When Twin Cities Chef Christina Nguyen and her husband, Birk Grudem, rolled out their food truck in 2011, they were among the first to bring street-side dining to downtown Minneapolis. But when it came to the truck’s menu, Nguyen didn’t turn to her Vietnamese roots for inspiration. Instead, she tapped into the flavors that she and Grudem fell in love with during their travels throughout Latin America.
“I just didn’t think that I had anything new to contribute to Vietnamese food. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s so much good Vietnamese food here, what would I really have to add?’ At that point, we said let’s do something that doesn’t exist, which was arepas,” Nguyen said.
So, Hola Arepa was born. Nguyen and Grudem put their own twist on the popular Latin dish, which features a cornmeal “bun” stuffed with meats and vegetables. The truck was a huge hit and, just a few short years later, Nguyen and Grudem started whipping up their signature arepas in a brick-and-mortar restaurant in South Minneapolis.
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Prior to opening their restaurant, Nguyen and Grudem used their food-truck down time to travel the world. On one of their trips, the couple spent three months traveling throughout Southeast Asia. The food they ate on that trip proved to be the spark for their next culinary adventure, Hai Hai, which opened in 2017. The Northeast Minneapolis hot spot features food inspired by the food of Vietnam, Thailand and Bali.
“I realized, wow, there is a lot to say that isn’t being said about Vietnamese food and just about Southeast Asian food in general,” Nguyen reflects. But as a Vietnamese-American, she worried about making food that was both delicious and authentic to her culture.
“I think at some point, I stopped worrying about it and I felt confident. I think it took a while to grow that confidence to be like, ‘Okay, this is my voice in it.’ And you know, of course there will always be haters, but you kind of have to drown it out and just try to make food that you think is delicious,” she says.
Christina Nguyen shares the recipes for one of those delicious Vietnamese dishes here – give it a try!
By Christina Nguyen
Bahn Khot is a small, pancake-like bite served in a lettuce leaf, topped with fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, and then dipped in nuoc cham sauce. You’ll find recipes for all of the dish’s elements listed below. Note: The vegetables and sauce are best made ahead.
Banh Khot Ingredients
For the batter:
2 cups rice flour
1 cup corn starch
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
4 cups water
1/2 cup coconut milk
How to assemble:
- Shrimp, lightly sautéed with garlic and oil – just cooked through – 1 shrimp per banh khot
- Lettuce leaves – green or red leaf or butter/bibb lettuce
- Herbs: Thai basil, cilantro, mint, tia to (purple shiso), and rau ram (Vietnamese mint/Laksa herb)
- Scallion sauce
- Pickled vegetables (recipe below)
- Nuoc cham sauce (recipe below)
Banh Khot Directions:
- Make the batter:
- Combine dry ingredients, whisk.
- Slowly add water until the batter is like a loose crepe batter.
- Let the batter rest in the refrigerator for best results – as long as overnight, but it can also be used right away.
- Prepare the dish:
- Prepare the ingredients for the banh khot: lettuce leaves, herbs, vegetables, sauce.
- Heat ableskiver or takoyaki pan and oil each cup.
- Place one shrimp in each cup and fill with batter – it should sizzle if it’s hot enough. Cook until batter is very crisp and brown
- Serve with lettuce leaves, herbs, pickled vegetables and nuoc cham sauce.
Pickled Vegetable Brine
1/2 tbsp salt
2 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
1 lb jicama (or daikon radish) shredded or julienned
1/3 lb carrots shredded or julienned
- Dissolve sugar & salt in hot water.
- Add vinegar.
- Pour mixture over vegetables, press down to submerge.
- Refrigerate at least one hour. Save and use for up to one week.
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup lime juice
2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tbsp)
1/3 cup fish sauce if red boat (1/2 cup if it’s a lighter fish sauce)
1 or 2 Thai chilies, thinly sliced (to taste)
- Mix hot water and sugar, and stir to dissolve sugar.
- Add remaining ingredients.
- Store refrigerated. Flavors marry together as sauce sits.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
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