Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2010

A Cook’s Tour of Vietnam

Walking to Market

What makes Vietnamese cuisine distinct from that of its neighbors Thailand and China? Can the products available in the U.S. replicate what cooks find in the open air markets of tropical South Vietnam? What about regional cuisine differences in this very long country? Did 100 years under the French influence cooking styles or products? After a century of foreign occupation, war, communist rule and famine is there a cuisine to match this emerging nation? So many questions to answer about food in Vietnam!

And then there’s Anthony Bourdain (The Travel Channel’s authentic and often cantankerous New York chef). Vietnam is his favorite place…he wants to move there. Bourdain has local contacts to handle the nuts and bolts of travel while he talks and eats with chefs. I need to do that, I thought.

I find Pat O’Connell at Asia Transpacific Journeys, a company that specializes in custom travel. I explain to Pat my foodie theme. “No problem. We arrange culinary travel in Vietnam and can see that you have English speaking guides and chefs to answer all your questions.” He also assures me that my husband, Bruce, would have the one thing he (so rightly) requires, air conditioning.

Our tour-for-two concentrates on the three main areas; South (Saigon and the Mekong Delta), Central Coast (around Hoi An) and North (Hanoi). We find that each area is unique in their predominate seasonings. The north, with cold winters uses black pepper and ginger for heat and is accustomed to salty and sour flavors from preserved foods. The central area, with historically the most foreign influence, absorbed products from visiting traders, especially chilies from the Portuguese. In the south it is about rice, fresh water fish, fruit, fresh herbs and sugar, which is added to every sauce.

The national dish Pho bo, a fragrant beef and noodle soup, is an example of regional preferences. Hanoi claims that its beef broth, with a butter-like richness and choice of wheat flour or rice flour noodles is the original and the tastiest. The Central Coast shows off a chili-lemongrass seasoned version fit for the emperors that used to rule from there. Pho in the south is accented with an abundance of fresh herbs and lime for a soup as stimulating and bright as modern Saigon.

Rice papers drying

Vietnamese cuisine relies on many types of fresh fish, meat and produce gathered and brought to the markets daily. Their locally sourced greens and herbs are more tender and subtly flavored than what we have available in our U.S. super markets. Even their limes, onions and garlic are less pungent.

The Vietnamese accent these fresh products sparingly with the fermented flavors of fish sauce, soy sauce and shrimp sauce, and tartness from limes, tamarind and rice vinegar. The cook’s goal, whether using four ingredients or twenty-four, is to integrate salty, sweet, pungent and sour. No overly hot chili or woody basil is allowed to disrupt the balance of flavors and contrast of textures

Some French products, coffee, pastries, ice cream and baguette sandwiches known as Bahn Mi are everyday fare in Vietnam. French culinary methods were not adopted, however. The cooking techniques and ingredients are simple, but often combined for a complex dish. And of course, many dishes and all meals include some form of rice.

Throughout Vietnam  rice papers are wrapped around salad ingredients or fried spring roll style. The imported dried rice papers that we use here are thicker and soak into a rubbery, hard to handle noodle. In Vietnam the papers are fresh, wax paper-thin and pliable. Morsels of grilled meats, fish or vegetables with fresh greens are gathered into remarkably delicate rolls using these rice papers.

Rice, and the many noodles and wraps made from it, is the staple food of Vietnam. Rice farming is so successful that Vietnam today is the world’s largest exporter of rice after Thailand. Two great river deltas, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south, are devoted to rice paddies. A peasant’s meal is often a bowl of rice or rice noodles with a splash of fish sauce. Rice is why and how the country evolved.

The North

Rice was introduced to the Red River Delta from China around 2,800 B.C. Chinese found the land arable and the sea coast particularly rich in fish and trading opportunities. They dominated the local tribes, called the Viet. Chinese influence, including culinary, runs deep (Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country where people eat primarily with chopstix).

