Tag Archives: Vietnam

An International Taste of Home Flavors

You know what November means? It means red, orange, and yellow leaves. It means scarves and chilly mornings. It means getting those coupons ready for Black Friday so you can get a great deal on some future presents.

But, above all else, November means giving thanks over a splendid meal on Thanksgiving evening.

We borrowed two delicious recipes from Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods, Revised Edition by Aimee Zaring to get everyone in the mood for some Thanksgiving cooking! In addition to sharing recipes from all across the world, Flavors from Home offers fascinating and moving stories from Kentucky’s resettled refugees, giving readers the chance to understand the courage and hardships of the tens of thousands of legally resettled refugees that use the kitchen to be able to return “home.”


Irene’s Chicken Paprikás

Chicken paprikás (PAP-ree-cahsh) is a classic Hungarian comfort food. Hungarians generally use a combination of dark and white chicken meat in their paprikás, but for a healthier version, substitute boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken tenders.

Serves 4 to 6

Ready in about 45 minutes

Image 01 Irene Finley

“Anything could have happened to us, but God had a purpose for my life.” –Irene Finley

5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 1⁄2 teaspoons sweet paprika (preferably Hungarian)
Ground cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 whole chicken, separated into legs, thighs, wings, etc.
1 (8-ounce) container sour cream (preferably regular) 1⁄4 cup all-purpose our
1⁄2 cup 2 percent milk

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Over medium heat, sauté onion until translucent. Add paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pep- per. Stir to combine. Add chicken and just enough water to cover.Bring to a boil, then turn down to medium-low heat. Cook with the lid partially covering the pan until the chicken becomes tender, about 30 minutes or less. (For chicken tenders, adjust the cooking time to 15 to 18 minutes.) Stir occasionally. Make sure not to overcook the chicken. When the chicken is done, remove it from the pot and set aside. Reserve the liq- uid and keep it warm over low heat. Cover the chicken with aluminum foil to keep it warm.


CoCo’s Soft Spring Rolls and Peanut Sauce

Spring rolls are a traditional and ubiquitous appetizer in Vietnam. Serve them at your next party and impress your friends, but keep in mind that spring rolls dry out quickly and are meant to be eaten right away. They also make a light, delicious, healthy meal.

Serves 8 to 10 (makes about 25 to 30 spring rolls)

Ready in about 1 hour and  45 minutes

Coco's Spring rolls 2

“I love to create. I love to bring the new idea to this town.” –Huong “CoCo” Tran

Spring Rolls

1 (8-ounce) package thin rice noodles (or rice vermicelli)
Olive oil for sautéing
2 carrots, shredded
1 to 2 celery stalks, cut in half lengthwise and on the bias 1 small head white cabbage, shredded
Salt and pepper
1 pound firm tofu (1 16-ounce package)
1⁄2 pound vegetarian mock (meatless) ham (optional)
1 (12-ounce) package rice paper (9-inch diameter)
Fresh mint or basil leaves
Peanut Sauce
11⁄4 to 2 cups hoisin sauce
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or hot pepper sauce
1⁄2 to 1 cup hot water
Ground peanuts (optional)
To Prepare the Spring Roll Filling
Boil enough water for the amount of rice noodles being used (refer to package directions). Cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until the noodles are softened. Rinse with cool water, drain well, and set aside.
Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a fry pan (preferably non- stick) over medium-high heat. Stir-fry carrots, celery, and cabbage until soft. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer vegetables to a plate or storage container to cool until ready to use.

Clean out the same fry pan and heat enough oil to cover the bot- tom over medium-high heat. (Make sure the pan is very hot before fry- ing.) Drain tofu of excess moisture. Cut tofu blocks widthwise into about 7 or 8 (1⁄2-inch-thick) slices. Fry the tofu slices until lightly brown on both sides, 5 to 10 minutes per side. Flip only once for best results. Remove and transfer to paper towels to remove excess oil, if desired.

