Huyen Tran mixes the filling for shrimp and pork dumplings. Her mother’s recipe calls for many ingredients ranging from diced water chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms to diced shallots and finely chopped scallions. PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Huyen Tran recalls odyssey from Vietnam to the U.S.



SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Many people have childhood memories of helping in the kitchen.

For Huyen Tran of Clark Point Catering in Southwest Harbor, those memories include spending entire Saturday mornings beating eggs for sponge cake their mother was making. She and two of her five sisters would take turns, she said, beating a large bowl of eggs using a handmade whisk her mother had fashioned from a wire clothes hanger.

“We’d each do it until we were tired, then we’d pass the bowl to the next sister,” she said. “We’d spend all of our Saturday morning passing this bowl!”

At some point, their mom, the household’s executive chef, would come over and inspect their progress. She would add the sugar and instruct them to keep beating until the egg-sugar mixture reached what bakers call the “ribbon stage.”

This was in Philadelphia, where the family arrived in 1980 as refugees from Vietnam. The improvised whisk was because “we didn’t know that there were kitchen supply stores,” Tran said. And they also were used to being creative with what was at hand.

“Food is formative,” she says. “My dad was very good at eating something and figuring out what was in it. And my mom was super critical — she would always critique everything she made.”

In Vietnam, some of the women in the family would make a special dessert for the autumn Moon Festival.

“It was a multiple-day affair,” Tran remembers. There was sweet rice flour cake, the flour ground by hand, and toasted mung bean flour cake.

Dumplings (see recipe) were a favorite in the house, and the girls could go through dozens at a time.

As children (maybe they still do), Huyen says she and her five sisters would race to see who could wrap the most dumplings in an hour. She says the key to great dumplings is getting rid of excess moisture in the filling and sealing the dumplings well. Before wrapping the dumplings, she suggests tasting the filling for seasoning and adding more salt and pepper if needed. She does a quick taste test with a spoonful warmed in the microwave or fried up in a small pan.
PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

“My mom was a firm believer in, if you like something, you should eat it until you’re sick of it,” she laughs.

Tran’s father had fought in the South Vietnamese army. He and the family had been offered the chance to be evacuated by helicopter like many were when the Americans left. His wife didn’t want to go.

But then, after the war, he was put in a “re-education” prison camp. That was enough to convince him and his wife that they needed to leave the country, no matter what it took.

A group of friends built a large steel ship, literally in their backyard. Materials were bought with funds raised by selling passages on the ship to other families looking to leave — an eventual passenger list of 500.

“It looked like The Love Boat,” Tran remembers. “My dad was not a boat builder or anything, but he knew people that were boat builders. And he was very charismatic, so his part was selling passages.”

Families had to pay the government to be allowed to leave and property and possessions were seized.

“You couldn’t leave it to your relatives,” she said. “Whatever goods or anything valuable you had, the government would confiscate it. They also didn’t allow you to go and sell everything that you had. I remember hearing the adults talk about, ‘So and so got caught.’ You had to be really careful, otherwise it would fall apart.”

Even her memories of the harrowing boat journey, which began in 1979 from the city of Bac Lieu, include food.

The ship was never intended to cross an ocean, just to get them far enough out into international waters to where they could flag down help. They spotted a Japanese naval vessel, but it turned out to have been hijacked by Malaysian pirates.

“The pirates came on board. They were armed and we weren’t,” she said. They took whatever valuables people couldn’t hide. They took her father’s best friend, the only one of the group from Vietnam who could speak their language, and burned large areas of his skin on the ship’s hot engine housing.

“The pirates weren’t as vicious as they had become by the time National Geographic covered it in the ’80s,” she said, but it was plenty scary.

To make the filling, Huyen combines the ingredients including beaten egg whites in a large bowl. Then she adds cornstarch and mixes the filling well with her hands.
PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

The next thing she remembers after their translator was returned, badly injured but alive, is that the pirates made rice for everybody.

“They made curried fried rice with apples. I remember it was the first time I’d ever had apples. The sea was rocking and the storm was raging and the ship was tipping over — it was the most god-awful meal!”

