Congee Comfort: Q&A with Ba Bar’s Eric Banh
For 10 years now, brother and sister-duo Eric and Sophie Banh have been feeding Seattle’s appetite for locally sourced Vietnamese fare at their restaurants, Ba Bar and Monsoon. We dig into their pantry and some of their favorite recipes in this month’s issue, and today, we’re bringing you a bit of backstory with Eric and a bonus recipe: chicken congee, inspired by his ba.
For 10 years now, brother and sister-duo Eric and Sophie Banh have been feeding Seattle’s appetite for locally sourced Vietnamese fare at their restaurant, Monsoon, and now at Ba Bar, their newest venture. Family tradition runs deep in the Banh’s cooking—they named Ba Bar after their dad (“ba” means “dad” in Vietnamese) even though they integrate Northwest ingredients. “It’s not fusion,” Eric says. It’s just working with what they have—something the Banhs learned early on in Saigon, where they spent much of their childhood. We dig into their pantry and some of their favorite recipes in this month’s issue, and today, we’re bringing you a bit of backstory with Eric and a bonus recipe: chicken congee, inspired by his ba.
How did you wind up making Vietnamese food in Seattle?
I spent a lot of my childhood in Saigon, and all our food was pesticide-free and sourced locally because, during the communist occupation, there simply wasn’t the infrastructure for anything else. Communities in Vietnam have been doing that since before composting and recycling was trendy. It’s just the way of life.
My sister, Sophie and I wanted to open Monsoon because the standard for Vietnamese food in Seattle was so low, and we wanted to change that. I thought I’d stay a year or two, but ended up falling in love with the area. The ingredients here are the best: Dairy from farms in Portland, grass–fed beef, some of the freshest oysters in the world. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to the way people in small Vietnamese villages eat.
What are some of your favorite foods in Vietnam?
I love banh cuon, a rice crepe that’s steamed with a ground pork filling, wood ear mushrooms, and yellow onions—its so light and comforting, and a really common street food.
Vietnam also has some of the best fish sauce. It’s like olive oil over there; each region produces its own specialty fish sauce with unique nuances and flavors. It’s a shame there’s so much incredible fish sauce that never makes it to the States.
What’s the inspiration behind your chicken congee (see recipe below)?
My dad used to make me eat it every morning before school. I didn’t like it when I was young, but as I got older I started to appreciate how it warmed my stomach, kind of like eating oatmeal. Plus, with all that absorptive rice, it makes for a great breakfast after a night of drinking.
You can find cheap roast chicken at every grocery store—and it can taste really good if people know how to manipulate it. The best way to make it delicious is to dunk it in moisture, shred the meat, and take it apart. So the recipe uses the carcass to make stock, and injects moisture into the chicken via the congee.
SERVES 4-6 (MAKES 8 CUPS)
TIME: 4 HOURS, INCLUDING BROTH
1 rotisserie chicken
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
½ cup each roughly chopped yellow onion and carrot
4 bay leaves
8 whole peppercorns
¾ cup jasmine rice, broken* or whole
3 tbsp. sticky rice (also known as sweet or mochi rice)
2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. finely sliced green onion (green part only)
2 tbsp. roughly chopped cilantro
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
4 eggs, at room temperature
2-3 savory Chinese doughnuts (optional), sliced
About 2 tbsp. peeled and finely julienned ginger
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
Coarsely ground black pepper
1. Make broth: Although you could use canned broth instead, Eric advocates making your own with the bones from the same chicken that supplies meat for the congee. “I love to be thrifty. 99% of people would just chuck this in the garbage,” he says, pointing to the bones. Separate wings from chicken and pull meat from bones; discard skin. Set bones and wings aside and shred meat into bite-size pieces. While not absolutely necessary, says Eric, disposable kitchen gloves give you a good grip.
2. Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add garlic cloves, chopped onion, and carrot, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add wings, bones, 8 peppercorns, and bay leaves, along with enough water to just cover bones (4-5 cups). Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a slow-bubbling simmer. Skim the pot after 15 minutes and occasionally throughout cooking. Simmer stock 2 to 3 hours; then strain through a fine-mesh strainer.
3. Meanwhile, make porridge base: Bring 10 cups water to a boil. Whisk in jasmine and sticky rice. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until rice looks like loose cooked oatmeal, about 45 minutes. Set aside 6 cups.
4. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and carefully add eggs. Lower heat to a simmer and cook eggs 8 minutes, then plunge into an ice water bath. When they’re cool, peel.
5. Bring porridge base and 2 cups chicken stock to a boil. Stir in 2 cups chicken meat and reduce heat to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Break or slice eggs in half. Divide congee between four large soup bowls. Top each with sprouts, green onions, cilantro, egg, and a few slivers of ginger (it goes on last to keep it from cooking in the congee). Eric also likes to add crunchy, savory Chinese donuts. “A couple slices in each bowl provides a fantastic textural contrast.” Nestle a lime wedge next to each bowl and serve.
Make ahead: Porridge base keeps, chilled airtight, 5 days. It will thicken in the fridge, and is fine to use that way; but if you like it looser, add a little water. The final congee should be soupy.
* Broken rice, a byproduct of processing and transporting rice, is stickier and softer than whole-grain. Find it at Vietnamese markets.