By the 10th century the opportunity to push back the Chinese arrived and the North became Viet Nam. The independent Viet people adopted Chinese cooking and made it their own. Stir frys are lighter, using less oil. In fact, Vietnamese use very little oil, they cook mostly in water (and have one of the most healthful cuisines in the world.) They cook in a straight forward approach of pure flavors influenced by Chinese-style complexity.

Eating in Hanoi is usually a quick snack from a street food vendor with restaurants enjoyed for social and business meals. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, with the government, embassies and consulates and traditional business affairs located there. For this clientele the city offers a wealth of high-end hotels and smart restaurants serving beautifully made Vietnamese dishes. Supplying trained cooks for this market has become the business of culinary schools, some offering both training and a home to orphans or street children.

We meet with Ms. Mu, a cooking teacher at Hoa Su Cooking School for Disadvantage Children. The school has inherited an old warehouse on the edge of Hanoi and built commercial kitchens, classrooms and dormitories for their 400 students. The school operates three restaurants around the city to give the students practical experience and provide needed revenue. Still, money from the state and visitors provides a large amount of the funding to keep the school open.

Cooking with Chef Mu in Hanoi

I had thought we signed up for lunch and a tour of the culinary school and it is an unexpected pleasure to have an apron thrown my way. Two hours later, Ms. Mu and I have marinated, grilled and wrapped our way to a meal you would find in a sophisticated Hanoian restaurant.

Each recipe involves multiple ingredients and cooking methods. If not rice papers than a specialty rice or rice noodles appears in all the recipes that afternoon. In fact, these are multi-ingredient dishes. Fourteen ingredients are needed for Ms. Mu’s fresh pork and shrimp spring rolls. Shrimp, pork and beef are all treated to gentle marinating and in several cases double cooking. Students occasionally drop by to start the tiny outdoor charcoal brazier or keep an eye on pork rolls as they fry. This is a complex cooking style and one that will keep brigades of cooks employed (see recipes for Fried Pork Spring Rolls Hanoi Style and Beef and Glass Noodle Salad below.)

One night we take a tip from Thang, our local contact, and head for NGON, a sprawling restaurant of gardens and dining rooms packed with young urbanites. The kitchen is a series of separate stations each handling a specific cooking method. The food is less complex than that of the restaurant school and made to local tastes. At NGON we have one of the best dishes of the trip: huge soft-shelled prawns stir fried with lemongrass, spring onions, basil and chilies in perfect a balance of vibrant tastes.

The Central Coast

It is dinner time when we are greeted in Danang airport by Mr. Hung, our local contact, and we get down to essentials right away. Where would you eat and what is your favorite dish in Hoi An?  “A simple place, Thi Nhan, you can walk from your hotel. The owner buys the best seafood. Ask her to make Tamarind Crab and Prawns with Fried Garlic.”

At 7:30 we are the first customers to arrive in this open air road-side shack. Before we take a seat at one of the plastic tables we are ushered into the back kitchen. Propane tanks fuel free-standing wok burners, one small prep surface awaits and plastic tubs hold thick-shelled mud crabs, squirming fish and huge blue prawns. Oh, those prawns. With tails as large and sweet as small lobster they arrive under a blanket of minced garlic and chilies fried to a crispy sweetness. The owner sits down with us and helps crack the crab, sticky with a powerful sweet-sour tamarind sauce, and watches to be sure we find every morsel of dense crab meat. Fried noodles and vegetables arrive with accent sauces…pepper-salt, chili, soy-garlic, fresh limes for us to add to taste. By the time we finish our bucket of Vietnamese beer and pay a $27 bill the tables are packed with locals and the front is a forest of parked motorbikes.

UNESCO inscribes the riverside town of Hoi An on the Central Coast as the best preserved port in Southeast Asia. Four hundred years ago, Chinese and Japanese merchants built a prosperous and elaborate community here. Before them, Arabian traders brought the spice route through Hoi An in the 10th century. The Dutch added Indonesian goods in the 17th. The French introduced coffee and European products. The Portuguese brought corn, potatoes, peppers, eggplant and chilies from the Americas. Hoi An’s cuisine is a natural fusion of foreign influences and the most highly seasoned in Vietnam.

