilantro = Red Curry. Always. It's simply the best way to highlight the cilantro flavour with the shrimp, but you can also make it with chicken, or tofu, or just increase the veggie amount.

Red Curry

1 garlic cloves
1 onion
1 shallot
2 tsp crushed kaffir lime leaves
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or minced chillies)
1/2 can coconut milk - divided
1 Tb red curry paste
1 Tb brown sugar
1 cup chopped veg (red bell pepper, carrots, eggplant, zucchini...whatev)
1/2 can red kidney beans
500 g (or 1 lb.) shrimp or chicken
1 Tb fish sauce (or a smidge less if you're using chicken)
1 can chopped tomatoes
handful of cilantro
1 limes worth of juice

Rice (jasmine or regular ol' white)

Finely chop the first 5 ingredients and saute in a big pan/wok 3 minutes. Add in HALF of the half can coconut milk and the curry paste and brown sugar. Mash paste into the bottom of the pan until all is mixed. Toss in the veg, beans, shrimp/meat, fish sauce and the rest of the coconut milk. After a few minutes add the tomatoes. Let simmer until shrimps are pinky all the way through, 5 - 7 minutes. Longer for chicken. If it starts looking dry, resist the urge to add more coconut milk. Stick that in the fridge to make coconut rice pudding some other day. Instead add a cup of chicken or veg stock (have a cup of boiling water ready and a corner of bullion cube nearby for when this moment arrives.). Top it off with the splash of lime juice and cilantro (I put TONS on and it's still not enough!). Eat with rice.

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy!
-- Jo

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