Tam Nguyen is known for his restaurants. In 2004, Nguyen, along with his three siblings, started a fine-dining Vietnamese restaurant located in Little Saigon called Tamarind Tree. Years later, he opened a second restaurant called Long Provincial serving more seafood choices and forgotten Vietnamese dishes.
Growing up in a big family, gathering on special occasions were important to him. Vietnamese New Year, Christmas Eve, and ancestors’ death anniversary are the most important time of the year, Nguyen said.
Although Christmas is his favorite holiday, Vietnamese New Year is a must for his family members to come home to Seattle.
“I don’t recall a time we ever stopped this family tradition,” said Nguyen. “Even in a time of war or a time of family separation.”
Traditionally, for Vietnamese Lunar New Year, a house must be clean and tidy. All of the food would have been prepared prior to the first day of the New Year. “On the first day of the year, we all dress up nice and greet our elders with good wishes in health, happiness, and longevity. The elders then will give blessing, teaching, and a red envelope with brand new bills. We call this ‘lucky money.’” Nguyen said.
For him, different dishes are served on different holidays because each celebration has a separate meaning. Turkey curry, baguette, and buche de noel (Christmas log cake) are usually served during Christmas for his family. “Banh chung,” a square sticky rice cake with ground mung bean filling, pork belly and seasoning, and wrapped in a banana leaf, is served during Vietnamese New Year.
“This food brings back good memories of flavors, texture, and a tradition in my family that has been with me for a long time. I serve this at my restaurants on special occasions to share a part of culture to my second country, the United States,” Nguyen said.
Vietnamese square sticky rice cake
Makes 10 square rice cakes
5 lbs of sticky rice grain
2 lbs of mung bean (no green husks)
3 lbs of pork belly
1 lb of green onion (use only white part, not the green part)
2 tsp of crushed white pepper
2 Tbs of fine sea salt
4 Tbs of granulated sugar
10 bags of frozen banana leaf
1 large roll of cloth threat strings to tie the square cake
1. Wooden square ring with thickness of 2 inches.
2. Large stockpot
1. Soak sticky rice grain with luke warm water for 10 hours, in one bucket.
2. Soak mung bean with luke warm water for 10 hours, in another bucket.
3. Marinate pork belly for 10 hours in one covered container.
a. Clean the pork belly with warm water, let dry off.
b. Marinate pork belly with chopped green onion (white part only), white pepper, sea salt, and sugar.
c. Keep pork in the refrigerator for 10 hours. One hour before cake forming, divide into 10 equal portions.
4. One hour before cake forming process, drain water after 10 hours of soaking rice grain and mung bean.
1. Lay four cloth threat strings North direction and another four strings East direction in the wooden square. Make sure the strings three times longer than the wooden square ring.
2. Layer the banana leaf in cross direction (North and East). Make sure the leaf is twice longer than the wooden square ring.
3. Place one quarter pound of soaked sticky rice grain for the first layer and a layer of soaked mung bean (thin layer only).
4. Place in one portion of marinated pork (0.3 lb); make sure to include some chopped green onion and crushed pepper during this process.
5. Place one thin layer of soaked mung bean, then one-quarter pound of soaked sticky rice grain.
6. Fold the banana leaf to close, one side at a time.
7. Tie the strings together, but not too tight.
1. Stack the ten cakes in one large pot, and then fill it up with water to cover the top cake. Cover the pot with lid.
2. Use high heat to bring to boil, then turn it down to medium and cook for 12 hours.
3. Continue to refill the hot water into this large pot, because we always keep the water level to cover the top cake at all times.
4. After 10 hours, take cakes out and rest on screen rack. Make sure these cakes drain of the hot water. Draining process is about two hours.
1. Room temperature or heat up in microwave.
2. Left-over cake can be pan-fried with oil. Roll it thinly and pan fry.
3. Best to eat with sweet pickled vegetables and Vietnamese pork terrine.
Dr. Narongdej Jaroensabphayanont, or “Jay” as Thai people call him, is a Board member of the Thai Association of Washington. He was born in Thailand and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s to attend a culinary school.