She said she likes apples well enough nowadays, but “there’s something about a Golden Delicious” that can trigger memories of dinner with pirates.

After several days they arrived on a small, uninhabited Indonesian island called Kuku. It would be their home for the next year. The pirates dumped the refugees and took the ship.

“I remember that first day — it was a beautiful island, actually, white sand, turquoise Indian Ocean water — my mom made us sit still on the beach for something like 10 hours,” she said. “All the men had gone somewhere; turns out they had gone to build shelter out of saplings and vines and stuff. My sister had pictures of the village that they built.”

At this point in the story, Huyen’s husband, John Izenour, jumps in.

“Where did all the men go that first day?” he asked.

“They went to build housing,” Tran said.

“But what about food?”

“We live on the Mekong Delta!” Tran exclaims, amused and a little indignant. “We know how to fish. We’re not like the people on ‘Survivor’ on TV that don’t know how to fish.”

The United Nations refugee agency came with food and supplies, but couldn’t take people off the island until they had been approved somewhere for resettlement. Eventually the Tran family was accepted by the United States and issued Social Security numbers. They headed for Philadelphia via Guam.

In adulthood, the six Tran sisters have spread out a bit. Some stayed in Philadelphia while others have settled as far as California and Maine. Huyen Tran, Izenhour and their two children moved to Southwest Harbor about five years ago.

They gather for holidays where everyone contributes a dish and, in fine family tradition, critique each other’s work. And they call and text each other, often about food, the rest of the year.

Tran says she’s constantly reading recipes — she prefers them to novels — for technique and ideas.

Clark Point Catering was born out of fundraising projects for the local school and nonprofits. Before her first official job, a nonprofit fundraiser event, had ended, she had several others booked.

Her first wedding was a German breakfast, with scones and an egg-cured fish dish called “gravlax.”

“I’ve had a lot of fun,” she said. “I actually like the really big parties.”

At first the catering was all run out of the home kitchen, which got a little crazy. So they renovated a cottage on the property they had been renting out into a beautiful commercial kitchen.

Tran has learned a lesson from catering she thinks is good advice for holiday home cooks, too: “Do as much in advance as you possibly can!”

For more info, contact Huyen Tran at 1-(215)-380-3052 or email [email protected].

Thanksgiving Turkey
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Courtesy of Huyen Tran
Thanksgiving Turkey
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Ingredients
Turkey brine
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt per gallon of water used. I use Diamond brand kosher salt. It tends to be less ‘salty’ than the Morton kosher salt.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • Lots of ice (if you don’t have refrigerator space)
Herbed Bread Crumb for Brined Turkey
  • 6 Tbsps. soft butter, room temperature
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
  • 4 anchovy fillets finely minced (I know this sounds weird but trust me, you can’t taste it once cooked but this will add what the Japanese call umami to your turkey)
  • 4 Tbsps. finely chopped parsley
  • 2 Tbsps. finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 1/2 cups panko or regular bread crumbs
  • Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Servings:
Units:
Instructions
Turkey brine
  1. Mix 1 cup salt and the sugar with one gallon of warm water in either a small cooler or a clean plastic tote big enough to fit your turkey. The bigger the container, the more brine you have to make. Stir the mixture to dissolve most of the sugar and salt.
  2. Add the turkey to the brine and add another gallon of cold water to the brine. If your fridge is like most around the holidays, you probably don’t have room to store the turkey so what I do is dump ice into the brine.
  3. I add enough ice to submerge my turkey and to keep it cold overnight. Every 8 pounds of ice equals 1 gallon of water so add ½ cup more salt for every gallon of water/ice until the turkey is fully covered and submerged in the brine.
  4. To keep your turkey from floating up, place something heavy like a cutting board or heavy stainless steel pot on top to weigh it down. The first year I attempted a brine, no one told me to keep the bird fully submerged… that year the breast was more of a turkey ham than turkey. Store in a cool place.
  5. I usually brine my turkeys overnight for 12-14 hours. If you are short on time and can only brine for 4-6 hours, then use 1 cup salt for every gallon of water.
Herbed Bread Crumb for Brined Turkey
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare your roasting pan. I hate washing crusted food so I line my roasting pan with 2 layers of aluminum foil then place a roasting rack in the pan. If you don’t have a roasting rack, I use a cookie cooling rack. You just need to use something to lift the turkey up a little from the pan.
  2. In a small mixing bowl, combine all the herbed breadcrumb ingredients together. Rinse your turkey that has been brined and pat dry with a paper towel. Place in roasting pan, breast side up.
  3. With your fingers, gently separate the skin from the turkey without tearing the skin. Apply the bread crumb mixture under the skin. Try to distribute as evenly as possible both front and back of the turkey and the drumsticks.
  4. Take a large piece of aluminum foil and create a very loose tent over the turkey mainly to keep the turkey breast from burning during cooking. Roast turkey in the preheated oven until the internal temperature at the thickest parts of the breast and thigh registers 155-160 degrees F. It takes about 1.5 minutes for a 12-15 lb. bird. I tend to check the temperature at around an hour and 15 minutes.
  5. You may need to rotate the pan occasional to get even cooking depending on your oven. If the turkey is not brown enough when it is almost done, remove the aluminum foil tent to allow the skin to crisp and brown. Let the turkey rest in a warm place for 20-30 minutes before carving.
Recipe Notes

