Good Mornings in Vietnam

The Vietnamese are very busy people. Both men and women work extremely hard and the results are everywhere to see. Every pocket of land is cultivated (my favourite being a strip between a pavement and a dual carriageway) and the paddy fields are full of little conical hats, stooping over the rice which turns golden when it is ready to harvest. As with everywhere in Asia, rice production is key and their climate allows for more harvests per year (up to 3) than in Laos.

Mornings start early: women wake at 2.30 to put on the famous ‘pho’ for the Nation’s breakfast. Like any good stock / broth, it is better not to ask what goes into it (innards, feet, dog and the dregs of last year’s stock are definite contenders) but with a little addition of fish sauce (omnipresent) and chili, who cares. To the clear broth, a handful of fresh noodles is added and some form of protein (chicken or prawn being personal favourites) and fresh herbs / spring onion. Breakfast is served.

Service could be from a corner shop (safest for delicate westerners) but is most likely to be on a pavement, where some cool old granny has brings her two baskets hanging one on each end of a pole, which contain a big pot of the magical substance and ingredients one end and some little plastic stools in the other. Restaurant created. People chow down with their chopsticks on a fully nutritional breakfast, and drink the infamous broth straight from the large bowl.

Going out for meals is definitely the norm and you are utterly surrounded by food  – especially in Hanoi – at all times. Baskets, bikes and mopeds are all ‘enhanced’ with extraordinary, cumbersome, food-bearing (and everything-else-bearing) appendages, and their poor drivers tour the streets for customers, competing with hilarious amount of traffic. These vendors are selling everything from fanta and pringles to sweet treats, which are more likely to be bought on the street than cooked at home as they require special equipment; sticky, caramel and sesame seed covered rice balls and steamed buns, or BBQ’d bananas are the top sellers. This is how Vietnam has it’s sugar fix; even the best restaurants mistakenly think that ‘fresh fruit’ is a satisfactory pudding menu…

And as for chocolate, my one attempt ended in a disappointingly white and brittle triangle of milk chocolate Toblerone, tasting mysteriously like sawdust. I have, however, seen a smiling traveler tucking into some cashew nut Dairy Milk – mmmm. Again, the French colonial influence saves the day with patisserie (and baguettes) sold in lovely cafés. Oh, and their (or was it the American?) introduction of cocktails; my lemon grass martini and ginger mojito on the roof terrace of the Hotel Rex in Saigon – home to the famous ‘Five o’clock Follies’ (puppet’ press conferences) during the ‘Nam war – were pretty hard to beat.

Two food experiences have broken through this everyday culinary landscape. Firstly, a visit to the war time tunnels created and inhabited by the Viet Cong (victorious guerrilla army of Vietnamese Communists) outside Saigon. Their war tactics seem principally to have been based on natural instinct and cunning; human traps made of needle sharp bamboo covered in resin, entrances to the tunnels made too small for fat Yankees to fit through; tunnel ventilation shafts in the shape of the native termite mounds and – my favourite – the use of chili and pepper powder to throw US dogs off the tunneler’s scent. (They later discovered that this potent combination was in fact making the dogs sneeze, thereby highlighting their whereabouts, so they turned to soaking bits of US army uniform in soap and tobacco to emulate the smell of the dogs owners.)

Their ways of cooking what little they had were ingenious. Any smoke from the tunnels would have been fatal so they created a system whereby chimneys were made up up of 7 water-filled chambers. The smoke passed through these, getting heavy with water vapour so by the time it reached the foliage-covered outlet, it just spilled out along the ground like a thin carpet of dry ice. Brilliant.

The second experience was more an ‘East meets West’ cultural thing. I have become used to seeing pigs (alive and strapped upside down onto the back of a moped) chickens and all other sorts of things being ferried about the streets, on the way to market. But nothing could prepare me for the truck driving past full of dogs crammed into tiny cages. As they whisked past my nose, barking and whelping, all the canine locals – some pets, some mange-y little things – ran after, barking frantically. I suddenly wanted to give a hug to our lovely, soppy spaniel at home. Sad for us but to an Asian, no different to squealing pigs.

