Speculations fly as to which mystery flavor led to the Papa Bear being ostracized, but today, I'm taking a detour from the answer and sharing with you a very special post. As a part of The Delicious Life's Dine and Dish: Queen of Cuisine, I'm going to feature the Queen of Vietnamese cooking and my Vietnamese cooking teacher, Mama Ly.
Mama Ly is my friend Arik's beautiful mother, and she has taken me in as her student in Vietnamese culinary ways. She has graciously cooked many meals for me and taught me many recipes. I now have the skills to concoct wonderful shrimp paste dipping sauce (mam nem), good enough to rival the Vietnamese restaurants frequented by Vietnamese locals in Oakland or in San Jose. I can also turn out crispy savory Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo). When I read the Dine and Dish theme, I knew exactly who the Queen of Cuisine was in my mind for my sphere of dining - Mama Ly. I sent Arik an email, asking him if he would be so kind to share his mother's delicious dishes for me for this post. Luckily for me, this proved to be another fortunate excuse for me to impose on Mama Ly to feed me again! And she, unknowingly, made my favorite Vietnamese dish!
I've had banh hoi, the flattened noodles you see here, four times before this, and each time, I am impressed by the texture. The noodles are firmly packed into sheets, but as soon as you bite into the squares, they fall apart in your mouth. It is truly pleasurable to feel the dissociating noodles on my tongue. It tickles the inside of my mouth while spreading the flavors of its accompaning meats and sauces.
Banh hoi is wrapped inside either lettuce leaves or both lettuce leaves and rice paper sheets (banh tran), along with various meats and herbs. I've always only had one choice of meat to wrap with my banh hoi in the past, but not at Mama Ly's! She knows how to take care of hungry kids like me, and she had prepared THREE kinds of goods to go with the banh hoi.
My number one favorite was the fried spring rolls (cha gio). The crunch of the spring rolls with the soft noodles and the refreshing bitterness of the herbs was nothing short of perfection. The balance of the various textures, the richness, the softness, and the bitterness was amazing. As the noodles dissociated with each bite, the flavors mixed into a perfect harmony of textures and tastes.
The cha gio contained another layer of texture and flavor, as I bit into the rolls and my teeth felt the soft center filled with shrimp. I could've eaten a hundred of these alone, two hundred with the banh hoi!
Equally amazing in the flavor department was the shrimp with sugar cane (chao tom). Minced shrimp was slathered onto juicy sugar cane sticks and grilled to a golden finish. The shrimp took on a slightly sweet touch from the sugar cane and the savory-sweetness of this dish added a new dimension to the banh hoi.
Finally, we also had a copious amount of minced marinated pork in a sausage/ham like patties (nem nuong). These patties also had a touch of sweetness which provided a depth to the banh hoi in the rolled state.
What ties all of these dishes beautifully is Mama Ly's fish-based dipping sauce (nuoc mam). Her nuoc mam is far better than anything I have had at any of the Vietnamese restaurants I know. She has the perfect balance of sweetness, tartness, and saltiness, and her use of garlic and pepper is sublime. It is flavorful without any hint of overagressiveness. It supports all dishes in the most motherly and warm way, bringing out the best in the foods that gets dipped. She has mastered the ultimate skill of balancing and giving each component of the dish a role to play. In her hands, each ingredient performs at their best, working together to create true epicurean pleasure in the diner.
Mama Ly inspires me to cook with style and grace, creating food that nourishes the body and the soul. When I walk into her kitchen, I know it is a well-used, well-loved, well-run site of numerous operations with many laughters and many joyous dining. To me, there is no one more deserving of the title, "Queen of Cuisine" than my dearest Vietnamese cooking teacher.