If using vegetarian ham, slice and pan-fry like the tofu, adding more oil as needed. Transfer to paper towels to remove excess oil, if desired.
Cool all filling ingredients before assembling the spring rolls.
To Prepare the Peanut Sauce
In a medium bowl, combine hoisin sauce, peanut butter, and cayenne pepper to taste. (For a slightly sweeter sauce, add more peanut butter. For less sweetness, add more hoisin sauce and hot pepper.) Add hot water, a little at a time, until the ingredients are well mixed and the texture is smooth and creamy and of the preferred consistency. Serve cool or at room temperature. Garnish with ground peanuts just before serving. Store left- overs in the refrigerator.
To Assemble the Spring Rolls
Take one sheet of rice paper and quickly dip it into a large bowl of warm water (for about 2 to 3 seconds), making sure it is completely immersed. If you’re using a shallow bowl, you may need to rotate the paper. (Do not leave the paper in the water too long, or it will break down too quickly and be harder to roll.) Remove the paper (it should still be slightly firm) and hold it over the bowl to let the excess water drip off . Place the paper on a clean counter, a sheet of plastic wrap, or a plastic cutting board. (The paper will continue to soften and become gelatinous as it absorbs water during assembly.)
Place 1 tablespoon of the cooled vegetable filling in the middle of the rice paper, spreading it out lengthwise (to approximately 31⁄2 to 4 inches). Top the vegetables with about 1 tablespoon of tofu and ham (2 to 4 pieces), followed by 1 tablespoon of rice noodles and 2 mint or basil leaves. Do not overstuff to avoid tearing the paper.

Fold the end of the rice paper closest to you over the filling. Make sure the filling ingredients are tucked in, then fold in the sides. Slowly roll the rice paper away from you, keeping the ingredients tight and the edges straight, until the paper ends. Transfer to a serving plate, seam side down. Repeat the wrapping process until all the spring rolls and filling have been used.

Serve cold or at room temperature with peanut sauce. These are best served immediately or within an hour of making; otherwise, the rice paper will dry out. To keep them fresh, wrap each roll individually in plastic wrap, or store them in a single layer in a lightly oiled airtight container. Use plastic wrap to divide multiple layers so the rolls won’t stick together and tear. Keep refrigerated.
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Stop Four: The Restaurants of Bardstown Road

Our next stop on our Journey Through the Bluegrass is none other than the eclectic and energetic Bardstown Road of Louisville, KY. What is so special about this area, you ask? Aside from the mass quantities of coffee shops and men sporting extravagant beards and corduroy, this is actually a great part of town to find some delicious grub. But not just any grub. We’ve recently been acquainted with the story of Huang “CoCo” Tran, the owner of a series of restaurants on Bardstown Road. Here is an excerpt from UPK author Aimee Zaring’s Flavors from Home that gives insight to the inspirational and captivating story of this Vietnam immigrant turned restaurant owner and guru:

“CoCo’s childhood was relatively normal and happy in Vietnam’s southcentral coast province of Quang Ngai—a well-known Vietcong stronghold during the Vietnam War and the setting of Tim O’Brien’s classic short story “The Things They Carried.” Her father was a businessman and a prominent supporter of democracy. When the political climate changed, creating instability in her hometown, she moved to the family’s city home in Saigon, where she lived from 1965 to 1975.

During this period, her mother died in a plane crash. CoCo, only eighteen at the time, helped her older sister raise their younger brothers and sisters. CoCo also assisted in her sister’s restaurant, Cafe Mimosa (the same name she later gave to her own restaurant in Louisville). However, CoCo wasn’t allowed to cook at the restaurant, and her sister used to shoo her out of the kitchen. CoCo admits that cooking wasn’t her forte. Everything she knew about cooking she had learned by watching her mother and sister and the servants in her parents’ household. What happened when she did cook? “I burned the rice. I cook terrible,” she says.

CoCo Tran in her Roots/Heart & Soy kitchen

CoCo made up for her lack of cooking skills with her keen senses. “I taste. I smell. I look. That’s the way I cook. That’s the way I learned.” She sampled dishes at other restaurants and reported back to her sister. “I know what’s goodand what’s not.”