Despite that and a little mention of the annoyingly present MSG, I can honestly say that Vietnam is firmly on my list for a return visit. It’s tangibly hideous recent history provides a complicated, sad but not altogether negative landscape; the Vietnamese seem to consider themselves winners and the people are busy building the best lives possible. This makes for a great traveling, eating and cultural experience..and some naughtily cheap but beautifully tailored dresses in the post back to the UK.

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Vietnam – Food Mecca

Hanoi – the most ludicrously hectic city I have been to ever but it is just fantastic. Within moments of arriving, I got into a cold, scanky shower and attempted to turn myself into a chic westerner, worthy of a cocktail in what had been described to me as ‘ the best hotel EVER.’ So off I sped* to the Metropole (with difficulty as neither our receptionist or our guide knew it – it wasn’t their normal request) to meet an ex-pat for one of these legendary treats.* no tuk tuks here – alas – just taxis called Vina Sun. A personal chariot no less?? No, Vina means Vietnamese so everything from coffee to phone networks and electric fans are prefixed with ‘Vina’ – nice.

Together Abby and I both felt compelled to order a ‘Graham Greene’ – the name of the author of ‘The Quiet American’ which I am currently reading, and which was written in this lovely hotel. 2 of the most delicious lemon sorbet daiquiri type things down, followed by copious quantities of passionfruit and hibiscus flower rice wine down, and I cant remember anything about the food (apart from cat-fish spring rolls – yummy) or where we ate it. We did however, finally end up on Beer Corner, in a pavement bar on little plastic stools, drinking beer (I must have been pissed) eating heated, dried fish from a lady of 102. Needless to say, it was all too much and my tummy was out of action of a long and miserable 48 hours.

A lot of ginger tea and ritz crackers later (the brand reigns supreme here, along with Oreos – wierd) and I finally was back on the gastro-wagon yesterday. Having missed the culinary specialities of Hue completely, (totally gutting…literally!) I had serious ground to make up. So I gobbled down a delicious bowl of Pho (pronounced Fer) which is meant to be especially good for tummies and waded through the monsoon to the market. Despite fish heads, chickens feet and far too many live birds, it was foody heaven. The smell of the fresh herbs were overpowering and it was clear that the sellers had no time for us – the focus here is on speed of sale as they can only get money for fresh produce. Day old herbs are past it and these people need the cash today.

Unlike Laos, the women here see the market as their social activity and the noise of high-pitched chattering reminded me of flocks of swallows. They were smiling and laughing as they went, the stall handlers preparing the ‘ ready for immediate cooking, or tying them up beautifully with spring onions. They do this while crouched in the most extraordinary positions on the stall or on the floor. They look like monkeys. No wonder ‘massage’ is seen as a way of life here – I would need one daily.

Back to the most delicious restaurant for a stellar cooking course. This cuisine is way more refined than in Laos which is partly due to the Imperial influence of the Nguyen dynasty. They really learned how to refine dishes, despite ingredients – especially meat – not being at all abundant. This, mixed with the chinese influence, mean that food is not only delicate, but is also beautiful  – the picture about if on the soup we made with shrimp parcels wrapped in cabbage leaves and tied with spring onions. Very impressive if I say so myself..

Our teacher said that this cabbage soup was always made by brides the day after their wedding, for their new mother in law. Unlike Italy, it is not purely a test to show the mother in law that you are qualified to keep their son full, fat and happy – it is more to assure them that your cooking is good n\enough to keep the husband coming home to be fed and not going gallivanting around town, thereby assuring a long and happy marriage.

Spring rolls are also key and there are 4 different types of rice paper for the 4 different types – fresh, steamed, friend and deep-fried. We made fresh ones which were not only totally delicious but beautiful  – the aesthetics were carefully instructed! I later found out that rice paper was initially introduced as a way to eat things while keeping your fingers from getting sticky – hence everything is eaten wrapped up, including their infamous ‘Banh’  – fried omlettes. Photos of how the fresh rice paper is made to follow.

