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Seattle’s Eric Banh cooks incredible updated Vietnamese dishes at Monsoon, Monsoon East and Ba Bar. Here, he reveals the best homemade food gifts to give, the most delicious spices to add to eggnog and his favorite cookbook of all time.
Can you share some favorite holiday gift ideas?
The best food gifts are personalized. Buying is easy—the world is becoming so convenient, you click on your phone and buy something. It’s more meaningful if you can take the time to make something.
I make fresh Vietnamese sausage to give to friends. I’m experimenting this year with pork and shrimp. Those are the two major proteins in Vietnam; a lot of people raise pork in rural areas, and shrimp were abundant. So I put them in casing with thyme and garlic, some salt and pepper.
But it doesn’t have to be that complicated—ginger cookies are ridiculously easy to make. Or a pound cake, keep it plain or throw in some dried cranberries or apricots. Gingerbread or banana cake are also easy: Add whatever dried fruits or nuts you like. Go to the store and ask for bruised bananas, those taste better and will save you money.
Do you have a favorite holiday cocktail?
Eggnog, definitely. That’s one the first tastes I remember when I first arrived in Edmonton, Canada, from Vietnam in 1979. I tasted it and thought, “Oh, my God, what is this? I’m hooked.” Starting in October, I drink eggnog literally weekly. We make it in the restaurant with half-and-half, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, maybe some star anise. It’s almost like a five-spice blend. As I got older, I realized it tastes better with rum or whiskey. In the wintertime, especially living in the Northwest, boy, a warm, boozy eggnog is awesome.
What are 5 don’t-miss places on a holiday trip to Seattle?
- Pike Place Market. It’s not as big as the one in Granville Island in Vancouver, or markets in other cities but it’s very special. You still see fresh whole salmon laying out at the fishmonger, along with crab, mussels, clams. It’s a great sight to see.
- The Space Needle. How can you miss that? When I first came here I went up it, it was amazing. You see why people all love this area so much; it's so protected by the water, and surrounded by small islands, it’s beautiful. To truly see Seattle, you have to see it from above.
- After seeing Seattle from the sky, you can see it from the ground: The Seattle Underground Tour is so cool. In the 1800s Seattle buildings used to be built a whole story lower than today. You can take a tour around Pioneer Square and see some of the old storefronts, it will give you a great sense of the city’s history.
- Once you’ve seen Seattle from the sky and the ground, then you can see it from the water: Take an Argosy Cruise around the harbor, or the Lake Washington Cruise is a lot of fun; you can see multimillion dollar houses, and the lake is beautiful.
- Then get out of the city. About an hour away, I love Chuckanut Drive because you still see the rawness of the Northwest. Along the drive there are quite a few old-school restaurants serving some of the best mussels you can eat. There’s a famous oyster and mussel farm called Taylor Shellfish Farms. They raise some of the best—if not the best—oysters and mussels in the country. And of course, mussels and oysters are best in the winter.
What’s your most popular dish?
Definitely our famous catfish clay pot. I think it’s so popular because of all the umami: the fish, the fish sauce, the sugar. It’s like fish candy and umami. The second most popular is our banana cake with savory coconut milk.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child. We’re such creatures of memory, I remember watching her cooking show in the early ’80s when I first arrived here. She was such a warm, nice human being. Now when I read her cookbook, I can picture her talking, and hear her voice. And I learned a lot from the technique. For instance, there’s one dish that the Vietnamese do that I totally disagree with: pork shoulder cooked in coconut juice and fish sauce with literally no searing whatsoever. In Vietnam we don’t have ovens, so braising is not familiar to us. I learned to braise in the French technique, and the results are substantially better. So for the pork, I sear the shoulder then use the same liquid, but cover it with parchment paper and foil. That way I do not dry up the braising liquid, and the meat comes out more tender at the lower oven temperature of 325°. If you put it on the stove, you keep boiling it. Either you should cook something really fast or really slow. In between is a disaster.
Modernist Cuisine (by Nathan Myhrvold) also blows everything out of the water. It’s written at a pretty high level, so you have to understand the foundations first. But oh my gosh, the roast chicken preparation is genius. Basically they inject salt and water into the breast from the inside, so they don’t poke the skin. They also blanch it in boiling water and shock it in an ice bath, two or three times, to shrink the skin. They roast it at a very low temperature, then blast it for the last 5-10 minutes to crisp the skin. It’s very, very intensive, but if you were to do that at home, you’d make the perfect bird. I’m telling you, I have eaten it, I was very fortunate to eat dinner at the Modernist Cuisine warehouse, and that was the best chicken by far. I bet you anything, some of their techniques will transform cooking in the next 10 years.
What’s a cooking technique everyone should know?
Using an internal or instant-read thermometer. So many people mess up with meat, especially during the holidays; even the best chefs can’t tell if a turkey is cooked without a thermometer. Just buy an internal, instant-read thermometer and inject it into the meat; 150° is the magic number for turkey—145 if you can let it rest for an hour or so. Sometimes those thermometers are a little bit off, so before you use one, calibrate it by dipping it in ice water. It should read 32°F or 0° Celsius. If it’s a few degrees above or below, just remember to add or subtract that many on any reading.