When she wasn’t helping at the restaurant, CoCo worked as a pharmaceutical representative, a job that required travel. She was visiting her childhood home in Quang Ngai when her life—and the lives of her countrymen—took a drastic turn. On April 30, 1975, Communist troops from North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of

South Vietnam invaded and overtook Saigon, ending the war and a century of Western influence. CoCo found herself in the midst of a mob scene as she tried to make her way to a ferry and return to Saigon. Her older sister, who was unable to leave at the time, asked CoCo to escort her adopted eleven-year-old daughter to freedom and safety. CoCo still recalls, even thirty-odd years later, the horrific accident that occurred just hours after the child was entrusted to her care. With thousands of people fighting their way onto the ferry, CoCo and the young girl were pushed into the water as they boarded. CoCo surfaced. The child never did. CoCo spent the rest of the day and night frantically searching for the little girl. Eventually she had to return to Saigon—alone and defeated. (She never forgot the child and spent the next three decades trying to locate her. Finally, in 2008, she found her niece alive and well in Vietnam with two children of her own.)

Because of CoCo’s father’s politics, the family knew they were no longer safe in Vietnam. On May 2 CoCo and members of her extended family—twelve adults and six children—left Saigon with only some cash and some gold and an extra change of clothing. The only thing they knew for sure was that they would pay any price for freedom.

The family members staggered their individual departures to avoid arousing suspicion and reconnected near Long Hai beach, where American ships were supposed to be waiting to pick up refugees. No ships were in sight. The family negotiated with a fisherman, paying him to transport them on his small, poorly supplied fishing boat toward international waters. CoCo remembers how dark it was that first night at sea and how terrified she was, not knowing where they would end up or whether they would even survive another day. Finally, in the distance, they spotted a merchant ship. Just when they thought their luck had turned, the captain of the Taiwanese merchant ship demanded the exorbitant sum of $9,000 for food and transportation. They gave him everything they had and traveled from port to port, alongside cows and buffalo. They stopped at Thailand, Hong Kong, and Okinawa, but each port refused them entry. At the time, no official refugee program existed to support the people who were fleeing Vietnam. Without relatives or sponsors at these port cities, no country was willing to take in CoCo’s family.

Meanwhile, CoCo’s younger brother, Tran Thien Tran, was in America working tirelessly to find a way to help his stranded kin out on the open seas. He was living in Kentucky, attending the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering. The family’s hope was that

Tran could find them local sponsors so they could join him in the States. After thirty-six days at sea, the Trans finally got word that Taiwan would admit them, on the condition that they not stay on the island for an extended period. Back in the States, sponsoring groups from local churches and the University of Louisville, along with a few individual households, rallied to assist the Tran family.

A grainy photo from the Louisville Times shows a tearful CoCo giving her brother a long-awaited hug at Standiford Field airport. It is hard to reconcile this woman with the confident, relaxed, successful restaurateur sitting across from me now and smiling broadly, brown eyes shining behind maroon-rimmed glasses—the American Dream personified.”

CoCo's Spring Rolls

CoCo’s Spring Rolls

Since coming to Kentucky, Coco has opened five establishments, all of which can be found in the eastern Louisville area:

The Egg Roll Machine (1981) — the first Chinese fast-food restaurant in Louisville
     1543 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205
Cafe Mimosa (1984) — Louisville’s first modern Vietnamese and French cuisine restaurant
     1543 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205
Zen Garden (2000) — the first Asian vegetarian restaurant in Louisville
     2240 Frankford Road, Louisville, KY 40206
Zen Tea House (2008) — an add-on to Zen Garden focusing on tea
     Closed
Heart and Soy/Roots — CoCo’s latest project, two conjoining “sister” restaurants
     1216 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205

If you feel touched by CoCo’s amazing tale, you will definitely want to check out the rest of Zaring’s Flavors from Home which shares fascinating and moving stories of courage, perseverance, and self-reinvention from Kentucky’s resettled refugees. Each chapter features a different person or family and includes carefully selected recipes.

After The Fall of Saigon: Starting from Scratch in Kentucky

Fall of SaigonToday marks the 40th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, and the end of the Vietnam War. For many Vietnamese families who did not subscribe to the ruling Communist Party’s politics, the withdrawal of American forces also meant their own evacuation from the country they called ‘home.”Huong “CoCo” Tran was among those South Vietnamese civilians for whom Vietnam was no longer safe.

