Isn’t one of the best things about traveling exploring the food that is so uniquely of that culture? The different flavors, vegetables used in different ways, spices I’ve never heard of, food I’ve never seen. It's amazing. But I’ve always been a little bit of a gourmand, aka piggy. What can I say. I love food.
It seems a little strange to be thinking about Vietnamese dishes as I sit and look out the window. It’s currently snowing and -12 degrees C. (Joshua is American, so that’s 11 degrees F. for all of you south of the border). And even though it is cold, it is stunningly beautiful. The tiniest snowflakes are falling with almost no wind by the thousands every millisecond.
In Vietnam, the high today is 31 degrees C., or 89 degrees F. In a country that rarely experiences cold except in the far reaches of the north-western parts, the majority of Vietnamese food is a little spicy and almost always hot, braised, in soup form or stewed. I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a country that rarely saw temperatures under 22 degrees C. or 71 degrees F., I think I’d choose to live off salads, not eating beef pho (beef and noodle soup) for breakfast. But that’s just me. As it turns out, Vietnamese food is perfectly suited for a northern Canadian girl that is currently freezing.
One of the wonderful things (or at least I think so) about Vietnamese cuisine is that they use every part of the animal. Nothing is wasted. As a result, recipes that use less desirable (what we would consider undesirable) cuts of meat are common. Ox tail, the brown meat on chicken, pork shoulder, tongue, feet, and everything in between. Cheap cuts of meat are rarely considered a culinary delight in North America. But in Vietnam, everything is good to go. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start posting duck tongue stew, or boiled chicken feet, but it is refreshing to make delicious, flavorful, and inexpensive meals.
Chinese 5 spice or as it is seen commonly in Vietnamese cookbooks as 5 spice, can be bought or simply made. 5 spice is also used in other Asian and Arabic cooking so if you’re adventurous you’ll find plenty of uses for it. The ingredients are simple and if you have a well stocked spice cupboard you may already have the ingredients you need without having to spend any money.
5 spice is essentially made up of star anis, clove, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and szechuan pepper, but some recipes will include ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, licorice, black pepper, and/or orange peel. I wanted to give you a fairly standard recipe, but feel free to explore a bit with the list of optional spices. Play around and you’ll have a recipe that is all your own. Like your families special blend! (See recipe below.)
You may want to double or even triple this chicken recipe based on your needs. This is enough for 2-4 people depending on how many chicken thighs you each eat. This is the equivalent of 4 meals for me, but a family might to want double the recipe, or if you have a dude in your life that eats 3 thighs in one sitting… you may not want to double the vegetables as I tend to go pretty heavy in that department.
This recipe can be made with beef or pork and any tough cuts of meat you may have gotten a deal on. Simply increase the cooking time to yield tender meat. Beef will take about 2-1/2 hours. You could also make this with cubed pumpkin or squash as a delightful vegetarian or even vegan dish.
Vietnamese braised chicken with 5 spice (or vegan Vietnamese braised squash)
4 chicken thighs (or vegans: 3 cups cubed winter squash, directions found below)
1/4 cup of flour of choice (whole grain or gluten-free flour can be used here)
1 teaspoon salt
Oil for frying
1 onion, diced
1/2 tablespoon of 5 spice (see recipe below)
1 long red chili, seeded and thinly sliced (or substitute 1 teaspoon red chili sauce)
4 tomatoes, chopped
4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch chucks
1 tablespoon soy sauce (or for a soy-free option substitute coconut aminos)
1 tablespoon of sweetener of choice (I used honey)
1-3/4 cups of water
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Mix the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and place it in a shallow bowl. Coat the chicken thighs with the flour mixture and shake off excess.
3. Heat a small amount of oil in a hot ovenproof heavy bottomed pan or pot (that has a lid) and brown the chicken on both sides. This should take about 2 minutes per side. Remove the chicken and set aside.
4. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and cook until onions become translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the 5 spice and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, being careful not to burn the spices. Add the remaining salt, tomatoes, carrots, soy sauce (or coconut aminos), sweetener, water, and stir to combine. Bring it to a boil and nestle the chicken pieces among the vegetables. Depending on the size of pan you may need to add a little more water.
5. Cover the pot with a lid and place it in the oven for 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serve it with steamed greens and rice
Vegan option: Skip the chicken and use cubed pumpkin or winter squash. Peel, seed and cube 3 cups of your favorite winter squash (like butternut) or pumpkin. Toss the squash with the flour and salt mixture. Skip the browning process. Add the squash to the pan at the same time as the tomatoes and carrots. Add the water, bring to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid and place it in the oven. Cook for 40 minutes or until squash is tender.
Notes: If you would like the broth to be thicker and more like a sauce, add 2 tablespoons of the remaining flour salt mixture left over from coating the chicken or squash and fry it up at the same time as the onions. Continue with the rest of the recipes as directed.
Homemade Chinese 5 spice
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
1 teaspoon ground star anise
1 1/4 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Transfer the spice mixture to a airtight container.