My parents were boat people and escaped in the early 80s. I was born and raised in Montreal and spent the latter part of my childhood in New York's North Country. I was the only Vietnamese kid in a predominantly Caucasian community and quickly rose to fame as the kid whose mom made homemade eggrolls instead of cupcakes. Even teachers from other classrooms would stop by to hoard their share at potlucks. My dinners did not include meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Occasionally my mom would whip up her version of goulash and tacos whenever I asked for an "American" meal. Now that I am in my late twenties and am on my own, I find myself more and more nostalgic for the Vietnamese foods that I grew up with and have a much deeper appreciation for it. Dinner for us was as simple as a stewed meat or fried fish with a side of fish sauce and savory soups, all served with bowls of white jasmine rice. On the weekends, it would be a treat to have banh cuon (steamed rice cake) or banh xeo (sizzling pancakes). In fact, Buzzfeed pretty much sums up my childhood eats here.
Sadly my teenage self never paid attention to my mom's cooking. In the past decade, as I've become more engrossed in food culture and exploring culinary eats, I'm finding myself more in touch with my own cultural background. Even more so now that John and I are together. My parents might not be able to communicate that well in English but food is our common denominator. My mom loves John enough to make his own batch of said famous eggrolls without mushrooms and I love being to share with John, my Irish-American boy, the food that I grew up with. So when my mom isn't around, I've learned to make my own version of Vietnamese eats. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I'm slowly building up my repertoire and my mom is only a Vonage phone call away for tips and questions.
Tonight I was craving a very simple dish called tom rim aka Vietnamese caramelized shrimp. It's so simple to make yet I never got around to making it until now. It's a rustic dish that is so comforting especially served with a bowl of rice. Some Googling and a phone call later, I found this random recipe to be closest in flavor to that of my childhood memories. I adjusted the recipe a bit by just throwing everything in one pot after making the caramel sauce and soaking the shrimp in salt water beforehand because that's what my mom told me to do. I also didn't have shallots or scallions on hand but it tasted just fine without and added a thai chili in for some heat. Mom also said don't add ginger per some recipes that I saw but do add plenty of pepper. You don't have to go all out with the head-on shrimp but the ones with the shells really make a difference. The sauce sticks to the shell better and prevents the shrimp from overcooking. I can't recall seeing this dish on the menu from the Vietnamese restaurants in the Capital Region, but if you do see it in your travels give it a try and let me know what you think. If you happen to whip a batch up yourself, good for you! Be prepared, fish sauce has a very strong and pungent smell and taste but mellows out with cooking. Fish sauce is the magical ingredient in every Vietnamese dish :)