Monday, December 04, 2006
My Grandma and Her Recipe for Muop Tom Xao (Vietnamese Loofah and Shrimp Stir-fry)
I don't write food reviews. I write food stories. I mean, I guess I could try and summarize a texture, a flavor, a scent. But I'm more interested in a food's story. Sometimes that includes a dish or plant's history. But if you're that interested, you can Google its history yourself. What interests me is what memories the food evokes. That's why when travelling, it's not the food itself that necessarily makes the experience so wonderful, it's the memories that are currently being created that will be savored later. A Nutella crepe eaten while walking along the banks of the Seine in Paris. Sharing crocodile, emu, and kangaroo pizza at the Australian Hotel at the Rocks in Sydney. Splitting open a bamboo tube to get to the steamed sweet rice inside at a street stall in Sa Pa, Vietnam. Drinking sweet wine in a hollowed out cave in Sirens Valley, Hungary. But the most powerful memory of all is simply connecting a specific food with someone I loved. My youngest uncle's wife gave me several loofahs from their garden.
I only cook loofahs one way -- my grandma's way. Yes, this is the same loofah you can dry out and make into a sponge to scrub yourself with in the shower. But it's also a squash that's so naturally sweet it needs little else to make its flavors come through.
Like all grandmas, mine made culinary wonders that really can't be duplicated. Her specialty was banh nam, sort of like a flat Vietnamese tamale except with rice flour, shrimp, and pork wrapped in banana leaves. No one else's tastes as good. And four years after my grandma is gone, I still can't eat it without crying. So I don't.
She also makes banh it la gai, a mung bean-filled black rice dumpling. The black dough is made from thorn leaves that have been boiled and pureed until darkened. I can still picture my grandma sitting on the patio plucking the leaves while she planned all the treats she'd make for her family. Instead of taking a break to cook lunch, she asked me to make a simple loofah stir-fry for her.
She claimed it was the best she'd ever eaten.
Muop Tom Xao (Vietnamese Loofah and Shrimp Stir-fry)
about half a dozen shrimp
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
dash of fish sauce
Peel, devein, and mince shrimp. Add 1 tsp salt and mix. Set aside.
Peel loofah. Slice lengthwise. Then slice again horizontally as thinly as possible.
Mince garlic. Add oil to hot pan. Add garlic and shrimp and saute until shrimp is half-cooked. Add loofah and saute until loofah is softened and transparent. Add fish sauce to taste.
Similar Vietnamese squash recipes:
Canh Bi/Bau Nhoi Thit (Vietnamese Pork-Stuffed Winter Melon Soup)
Canh Bi voi Tom (Vietnamese Winter Melon Soup with Shrimp)