Eric and Sophie Banh make it easy to cook great Vietnamese dishes at home
1 of 7Photo by Thomas J. Story
Saigon comfort food
In 2000, when Sophie Banh couldn’t find the Vietnamese dishes she was craving in Seattle, she persuaded her brother Eric to open a restaurant with her. Called Monsoon, it was the first of several restaurants from the Banhs that have introduced Seattle to a modern Vietnamese cuisine grounded in traditions from their childhood in Saigon.
“It makes Sophie and me happy to cook what we remember,” says Eric. Even though they depart from their grandmother’s dishes by using Northwest ingredients, “it’s not really fusion,” he says. “The smell of her cooking is still there.”
On a recent drizzly day, Eric and Sophie welcomed Sunset into the kitchen of their more casual restaurant, Ba Bar, to show us how to cook some of their favorite at-home dishes. Although the more exotic ingredients they use (broken rice! shiso! pickled leeks!) can be substituted with easy-to-find choices, a trip to the Asian grocery store is a worthwhile part of the cooking adventure too.
2 of 7Photo by Thomas J. Story
Vietnamese pantry staples
Broken rice. By-product of processing rice; stickier and softer than whole-grain.
Litchi purée. From juicy litchis, a fruit native to China.
Mint. A staple; always used fresh.
Oolong tea. Falls between black and green tea, flavor-wise.
Shiso (perilla). Aromatic, notch-edged herb; is red or green.
Thai basil. Narrow-leafed, with purplish stem and anisey scent.
Vegetarian “oyster” sauce. Eric prefers this variety, made from mushrooms, to regular oyster sauce for its more consistent quality.
Vietnamese fish sauce. Pressed from salted, fermented anchovies. Mild Three Crabs brand is fine for cooking, says Eric; for bolder flavor, he likes single-press Red Boat.
Vietnamese pickled leeks. Crunchy and mildly spicy-sweet.
3 of 7Photo by Thomas J. Story
Delicious recipes & cooking tips
Stir-Fried Bean Sprouts and Chinese Chives
Sautéed bean sprouts and Chinese chives are a true comfort dish that every family in Saigon makes. It’s ultrasimple, deliciously crunchy, and ready in a flash. If you can’t locate Chinese chives, use green onions instead. Make sure bean sprouts are creamy white. Brown sprouts are old.
“You wouldn’t find fresh asparagus in Saigon when I was a kid,” says Eric, “but it’s the kind of thing that a fancy restaurant would serve [from cans].” Now he and Sophie use sweet, juicy, local asparagus throughout spring. Slice asparagus on the bias so the pointed pieces echo the tips.
The Banhs excel at stir-fries, a tradition they picked up from their Chinese father’s family and from growing up in Vietnam.
Prep ahead. Have everything ready next to your pan before you start, since the cooking goes fast.
Avoid nonstick. Nonstick pans don’t encourage browning and are easily damaged by scraping and high heat. You don’t need a pricey wok or skillet, either; even a cheap steel pan will develop its own nonstick coating with age.
Get it dry. Make sure your ingredients are very dry, so they brown rather than steam.
Preheat. To avoid soggy food, heat your empty pan over high heat before adding ingredients.
Keep it moving. At this heat, food will burn if it sits still too long. Shake the pan, or use two large spoons, forks, or tongs to toss the ingredients—like a salad.
Serve quickly. Stir-fries should be served right away, before they lose their fresh flavor and crisp snap.
6 of 7Photo by Thomas J. Story
Cucumber Salad with Caramelized Shallots and Herbs
This salad gets its unmistakable sweet-salty crunch from caramelized shallots, an addictive staple in Vietnamese salads. It’s key to slice them uniformly, or they won’t cook evenly. Don’t chop the herb leaves too fine, or they’ll wilt in the vinaigrette.
Thanks to bar manager Jon Christiansen, the Banhs’ cocktails have an evocative bent. This drink is named for 13th-century Vietnamese military commander Tran Hung Dao and uses lime, fresh herbs, pineapple, and fragrant tea—all as popular in Vietnam as the hero himself. To keep the herbs in place, you can put them in the glass before the ice.