The most important thing in everything we did was to learn the importance of balance. Over and above the 5 key principles of Asian cuisine: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy, the Vietnamese have 5 more: crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft and silky. This means that the spring rolls may have a deep friend mini spring rolls in it to provide the essential textural crunch. It all made so much sense and follows the guiding principles here of Yin and Yang. Yin being feminine, light, summery, sour flavours and Yang being heavy, wintry, spicy and warming flavours, If dishes aren’t balanced, then meals are, and the results are incredible.

We went back to the same place ‘Morning Glory Cookery School’ for supper and had the green mango salad again – it was too good to resist. The flavours were so full they provided sensory overload. So much so that the glasses of wine we had allowed ourselves (more, to better cope with the elephantine snoring of room-mate than desire) were left standing full. Teas (lemon grass / ginger) or green tea, or just the soup liquid are what the locals drink. Beer or (fruit shakes) are what the tourists go for. .

I have reached Food Mecca.

Laos – delicious ramblings from a very special place

Like most things in Laos, technology operates in quite a relaxed manner and the idea of paying to sit in a neon-lit corner with only geckos and mozzies for company while waiting for the site to grind into action, was all too much. Hence, my Lao ramblings are coming from Vietnam – a whole other chapter in culinary excitement.

Looking back on Laos, it seems to me that 3 things drive the culinary culture there. Firstly, “peasant” food, by which I mean rusticity born of poverty. This is one of the poorest countries in S E Asia and its people have seen horrific atrocities in their lifetime; more bombs were dropped here than were used in the whole of WW2 – the figure equates to one bombing run every 8 minutes for 9 years. The reason? Trying to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail – the artery of Vietnamese Communist communication and supplies to the South during the long and bitter ‘Nam war.

The resultant hunger has led to a huge culture of home cultivation and ‘creativity’ with the little resources they have. Every part of the omni-present squawking chicken is eaten; we saw kebabs with chicken hearts, feet, kidneys and even the crowns from our daily alarm clocks (aka roosters) being sold on the streets. Italy springs to mind.

Vegs’ and delicious herbs are cultivated in abundance by villagers, in some cases on the flooded silty planes on the beautiful Mekong river, between floods – these people are desperate. ‘Morning Glory’ a weed that is on every menu, was perhaps my favorite find and delicious when fried with garlic. Hot on its heals (for the name anyway) was ‘Mekong Mud Weed’ which was fried flat – nigri style – with sesame seeds and dipped in chilli jam. Yum.

Fruits fall into this same category and my mulberry fruit shake in hot and steamy Viang Vien was utterly scrumptious. As always around here, their instinct is to add far too much a to everything so “little sugar” is as common a phrase as “little chilli” when we order at restaurants. I also saw fried Mulberry leaves on one menu – innovative and surely available in abundance when you see how much silk is being created in these parts.

The Lao means of cooking just re-inforce this idea of peasant food. Charcoal is king and is the basis for all heat; they make cooking pots out of clay, light charcoal inside and then BBQ or steam things in banana leaves. Fish, chicken, duck, pork (we have seen lots of piglets snuffling about)  and buffalo are the key proteins which are cooked like this, and we had a great evening on the Mekong, eating off a ‘hot pot’ – frying thin strips of buffalo on top of a glowing clay hot pot. An important mention should be made here for one of my favourite Lao dishes: Laaps. I never really found out how they make it but it seemed to be minced meat of fish, steamed with the most spectacular number of fragrant herbs. Totally and utterly delicious.

Because of the poverty, preserving is key and the sun is the way they do it. Rice cakes, chillies, buffalo (their version of jerky was incredible) and fish are all left out in the sun for days to dry out. Weirdly, flies don’t seem to in evidence – good news for us consumers. The photo above was taken at a fish market on the way into Vientiane from Vang Vieng. I can’t begin to describe to you the intensity of the smell (a little tough at 8.30am) but it was an incredible sight. The fish is either re-hydrated in soups or heated up on charcoal and eaten. I tried some heated on an old woman’s charcoals on a street corner in Hanoi a few days later – egged on by a rather drunk local. I felt a little like a dog gnawing on an anchovy flavoured pigs ear. Hmm… I don’t think it will be the next trend in London, especially since it was likely to have been the culprit for putting me out of action for the following 2 days.

