34 posts Posts by becca

A DIY Banh Mi Birthday Party + Pomelo Papaya Salad

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I haven’t had a birthday party in the longest time, but turning thirty seemed like just the occasion I needed to spend the weekend cooking some delicious Vietnamese food and having a few of our friends over. Plus, Dean and I both have March birthdays, so we had double the reason to throw a party! I thought I’d keep things simple by setting up a DIY banh mi bar with all the fixings, but we ended up adding a couple extra items to the menu, including a pomelo papaya salad, lemongrass pork skewers, and a peppery lime chicken.

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I was so pleased to find a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s The Banh Mi Handbook at my local library the week before the party (I have to add that the city of Redlands’ public library has the THE BEST cookbook collection that I have EVER seen at any of my local libraries. Two full rows of the newest cookbooks out there! And it’s super cute, to boot.). I ended up using many of her recipes for our party, including the quick pork pate, grilled pork skewers, and the Hanoi chicken. Here’s what our entire menu looked like:

DIY Banhi Mi Bar
Fried cha (Vietnamese ham)
Cha with peppercorns
Garlic cha
Vietnamese headcheese

Pickled carrots & daikon (bought pre-made at the local Viet store)

Spreads & Condiments:
Homemade mayo
Pate (used the quick recipe from The Banh Mi Handbook, which just added a few ingredients to a Farmer John’s pork liverwurst)
Maggi seasoning sauce
Hoisin sauce
Red Boat fish sauce

Other Foods
Grilled lemongrass pork skewers
Hanoi chicken (lime & pepper)
Chicken chao (rice soup)
Green papaya and pomelo salad with shrimp, served with shrimp chips
Cha gio (spring rolls)

Coconut cassava cake
Mango sticky rice

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This was my first time making the pomelo papaya salad, which I’d been meaning to try ever since ordering it at Garlic & Chives in Garden Grove. We tried this Vietnamese/Asian Fusion bistro a couple months back, and I just loved their extensive menu, especially their inclusion of more Vietnamese “street food” type offerings like various shellfish dishes, a variety of tasty salads, and more traditional entrees like bo luc lac (shaken beef) and hot pots. They also have an awesome fried salmon belly appetizer that is worth trying!

Here’s the recipe I ended up using for the pomelo papaya salad:

Pomelo Papaya Salad
serves 6-8

2 pomelos, peeled and separated into bite-sized segments
1 Ruby red grapefruit, peeled and separated into bite-sized segments (you can omit this, but I thought it added a lovely color to the salad)
1 bunch mint leaves, leaves washed and picked off
1 green papaya, shredded
1/2 lb. cooked shrimp, butterflied
fried shallots
crushed peanuts
nuoc cham dressing, to taste
shrimp chips

This salad comes together really quickly if you have a Vietnamese grocery store close by that sells pre-shredded green papaya. Otherwise, it takes a little more time for the prep. Also, feel free to add in/substitute other Vietnamese herbs if you don’t happen to have mint on hand. The shrimp can be swapped out with pork/pork belly slices, or it can be left out entirely.

Fry the shrimp chips (find directions here if you need them) and set aside for accompanying the salad. Combine all the ingredients together except the shallots and peanuts. The nuoc cham dressing can be mixed in, or you can have your guests dress the salad themselves. Garnish at the end with fried shallots and crushed peanuts. Serve with shrimp chips immediately.

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I couldn’t resist making some fun signs and favors for the party. I made a graphic for the banh mi bar, which I turned into little bookmarks for all our guests. I also added in a pho postcard and some pho spices to keep with the Vietnamese food theme. I have a couple extras left over from the party that I’d love to give away to a few of our readers. If you’d like one, please send us an email with your name and mailing address, and I’ll send one your way!

Also, if you’d like to throw your own party with a DIY banh mi bar, I’ve turned my banh mi graphic into a free printable that you can download right here. Please send us pictures of your parties or tag us on Instagram (@rhuynh, @julie1wan)! We’d love to hear from you.