Hoi An Herb Sellers

 We meet Miss Loo, the chef at Morning Glory Restaurant, on the enchanting main street of Hoi An. The restaurant claims to make “Vietnamese street food” and yet it demonstrates just how much moving the kitchen from a tiny charcoal brazier on the edge of the road into a professional kitchen can do for a dish. We look at the menu of contemporary versions of classics and start dreaming about dinner. This morning, however, we are off to the open air market with Chef Loo.

She introduces us to the herb sellers, women displaying baskets of greens they picked by the dawn light: lettuce-like rice paddy herb, morning glory leaf, red perilla (a type of shiso leaf). She plucks at their tender-leafed herbs: strong basil is used for beef with lemongrass, lemon-scented basil for fish soups or chicken. We pinch and sniff Chinese celery, spearmint and the delicately flavored Vietnamese mint, which is used to neutralize smells from cooking river fish.

Chef Loo dispenses information like some one used to managing a busy kitchen. “When buying bitter melon choose the pale ones as they darken with age. The tops of Thai eggplant should have spiky edges indicating freshness.” I am particularly interested in her method for preparing banana flowers, something I tried before and threw away as unreasonably bitter. “They must be cut very thinly and soaked in salt-lime water. Come tonight for dinner and I will prepare banana flower salad for you”.

Fresh green tea leaves are boiled with cinnamon, ginger and lemongrass for stomach ailments. Small blackberries are steeped in rice wine for a month then drunk by elders as an energy booster. Fresh turmeric comes in clusters of nodes the size of my little finger and is used for about everything. You can grill it in the skin to shave over finished dishes. Wash with it to cure a skin rash or when eaten it cures all sorts of female problems.

We watch as women use straight pins to pull tiny morsels of meat from river snails. Plastic tubs of fresh water hold crabs, clams and minnows. But it is the seafood that steals our attention. Hefty-clawed mud crabs, 9-inch long blue prawns, ribbon fish, red tuna and 60 pound silvery mackerel. The mackerel is expensive here, about $17 a pound, but a it is specialty of Morning Glory Restaurant and we request Mackerel in Caramel Sauce as part of our dinner menu.

We arrive at 7:00 that evening to a table overlooking the stylish dining room. Morning Glory Restaurant is one of four restaurants in Hoi An owned by native-born chef Ms.Vy. She is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit blossoming in Vietnam. She provides training and employment for scores of people not only in the restaurants but for locally sourced products. Hoi An is a popular tourist destination and her restaurants aim at presenting visitors with well made classics of street and home cooking from the Central Coast.

Chef Loo’s menu for us includes the promised Banana Flower Salad, a complexity of flavors and textural accents. The Mackerel in Caramel Sauce turns out to be a wonderfully meaty fish steak lacquered with caramelized sugar, fish sauce and garlic. The restaurants’ unique treatment of Banh Xeo, a sizzling crepe made throughout the country, was stunning… a combination of a mung-bean flour crepe, slivers of green banana and fragrant herbs wrapped in a gently-flavored mustard leaf. It is an expression of Ms. Vy’s cooking philosophy, “harmony in food, all tastes and textures balance to produce something greater”. See the recipes that follow for Banana Flower Salad and Fish Steaks in Caramel Sauce.

The South

From its beginning as a thread of snow melt on the Tibetan plateau the Mekong River flows through six countries, gathering tributary waters before arriving in Vietnam as one of the world’s greatest rivers. The river brings with it sediment, enriching a delta of thousands of waterways and millions of people. Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is the most fertile rice basket in Southeast Asia and life is lived close to or on the rivers.

One of the reasons we make the journey into the Mekong delta is to join the early morning crush at Cai Rang floating market. Hundreds of people arrive daily to buy and sell everything from household goods to toiletries to food of all kinds off their boats. Vendors hold weighing scales in the air because there is no level surface. A free hand holds boats next to each other while the buyer inspects produce or live fish in rush cages. Tiny wooden skiffs dart about with steaming cauldrons of broth, piles of rice noodles and herbs ready to assemble a bowl of soup and pass it to the next boat.

