Jalapeño Poppers (Yes, You Read Right) – 32 of 365

Jalapeño Poppers in Saigon!

As American expats in Vietnam our feet stand in two worlds, one from which we are an ocean removed and one which we don’t fully understand.  In reality we find ourselves fully immersed in neither and our no man’s land can be a confusing assault of contrasts.  One could be a pessimist and yearn for the old country, but what would we truly gain by becoming frustrated that our favorite products and foods are not readily available?  On the other hand we can try our best to assimilate into all things local, but in the end can we ever truly understand our host country’s complex culture?

Every day I spend in Vietnam causes my empathy to grow for immigrants in America.  When we look at them and wonder why they hold true to their traditions and aren’t “Americanized,” do we really know their true story?  I look at my almost two years here in Vietnam…am I any more assimilated than when I arrived?  Not really.  I nip at the fringes of life here but always return home to my protective expat cocoon.

Food is a great way for all of us to bridge the cultural gap, and we can use it as a medium to forge our own traditions.  Our friends Chet, AP, and Laurel held a Tet Party and picture if you will a large group of Americans celebrating a Vietnamese holiday.   Red and gold Tet decorations and streamers on the tables and walls reminded us we are 8,000 miles from home, but the American food on the buffet spread brought a little bit of comfort and familiarity to a holiday so new to us.

AP's 100% Homemade Poppers

A Vietnamese family might be ushering in the year of the dragon with a bánh chưng, but our American family was snacking on items such as AP’s jalapeño poppers.   Yes, jalapeño poppers in Saigon.   I know these spicy little pieces of Tex-Mex goodness hardly masquerade as Vietnamese cuisine, but they are a good example of how food really knows no borders.  And these weren’t just any poppers microwaved from a ready to eat freezer bag.  No, AP embraced the Vietnamese tradition of serving all things fresh and homemade to put her own spin on an item fully American.  This fried appetizer is a dime a dozen back home, and I doubt they are anything special to people consuming them on Applebee’s fried sample platter.   But when living abroad even the simplest of foods can make even the most jaded so appreciative for a little taste of home.

We believe the entire supply of jalapeños in Greater Saigon wound up in AP’s hands as she cleaned out Veggies in District 1, which is our go to source for hard to find western items.  With 100 jalapeños now in her arsenal at a cost of $2 per eight, AP had enough to feed an army.   She commented, “Jalapeños make you a hoarder.  You never know when you might see them again.”   This mindset rings so true in Vietnam.   A product is here today and gone tomorrow with no indication when it will be back.

Have you ever tried a real homemade popper?   Probably not I am guessing as these require quite a bit of work beyond tearing the bag open and pressing a button on the microwave.  Let me just explain the hard work that goes into the fresh version.  AP first cuts the peppers and stuffs them with cream cheese and monterey jack cheese (items not easily found in these parts).  Next is a quick dip in milk, a dredge through the flour and then some time to dry out.  Third is another visit to the milk bowl, a slide through breadcrumbs and some more quality drying time.  AP finally repeats the milk and breadcrumb step and then fries them all up to golden perfection.  The light heat of crunchy jalapeños mixes so well with the sweetness of the cheeses and slightly sour crunch of the fried shell.   Aren’t the prefab ones just a mushy mess inside a greasy shell?  Not AP’s homemade version by a long shot.  The pepper holds its own and remains as crunchy as the breadcrumb shell while the insides remain creamy and untouched by the oil.

In a world where we can eat rice, soup and noodles in an infinite variety of delicious preparations, sometimes a common hors d’oeuvre means the most.  Tet is full of tradition and I am glad our American family has found our own way to celebrate Tet with our foods. Though a bánh chưng didn’t find a home on the center of the table, we know our version of Tet borrowed enough from the rich culture around us to have some meaning for us.  A Vietnamese person might very well say “look at these Americans changing our traditions” but is this any different than how we look at newcomers to our own backyard?  To anyone who might doubt jalapeño poppers for Tet…we are just forging our own road and actually bringing together the best of both our worlds.

Yes, fried jalapeño poppers along with Laurel a/k/a Laurel Stewart’s appetizers in Saigon…A little slice of America that makes the world a smaller place during Tet.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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