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World Chefs: Phan shares food, journey from Vietnam

By Richard Leong

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Vietnamese-born chef Charles Phan shares his passion for his homeland and tips about how to cook its delicious food in his first cookbook, "Vietnamese Home Cooking".

Phan and his family fled to Guam from Vietnam in 1975 before settling in San Francisco a couple of years later. In 1995 he opened his restaurant Slanted Door, which has won acclaim for its modern interpretation of traditional Vietnamese food. He now runs six other eateries in San Francisco.

The 50-year-old spoke to Reuters about his passion for Vietnamese food, his plan to open a New Orleans-inspired bar and his future plans.

Q: What is the goal of your first cookbook?

A: "It's way to spread the gospel, if you will, about Vietnamese culture and food. We try to do that with our restaurant. The book is another way of bringing that culture to you."

Q: What makes Vietnamese cuisine unique?

A: "The Vietnamese were conquered by the French and the Chinese. On a Vietnamese table, there is always a big platter of fresh vegetable and herbs. In Vietnam, up north, the food is a bit different from the south. You have different climates. In Saigon, it's hot and muggy and tropical so the country ranges pretty widely with its food."

Q: What does Vietnamese cooking have in common with others in Southeast Asia?

A: "Obviously, rice is the common link across these cultures. They use meat as condiments rather than a main course. We don't have ovens so we don't bake things. We steam things. Fuel is scarce so we use very little wood. You have the fruits and vegetables that come from Southeast Asia you use over there. When you compare all of Southeast Asia with Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, they are very similar. Things get different when you get into China."

Q: You have plans to open another restaurant?

A: "We are about to open to Creole bar concept. I happen to like bourbon a lot; so does my architect. So this bar will have an extensive bourbon list and interesting bourbon from the last three years. It's tiny. It's only 1,300 square feet. So the bar drives the concept. It's inspired by New Orleans. There will be oysters from New Orleans. We'll have gumbo. We'll make a mean fried chicken."

Q: Do you have second thoughts about serving Creole food?

A: "I cook all this food at home all the time. I'm not saying I'm an expert at it but it's simple enough and it's high quality food .... You don't have be Vietnamese to cook Vietnamese food as long as you understand the sensibility."

Q: What should one be mindful of in making Vietnamese food?

A: "You have to learn how to eat Vietnamese food before you cook it. You have to understand what the sensibility is or what I call the gold standard. This is how the Vietnamese want it. This is how people in Vietnam treat their food. You might not agree.

"In Vietnam people like their meat medium to well done. You could change that. There's nothing wrong with that. Again in Vietnam, people eat their soup with herbs and lemon in it. But you don't have to do it. Cooking is knowing where you are going and achieving that goal."

Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce (Makes 20 to 25 skewers; serves 10 to 12 as an appetizer)

2½ pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs

¾ cup sliced shallots

¾ cup shallot oil or canola oil

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1½ tablespoons roasted chili paste

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons mild Madras curry powder

Peanut sauce (see below)

Sriracha sauce, for seasoning

20 to 25 (10-inch) bamboo skewers

1. Trim any visible fat from the chicken thighs, then cut the thighs into long strips, about 1-inch wide. Put the chicken into a bowl and set aside.

2. To make the marinade, in a food processor or blender, combine the shallots and shallot oil and process until smooth. Add the garlic, chili paste, sugar, salt, and curry powder and process until smooth.

3. Add the marinade to the chicken and mix well to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours. In a shallow dish, immerse the bamboo skewers in water to cover.

4. Prepare a medium-hot fire for direct-heat grilling in a charcoal grill (you should be able to hold your hand 1 inch above the grate for only 3 to 4 seconds).

5. Just before the coals are ready, drain the skewers and thread 1 strip of chicken lengthwise onto each skewer, taking care to insert the skewer through the center of each strip. Do not leave the tip of the skewer exposed or it will burn.

6. Place the skewers on the grill grate and cook, turning once, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until well browned and opaque throughout.

7. In a small bowl, stir together the peanut sauce with Sriracha to taste. Transfer the skewers to a large platter and serve immediately, accompanied with the sauce.

PEANUT SAUCE (makes about 2 cups)

1 cup sweet (glutinous) rice

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

2 cloves garlic

1 Thai chili, stemmed

3 tablespoons red miso

3 tablespoons ketchup

3 tablespoons canola oil

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons vegetarian stir-fry (aka vegetarian oyster) sauce

1-1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh sieve until the water runs clear, then transfer to a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid. Add 2 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered for 10 minutes. Then uncover, fluff with a fork, and let cool to room temperature. Alternatively, the rice can be prepared in a rice cooker.

2. In a food processor, combine the cooled rice, peanuts, garlic, chili, miso, ketchup, canola oil, sugar, stir-fry sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil and process until the mixture is a fine paste. Thin with water (about 1/2 cup) until the texture is smooth and creamy. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for up to four days.

(Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney and Richard Chang)

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