Just after my daughter Vivian was born, my mother visited for a week, which naturally meant we ate a fair amount of Vietnamese food. When she does come to town my sister Laura (who lives a few miles east) and I usually request old favorites that we haven’t been able to get our hands on for some time, usually dishes that speak to us of our heritage or remind us fondly of childhood memories. And my mother happily complies, cooking up a storm of Vietnamese dishes from her vast repertoire, steaming up the kitchen and filling the house with aromas of ginger, garlic, fish sauce, heady broths, and pungent herbs. I have a pretty good understanding of Vietnamese cuisine, but even dishes like Mien Ga, which I know how to make, are different when made by her — they are naturally more authentic, simpler, and very straight-forward. As a half-Vietnamese American chef with a modern bent and a proclivity toward experimentation, I can’t resist tweaking the comfort classics or throwing in extra ingredients that my mother might look askance at.
But for the real deal, the authentic Viet flavor, my mother’s cooking is the best I’ve ever tasted (although perhaps I’m biased). My sister’s favorite noodle soup (at least the one she always begs Mom to make) is this dish of glass noodles with poached chicken in chicken broth. And it’s no wonder that Laura craves it, as Mom’s Mien Ga is fantastic! The broth is clear, clean, and flavorful; it tastes just like chicken with the barest whisper of ginger. The chicken meat is perfectly poached and moist. The dried glass noodles are soaked for fifteen minutes in hot water until just al dente. The soup is garnished with a simple tart slaw of shredded cabbage and carrots that’s dressed with the classic nuoc cham dressing of Vietnamese fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice, sugar, and loads of garlic. Mom likes to poach a few pieces of scallion whites in the broth until softened; she’ll toss that in the soup with some shaved white onions, minced scallions greens, and some cilantro. Maybe a little mint leaf.
Traditionally the noodle soup features only chicken, but occasionally Mom will toss in a few poached shrimp, making the dish Mien Ga Tom (glass noodles + chicken + shrimp). The Vietnamese method of naming their foods is strikingly prosaic, unlike the Chinese who are prone to dramatic flourishes when it comes to dish-naming. You won’t find fancifully-monikered dishes like Jade Chicken Sea Cucumber or Longevity Noodles or Bird’s Nest anything or Buddha’s Delight. With Vietnamese menus you almost always get exactly what you order — noodles, chicken, shrimp. In this case, you ordered Mien Ga Tom.