The second influence is the French colonials – thanks to their presence there for the first half of the 20th century. The patisserie was as good as any I have seen in Europe and their coffee was a life raft in the sea of nescafe and ridiculously potent – actually completely undrinkable – Lao brew. Italians – you have nothing on these chaps.

The third major influence is, perhaps sadly, the Tourist industry. Like everywhere, western food sells, but finding dignified, beautiful local ladies handing over BLTs and hamburgers in the ramshackled, tourist funded ‘tubing’ bars on the river bank in Vang Vieng was a little sad. All part of the ‘old-meets-(and aspires to)-new-culture’ there.

This was again demonstrated by their annual Lunar festival What I was hoping was going to be incensed filled, gong sounding romance was, in fact, the most kitsch experience of my life. Tack-filled, neon-lighted fun fair games with the extraordinary addition of monks in their beautiful orange wandering through to a temple. We were left wondering which was the main attraction at the wierd event; the largest temple in Laos or the pop concert?

Enough enough, but if anyone goes to the heavenly Luang Prabang, make sure you have the tasting menu at Tamarind restaurant. My favourite and most exciting meal in Laos by far. Stuffed lemon grass stalks with chicken and herbs followed by red sticky rice with coconut and a tamarind sauce – stuff to dream about…

A ‘p.s’ written a long time later..
For some reason, I can’t get Laos out of my head. It was a truelly magical place and one thing stood out: in Laos, it is simply ‘not done’ to raise one’s voice – doing so only reflects badly on the person who has. While this is the case in many Asian countries (apart from the constant shouts of “Massssaaaaaaaaage Lady” to any westerner) in Laos it seemed to be more noticeable. They are humble people – though they shine. Their food reflects this.

Rice – the Culinary Staple of S.E Asia

They say “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.”

This may just be a reflection on the work ethics of the different cultures (the Laos’ are known to be relaxed) but the point is, rice is paramount in all cultures. The demand in SE Asia is so great that the Lao people simple can’t grow enough. And it is easy to see why.

Here is Laos, the villagers get up at 4.30 in the morning to start steaming their rice (which has been soaking over night.) Sticky / glutinous rice is king here and people roll it into balls with their hands and pick of bits to eat as if it was a bread roll. The rice takes about an hour to steam and it is then taken and offered to the monks ‘amin’ at 5.30 every morning – a ritual I am off to see tomorrow.

They then come home and tuck into steamed rice with grilled meat / fish, before the men head out to the paddy fields (a packed lunch – including rice) in hand. Rice is now taking over from teak as the primary source of income –  there are 2 harvests a year and it grows well in the hilly landscape. Huge leaved, slow growing trees are visibly being cleared to make way for more paddy fields.

The woman dry the rice in its husks on large mats in the sun. They then pound the grains for up to 3 hours in wooden basins carved out of logs. A quick rustle in flat bamboo baskets and the husks fly away leaving the white (or red) grains.

In Laos, nearly all dishes come with rice and are designed to be eaten with it – noodles definitely play second fiddle. The rice comes in little bamboo baskets and balls of the stuff are used to dip in sauce which is made thicker than the coconut driven Thai sauces to avoid mess. (NB the rice is designed to be eaten with a fingers, spoons and forks being given for the rest. No chopsticks in sight.)

Last night we treated ourselves to a ‘posh’ restaurant – at a cost of 10 pounds – and I had red glutinous rice with a delicious fish stew, grandly written up at ‘Bouillabaisse Lao style.’ It was delicate with so many delicious fragrant herbs it is hard to know what they were. Pudding was also rice – we had a rosella (hibiscus) and cinnamon creme brulee with rice glued to the bottom on the small bowl with cane sugar. (French colonial influence is still huge here and you can find the best patisserie around.)

