In any way that matters, Nyia Meyers is your average American fifth-grader.
If she could go anywhere in the world, where would she like to visit? “Paris or Tokyo.”
What’s her favorite place to eat? “Duff’s.”
Only when you meet her in her Parkside home, with parents Jeff and Donna Meyers, might you suspect she’s not originally from around here. Ten years ago, the Meyerses went to Da Nang, Vietnam, adopted Nyia and brought the 3-month-old baby back to Buffalo.
Once a year the family celebrates that fact with a party timed to Tet, or the Vietnamese New Year. “I decorate more than I do for Christmas, and we try for everyone to have an outfit,” Donna Meyers said. Everyone gets dolled up, and the ladies don ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress, to welcome their extended family for a lavish feast of Vietnamese delicacies.
This Saturday, they will throw their eighth edition of their celebration of the land that gave them Nyia.
The meal is typically eight dishes, at least, plus desserts. Salads, caramel braised pork, grilled marinated chicken with salty lime dip, and crispy spring rolls are some of the standards that Jeff Meyers cooks for 30 to 40 people. There’s so much food he has to use the “Buffalo fridge,” coolers in the backyard kept plenty food-safe in the February chill.
These days, Jeff sells paper and promotional products for Notable Corp. in Amherst. But when you see the spread on the table, it’s no surprise to learn that he cooked at the former Sequoia for four years, and helped open Fat Bob’s Smokehouse. “I learned a lot about organization and prep,” he said.
He burned out on restaurants and returned to selling promotional items but never lost his love of cooking for family and friends.
Before Meyers headed to Vietnam to pick up Nyia, he knew nothing about Vietnamese cuisine, he said. “I thought Vietnamese food was Chinese food.”
Now, he urges anyone who can make stir-fry to give it a try. Vietnamese food is similar to Chinese food in some ways, but it has more crunchy salads and fresh herbs, he said.
Nyia herself isn’t particularly enamored of Vietnamese food. The crispy spring rolls are her favorite dish at the Tet dinner.
Despite her American palate, Jeff has been able to tempt her with fried calamari dunked in Vietnamese dipping sauce. “There isn’t a much more satisfying sight than a 5-year-old lauding the taste of squid with tentacles hanging out of her mouth,” he said.
Aunt Tam’s Pork in Clay Pot
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1½ teaspoons caramel
sauce, recipe below
1 tablespoon sugar
½ pound boneless pork
shoulder or butt, sliced
into thin bite-sized strips
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon freshly ground
4 sprigs cilantro,
cut into 1-inch pieces
Combine the fish sauce, caramel sauce and sugar in a bowl and stir well to blend. Add the pork and marinate for 30 minutes.
Place the pork and any of the marinating juices in a 1-quart clay pot or heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the water and cook, uncovered, until the sauce is slightly thick, about 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in the black pepper.
Remove the pot from the heat. Garnish pork with the cilantro and serve right in the clay pot.
½ cup sugar
s cup boiling water
Place the sugar in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over moderate heat. The sugar will melt and start to caramelize in about 2-3 minutes.
Stir a few times (the edges will start to brown fast) and let the mixture bubble until it turns dark brown, about another minute or so.
Quickly but carefully remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the boiling water. Stand back, as the mixture might splatter. Set aside to cool. Will keep for up to a month at room temperature if stored in a tight-lidded jar.
Note: If a clump develops after the water is added, reduce heat to very low and stir until the clump is dissolved. Makes ½ cup. (From “Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table” by Mai Pham, Harper Collins)
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons black pepper
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons canola or
other neutral oil
2¾ pounds chicken thighs,
4 tablespoons fresh lime
juice (about 2 limes)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground
Serrano chili, sliced thin
Salt, pepper and Lime
To make the marinade, in a bowl large enough to accommodate the chicken, combine the sugar, salt, pepper, fish sauce, lime juice and oil; mix well. Add the chicken pieces and use your fingers to massage the marinade into the flesh, distributing the seasonings as evenly as possible. When possible, peel back the skin to get some marinade between the flesh and skin. Marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes, or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.
If necessary, remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling. Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire (you can hold your hand over the rack for only 3 to 4 seconds) or preheat a gas grill to medium (higher heat on a gas grill tends to burn the chicken skin).
Place the chicken, skin side down, on the grill rack and grill, turning regularly to ensure even cooking, for about 12 minutes total, or until browned, a little singed by fire, and opaque throughout. Transfer to a plate and let rest for about 5 minutes.
To make lime dipping sauce, in a small bowl mix salt, pepper, lime juice and Serrano chili, if using.
Slice the chicken into strips a scant ½-inch thick. Arrange on a plate and serve with the dipping sauce.
Note: For vegetarian version, substitute 2 pounds of summer squash for the chicken. Select zucchini or crookneck squashes between 5 and 6 inches long; trim the ends and halve each squash lengthwise. Or, use pattypan squashes about 3 inches in diameter, trim them, then halve crosswise. Toss in the marinade, grill and serve with or without dipping sauce. (From “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” by Andrea Nguyen, Ten Speed Press)
On the Web: Check out more recipes from Meyers’ Tet feast at blog Hungry for More.