I don’t add herbs and spices to the brine as the return in flavor is minimum.  I save it for the turkey seasoning.

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Uncle John's Fresh Cranberry Relish
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Clark Point Catering’s Huyen Tran gave us this adapted version of her late uncle-in-law John Gemmill’s cranberry relish recipe.
Servings
3 cups
Servings
3 cups
Uncle John's Fresh Cranberry Relish
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Clark Point Catering’s Huyen Tran gave us this adapted version of her late uncle-in-law John Gemmill’s cranberry relish recipe.
Servings
3 cups
Servings
3 cups
Ingredients
  • 1 12 oz. bag fresh cranberries
  • 2 medium-size Fuji apples or similar type apple, roughly cut into chunks
  • 1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
  • zest of one orange about a tablespoon full (just the zest and not the pith)
  • pinch ground cloves
  • grated fresh ginger (optional)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • black pepper (I usually toss in a few whole black peppercorns too)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger or 1 tsp. fresh ginger finely nubced
  • 3 Tbsps. maple syrup
  • 2 bay leaves
Servings: cups
Units:
Instructions
  1. In a food processor or blender, combine cranberries, chopped apples, and orange juice and process until everything is roughly chopped to desired consistency but not pureed.
  2. Season with orange zest, cloves, salt, black pepper, ginger and maple syrup to taste. Add two dried bay leaves to the relish and refrigerate overnight. Remove bay leaves before serving.
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Almond Apple Tart
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Courtesy of Huyen Tran, Clark Point Catering
Almond Apple Tart
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Courtesy of Huyen Tran, Clark Point Catering
Ingredients
  • 9- or 10-inch fully baked pie shell
Filling
  • 7 medium apples of different variety, peeled, cored and sliced about ¼-inch thick.
  • 1/4 cup salted butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • Lemon juice and grated zest from ½ of a medium lemon
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg
Topping
  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
Servings:
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Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to bake at 350 degrees F.
  2. In a heavy bottom skillet, melt half of the butter on high heat. Sprinkle half of the sugar into the melted butter. Allow the sugar to melt and caramelize to an amber color. If the sugar is caramelizing unevenly, stir with a wooden spoon, otherwise leave it alone. Once sugar is a nice caramel color, add half of the apples and toss to coat. Continue cooking the apples until soft. Some of the apples will break apart and others will hold their shape.
  3. Transfer cooked apples to a mixing bowl. Do not clean skillet, repeat with the other half of the butter, sugar and apples. When apples are all cooked, add lemon juice and zest, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix together.
  4. Pour cooled apple filling into baked tart shell, smoothing it out with the back of the spoon.
  5. In a small mixing bowl, combine all the topping ingredients together and stir well until everything is well incorporated. Pour topping mixture on top of the apples, use the back of a spoon to spread the topping evenly across the top of the tart. Use your fingers to push the topping to the edges of the tart.
  6. Bake the tart at 350 degrees F until the topping is golden (about 30 minutes depending on your oven). Cool before serving.
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Hia Quach's Shrimp and Pork Dumplings
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Courtesy of Huyen Tran
Servings
30 dumplings
Servings
30 dumplings
Hia Quach's Shrimp and Pork Dumplings
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Courtesy of Huyen Tran
Servings
30 dumplings
Servings
30 dumplings
Ingredients
