October 11, 2008

Apocalypse Chow - Vietnam Food Pics

Over the golden week holiday, Grace and I had a wonderfully relaxing trip to Saigon and Mui Ne, a nearby beach resort. In Saigon we stayed near the river on Dong Khoi, a charming street which under its previous French colonial name, Rue Catinat, features in Graham Greene's classic novel The Quiet American. The area has a slight, but not affronting, tourist feel to it because of the heavy concentration of boutiques, cafes, spas and hotels. If asked, I'd have a hard time explaining what we did in Saigon because we spent nearly the entire time just walking around, alternating between sampling street food, shopping, relaxing in cafes, or just taking in the local vibe.

The sliced chili in the soy sauce really made this dish

The food in Vietnam was simply amazing. Other than nước mắm, a fermented fish sauce whose regional variants are common in all Southeast Asian cuisines, there aren't many ingredients that one might considerer characteristically Vietnamese. However, the preparation and the combinations and textures of the fresh ingredients give Vietnamese food a personality of its own.

Street food stalls are a perfect place to escape the rain and meet the locals

Most days began with several cups of cafe sua da, coffee with condensed milk and ice. Coffee sua da is the perfect antidote to Saigon's muggy weather, and at about USD 0.6 and enjoyed sitting on a plastic stool amid the bustle of the street, it beats Starbucks hands-down. Of course, we had pho and spring rolls, but we also tried to go beyond those well known favorites to some of the regional and country style dishes (lemon grass goat with caramelized onions was a surprisingly good combo), and even had an excellent chicken curry from an Indian street food vendor.

This is a northern country-style dish of goat meat, which had very little gaminess, with lemon grass and caramelized onions; the quality of the meat is key with this dish.

After trying some of the home style dishes I was really annoyed that outside of Vietnam you only seem to find the more modern (Western) takes on Vietnamese cuisine. Fusion and "modern interpretations" have their place, but I'd prefer what the farmers eat any day.

The baguettes in Vietnam were nice and chewy; my favorite way to have baguettes was as a sandwich (banh mi) with pâté, several kinds of pork, and salad.

Baguettes go with nearly everything. After eating this curry, India has definitely moved up on my list of future travel destinations.

It's amazing what can be accomplished with a very basic setup and by focusing on only one dish.

Notice the joss sticks in the salt. We often forget how important salt is, and how difficult it was to acquire in earlier times; it's not surprising that it's still considered holy by some.

At night the horizon was speckled by the lights from fishing boats, with crews working hard and under sometimes dangerous conditions, to bring in the catch that made this meal possible.

The above basket is actually a single person boat, made from woven palm leaves daubed with mud to make the craft watertight. Fisherman who can't afford a boat to take them to deeper water fish from the shore in large teams of men, women and children (who mostly splashed around in the water). I wish I had taken pictures because the teamwork of this traditional method of fishing was a captivating spectacle. Several of the basket boats operated a few hundred meters offshore to place the nets and then tend them as they're pulled ashore. Teams of 10-20 performed the tiring work of pulling the nets in on long and sturdy ropes. If tug of war were a professional sport then these guys (and gals) would be the champs.

This was made in a cooking lesson. On the left is caramelized fish, a must try signature Vietnamese dish; on the right is sweet and sour fish with pineapple and okra (lady fingers).

In the end, we only scratched the culinary surface of what Vietnam has to offer. For the real deal on Vietnamese cuisine I suggest checking out Eating Asia, The Last Appetite, Noodle Pie, and Viet World Kitchen.

Apocalypse Chow II - Cafe Sua Da

Apocalypse Chow III - Cooking Lessons

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