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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.

Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad with Shrimp and Pork Belly (Goi Du Du)

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This green papaya salad is a great warm-weather dish with its crunchy, cool papaya, plenty of fresh herbs, shrimp, and pork. In fact, the first time I had this dish was at a quiet, riverside hut with my cousin in Vietnam. We were at a daytime retreat center just about a half hour outside of the city. Each hut came with a beautiful view, a table, chairs, and the best part, hammocks! They had a full menu, so you could order everything from an entire hotpot meal to fresh coconut waters. We picked a few things off the menu and spent the day lounging and relaxing by the water. All the makings of a perfect, lazy summer afternoon.

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My mom and I set out to recreate this simple dish back at her home in Portland, Oregon. It doesn’t require any fancy ingredients, so it was a cinch to put together. The only thing you may need to hunt down is a green papaya. These should be available at any Southeast Asian supermarket or even at a Chinese grocery store. While you’re there, be sure to pick up some shrimp chips too. I prefer the long, rectangular ones that my mom brings back for me from Vietnam (for maximum load), but you can use the little, round ones that are available at any Asian grocery store too.

_MG_0884 copyVietnamese Green Papaya Salad with Shrimp and Pork Belly
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a light meal

1 large green papaya, shredded (about 6-8 cups)
1 bunch thai basil
1 bunch mint leaves
1/2 bunch cilantro
1 /2 lb. medium or large shrimp
1/2 lb. pork belly
nuoc cham dressing
crushed peanuts
fried shallots
shrimp chips

1. Wash and peel the papaya with a vegetable peeler. Cut in half and remove the seeds inside. Julienne the papaya with a knife, or use a mandoline or julienne peeler to get thin strips. I find that the julienne peeler is the best tool for this job since it is quick, easy, and produces the perfect thin-yet–still-wide-enough-to-be-crunchy papaya strips.

2. Boil the shrimp for a minute or two until just cooked.  After the shrimp have cooled, lay them flat and slice through them horizontally (butterfly them). This should produce two pieces of shrimp that make for a more attractive salad and an easier bite to eat!

3. Steam the pork belly in a small pot with about 1/2″ inch of water or in a steamer until just cooked. Let it cool and then slice thinly.

4. Wash and dry the thai basil, mint, and cilantro. Next, you’re going to chiffonade all the herbs by picking off all the leaves, stacking them, rolling them up, and slicing into thin strips.

5. Time to fry those shrimp chips! See directions here for frying.

6. Finally, assemble the papaya, herbs, shrimp, and pork together. You can either mix them up or layer them like I did for a more attractive presentation. Sprinkle the crushed peanuts and fried shallots (I forgot them in these pics) on top and serve with nuoc cham dressing. You can always dress the salad and mix it all up for your guests, but you’ll have to finish the whole salad in one sitting. If you think you’ll have leftovers, I’d suggest serving the dressing on the side.

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Dad’s Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

I’m not sure when exactly it became cool to eat pho — that iconic Vietnamese dish of thin rice noodles in beef broth perfumed with spices. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down the street without running into a pho restaurant with either a double digit or a bad pun in its name. The pho craze has gotten so big that it’s resulted in pho food trucks, pho sandwiches, instant pho noodles, and specialty pho places that serve it with things like oxtail, filet mignon, ox penis, or — what might even be strangest of all — broccoli and quinoa. :) You can find it at Vegas buffets, at summer camps, school cafeterias, even in rap songs!

Growing up in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, pho was as much a part of my childhood as Kraft macaroni and cheese. But sadly it was often the latter that I requested when friends from school had dinner with us. As an awkward teenager just trying to fit in, I specifically asked my mom one time to make Kraft macaroni and cheese when a friend came over, just to make sure nothing strange would be on the menu that night, like tripe or pigs’ feet. After that time, my mom would automatically get the blue box out whenever a friend stayed for dinner.

When it was just us, though, it wasn’t uncommon for my dad to cook up a pot of pho for a weeknight family dinner, a dinner party with friends, or even for our entire Asian church congregation. In our home, cooking pho was both an elaborate ritual and yet second-nature to us all. It was a two-day affair, and we each knew our roles by heart. In the evening, Dad charred the ginger and onions over an open flame on the stove, filling our home with the sweet, smoky aroma. As the soup cooked overnight, Mom got up from bed every few hours to tend lovingly to the broth, making sure it always stayed at a gentle simmer. The next day, my sister and I washed and picked through all the herbs to make sure every leaf was green and every bean sprout white. And it was my special job to roll the lime under the heel of my foot to make sure it was extra juicy before we washed and cut it into wedges. Then the final, most important job was always Dad’s — tasting and seasoning the broth. He somehow always managed to achieve a balance of flavors that’s been beyond our imitation. It must come from decades of pho-making experience.

