Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.
~Kurt Vonnegut

Ursa major is a visible “constellation” (actually, an asterism — a prominent pattern of stars often having a title yet a tad smaller than actual constellations) which is seen in the northern hemisphere.  Fairly linear roads lead to Polaris, a yellow-white super giant and the brightest cephied variable star that pulsates radially and forms the very tail of ursa minor. Take a gander at the Alaska state flag to get a general feeling of how to envisage Polaris.

Both ursa major and ursa minor resemble ladles, pans, cups or bowls even though they tend to be translated as the “larger and smaller she-bear(s)” likely due to their northern latitude locations or some zany look at the Big Dipper picture.

On spring and summer evenings, ursa major and minor shine high on in the sky while in autumn and winter evenings, the asterism lurks closer to the horizon.  If one travels from lines of the Merck (β) to the Dubhe (α) stars of ursa major (from the outer base to the outer tip of the pan) and then go about 5x that distance and, Polaris, the north star, will be notably recognized. Polaris, and other pole stars, are relatively steady and stable.

Ursa Major was catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Polaris has often been used as a navigational tool having guided sailors, ancient mariners, even escaping slaves on underground railroads.  It is circumpolar, meaning that it never sets in the north or never disappears below the horizon.  However, given that the Earth’s axis moves slowly, and completes a circular path at some 26,000 years or less — so, several stars take turns becoming the pole star over eons.

FLANK STEAK VIETNAMESE

½ C nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
2 T nước măn chay pha sản (chili soy sauce)
1 lime, zested
1/2 C fresh lime juice
3 T light brown sugar
2 T fresh, local honey
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
jalapeños, stems and seeds removed, minced
1/2 C ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced

1 flank steak (about 2 lbs)

Rice noodles, just cooked al dente

Sesame seeds, for serving
Mint leaves & cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving

In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, chili soy sauce, lime zest, lime juice, honey, brown sugar, garlic, jalapeños and ginger. Pour the mixture over the flank steak in a ziploc bag in the frig and let marinate overnight.

Light the grill to medium high, and wipe the steak with a paper towel.  Cook until done, about 3-4 minutes per side for rare to medium rare. Transfer steak to a cutting board and let rest for 10-15 minutes tented in foil while simmering the leftover marinade.

Thinly slice steak across the grain on a bias (perpendicular to the grain) and serve over al dente cooked rice noodles gently drenched with reheated marinade. Garnish meat with sesame seeds and mint leaves and cilantro leaves.

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Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.