Coconut Sashimi


I never realized how similar coconut flesh and raw fish were texturally until I tried coconut sashimi for the first time. A friend first introduced me to this when we lived in Grenada (and she first learned about it from watching Korean dramas!), where coconuts are available and abundant year-round. We’d bring empty bottles to the market downtown with us and get them filled up with fresh coconut water. After the coconuts were emptied, we’d ask the coconut man to chop up the coconuts for us and take them home to scoop out the sweet, succulent flesh (or we’d eat them right there with makeshift spoons chopped off from the sides of the coconuts).


The texture of the meat can vary depending on the age of the coconut. Younger coconuts will often have more juice and less meat. The meat it does have is more of a “jelly” that just barely clings to the shell. Slightly older coconuts will have a bit less juice, but firmer, thicker meat. These meatier coconuts are perfect for making coconut sashimi.

In the US, you can usually find fresh coconuts at any Asian market. They don’t normally have the outer skin anymore and usually resemble little cones that have been put through a giant pencil sharpener. It’s a little harder to tell how old exactly the coconuts are, but they will do just fine for making sashimi. I eat coconut sashimi exactly as I would eat regular sashimi — with a good quality soy sauce and wasabi. This might be a great vegan substitute for sashimi for any of your health-conscious friends or for satisfying a sushi craving for those who might be pregnant. I haven’t tried it other ways yet, but I’m excited to see how it might taste as nigiri or ceviche (maybe with some avocado!).

Oil Down: Grenada’s National Dish

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There’s nothing glamorous or refined about oil down; it’s a humble dish from a humble country. On this small Caribbean island, where hard-working locals have to deal with limited freshwater, seasonal rainfall, and natural disasters, and where the majority of its food is imported from the US and neighboring islands, Grenadians are proud to claim oil down as their own.

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The majority of the locals here are of African origin, the descendants of slaves brought over to work on European-owned plantations. Although Grenada became an independent country in 1974, it has retained an identity deeply rooted in European culture. Many street names, neighborhoods, and bays (Mont Tout, Carenage, Morne Rouge) have French influence, while the currency (Eastern Caribbean dollar) pays tribute to the queen of England, and British English is taught in schools. As a result, the local customs, language, food, religion, and architecture are a rich blend of each of these different influences, each lending a unique flavor to the culture of Grenada.

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Although many things in Grenada have been influenced by the Europeans over the years, oil down remains something purely Grenadian. No imported spices or seasonings, no choice cuts of meat here. This one-pot meal is made up of local veggies, “provisions” (the local term for starchy roots, tubers, and bananas that fill you up), salted meat, and aromatic seasoning —  all easily accessible, affordable ingredients in Grenada. All these components are combined in a large pot and cooked down in coconut milk over an open fire. In fact, the name of the dish comes from the coconut oils released from the coconut milk as it simmers and is absorbed by the other ingredients.

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Oil down is comfort food at its Caribbean best. And of course, like any comfort food, mom or grandma always makes the best version! I was fortunate to have gotten to know someone local to the island whom I could ask to teach me how to make this dish. During my time in Grenada, I frequented the public market in St. George’s often enough that I became friends with a lot of my favorite vendors there. In particular, I ordered so much handmade jewelry from Billy that we were soon on a first-name basis. I’d stand there and watch him make jewelry some days, we’d haggle good-naturedly over different pieces, and when my friends and I had heavy bags filled with mangoes and bananas from the market, we’d leave them with Billy as we finished our shopping in town. We even spent an afternoon with Billy and his friends trekking through the rainforest, as he showed us where he collects his seeds for jewelry-making. So, it didn’t take too much convincing when I asked Billy to show me how to make oil down.

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Our day began at the market where Billy and his friends showed us the ingredients we’d need for making this dish. After picking up all these items, we lugged everything (including a huge pot) to the beach to begin our cookout. When your meal needs time to simmer, the beach is the best place to wait!