When I went to college, I finally met other people who enjoyed trying new foods and happened to love pho just as much as I did. Not only was it okay to like pho, it was maybe even cool. And having a dad who knew how to make it — now that was something to to be proud of. And so for my 20th birthday, I invited all my friends over and asked my dad to make his famous pho for my birthday celebration.


I’ve been lucky enough to have lived close to my parents or, later, in cities where good pho could still be sought out. But that all changed a year and a half ago, when I moved to a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean. While there’s no shortage of things like sugar cane or other tropical fruits here (some of which also grow in Vietnam), I had to resort to bringing my own rice noodles. And I definitely had to start making my own pho.

My sister, on the other hand, has not come by pho so easily in the places she’s lived. Whether it was in the desertlands of Tucson, Arizona, or sub-Siberian Beijing where she lives now, she had long ago prepared for pho emergencies by taking down Dad’s notes. And so it is her recipe and notes that are shared below. And it was this recipe that I followed when I finally simmered my first pot of pho broth earlier this year.

What I’ve found is that my love affair with pho is only deepening as I learn to appreciate the complexity and subtleties of fine pho-making. It’s not until you sit down and learn how to make pho from scratch that you finally understand the whole story of pho. How the smoky sweetness comes from charred onion, the rich mouthfeel of the broth from bones full of marrow and collagen, the clear golden broth color from hours at a bare simmer, and the soft-yet-chewy noodles from flash-boiled, fresh rice noodles.

And when you combine all that with the childhood memories of a mother who’d remember to leave out the scallions and cilantro for a picky eater like me, or a father whose artistic temperament translated into perfectly balanced broth every time, or a family of four who often couldn’t wait for the broth to finish simmering the next day that we’d just drink a bowl of the soup with some meatballs as a midnight snack — well, it’s not hard to understand why I often tell people that if I could have one last meal before I die, I would choose to eat Dad’s pho.

Click through for notes and recipe.

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Vietnamese Sugarcane Shrimp (Chao Tom)

Whenever we go to Vietnamese restaurants, this is one of my Dad’s favorite dishes to order. He doesn’t make it too often at home, and I think part of it has to do with the lack of fresh sugarcane in the grocery stores. Granted, you could probably make it without the sugarcane or even substitute it with something else, but I think munching on the sweet sugarcane at the end is my favorite part of the meal (and his too, I like to think)!

Well, after chopping up my own stalk of sugarcane, I did in fact have fresh sugarcane for this recipe. If it’s not available in your area, you can always used canned sugarcane too.

Vietnamese Sugarcane Shrimp (Chao Tom)
Serves 2 as a meal or 4 for appetizer (accompanied with rice paper and all the fixings)

Instead of chopping the shrimp by hand, you can also use a food processor to make the whole process faster. Even if you use a food processor though, take it out at the end and whack it in a bowl a few times to help make the mixture more springy.

1 lb. shrimp
3 slices bacon, fat only
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 beaten egg white
2 Tbsp. corn starch
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 Tbsp. oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
dash of white pepper

1. Remove the fat from the bacon. Set aside the meat for another use. Mince and save the fat for the shrimp mixture.

2. Chop up the shrimp and keep chopping until the mixture turns into a smooth paste. This is usually done with a butcher knife and at the point where your chopping is no longer doing any good, use the flat side of the knife to mash the shrimp a few times.

3. Add in the garlic, corn starch, fish sauce, oil, salt, sugar, pepper, and bacon fat. Beat the egg white until frothy and add that in as well. Mix until everything is well incorporated. Pick up the whole mixture in your hand and throw it back into the bowl with a forceful motion several times. This helps add springiness to the mixture.

4. Pound the sugarcane sticks with the flat end of your knife a few times to help the sticks release their juices.

5. Separate your shrimp paste mixture into 12 sections. Grab one section and form an oblong ball with it. Place the sugarcane stick in the center. Press it into the ball and enclose the sugarcane with the mixture. Reform it into a smooth football shape.

6. Place the shrimp sticks into a steamer and steam for 8-10 minutes, until the shrimp turns opaque.

7. Meanwhile, heat up a small amount of oil in a pan. When shrimp is done being steamed, you can dry them off and fry them lightly in the oil to brown the outside.

8. Serve with lettuce, Vietnamese herbs, rice paper, rice noodles, and nuoc cham dipping sauce. For wraps, you can cut the shrimp balls into quarters so they lie nicely in the rice paper.