  • 2/3 lbs. ground pork (preferably the fattier kind with more white specks in the meat)
  • 1/2 lb. peeled shrimp, either roughly chopped or I smash mine with a meat mallet
  • 4 shiitake mushrooms finely diced
  • 1/4 cup finely diced water chestnuts (fresh is better but canned chestnut is fine too)
  • 3 Tbsps. finely chopped scallions- white parts only
  • 1 Tbsp. finely diced shallots
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper or to taste
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 Tbsp. regular or light soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. Shaoxing rice cooking wine or dry sherry (optional)
  • 2 tsps. sesame oil
  • 1 large egg white lightly beaten
  • 30 dumpling wrappers
Servings: dumplings
Units:
Instructions
To make the filling
  1. In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, sugar, cornstarch, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix until cornstarch is well incorporated and not lumpy.
  2. In a larger bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts, scallions, shallots and the beaten egg whites. Add the cornstarch mixture to the bowl and with your hands, mix all the ingredients together until it is well combined.
Assembling the dumplings
  1. Small bowl of water for sealing the dumplings. You can either steam, boil or fry the dumplings. Boiling is the easiest and fastest especially when you are feeding a crowd. My mother tended to boil hers to feed my five sisters and I. It’s like boiling raviolis or pasta, set a pot with water to boil while you start wrapping the dumplings.
  2. To wrap the dumpling, hold the dumpling skin in one hand. Scoop about a teaspoonful of filling and position it in the middle of the wrapper. Dip your finger into the bowl of water and run your wet finger around the edge of half of the dumpling wrapper to wet it. It doesn’t need to be sopping wet, just dampen.
  3. Fold the dumpling skin over the filling in half and starting around the edge of the filling, press the skin together making sure to eliminate any air bubbles but the most important thing is to make sure the dumpling is well sealed all around. Set assembled dumplings on a parchment paper baking sheet until ready to cook.
Boiling the dumplings
  1. Make sure you have plenty of room in your pot and your water is at a rolling boil. You may have to cook your dumplings in batches. Drop your dumplings into the boiling water one by one carefully to avoid splashing. Dumplings will sink to the bottom. Quickly give the dumplings a gentle stir so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
  2. Occasionally stir the water to separate the dumplings and to keep them from sticking to each other and the pot. The dumplings will start to float up. Once they are floating, continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes. The dumpling skin will become more translucent. Fish one dumpling out and cut it open to see if filling is cooked through.
  3. Depending on how much filling you put in, it may take longer to cook. If the dumpling is cooked through, with a slotted spoon or skimmer, fish the dumplings out allowing the excess water to drain back into the pot. Put finished dumplings on a plate, drizzled with a little sesame oil to prevent sticking. Finish cooking the rest of the dumplings, serve immediately. I like to dip my dumplings in soy sauce mix with a little red wine vinegar, sriracha and sesame oil. Enjoy!
Recipe Notes

Nasoya wrapper brand is OK and can be found at Hannaford or Walmart.  It’s my least favorite as it is thick and the taste and texture is not the best.  If I have to use it, I will roll it out a little thinner before using it.  I prefer the Marquis or Dynasty brands. You can get those in Portland at Veranda Asian Market.  Dumpling wrappers can be frozen and thawed before use.  You can also make your own wrappers which are definitely better tasting.

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Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.
Liz Graves

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