Asian herbs thrive in California
July/Aug. 2005 California Country magazine
By Kristin Simoes
Mai Pham, chef and owner of Sacramento's Lemon Grass Restaurant, loves to use fresh Asian herbs in her cooking.
Take a walk through Mai Pham's favorite herb garden in rural Sacramento County and you're likely to whiff pennywort, brush by the purple leaves of red perilla, and encounter rows and rows of rau ram and saw-leaf.
For Mai Pham, author, educator, chef and owner of Sacramento's Lemon Grass Restaurant, herbs are cooking staples. Aside from the vibrant flavors they bring to the traditional Southeast Asian dishes Mai grew up eating, herbs rouse fond memories of her ch2ldhood in the former Vietnamese capital, Saigon.
"I remember in Vietnam we used to run down to the local market and get a glass of pennywort juice in the summer. We would eat herbs just like you and I eat salad--a huge bed of herbs, all fresh from the ground," said Mai, who left her homeland in 1975 aft³r the fall of Saigon. She and her family came to the United States as refugees and began to integrate into a new world, which at that time largely ignored the Vietnamese culture.
"People back then were very hesitant to talk about Vietnam and for a new immigrant like me, it was hard to deal with, because people weren't interested in where I came from," Mai said. "There was this great sense of being dislocated, a loss of identity and a loss of culture."
Mai found that food helped her stay connected to her homeland, the memories she had of cooking with her grandmother, and growing up among a bounty of fresh produce and herbs. While she attended college in Maryland and later worked as a television reporter in Sacramento, Mai always felt that her true passion was cooking. It was a way to reconnect with her past, and to share with her friends and neighbors the rich traditions of the Vietnamese culture.
Perhaps Mai settled in California because it was the place she found most resembled her childhood home.
"Not only is the climate in California very similar to Vietnam, which makes it possible to grow the traditional Asian herbs and produce, but Orange County has become home to the second largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam," she said.
With a growing Vietnamese population comes a growing market for the traditional flavors of the Asian cultures, and those flavors are being shared more and enjoyed more by the general community.
Oanh Pham (no relation to Mai) operates the small Asian herb farm in Elk Grove, just south of Sacramento, where Mai Pham purchases much of her produce.
"What is great about our herb farm is the richness of the soil," said Oanh, an immigrant whose family works alongside him plucking rows of mint and coriander. "Even though farming can be physically demanding, at least the weather is good and you're almost guaranteed a great harvest every year. If you're farming elsewhere, you can't always say that."
Thanks to the favorable climate throughout California, farmers like Oanh Pham are finding success. Oanh is a regular merchant at several area farmers' markets and is often asked to share his recipes and give cooking advice.
"I get very excited that people are so curious about these herbs and how they are used," he said. "I'm amazed by the number of Americans who actually ask for them by their Vietnamese names."
The growing popularity of Asian produce, such as taro stems and kabocha squash, is evident by their regular appearance in neighborhood restaurants and on the shelves of Asian specialty stores. And Mai enjoys perusing the aisles of local markets for inspiration in creating new menu items.
"Like bok choy," she said. "You can get regular bok choy anywhere, but at an Asian market you can find several similar varieties such as choy sum and yu choy, which can turn an everyday stir-fry into something quite spectacular."
While many of Mai's favorite herbs remain unfamiliar--at least in name--to most of her restaurant's customers, her culinary expertise has helped bring their flavors into mainstream cooking. Mai is a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times and magazines Fine Cooking and Bon Appetit.
She is also a guest chef and teacher at The Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, and is regarded as an expert on Southeast Asian cuisine, traveling internationally to conduct seminars and cooking classes. Mai has authored two cookbooks: The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking and Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.
"To me it's really exciting because it's something I've been cooking with and grew up with all my life and I'm obviously very proud of it," said Mai. "And I see so many Americans now really excited about it too."
But Mai says the reconnection with her heritage has been the greatest reward in her successful career. Visiting Oanh's herb farm is more than a business trip; it's a chance to step into the vast fields--and memories--of her homeland, if even for just an hour. Visits to the farm have led Mai to share more time with her father, Xuan Pham, who likes to join her there. He said he appreciates the vibrant yet subtle flavors of the Asian herbs and vegetables and the authentic dishes they help create.
"It reminds me of home to eat Mai's food," he said while viewing the rows of bright green produce, dotted with farmers crouched in the soil and sheltered from the sun by traditional triangle-shaped hats. "Food is the one thing we all have in common. One thing we all need. I am proud that she can share the food of our culture, and find success and happiness at the same time."
And for Mai Pham, sharing the vibrant, refreshing flavors of the foods she grew up eating has become easier to do.
"These days, it is so exciting to see that Asian is really emerging as the 'hot' cuisine. It is perceived as being very healthy food, but it also carries an abundance of vibrant flavors that can be recreated at home," she said. "Asian cuisine can be exotic and yet quite familiar at the same time."
Mai attests to California being the true frontier when it comes to culinary trends. This world-class chef said she's grateful to be cooking here and she believes the Golden State will continue to be a leader when it comes to excellent food and culinary innovation.
(Kristin Simoes is a reporter in Sacramento. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)