On August 29, Chef Robert Danhi led a group of food writers on his initial culinary tour of Little Saigon, a wide swath of Orange County that’s home to a quarter-million Vietnamese-Americans and some of the most inspired Asian cuisine in the country. Instead of leading us on a gut-busting restaurant bender, he took us to a market to showcase Vietnamese ingredients, took us to a tofu factory and directed a demo-filled lunch at Hanoi Restaurant. The experience was much richer due to the in-depth variety.
Over 20 years ago, Danhi was inspired to specialize in Southeast Asian cuisine by his wife Estrellita Leong, who’s from Malaysia. The South Bay native attended the Culinary Institute of America from 1989-1991 and worked in restaurants for the following decade, including Ocean Avenue Seafood and Reed’s in Santa Monica. In 1999, Danhi returned to the CIA to teach Cooking Principles, the Cuisines of Asia and the Physiology of Taste. He founded Chef Danhi & Co. in 2005, focusing on R&D, brand consulting, recipe development, sales and marketing for food manufacturers, restaurants and educational organizations. He also developed Mortar & Press, a multimedia group that spawned Southeast Asian Flavors—Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore, which resulted in a recent James Beard cookbook nomination.
We started at Lee’s Sandwiches, a banh mi emporium that even has an outlet in Ho Chi Minh City. The BBQ pork banh mi had very little meat given the thickness of the baguette, but the iced Vietnamese coffee was satisfying on such a hot day, sweetened with condensed milk and sugar.
Next door at Thuan Phat market, Danhi shared snacks from the Kho Bo section of the market. “Kho” is cooked in a sweet soy mixture and “Bo” means beef in Vietnamese. We received two different cuts of beef jerky, one flavored with ginger, sugar, salt, garlic and curry; the other spiced with honey, sugar, salt and chilies. We also tried pork that was roasted until it achieved a floss-like consistency, a dried jackfruit chip, and a longan and jujube jelly tea.
The best part of the market tour was having Danhi spotlight ingredients and sharing some tips on what to look for when buying certain core products.
The most interesting pitstop was in the herb section, where Danhi differentiated common Southeast Asian herbs, which are primarily used as a garnish instead of in cooking. We discovered perilla, which has red and green or pure green leaves. Lemon baum has a rounder edge, whereas perilla is pointed. The pungent laksa leaf is often paired with seafood and salads in Southeast Asia. La lot leaves are filled with a mixture of ground beef, lemongrass, black pepper and fish sauce. Pandan or “screw pine” is an herb “used for aromatizing sweet items.” There’s even a heart-shaped herb called “fish mint” that “tastes like a metal fish.” Beware.
On our walk, Danhi even dispelled my belief that MSG is evil. After all, it goes right to my sinuses during low-grade Chinese meals. My sinus reaction is apparently due to an MSG overdose, but MSG is “not a bad thing.” Bodies crave protein and MSG tricks body into fulfilling that requirement in undernourished people. He said 1.2 billion Chinese people use MSG to some extent, and they wouldn’t do that if it was evil. Another fun fact: MSG is made from cassava (aka tapioca).
Danhi said that when buying Nuoc Mam, – fish sauce – a lot of brands claim “Nhi” – “best quality” – but there’s no real regulation. He said to avoid 3 Crab brand and buy Squid Brand or Golden Boy, which contains nothing but “anchovy” extract, salt and sugar. The quality of fish sauce is judged on protein content. Typically, fish sauce is 20-25%, but goes up to 40%, which is “thick and viscous” At that rate, expect an umami explosion.
He also said to avoid “sweetened condensed filled milk,” since the filler is oil. Instead opt for cans labeled with “sweetened condensed milk,” which just has milk and sugar.
It pains me to admit that a meat substitute was satisfying, but it’s hard to quibble with the fresh pressed tofu with lemongrass and chile at the Dong Phuong tofu factory, or the version studded with mushrooms. The still-hot soy milk was also comforting. According to Danhi, all soy milk products are made from dry soy beans, soaked, cooked, blended and strained. Then you have milk. For tofu, add a coagulant – gypsum – and press with other ingredients.
We finished at Hanoi Restaurant for a Vietnamese feast, highlighted by Chef Danhi’s shaking beef. It was sweltering in the restaurant, but we all received glasses of fresh-pressed sugar cane juice – Nuoc Mia – flavored with oranges, then transitioned to tangled fritters formed from julienned sweet potato and whole shrimp, fried in rice batter and dippable in fish sauce floating with carrot and papaya. We also received small bowls of pho floating with rare brisket. Danhi recommended adding basil, bean sprouts, jalapeno and a squeeze of lime. Fried Hanoi spring rolls were packed with mung bean vermicelli, wood ear mushrooms, ground pork and pulled crab meat. Bun Cha was a combination of grilled pork patties and grilled pork belly that paired well with fish sauce, herbs and noodles.
Again, the highlight was the cooking demo involving Danhi. his crew and Bo Luc Lac – shaking beef with seared beef cubes plated with pickled red onions and bitter watercress. To finish our meal, we each received a cup of tangy Vietnamese yogurt with condensed milk and regular milk.