He first started as a food and beverage manager at a golf club in Thailand and then worked at several restaurants in the U.S. before obtaining a Master’s and Doctoral degree in Finance and International Business. He now works as a financial advisor with cooking as his part-time job and passion. But the Ph.D in business and finance draws the line at food. He said he believes food isn’t about business; it’s about entertainment and giving joy to people.
“Cooking for my family is when everyone helps one another and has fun,” Jaroensabphayanont said. “Thai New Year (Song Kran Festival) has always been my favorite holiday. We cook since the morning and prepare 5-6 dishes…It’s like Christmas here. My favorite holiday dish is called Moo Ping (grilled pork skewers). All of the kids can help and it’s enjoyed by all ages.”
Moo Ping is a popular street food in Thailand, often eaten with sticky rice. Some Thais even eat it for breakfast when they’re on-the-go.
“This is the only time I’m allowed to play with fire without getting complaints from parents,” Jaroensabphayanont said.
Asian Grilled Pork: The original recipe uses pear puree instead of papaya puree. The papaya enzyme called papain, is used as a meat tenderizer. It breaks down tough meat fibers. Yield: a lot (75-90 skewers)
3 lbs pork shoulder or butt
2 Tbs oyster sauce
3 Tbs light soy sauce
3 Tbs seasoning sauce. I used Golden mountain brand.
1 Tbs sugar
1 apple, peeled, cored, cubed, and pureed
1 full cup papaya, peeled, cubed, and puree
3 Tbs Korean hot pepper paste (Gochujang). This is spicy so please be careful. You can decrease the amount for less spicy
1 Tbs sesame oil
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
Soak bamboo skewer in water overnight or at least 6 hours (until they are fully submerged with water)
Add everything except pork and sesame seeds in a blender. Blend until mixed well.
Cut pork into slice or small cube. Pour in the sauce. Marinate it overnight. If using apple and pear, marinating it a few days works best to get all the flavor.
Thread each piece of pork with a skewer. Leave about 1/4 of skewer left for grilling and handling.
Grill on medium high heat or about 375 F until it’s cooked through.
Serve with couscous or fresh lettuce and other fresh vegetable. See picture.
Jennifer Phang, a Chinese-Canadian born in Malaysia, considers herself a foodie. Phang writes in her food blog (Pomehana) to share her love of food and dining.
“Growing up, my family celebrated the holidays with Chinese food,” said Phang. “We love hotpot. Seafood has been a special treat for me.”
Hot pot is a popular dish on cold days. Its steam, hot soup, and flavorful sauce make it a hit in any family. “We celebrate Christmas Eve with a hotpot. My mom makes her own broth and it’s time-consuming,” Phang said.
Phang works as an architect and serves on the board of the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDPDA). “I don’t make my own broth because of limited time but I make my own sauce. I’ve got a recipe from my mom.”
Fried shallots in oil and Malaysian hot sauce are the key ingredients. Malaysian hot sauce has chili and lime flavor. It adds kick. “My mom puts fried shallots in oil with soy sauce, green onions, and Malaysian hot sauce. You mix well and adjust to your preferences.” Phang still keeps her mom’s recipe and shares it with friends every time she hosts a hot pot party.
Theresa Froehlich is a professional life coach with diverse training, skill sets and an intercultural background. Growing up in Hong Kong and spending her adult years in the United States and Canada, Froehlich assimilates her heritage to American culture. In her childhood, roasted duck and fried rice were staple dishes and roasted pumpkin seeds and rice porridge were common appetizers. “My relatives and parents like Chinese food,” said Froehlich. “However, my sister and I are trying to incorporate American food on the dinner table. It’s like East Meets West style. We all help prepare food and catch up. Everyone gets together. It’s fun memory.
“We started our own Christmas tradition for our family,” Froehlich said, serving American-style food such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and sweet potato casserole.
Sweet potato casserole is the dish her kids love and has now become a staple on the holiday dinner table.
Sweet Potato Casserole
3 cups mashed sweet potato or yams
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cow’s milk or soy milk
1/3 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla
Blend mashed sweet potato and the next 5 ingredients together until smooth. Pour into baking dish. Mix topping together. Sprinkle over sweet potatoes. Bake uncovered 375 degrees 25-30 minutes. See picture.
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour (or brown rice flour)
1/3 c melted butter