March 13, 2018
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Double the Grated Cheddar, With a Kick of Sriracha
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Andi Bui is drawn to the specificity of her American family, which includes two Vietnamese parents, a half-German husband, and their two multicultural children.

I’ve long struggled to understand the meaning of Americanness. What color is American? What flavors? Textures? It’s clear that there is no one way to be American or to fully, clearly express that in the kitchen. Our cravings as a country are vast and varied—and it shows in the food we prepare at home. In one room, many generations abide: mother, daughter, grandson. In another room we extend our hands like a hyphen to join lives: German-Vietnamese, American-immigrant, Elder-Child, Adult Child–Adult Mother. Our fridges are packed with kimchi and sauerkraut, congee and rice puddings. We eat Italian bread, French bread, potato rolls, white country bread. Some of us are proud omnivores; others of us have made commitments to veganism—all sharing a roof despite our politics.

The Bui-Kanady home in Irvine, California, exemplifies this. The elder Buis, Yen and Phiet, met in Long Beach while both attending college in the 1960s. Yen was born in Saigon and Phiet in Nha Trang. They returned to Saigon in 1972, living there until Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975. In fact, many Vietnamese moved to Irvine, living alongside Iranian-Americans, many of whom moved to Irvine after the 1979 Islamic revolution, making Irvine one of the few Orange County cities where there is a large majority of Asian-Americans—about 39 percent of inhabitants in Irvine identify as Asian-American.

Their American-born daughter, Andi Bui, is a 28-year-old Vietnamese-American mother who is now sharing a home with her parents in her childhood home in Orange County, California. Andi is married with one son; a daughter is due in May. Their intergenerational home comes most alive in one place: the kitchen. Both Andi and her mother learned to cook as young adults in their 20s, and as a teen Andi experimented primarily with instant ramen in the kitchen. Her mother loved to host parties for their Vietnamese neighbors at their home but often relied on catering for their buffet-style parties.

Among photographs of Andi’s first child, Joel, and their friends and family members, there’s a little magnetic dry erase board with the menu for the week spelled out. There is a little bit of everything written out—from mac and cheese to leftovers from their Lunar New Year celebration a few days prior to us meeting. “Joel will eat anything in front of him,” Andi tells me while keeping a watchful eye on her son, who is mixing dried macaroni pasta between sieve and mixing bowl. “He’s very accustomed to Vietnamese flavors. He asks us to put sriracha in his pho. He loves spicy food.”

Joel happily exclaims “Salsa!!!” before returning his attention to the business of mixing up the macaroni pasta. In the span of a couple minutes, Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese, and black Southern-American influences have all appeared in the kitchen. Andi blankets the macaroni with her roux-based cream sauce that is sharpened with a kick of sriracha. The recipe is adapted from a slim volume, The Sriracha Cookbook by Randy Clemmons. After preparing a few iterations of the recipe, Andi ended up on a winner: a version with double the amount of fresh grated cheddar cheese and a specific special touch her husband loves—fried Vietnamese shallots topping a buttery, crispy panko topping.

Moving in with her parents as an adult has provided Andi and her husband, Jacob, clear perspective on how to negotiate multiple food preferences and tastes. “It changes the type of food that we cook,” Andi says. “When it was just my husband, me, and my son, we were just trying to get a quick meal on the table after work. When you live with more people, you can kinda sit on a Sunday and make something that takes a little longer—we’re individually finding things that sound appealing, and now we’re trying recipes out together.”

Her mother, who immigrated to California as a teen, is grateful to be able to share a home with her daughter while watching her grandchildren grow up in the same neighborhood and house Andi grew up in. “When Andi was younger, we didn’t have a chance to cook together because I was working with a long commute, so now having my adult daughter with me, it is a big blessing.”

One of their favorite recipes to collaborate on is chả giò, Vietnamese fried egg rolls. Andi and her mother sit down around a circular white table, Yen peeling the delicate, translucent skins of dumpling wrappers they will fill with soaked vermicelli noodles, ground chicken, oyster sauce, sugar, and salt while Andi carefully writes down each measurement and suggestion from her mother for how to “personalize” the egg roll filling mixture (“Some people don’t like wood ear mushrooms, but Vietnamese like it a lot,” Yen says to me with a wink and smile).

I ask Andi whether the time her children will spend in the kitchen might influence them both down the line. “Our goal is to have Vietnamese traditions be a casual and positive part of their lives. Because we live in the United States, they’ll get the Western influence regardless, so the more we can have Vietnamese culture be a part of their lives at home, the more they can have something to lean on.”

When your neighbors have similar stories of fleeing homelands for fear of persecution, when their children are first-generation, when it isn’t uncommon to speak some Farsi, some Vietnamese, some Spanish because your friends have grown up multilingual, you find that you are American in very specific ways that help to broaden the notion of what nationality can mean.