The night was washed down with Laos whisky in Sprite – another rice product which is not nearly as refined as Sake – my god it is powerful. I think it would drive a tuk tuk to one of the many temples and back. However, faced with the dire option of yet another fizzy drink, we decided the home-brew was a great addition and would help to keep the mozzies at bay.

A crash course in cashew nuts

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Cashew shells post splitting

We left Chiang Mai for the Thai border, driving through stunning paddy fields with huge, almost vertical hills in the distance. After (enough) hours on the road we stopped for a pit stop and, grabbing our own supplies of loo paper, prepared ourselves for another great loo ‘experience.’ But – thankfully –  this was no ordinary service station..

All around, there were hundreds of cashew trees and there, lying on the forecourt, were thousands of lazy cashew nuts in their plump brown shells, drying in the sun. Our guide explained that these had been carefully removed from ther orange/ yellow fruit they dangle from as the fruit itself contains an irritant which burns skin.

They are then left to dry in their shells and later carefully removed with a small guillotine-type thing. There is a black substance around the actual nut which is – again – bad news to touch so the nuts are painstakingly removed by gloved hands and cleaned off. They are then roasted, twice, for 10 hours at a time. A hugely long and cumbersome process – I felt very sorry for the poor little ladies (still no men) sitting on kindegarten-height stools, with elbow length gloves and masks for days at a time.

Thank goodness the final product is counted as a delicacy, even out here – learnt the hard way when ordering chicken stir fry with cashew and only getting 1 cashew. Better to order cashew with chicken..

You could not imagine the number of different flavourings they put on cashews in that awesome little place. Coconut, lemon grass, coffee, butter etc etc. I walked away with a packet of black sesame covered ones – much more satifying on a long motorway than haribo.

Beginners class 1: Thai…

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Veg in the Chiang Mai market

The phone rings “Good morning Daweeenaaaaaaaaah.” My first morning in a rather wet Bangkok. Stumbling into breakfat I am greeted with a  worrying array of badly cooked western breakfasts treats – the height of chic – and a deliciously steaming and inviting mound of Pad Thai. It didn’t take my jet lagged head more than a nano second to make the decision. Beating the esteemed Addie’s Thai Cafe (Earl’e Court) into a cocked hat, this deliciousness was the perfect start to the day and  – I was later told – was eaten by the Thai themselves all day – every day. So unlike Spaghetti Bolognese, pad thai does actually exist in its home land. Tick. 

Straight out of the floods and to Chiang Mai where we went head first into a cooking course. Having illustrated our collective ignorance, we were whisked down to the food market for a serious begginners crash course (photos to follow when I remember to bring them..) Unlike the embarrassingly number of food markets I have salivated over, this was calm and clean – a world away from India (and Italy for that matter..) Women (where are the men in this country?) go and buy their fresh food twice a day, from women, who are quietely, lovingly and gentily preparing it, so that you could practically eat the veg then and there.

Gallenghal (sp?) related to ginger, lemon grass and turmeric are the typical broth ‘bouquet garni’ and are bought in the truck load with other essentials such as grated coconut (to mix with warm water and squeeze to give coconut milk) egg, noodles (the glass ones are made from mung beans) tofu and enormous amounts of herbs.

Back at the ranch we were put to work. I tentativly created a pad thai under heavy survellance and  – though I might say so myself – was rather proud of it. It seems that all thai cooking is about varying the heat of the wok. The wok is used both for frying and steaming and each ingredient is given the appropriate treatment by it’s position in the pan. Deliciously simple. Added to that are the 5 golden ingredients: Soya / Veg oil, Fish sauce (salty,) Oyster suace (sweet / texture) chili (heat) and sugar (counteracts heat.) Not rocket science but totally delicious.

And so it was that I made 4 key dishes with embarrassingly small quantities of chilli in; “4 chilli normal, 6 chilli strong and 8 chilli sexy lady….” they said. I went for 1 chilli. Oh dear.

Off to a thai massage to digest, folowed by people watching as the world snacks on delicious street food and sweet treats from sticky rice and bean curd….