I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for a year, but it’s finally time: Marian Days is upon us. Carthage’s Congregation of the Mother of the Redeemer complex is home to thousands of Vietnamese visitors until the festival ends on Sunday. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to experience this special event in our small town. It’s really incredible, and I don’t just mean the food. Honestly though, I mostly mean the food.
I had the privilege of attending a community meal hosted by the CMR, which they refer to as the “friendship dinner.” Each year, the fire department, police department and members of the Carthage City Council are invited to attend the friendship dinner. We watched the documentary “Vietnamerica,” which details a family’s painful exodus by boat from Vietnam. It was especially poignant when Father John Paul spoke afterward, letting us know that he also left Vietnam on a small boat with his family. The refugees are called “boat people,” and there are numerous memorials, as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees died in the water in their attempt to flee. The movie and dinner are a welcome and a “thank you” to the community that supports their gathering.
Authentic Vietnamese food is hard to come by, especially in our small Midwestern town. Marian Days offers locals a taste of a culture, both literally and figuratively, that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to without travel time. This year, Joplin did get a great Vietnamese restaurant on West Seventh Street — Pho Saigon — and it’s fantastic. It’s so nice to have a Vietnamese food crutch for the 361 days a year when Marian Days is not in full swing.
If you haven’t been to Marian Days, take the leap. Know that you will park a few blocks away, there will be throngs of people, it will be hot and humid, and you will be so glad you went in spite of it all. If you want to go but the rest of your party is balking about the food, just know that there is always a local group there providing familiar American street food.
The food tents are gathered in one central area, so scope them all out and wander up to the one you choose, where you’ll be welcomed and seated in their makeshift restaurant. I recommend the tent from Port Arthur, Texas, for first-timers. It’s very accessible, there are pictures on the menu and the servers are young English-speaking volunteers. Have no fear. I’ve heard they raise enough money at Marian Days to fund their church youth program for the entire year. Go, donate to their cause and get some delicious food in return. There are condiments on every table. Try them all.
There are a few standard culinary delights I recommend for Marian Days first-timers. Pho: rice noodle soup with meat or tofu and herbs; incredibly delicious and served with bean sprouts, lime wedges, jalapeno slices and herbs. Throw it all in the steaming bowl of noodles, meat and broth or do what you like. Bun: think of this as a noodle salad; it includes rice noodles, sauce, herbs, meat and veggies. My kid always gets this with chopped up egg rolls on top. What’s not to love? Banh mi: a big, delicious sandwich on a crusty baguette; it’s familiar, because it’s basically a hoagie, but it’s stuffed with meats, veggies and pickled things. So good. Boba: a drink that comes in many flavors with optional marble-sized tapioca pearls. Boba stands are easy to come by, but save room; it’s a large beverage and those wonderfully chewy tapioca pearls are very filling.
Those are the absolute must-tries. However, I highly suggest trying green waffles, which get their color and flavor from pandan, a Southeast Asian plant widely used for its tasty vanilla flavor. The waffles are meant to be eaten by hand like street food, so just chow down, no butter or syrup necessary. There are also delicious creamy popsicles available in pandan, or lots of other familiar flavors, although I recommend trying a red bean popsicle. Beans in our sweets are a very good thing. Vietnamese desserts are not terribly sweet; they are often more palate-cleansing. Try them.
Spring rolls are another must, and like many of the grab-and-go options available, you can take them with you or order them as a side at one of the restaurant tents. They’re wrapped in rice paper, so they’re soft, not fried and crispy; they’re stuffed with rice noodles, shrimp, pork, veggies and herbs and they’re served with peanut sauce for dipping. I want them every day of my life. So fresh, so good.
If you’re not going to make it to the celebration, but you want to try your hand at Vietnamese cuisine, these recipes are a good start.
Rice noodle salad with shrimp
2 large carrots, grated (about 2 cups)
1/2 English cucumber, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro and/or mint
1/2 head red leaf lettuce, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup fresh lime juice (from 4 limes), plus wedges for serving
2 large cloves garlic, grated
1 red Thai bird or Serrano chile pepper, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces large shrimp (about 16), peeled and deveined, tails intact
1 8.8-ounce package thin rice noodles
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, combine the sugar and 2 tablespoons hot water in a large bowl and stir until dissolved. Stir in the lime juice, garlic, chile and fish sauce; transfer 2 tablespoons of the dressing to a medium bowl and whisk in the vegetable oil. Add the shrimp and toss to coat; set aside. Add the rice noodles to the boiling water and cook as the label directs; drain, rinse with cold water and shake off the excess liquid. Add the noodles to the bowl with the remaining dressing; add the lettuce, carrots, cucumber and herbs and toss to coat.
Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the shrimp until charred and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Arrange over the noodles; serve with lime wedges.
Recipe source: www.foodnetwork.com
Vietnamese peanut sauce
1 tablespoon peanut oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon chili paste or 1 teaspoon sriracha sauce
1⁄2 cup chicken broth or 1⁄2 cup water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3⁄4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1⁄4 cup hoisin sauce
1⁄4 cup roasted peanuts, ground, for garnish
Heat the oil and add the garlic, chili paste, and tomato paste. Fry until garlic is golden brown. Add the broth, sugar, peanut butter, and hoisin sauce, and whisk to dissolve the peanut butter. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Garnish with ground peanuts. Use as dipping sauce for spring rolls, dumplings and veggies, or thin with water for salad dressing.
Recipe adapted from www.geniuskitchen.com
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