Rce noodles manufacturing

The production of food is the main industry in the Mekong Delta. Entire villages are engaged in making rice products such as noodles or rice papers. Wooden stilt houses built along the thousands of waterways have vegetable gardens and fruit trees as well as a sampan tied to the bank. Many young adults go to Saigon to work in a more modern world but the majority of Vietnamese still live the rural life of producing food, trading with their neighbors and providing for their tightly-knit families.

Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) is Vietnam’s free-market ambassador, courting foreign investment that is sweeping the whole country rapidly out of the twentieth century. Nearly every building has a street level store front. We interrogate our local contact, Hai, about where the piles of shoes, household goods and motorbike helmets are made, expecting “China” to be his answer. But Vietnam has its own factories making most of these goods. “Local quality is better. Motorbike helmets from China don’t pass the government crash tests” Hai tells us. We get a lesson in Vietnam’s new economic success: make it locally and sell it locally. The same is true of food. Virtually everything is grown, gathered and sold within a few miles of the markets.

One morning we meet a chef and interpreter at the Ben Thanh Market, the culinary epicenter of Saigon. The perimeter businesses under the immense iron roof are operated by the state where there is no bargaining and no incentive for the shop girls to be attentive. One step further into the market and you are in the hyper-activity of 1200 locally owned stands, ranging from ample counters to small cubbyholes.

Walking the aisles with a local chef allows for a torrent of questions and answers about usages and cooking methods. Tiny fresh water crabs are boiled for stock. Soft shell crabs fried whole. The larger mud crabs are picked and the meat sold for rice paper rolls or soup. The rivers are bountiful in the south with snakehead fish, speckled fish, elephant ear fish, basa, eels, catfish, frogs and ghostly white prawns.

Fruit is much more abundant here and stalls display stunning arrays of rambutan, dragon eye, jackfruit, milk fruit, durian and coconuts in many forms. Mounds of herbs and greens not seen in the northern markets are everywhere. Much of what we know in the U.S. as Vietnamese food comes from the South. Most of the émigrés are from South Vietnam. And it becomes clear that the variety of fresh edibles they had to leave behind is overwhelming.

Dragon Eye Fruit

We are tasting things as we walk the market but it is time to stop for something more substantial. We head for an area of counters with child-sized plastic stools and steaming soup pots. Each vendor has just a few feet of space to produce their masterpiece and they greet us with a ready smile. Our accompanying chef recommends a delightful rice noodle dish of fried taro, grilled pork and pork skin. We are encouraged to use a mix of dried chilies and fish sauce to season our bowls.

At another counter we are handed an elegant anise-flavored pork broth with fresh morning glory stems, shredded Chinese cabbage, Vietnamese mint, duck meat and heart. The garnish is a cube of coagulated duck blood, mild flavored with a silken custard consistency. Our sampling is completed by a delicate pale green pudding of com (immature rice)and young corn drizzled with coconut milk.

This is a dining experience we might not have risked on our own…raw vegetables, quickly rinsed communal chopstix, in a packed third world market place with no refrigeration… yet neither we, nor any one we met along the way, experienced digestive unpleasantness. Food handling is clean and products are used up within the day.

Today’s traveler in Vietnam is treated to a hand-made cuisine, local and authentic, wherever they go. You can submerge yourself in the traditional agrarian life of the Mekong delta, sample street and market food in Saigon, taste the natural fusion cuisine of the Central Coast and participate in sophisticated cooking classes in Hanoi. There are no Starbucks, no McDonalds. You will find a welcoming attitude and a delight in sharing their unique food culture.

For more on Vietnam read the article below: Vietnam, Get There Soon.

Cooking Schools:




Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham: HarperCollins, 2001
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen: Ten Speed Press, 2006
Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia by Jaffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid: Artisan Books, 2000


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