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The sordid (fattening) truth about Vietnamese food

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I have always assumed that Vietnamese food was healthier than many other cuisines. After all, tmuch of the food was grilled, and everything seemed to be served with fresh salad and herbs. I had a rude awakening last night.

We were at Saigon Grill on Broadway and 87th St,., and while waiting on line to get into the rest room, I was able to see what was going on in the kitchen. I saw the cook take thin slices of meat – pork chops, out of the deep fat fryer to finish cooking on the grill. I thought, well, that is the pork chops, and besides, they are not so good here anyway. Then, I saw him remove long strands of what I later saw to be eggplant, to finish cooking on a ridged cast iron skillet. Last, I saw him remove skewered chicken from deep fat to finish on the grill. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Now I know why lean grilled meats and veggies are so juicy when well-prepared Vietnamese style. Our sensation of juiciness in food is largely a function of the fat content, and in at least some Vietnamese restaurants, "grill" is apparently a euphemism for "simmer in deep fat and then char on grill or in skillet!" Time to wake up and smell the lemongrass.

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  1. In SE Asia so much cooking is done outside that it's easy to observe the techniques and ingredients used. I've noticed that SE Asians do not have the "fear or frying" many people in the US seem to have. Indeed, much of the food is fried in deep oil or sauteed in shallow oil. And the oil used might be good old saturated palm oil. However, it's also obvious that the foods prepared this way are used more as a garnish for the steamed rice or boiled noodles that make up the bulk of the meal. When eaten this way the cuisine is not fattening at all.

    1. Unless Saigon Grill (and other Vietnamese restaurants) advertise themselves as serving healthy cuisine, I don't think that it's fair to label their cooking practices as "sordid". The idea that Vietnamese food is any more or less healthy than other foods is a misguided one; after all, the national breakfast is a bowl of beef soup.

      1. c
        Caitlin McGrath

        I'd bet you'd be surprised then at how common this is in Chinese restaurants, too. Many things--meats, eggplant, bean curd--are fried before they are stir-fried or steamed.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          I think in chinese food this is supposed to tenderize the food.

          I know that in indian food the same thing is often done (especially with eggplants and dishes that have very large potato pieces)

        2. I'm wondering if this is unique to Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. Anthony Bourdain, in "Kitchen Confidential" (pretty sure that's where I read it), notes this restaurant practice...of deep-frying meats earlier, and finishing them later. I'd have to dig out the book to check my memory, but the sense I got was that this is--or was--not an unusual practice in run-of-the-mill restaurants. Anybody else have more insight than I do?

          18 Replies
          1. re: Dee Gustay

            The best frites are prefried and browned later.

            1. re: ironmom

              here here!

              That's how my grandmother made them, every sunday evening. I have yet to brave making them myself, but prefrying actually seems less intimidating.

              no mayo for me though.

              1. re: ben fisher

                I find that when prefried sufficiently at a lower temperature, even the moistest potatoes (ie, the boiling type I always keep around the house) can be made into excellent crispy fries.

                1. re: ironmom

                  You've inspired me to bite the bullet!

                  can you post a rough overview of how you make your fries? Also how you keep them warm if you make a large batch?

                  thanks
                  ben

                  1. re: ben fisher

                    I have an electric kettle frier which I fill with pure olive oil and fry only potatoes in. The oil stays relatively clean without crumbs, etc, in it, and can be periodically filtered, and reused quite a few times. After a while it starts to foam, and I throw it away and start again with fresh.

                    Also, the electric fryer is much easier to control, as you don't need to fuss with the flame to keep the frying going. (What's the temperature? Oops!) Just set the timer, and come back when the frying's done.

                    Start early. The prefry takes a while if you're feeding more than a couple of people, but the potatoes can be held and finished later at dinner time. Also you can work on something else (like burgers) at the same time.

                    Preheat your oil to 260F.

                    Peel your potatoes, if desired, or scrub and trim them if you want to keep the skins on. Cut into french fry shapes, as thick or thin as you like. Place in a bowl and wash in several changes of cold water. Drain completely and dry with paper towels.

                    Throw a handful of fries into the oil, about 1 serving's worth. They will sink. After they fry they will start to float, and you can't rush this step. It takes about 6 minutes for red bliss shoestrings, 8 minutes for medium size. Russet potatoes are dryer, so they may float sooner. When they float, remove them from the oil and start the next batch, and repeat until all are fried.

                    To finish: Increase the temperature of the oil to 350-360F. When the oil is hot, add fries (a larger batch than you did while prefrying is ok), fry until brown and crispy. Drain, drop into a pan lined with paper towels, shake to make sure all the free oil is gone, then salt and serve with or without Heinz ketchup.

