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Try the author's recipe for Noi's Garlic Shrimp with Cucumbers and Shiitake Mushrooms.


Family Traditions

My grandmother Noi is the cook in the family. She lived with us while my siblings and I were growing up, and, since my parents were clueless in the kitchen, took charge of what we ate. Though she has lived in the United States for twenty-five years, I have never seen her prepare a non-Vietnamese dish.

Vietnamese food is, for the most part, very healthful, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Noi eats heartily at every meal and takes regular long walks; she's never dieted in her life. At age 80, she is incredibly spry and fit. When I asked her to show me how to prepare the dish below, which is one of my favorites, she was amused that I wanted actual measurements. Even before she got a rice cooker, she measured with her fingers: one knuckle of rice, two knuckles of water.

As we figured out the recipe, I thought about the life she had left behind in Vietnam and her insistence on preserving as much as possible through her cooking. Though she often seems invincible, I know she'll not be there forever to make the Vietnamese dishes I crave and can't really find anywhere else. I told her I would be bugging her more often about how to cook. Her reply, "It's about time."

Fish Sauce (Nuoc mam): This is essential to Vietnamese cooking. People who are new to it may be turned off by its pungency—it is, after all, fermented fish! Adding it as the last or near last ingredient helps. Fish sauce can be found at Asian grocery stores. When mixed with sugar, pepper, and other ingredients, nuoc mam turns into nuoc cham.

Noodles: The variety of noodles sold in Asian markets is huge, and you can certainly experiment with substitutions. Noi uses wide rice noodles (bun), but these can sometimes be difficult to find. I actually prefer the heartier texture of wheat-based noodles such as lo-mein, which can be found at most standard grocery stores as well as Asian markets.

Balancing flavors: The dish below is easy and quick, but there is one trick: timing it all so that the heat of the shrimp and red pepper balances the coolness of the cucumber and noodles. When you eat, you should experience the combination of hot and cold, spicy and fresh.

Afterwards: My grandmother always rounded out meals with fruit. Try sliced mango, or buy a can of lychees at the Asian market. Chilled, the lychees are mild, sweet, and refreshing — a lovely finish to a meal.

Noi's Garlic Shrimp with Cucumbers & Shiitake Mushrooms

Serves: 6
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes


12 oz. lo-mein (wheat flour) noodles, wide rice noodles, or similar type of Asian noodles
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup very thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and julienned
1 lime, cut into wedges
1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup cilantro leaves

For shrimp:
2 lb. medium or large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons sesame oil or chili oil
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt (preferably coarse)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For nuoc cham sauce:
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced or 1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/3 cup fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Prepare shrimp by combining the garlic, sesame/chili oil, vinegar, sugar, lime juice, salt, and black pepper; coat the shrimp. Set aside. This may also be prepared ahead of time and kept covered in the refrigerator.
  2. Boil water and cook noodles for about five minutes, or according to package instructions, then drain.
  3. Make the sauce: Over low heat, dissolve sugar in the water, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and wait five minutes. Add lime juice, chili pepper, and fish sauce and vinegar. Return the saucepan to very low heat.
  4. Cook shrimp: Heat vegetable oil in a skillet on medium heat. Turn to high heat and add shrimp, sautéing about 3 minutes or until cooked through.
  5. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings as desired. Carefully toss together noodles, shiitake mushrooms, and cucumbers with half the sauce, then transfer to a platter. Sprinkle cilantro and mint over all. Add shrimp last.
  6. Garnish the platter with lime wedges and sprigs of mint and cilantro. Pour the rest of the sauce in a small bowl so people can help themselves to more.

Nutrition Facts (per serving):

Calories: 415
Fat: 7 grams
Saturated Fat: 1 grams
Sodium: 2,065 milligrams
Total Carbohydrates: 49 grams
Dietary Fiber: 2 grams
Protein: 37 grams

By Bich Minh Nguyen

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