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While this dish is relatively easy to make (throw everything in a pot and let it simmer!), it usually turns into an all-day event. Because it tastes best cooked over an open flame, families will often make oil down at the beach, at sporting events, at hashes (organized, weekly hikes around the island), or any place where you need to feed a large group of people. And if you know Grenadians, they love to lime (a Grenadian term for something like “chilling”). In fact, “oil down” actually refers to both the dish as well as the act or event of making it. An oil down typically involves families spending the whole day at the beach. Everybody pitches in to help, and as the food cooks, children will jump in the water, young boys will play soccer, moms will watch the babies, and the men will lounge around, liming. You can’t truly experience this dish without taking part in the making and sharing of it!

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I hope that by recording this recipe, I can pay tribute in some small way to Billy, to the friends I met on the island, and to the two years that my husband and I shared together so far away from home. Yes, Grenada is not in the media much (aside from the invasion by the US in the 80s), nor is it at the top of anybody’s must-see travel destinations (heck, I couldn’t even convince my sister to visit me while I was there!), but it has a simplicity and sincerity that I’ve grown to love and miss after I left just two months ago. The island’s only recently become more tourist-friendly, but many locals still don’t really know how to interact or deal with foreigners (they’ll often resort to either catcalling or brusqueness). But if you have a thick skin, an open mind, and are sure to mind your “morning,” “afternoon,” or “good nights,” you’ll find some of the friendliest, kindest people you’ll ever meet.

Oil down, in all its simple and unassuming nature, has really come to represent Grenada for me — something I can bring back home and remember the island by. At first glance, the dish doesn’t look like it has much to offer, and you may not quite know what to make of it. It’s not exactly a stew, nor a curry. And it’s lost a lot of its vibrant colors after simmering for so many hours. But if you’ll take the time to dig a little deeper, open up yourself, and give it a chance, you’ll find hidden beneath modest ingredients, the very heart and soul of a country and its people.

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Cocoa Tea from Grenada

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Most people know that chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, but have you ever seen where the cocoa bean comes from? Cocoa trees are abundant in Grenada, and you’ll see large, leafy trees covered with dangling yellow, orange, and red pods all over the island. When you slice a cocoa pod open (with your machete, of course), you’ll find a cluster of seeds inside covered with juicy, white flesh. If you ever get a chance to taste the flesh of a cocoa bean, it tastes similar to soursop or mangosteen — sweet, creamy, and delicious.

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But, of course, the main attraction is the cocoa bean itself. :) I had the chance to visit Belmont Estate, a fully functioning 17th-century plantation in Grenada, where they have a cocoa processing plant. I talk about the whole process in greater detail here if you’re interested in finding out more about how cocoa is made. It’s really quite fascinating, and it’s especially amazing how the Grenada Chocolate Company produces its organic cocoa with sustainable/carbon-neutral practices like sun-drying and sailboat exporting!


Cocoa tea tastes to me like Grenada in a cup. The bitterness of the pure, dark chocolate combines with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves to create a drink that is one part hot chocolate, one part spiced tea.  To make cocoa balls, cocoa beans are dried, roasted, ground into a fine paste and then mixed with spices and rolled into balls. For this recipe, I used cocoa balls from Grenada to make cocoa tea (which you can buy here), but you can easily replicate this recipe by using 100% unsweetened dark chocolate.

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Cocoa Tea
Serves 2 – 3

2 cocoa balls (or 1 oz. 100% unsweetened dark chocolate)
2 cups water
1/2 – 1 cup milk (to taste)
sugar to taste

Optional: (definitely add some of these in if you’re not using a cocoa ball)
cinnamon stick
bay leaf
ground nutmeg

1. Bring two cups of water to a boil.

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2. While waiting for water to boil, grate the cocoa balls directly into the water. By the time you finish grating, the water should be at a boil. You can actually just throw the ball in the water without grating, but I prefer to grate the chocolate to avoid lumps.

3. Add in additional spices if desired.  I like to throw in some extra cinnamon and some ground nutmeg.

4. Let the cocoa simmer for 10 minutes, until everything is fully dissolved.

IMG_2692 copy5. Strain directly into a mug and serve hot.

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6. Add in milk and sugar to taste. For a richer drink more similar to hot chocolate, add more milk and sugar. For more of a “tea,” use less milk and sugar. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, add in a dash of rum. :)
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