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      Learn about Vietnamese Cuisine
    Learn about Vietnamese Cuisine
    Thursday, 19/10/2018 11:23

    One of Asia’s best kept culinary secrets – but not for long!
     

    Vietnam is a country on the rise. An almost palpable sense of optimism hangs in the balmy air. The Vietnam War (known here as the “American War”) has not been forgotten, nor have the years of oppression and foreign rule, but the country is moving on. The effects of Đổi Mới, economic reform policy allowing small-scale private enterprise. Introduce by the communist government in 1986, are becoming more and more evident. The accumulation of personal wealth is now encouraged, joint ventures with overseas companies are welcomed, and many Vietnamese are returning to their country to start businesses after years abroad.

    The fancy new restaurants that are restoring life to old colonial buildings, and the modern hotels steadily creeping into the skyline, are just two of the many signs signaling Vietnam’s renaissance. And one needn’t go farther than a few steps onto any street to experience the thriving culinary scene that is so much a part of this new vitality.

    On the streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi in the early morning, food stalls appear on the side walks in front of old shop houses. Clusters of tiny chairs and tables surround a steaming hot cauldron of soup set on an open flame; soon the chairs will be filled with people huddled over their morning bowl of Phở, a tasty beef broth served with rice noodles and fresh herbs. At another street side restaurant, a team of female chefs is busy making open-faced omelets in blackened pans over small charcoal grills. Vendors with carts full of baguettes, cheese and sausages are making sandwiches and serving a refreshing beverage of young coconut. Another vendor is wrapping sticky rice in a banana leaf, and handling it to a young schoolboy who is waiting impatiently with his mother.

    The markets are a hive of activity as well, literally overflowing with fresh goods trucked in from the nearby villages, the bountiful coastal waters, and the central highlands. Throughout the day, crowds of people fill their baskets from the rows of fresh vegetables and tropical fruits, live fish and game, pickled meats and vegetables, candied fruit, dried and packaged goods, rice and bottles of the pungent “Nước Mắm” or fish sauce.

    There is a renewed vitality in Vietnam which revolves around food. At night, a seemingly endless stream of vehicles parades through the streets. Handsome young men, elegantly dressed women, young couples, and entire families speed about on motorbikes, stopping only to have a beer, talk with friends or have a meal at the literally hundreds of street side restaurants or at fancy cafes, then race back out to join the nightly procession.

     

    A unique blend of cultural influence has created food with its own distinct personality

    At the heart of Vietnamese cuisine, with its hearty kick and unique aroma, is the salty, pale brown fermented fish sauce known as “Nước Mắm”. The cuisines of Cambodia, Thailand and Burma use a similar sauce; however the Vietnamese variety seems to have a more pungent flavour.

    Mandatory in Vietnamese cooking, “Nước Mắm” is made by layering fresh anchovies with salt in huge wooden barrels. This process takes about six months and involves pouring the liquid which drips from the barrel back over the layers of anchovies. The grading of “Nước Mắm” is as sophisticated as the grading of fine olive oils. Arguably, the best “Nước Mắm” comes from theisland of Phu Quoc, close to the Cambodian border. A bowl of steaming rice topped with this fragrant sauce is culinary treat in itself.

    “Nước Mắm” in its purest form has a strong smell and incredibly salty flavour which renders it an acquired taste for non-Vietnamese. It is certainly stronger than Thai nam pla and is used in marinades and sauces, for dressing salads and in cooking. Vietnamese rarely expect a foreigner to enjoy the taste, but are delighted when one does. Easier on the unaccustomed palate is “Nước Mắm Chấm”, which is ubiquitous dip made of “Nước Mắm” diluted with lime juice, vinegar, water, crushed garlic and fresh red chilies. “Nước Mắm” cham is used as a dipping sauce on the table, served with dishes like “Chả Giò” (spring rolls) and “Chạo Tôm” (sugar cane prawns), or simply as a dip for pieces of fish or meat.

    What also sets the cuisine apart form that of other Southeast Asian countries is the pervasive use of fresh leaves and herbs, which come in as many as a dozen different varieties? The use of dill in Chả Cá, Hanoi’s famous fish dish served at the popular Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant in the city’s Old Quarter, and also in fish congee, is likely borrowed form the French; however the extensive use of a variety of raw herbs nevertheless seems uniquely Vietnamese.

    While Vietnamese restaurants in other regions of the world rarely manage to other more than one kind of mint, basil or coriander, markets throughoutVietnam sell a remarkable variety of herbs. Several varieties of the mint and basil family do not grow outside the country, and there are also some unusual, full flavoured leaves, like the deep-red, spicy perilla leaf, tia to, and the pungent saw-leaf herb or long coriander that are specific to the cuisine as well.