                    Bonus: Cheese fries--While the fries are cooking, in a nonstick pan very gently heat shredded monterey jack and/or cheddar cheese. Cover the pan and let the cheese melt with the fire off. When the fries are done, pour the melted cheese over the fries. The fries will serve up crispy this way, if you melt the cheese separately rather than baking the grease into them to melt it in the oven.

                    -tempus fugit-

                    Oh, the sacrifices we make for our art! I disconnected and cooked up two batches of fries to check the timing for you, and they were really good!

                    Also, I have a secret pot of clarified butter in the refrigerator for the *ULTIMATE* french fries, when I'm in that certain mood...

                    1. re: ironmom

                      Come, come. We all know the best fries are made with pure schmaltz...robust, healthy, and full of flavor. Not exactly low cholesterol, however.

                      1. re: Jim H.

                        schmaltz? I'd heard tallow, but, really?

                        tonight's the night, I'll let you know how it goes. (The only real difference is that we don't have an electric fryer. but we do have a cast iron bean pot that seems perfect for this).

                        ben

                        1. re: ben fisher

                          You have a frying thermometer, right? This is indispensible. Someone must keep an eye on the temperature and play with the heat to make sure it doesn't rise or fall too much. If the fries brown too fast (like in the first fry) they'll be soggy, and if the temp falls too low, they'll take forever to cook.

                          1. re: ironmom

                            Okay, I gave it a try. they were great! I used peanut oil, but have no qualms about using beef fat in the future. Taking them out the first time was very difficult, it just didn't feel right.

                            But they were very crispy and not terribly greasy. Now if I could just figure out how to make them more potato-ey.

                            thanks again
                            ben

                        2. re: Jim H.

                          Do you deep-fry in chicken fat? I save it and use it for my homefries, but this is a new thing for many of us in middle America. Also, I understand it's lots healthier than hydrogenated fat which is usually used by fast food places. It has no trans fat.

                          1. re: ironmom

                            It's better than the hydrogenated fats, and less saturated than beef or pork fat, but much more saturated than vegetable oils. This is, of course, why it's tastier.

                            1. re: C. Fox

                              So you do deep-fry in it. Do you buy it in bulk somewhere, or save it up chicken by chicken? That would take a lot of chickens to fill my kettle.

                          2. re: Jim H.

                            According to Jeffrey Steingarten in "The Man Who Ate Everything" the best frying medium for potatoes is found around the kidneys of....horses! If anyone knows where to get horsefat (render dog food?), lemme know.

                            1. re: Tom Meg

                              I seem to recall Steingarten telling a funny story about getting someone to try to smuggle some horse fat in from Vienna? Can't speak for the excellence of fries cooked in horse fat myself, but it would have to be something special indeed to be measurably better than fries done in duck fat. But maybe I'll give your rendered dogfood notion a try...:)

                2. re: Dee Gustay

                  The Chinese in particular to a lot of partial pre-cooking in oil or sometimes water ("velveting" its called in one of my cookbooks) of cornstarch coated meat. It is said to improve tenderness and texture. Since many of the Vietnamese here are actually ethnic Chinese (and probably many of the cooks in Vietnamese restaurants are Chinese too) I wonder whether this technique has been imported into their restaurant cooking.

                  My Vietnamese recipes for grilled meat dishes say nothing about pre-frying the pieces of meat. It seems unlikely that very simple dishes like this would involve multiple cooking techniques in their original setting.

                  Finally, even if some of the meats pass through a frying step in some restaurants, its still no big deal. There is no oily sauce, and all other meal components, from pho to rice noodles to the herbs and condiments are quite light. Perfect summer food.

                  1. re: jen kalb

                    As I recall, the ramen noodles in those instant cup of noodle soups have also been pre-fried before being dehydrated. So when you hydrate them, it's not just plain noodles. But I think most people already know that (I didn't when they first came out). I love vietnamese & chinese food, pre-fried or not.

                    Another thought, is that perhaps Asian restaurants are like American restaurants in that they both add a lot more fat to the meal than we would at home (because fat makes the food taste better). I think I heard that everytime one goes out to dinner, you're getting something like a cube of butter per meal. That's why restaurant food tastes so good! Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

                    1. re: Leslie T
                      c
                      Christopher Oliver

                      Cube? I know about the joys of "monté au beurre" and of heavy cream, but what's this cube of butter?

                      - Confused

                      1. re: Christopher Oliver

                        Pardonnez moi. Forget I mentioned the 'cube'. Cheers to the monte au beurre and cream sauce! mmmmmm.

                3. "We were at Saigon Grill on Broadway and 87th St" -- not a Vietnamese restaurant despite the name, most everybody is yammering in Cantonese. Just about the only things ever deep fried in Vietnamese cuisine are spring rolls or whole river fish (a dish from Hanoi). Vietnamese Pork chops are juicy because they are marinated in fish sauce, vinegar and palm suger before grilling. The only fat is on the chop!