After fleeing her homeland, CoCo started her new life in Louisville, Kentucky. First, packing ice cream cones at the Derby Cone factory, then later, after a lucky break and a lot of hard work, as a restaurateur. A pioneer in the Louisville restaurant industry, she opened Egg Roll Machine—the first Chinese take-out restaurant in the city in 1980, Café Mimosa—the first Vietnamese restaurant in the city in 1986, Zen Garden—the first Asian vegetarian restaurant in the city in 1999, and Zen Tea House—Louisville’s first and only Asian tea house. Her newest ventures are Heart & Soy and Roots—also vegetarian. Flavors from Home - University Press of Kentucky

And though CoCo is unique, her story of courage, perseverance, and self-reinvention is not wholly uncommon. Each year, the United States legally resettles tens of thousands of refugees who have fled their homelands. As these individuals and their families struggle to adapt to a new culture, the kitchen often becomes one of the few places where they are able to return “home.” Preparing native cuisine is one way they can find comfort in an unfamiliar land, retain their customs, reconnect with their past, and preserve a sense of identity.

The following excerpt, from Flavors of Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods, illuminates the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon through the eyes of a survivor who has redefined what it means to be a Kentuckian and an American.


Flavors from Home - University Press of Kentucky Coco Tran in her Roots and Heart & Soy kitchen

Huong “CoCo” Tran in the kitchen of her restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.

On April 30, 1975, Communist troops from North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam invaded and overtook Saigon, ending the war and a century of Western influence. CoCo [Tran] found herself in the midst of a mob scene as she tried to make her way to a ferry and return to Saigon. Her older sister, who was unable to leave at the time, asked CoCo to escort her adopted eleven-year-old daughter to freedom and safety. CoCo still recalls, even thirty-odd years later, the horrific accident that occurred just hours after the child was entrusted to her care. With thousands of people fighting their way onto the ferry, CoCo and the young girl were pushed into the water as they boarded. CoCo surfaced. The child never did. CoCo spent the rest of the day and night frantically searching for the little girl. Eventually she had to return to Saigon—alone and defeated. (She never forgot the child and spent the next three decades trying to locate her. Finally, in 2008, she found her niece alive and well in Vietnam with two children of her own.)

Because of CoCo’s father’s politics, the family knew they were no longer safe in Vietnam. On May 2 CoCo and members of her extended family—twelve adults and six children—left Saigon with only some cash and some gold and an extra change of clothing. The only thing they knew for sure was that they would pay any price for freedom.

The family members staggered their individual departures to avoid arousing suspicion and reconnected near Long Hai beach, where American ships were supposed to be waiting to pick up refugees. No ships were in sight. The family negotiated with a fisherman, paying him to transport them on his small, poorly supplied fishing boat toward international waters. CoCo remembers how dark it was that first night at sea and how terrified she was, not knowing where they would end up or whether they would even survive another day. Finally, in the distance, they spotted a merchant ship. Just when they thought their luck had turned, the captain of the Taiwanese merchant ship demanded the exorbitant sum of $9,000 for food and transportation. They gave him everything they had and traveled from port to port, alongside cows and buffalo. They stopped at Thailand, Hong Kong, and Okinawa, but each port refused them entry. At the time, no official refugee program existed to support the people who were fleeing Vietnam. Without relatives or sponsors at these port cities, no country was willing to take in CoCo’s family.

Meanwhile, CoCo’s younger brother, Tran Thien Tran, was in America working tirelessly to find a way to help his stranded kin out on the open seas. He was living in Kentucky, attending the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering. The family’s hope was that Tran could find them local sponsors so they could join him in the States. After thirty-six days at sea, the Trans finally got word that Taiwan would admit them, on the condition that they not stay on the island for an extended period. Back in the States, sponsoring groups from local churches and the University of Louisville, along with a few individual households, rallied to assist the Tran family.

A grainy photo from the Louisville Times shows a tearful CoCo giving her brother a long-awaited hug at Standiford Field airport. It is hard to reconcile this woman with the confident, relaxed, successful restaurateur sitting across from me now and smiling broadly, brown eyes shining behind maroon-rimmed glasses—the American Dream personified.

For more on the Vietnam War and the International Community in Kentucky: