Sunday 1 November 2009

bò tái chanh - lemon sirloin w rice paddy herb

After perusing through Helen’s recent posts about her food tour in Cabramatta, I became ravenous for Vietnamese food and determined to cook my own Vietnamese feast.

Ms Correct and I set the GPS to John Street then chatted until we reached our destination: Cabramatta, effectively Vietnam in Sydney.

The place was buzzing. The fruit, herb and veggie range was extravagant and the prices were absurdly cheap. As Ms Correct correctly asks “Why don’t we shop here every week?”

The whole time we were there, we must have seen only six other Caucasians and we marvelled at how exotic, exciting and foreign Cabramatta felt, even though it was still in Sydney. Ms Correct is quite tall at the best of times, but among Cabramatta’s Vietnamese population she was like Gulliver in Lilliput. We were certainly identified as outsiders and blatantly stared at, but people were welcoming and we felt comfortable.

We both felt so excited that Sydney had such a beautiful microcosm to explore.

Both Ms Correct and I have visited Vietnam, and Cabramatta felt like a cleaner, better-dressed version of HCMC, even down to the architecture of crowded market arcades and busy main streets. The local government, Fairfield City Council, is always touting Cabramatta as a tourist destination for Sydneysiders and visitors alike, and now I have to agree with them.

Navigating the narrow market aisles was difficult, but in true Vietnamese style other shoppers took no offence, and in fact didn’t even notice, getting whacked with the odd shopping bag.

We bought a huge range of things, the highlights being (left to right):

Many of the shop and stall owners don’t speak English and your mere non-Vietnamese speaking presence can be a cause of anxiety for them, so make sure you bring your understanding and patience with you. Don’t take offence when people shrug and walk away without helping, they probably just don’t understand you. Instead, wander to the next shop until you find someone who can speak English. There are many who do.

Like the shop keeper Ms Correct and I discovered at the end of our day. She was full of good advice and helped us navigate the Vietnamese-only signs and food labels. After learning I planned to make ice cream, her suggestion to buy frozen soursop pulp instead of fresh fruit was genius. Not only was the pulp super ripe and flavoursome but it had been skinned and deseeded and when it was blended through the hot custard, the icy cold temperature chilled everything immediately making the base ready to churn on the spot.

Once we were loaded up with goodies, we headed back to my place to cook up a storm from the beautiful cookbook The Secrets of the Red Lantern (tick off another food challenge).

Siblings Pauline and Luke Nguyen, and Pauline’s partner, Mark Jensen, are Sydney’s tres-chic experts on both traditional and modern Vietnamese food and their first cookbook is full of amazing recipes and heart-wrenching stories (that made me blubber like a baby).

This first recipe I'm posting is a favourite of mine from their restaurant, Red Lantern.

Little Em, Stinky, M.E. and Tia Bicky joined Ms Correct and I to eat:
* Bò Tái Chanh (lemon-cured sirloin w rice paddy herb)
* Nước Chấm (dipping fish sauce)
* Nem Nường (lemongrass pork sausages)
* Rau Muống Xào Tỏi (water spinach w ginger & garlic)
* Gỏi Mực Bắp Chuối (banana blossom & squid salad)
* Canh Chua Cá (tamarind & pineapple broth w perch)
* Kem Mãng Cầu Xiêm (soursop ice cream)
* Kem Dưa Hấu (watermelon sorbet)

I will post these recipes one by one over the coming months, but first up is this amazing little starter of juicy raw beef topped with the most delicious, unusual herbs. The best description can only come from the recipe’s author, Luke Nguyen:
“This traditional salad is a perfect starter. It is a ‘rare’ treat – refreshing, crisp and aromatic. Described by some as a ‘Vietnamese carpaccio’, Bò Tái Chanh is a particular favourite . . . rice paddy herb and sawtooth coriander are essential for this dish and should not be substituted. The rice paddy’s sharp citrus character and the sawtooth’s powerful aroma perfectly match this lemon-cured dish.”
I discovered that I love rice paddy herb (or ngò om). The flavours are like cumin and lemon and pepper altogether and I discovered it goes quite nicely on sweet pineapple slices too.