Sadly, Andi’s grandmother passed away young, so she didn’t grow up with an elder matriarchal figure, but her children will get to grow up and cook with three generations of women connected by culture, food, and hyphens.

Do the foods we pack into our pantries and refrigerators give us insight into what it means to be American? We think so. In this series we visit home kitchens in Los Angeles to explore the nuances of home cooking in 2018.

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces elbow macaroni
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 small sweet onion, diced
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried mustard
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg (or 1/4 tsp powdered nutmeg)
  • ¼ cup Sriracha
  • 12 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup dried hành phi (Vietnamese fried shallots), or 2-3 small shallots sliced thinly and fried in 3 tbsp of neutral oil
  • 1 cup neutral oil, such as canola

This is a family (and friend) favorite at the Bui-Kanady household, thanks to the brilliant addition of crispy fried Vietnamese shallots. The creamy roux sauce surprises with a smoky punch of heat from the sriracha.

Adapted from The Sriracha Cookbook by Randy Clemens

  1. If using dried hành phi, heat 1 cup neutral oil in a skillet or saucepan. When the oil is hot enough that a shallot sizzles, add 1/2 cup of dried shallots and stir to coat. As soon as all of the shallots are coated in oil, immediately pour the shallots through a strainer, over a bowl, to remove the oil. The oil can be reserved for another use.
  2. Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a baking dish with butter or cooking spray.
  3. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the bread crumbs, stirring gently. Turn off the heat, allow the bread crumbs to absorb the butter, and reserve.
  4. In a large stockpot, bring 2 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the macaroni noodles and stir. Cook until the noodles are just slightly undercooked, 6 to 7 minutes. Drain the noodles and reserve.
  5. While the pasta is cooking, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to sweat, about 3-5 minutes.
  6. Whisk in the flour. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup of the milk while whisking. Once the milk has been absorbed by the flour and thickened slightly, add the remainder of the milk, followed by the cream.
  7. Add the salt, dried mustard, pepper, and nutmeg. Simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Stir in the sriracha. Gradually add most of the cheddar (reserving some for the topping) while slowly whisking, one handful at a time.
  9. Once all the cheese has melted, toss in the cooked macaroni, coating the noodles with the cheese sauce. Transfer the noodles and sauce to the baking dish. Top with the remaining cheese. Cover with the buttered bread crumbs.
  10. Bake, uncovered, 18 to 22 minutes, until the topping is golden brown. Remove the mac and cheese from the oven, then sprinkle the top with the fried shallots. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Yen's Chả Giò

Yen’s Chả Giò

50 egg rolls

Ingredients

  • For Filling
  • 2 pounds chicken or pork
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, shredded (optional)
  • ½ cup dried shredded wood ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and then roughly chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup vermicelli bean thread, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and then roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt (if using carrots and mushrooms, can increase to 4 tsp)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (if using carrots and mushrooms, can increase to 2 1/2 tbsp)
  • ½ tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
  • For Wrapping
  • 50 sheets of Chinese-style egg roll pastry/wrappers
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch, tapioca starch, or flour
  • For Frying
  • 2-3 cups canola or neutral oil

Chả giò is a great starter recipe for anyone wanting to dabble in cooking Vietnamese cuisine because it’s easy to customize. The Buis have reduced their consumption of pork and make their chả giò with ground chicken. The end result is a leaner egg roll just as flavorful as its pork-filled counterpart. Yen suggests the addition of wood ear mushrooms for maximum texture.

  1. In a large bowl, fold together all of the ingredients for the filling until well distributed. Mix the 1/2 cup water and 2 tbsp starch and heat until the mixture is hot but not boiling. (We use the microwave.)
  2. For quickest results, one person can peel the egg roll wrappers and another person can do the filling/rolling.
  3. For each egg roll, gently peel off an egg roll sheet from the stack. On a cutting board or plate, lay the sheet so that one of the corners is pointing toward you, like a diamond. Fold the bottom corner toward the top corner, leaving an inch or two of space between the top corner and bottom corner.
  4. Place 2 to 2 1/2 tbsp of filling on the wrapper, about 1/2 inch from the folded edge. Fold the two side corners over the filling. Then roll the filling toward the top corner, taking care to press out any air from the roll. When you are close to the end of the wrapper, brush some of the flour/water mixture onto the top corner of the wrapper to seal the roll. After a few, adjust the amount of filling per roll to your tastes.
  5. To fry the rolls, heat 2-3 cups neutral oil in a wok, Dutch oven, or large pot. The oil is hot enough when it bubbles around a wooden chopstick or wooden spoon inserted into it, or a thermometer reads 350°F. Fry the egg rolls in small batches until the wrappers are golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Set cooked egg rolls on paper towels to drain.
  6. For the full experience, serve with lettuce and nuoc cham for dipping.

Oriana Koren

Oriana Koren is an LA based editorial photographer and writer whose work is anchored in food culture and travel. Some of her clients include The New York Times, Lucky Peach, and The California Sunday Magazine.

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