    Every PHỞ shop has huge plate of raw herbs set on each table, and a large plate also appears with an array of dishes, from grilled, marinated beef to cha dum (a type of pate). But what do you do with the herbs. Sometimes as in the case of PHỞ, they are stirred into the streaming soup: with other dished they are used as wrappers, together with rice papers or lettuces, and they’re also featured in Vietnamese prawn and chicken salads. The herbs are also served with Bánh Xèo, a kind of crepe enclosing prawns, pork, mung beans and bean sprouts. Certainly the use of these fresh herbs and leafy green vegetables is part of the appeal of Vietnamese food, providing fresh flavours, beautiful aromas and many interesting textual variations.

    Other factors which contribute to the subtlety and uniqueness of Vietnamese food are the refined cooking techniques, the often unusual serving of varying dishes and the combination of flavours.

     

    Imperial Cuisine

    Hue traditional served as a cultural, educational and religious centre – it is the site of the country’s most important. Buddhist monasteries and temple – but from 1802 to 1945 it was also the political capital of Vietnam, under the thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. Major tourist attractions such as the Imperial Palace and the emperor’s tombs still suggest a time of great affluence. Emperor Tu Duc (1848-1883), for examples, whose expansive tomb reflects his once-opulent lifestyle, is said to have demanded that his morning tea be made only from the drops of water collected by his servants from lotus leaves on the lake within the Imperial City.

    Emperor Tu Duc was a notoriously finicky eater, who demanded food that was markedly different from that eaten by the common person. Since Hue lacked the agriculture diversity of either the North or the South (and in those days food was not transported as routinely as it is today), the imperial kitchens were required to show an enormous amount of ingenuity- refining ordinary dishes until they became something truly special so that eating could be viewed as art, ritual and sensory pleasure at the same time. As in China and Japan, tea drinking was also elevated to a ceremony laden with intellectual meaning and aesthetic significance.

    A typical imperial banquet today would include perhaps a dozens, such as a beautiful fragrant, peppery chicken soup with lotus seeds (súp gà), crisp, golden brown spring rolls (nem rán), delicate rice flour patties stuffed with minced shrimp (bánh Hue), grilled pork in rice paper (thịt nướng) served with a tasty peanut sauce, delicious crab claws stuffed with pork (cua phich bot), anh the famous minced shrimps wrapped around sugar cane (chả tôm lùi mía), known in the south as chạo tôm. Main dishes might include fish grilled in banana leaf (cá nướng lá chuối), pungent beef in wild betel leaves (bò lá lốt), rice with vegetables (cơm Huế) gently sautéed shrimp with mushrooms (tôm xào hành nấm) and finally the glutinous rice dessert, which comes in a perfectly formed little box made from banana leaf. Its name literally translates as husband – and – wife cake (bánh phu thê).

    These dishes are actually variations of those served in other parts of Vietnam, and the ingredients may be simple vegetables, eggs or fish, rather than exotic sea delicacies or the best cuts of meat. What set these dishes apart are the sophisticated cooking techniques and the presentation.

    For example, the favourite chạo tôm lùi mía seems so simple you would never guess the complexity of its preparation. The tiny prawns are carefully shelled before marinating in nước mắm. After washing, they are pounded until they form a thick paste, to which egg white, onion, garlic, sugar and pepper are added. The mixture is pounded again with a touch of pork fat, and finally wrapped around sugar cane sticks and grilled.

    Appearance was very important, not only in the use of color and the arrangement of food on the plate, but also in the manner of serving. Rice, for example, might have been draped with a generous omelet coat, or cooked inside a lotus leaf and further enhanced with the addition of delicate lotus seeds. Chefs also experimented with unusual ingredients such as green banana and unripe figs, banana flowers and green corn, which until then had been considered unpalatable.

    Potions were delicate, with perhaps dozens of dishes served in the course of one meal. Emperor Tu Duc was said to order 50 different dishes every meal, prepared by 50 different cooks and served by 50 different servants. If it was possible to reduce the size of a cake or a bun, it was done. Bánh khoai, for example, is a smaller version of the Bánh Xèo so popular in the south. Even the vegetables mixed with rice are chopped into the smallest pieces possible.

    All these requirements naturally increased the length of preparation time, with the result that the number of cooks and kitchen staff reached unprecedented heights – a luxury which perfectly befitted the privileged life of an Emperor.

    The most talented proponents of imperial cuisine today are virtually all women, each of them descended by some route or other from imperial households. Skills were painstakingly passed down in extended families, with young cooks – to be encouraged to first observe an experienced cook before being invited to try their hand at actual preparation.

    Due to its size and relatively small population, Hue today is not culinary mecca compared with Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. There is, however, a renewed interest in the cuisine of Hue, and a number of modern Vietnamese chefs have made it their mission to turn the simple art of cooking into something extraordinary, and restore imperial cuisine to its former glory.