Sawtooth coriander (ngò gai) is also very special and is much more potent than regular coriander (cilantro), but I still think you could substitute them for each other if you needed to.

But you can’t substitute the rice paddy herb!!!

Bò Tái Chanh (lemon-cured sirloin w rice paddy herb)
Recipe from Secrets of The Red Lantern. Serves 6.

400ml lemon juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fine white pepper
500g sirloin steak
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 large handful sawtooth coriander, roughly chopped
1 large handful rice paddy herb, roughly chopped
½ small red onion, finely sliced
1 large handful bean sprouts
2 tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts
1 birds eye chill, sliced
Nước mắm chấm, to serve (see below)
1. Trim the sirloin or fat and slice as thinly as possible.
2. Heat 1 teaspoon oil and fry garlic. Remove and reserve both garlic and ½ teaspoon of the oil.
3. Combine the lemon juice, fish sauce and mix through the salt, sugar and pepper.
4. Arrange the slices of beef in a single layer on a plate and marinate in the lemon juice for 10 minutes, ensuring the meat is entirely covered in the curing liquid.
5. Remove the beef from the lemon mixture and drain the excess juice,.
6. Combine with the garlic, garlic oil, herbs onion and bean sprouts.
7. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with the peanuts and chilli. Dress with nước mắm chấm at the table.

Nước Mắm Chấm (Dipping Fish Sauce)
Recipe from Secrets of the Red Lantern. Makes 1 cup (250ml).
½ cup (125ml) water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 birds eye chilli, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
1. Combine the fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and water in a saucepan.
2. Heat on medium, stirring, until just before boiling point. Cool.
3. To serve add chilli, lime juice and garlic and stir well.

Rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica) is native to tropical South East Asia and grows in water logged environments . . . like rice paddies! In the west it’s been used mostly as an aquarium plant but in Vietnamese (and some Thai & Khmer) cuisine it plays a strong role.

If all you’ve been doing is sticking in your fish tank, you’ve been missing out!

The leaves taste like lemon and cumin and is quite delicious.

Here’s some advice on how to grow your own: “Get some fresh stems from another plant or your local Thai or Vietnamese grocer. If placed in water, they will develop roots within one or two weeks; in the meantime, they must be covered with a plastic bag or the like to give them enough humidity. In this phase, direct sunlight will kill the plants, so put them in a shadowy but not dark place. When enough roots have been formed, plant the stems into a high, transparent container filled with soil to cover most of the roots. A mixture of ordinary soil plus small, porous grains of burned clay is perfect. Keep the plants warm and humid. After a few days, they will tolerate (and even appreciate) intensive sunlight.”

If substituted, it is often done so with coriander, sawtooth coriander, perilla, mint or basil.

Other names include:
Cantonese - séui fuh yùhng, tìhn hēung chóu, jí sōu chóu, séui fā
Mandarin - shuǐ fú róng, tián xiāng cǎo, zǐ sū cǎo
English - finger grass
Estonian - järvelemb
German - reisfeldpflanze
Indonesian - daun kerdemom, selasih ayer kecil
Japanese - shiso-kusa, rimonohira
Khmer - ma-om
Korean - soyeob, soyop, soyop-pul
Lithuanian - kvapioji pelkenė
Malaysian - beremi, kerak-kerak
Polish - limnofila pachnąca
Russian - амбулия ароматная ambuliya aromatnaya
Thai - ผักแขยง, แขยง phak kayang, kayang

This week our Weekend Herb Blogging hostess is Haalo from Cook (almost) Anything At Least Once.



  1. your blog is GORGEOUS. lovely recipe.

  2. I don't think I've seen this herb or tasted it! Would love to try it though.

  3. Fantastic blog entry. I love Cabramatta too.

  4. Wow. This recipe sounds amazing. My parents were from Cambodia and I grew up having soup with rice paddy herb and it has always been my favorite herb. I've always wondered what else I could do with it. This recipe sounds fantastic. I can't wait to try it. Thanks!


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