     

    A personal approach to experiencing the essence of Vietnamese cooking 

    In the large but sparsely decorated living room, Tuyen’s husband is watching television with their delightful four-year-old daughter, already in her pajamas, and their brother in law from the countryside. He is here visiting his eight-year-old daughter who lives with Tuyen’s family in the town of Hue because he, a widower, does not earn enough money to support her. This is not unusual inVietnam – those with higher incomes take care of those who earn less. It is a happy family scene, and they are all beginning to enjoy the smell of cooking coming from the next room.Tuyen, slim and elegant, is chopping mushrooms and carrots into tiny cubes on a large wooden board. A talented dressmaker, by day she cuts fabric on the sturdy wooden table which takes up almost the entire room. However, tonight the table is laden with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish fresh from Hue’s central market along the side of the river. A pot of gently bubbling water is on a two-ring burner. Tuyen usually cooks in the kitchen under the light of a single bulb, but she did not think that would be appropriate on this occasion.

    Tonight she has promised to teach me how to cook Vietnamese food, an arrangement made by my marvelous guide Mai, who is her best friend. I arrive on the back of Mai’s 50cc motorbike – a common mode of transportation – followed behind by her niece, at 19 year old learning English at evening school, in the hope of one day becoming a tour guide. She has been commandeered to help with preparation of a very special dinner, which few would undertake during the week. Tuyen is, I am assured by Mai, the most accomplished home cook in Hue, and even then it takes even her a full morning, with two helpers, to prepare a traditionally Hue Sunday lunch.

    So what do I learn, I learn that before stuffing a cabbage leaf, if it is dipped into boiling water to soften it and remove any bitterness. To soften grated carrot, it is mixed vigorously with salt and then rinsed. To extract the maximum juice from a tiny Vietnamese lime, it is rolled like a piece of dough across a hard surface before squeezing. When boiling king beans, continually remove the foam that forms at the edges of the pan. These are the types of detail Tuyen tells me everyone in Vietnam knows, but it is difficult to believe that there are many people who can carry out these tasks with the dexterity of her slim, strong, and highly competent fingers.

    Mai’s niece is in charge of preparing the purple banana flower, but through lack of experience cuts it the wrong way. But Tuyen does not panic, she selects some pieces for deep frying in a wheat flour batter, while the remainder is mixed with just a squeeze of line and some crushed, roasted peanuts for a wonderfully nutty tasting salad.

    I also learn that tapioca dough is nice to touch, easy to work with, and however much you knead it, it never loses its perfect smoothness – it also takes a long time to prepare. Mai, adamant that she cannot cook, spend almost the entire evening rolling the dough into little balls and stuffing flattened disks (barely larger than a coin) with steamed mung beans seasoned with salt and pepper, or coating roasted peanuts and tiny pieces of coconut in the same dough. The secret is to work with such a thin piece of dough that when each Bánh bột lọc(tapioca starch cake) is cooked about five minutes in boiling water until the pieces float to the top you achieve a translucence which means you can almost see what is inside. One cooked, they are immediately plunged into cold water to prevent them from sticking together. Other Bánh bột lọc we stuff with a single prawn, a little pork fat and black pepper, this time forming the creations into crescent shapes, then trying them in oil with salt and a little “nước mắm”.

    Tuyen is not only good cook; she is a good teacher as well. Her four year old daughter already knows how to stuff Bánh bột lọc, but to play with the peanuts, rather than wrap them, is as much a temptation for this little girl as it would be for a child anywhere.

    I learn how to fold rice paper in triangles around a stuffing of carrot, vermicelli noodles, and wood ear mushrooms, with a single prawn on the top – the tail of which I am to leave sticking out at the top to give this variation on the spring roll the reason for its name, tom phi tien, which translates literally as flying prawn spring roll. Unfortunately, it turns out that I am unable to wrap the rolls to Tuyen’s high standard. She is concerned that if she does not rewrap my efforts, there is a chance than the roll will disintegrate while frying.

    Then Tuyen show me how to make cabbage stuffed with carrot. I mix sugar into the softened, grated carrot, until the sugar has all but disappeared, finally adding some crushed garlic. The rolling process using cabbage is marginally easier than using rice paper, but it has to be rolled tight enough so that the rolls can be cut into colorful. I find the carrot slightly too sweet for my taste, but an amazed at the firm texture achieved by rolling each leaf so painstakingly tight.

    Finally, I have learned how challenging and time-consuming preparing the food can be, the importance of the subtle details, and what a rewarding experience cooking genuine Vietnamese food can be.

    As we sit down to dine in true Vietnamese family – style and enjoy the rewards of Tuyen’s master full cooking, I discover that eating in Vietnam is a shared experience, an informal ritual. On the small table that the family has gathered around is a large bowl of steaming rice, a cauldron of aromatic soup, and a generous plate of leaves that each of us wrap around a delicious hand roll and dip into the “nước mắm chấm”. Yet a unique as this experience is to me, I realize that it is simply a typical meal for many Vietnamese families.

    Source: The Food of Vietnam Book

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