This post is well overdue – I travelled in Vietnam for most of February and enjoyed Vietnamese food from both the simple street stalls and the more sophisticated “fusion” food served in many restaurants.
This post is a tribute to the kindness of strangers. It concerns a proprietor and Chef called Son Tran. His restaurant is called Lantern Town and it is in Hoi An on the central Vietnamese coast.
Fresh spring rolls, pomelo salad with prawns, seared tuna (long tail).
Just like the rest of the world, simple traditional Vietnamese recipes have responded to trends and outside influences. With easier access to books and the internet, more opportunities to travel and engage with travellers, Vietnamese chefs are adapting and elaborating on age-old staples.
Long tail tuna.
These are some photos of what Son cooked for us. The entire Lantern Town experience – the cooking and the eating – is one of the most enduring memories I will keep of Vietnam.
Before cooking – fresh pieces of mango, wrapper in lattice rice paper.
Son’s specialises in adaptations of traditional Vietnamese dishes, applying modern twists to conventional ingredients.
Mango rolls dipped into batter made with coconut milk, rice flour, sugar, chocolate powder and then deep fried.
I met Son Tran in his restaurant over a lunchtime dish of his version of stuffed squid. My passion for food was evident and I told him about my Sicilian version of stuffed squid. Mine is stuffed with the principal ingredients of ricotta and almonds and is cooked in marsala, his was stuffed with cellophane noodles and prawns. He responded to my enthusiasm by offering to take me on a tour of the local Hoi An market and to personally cook a special dinner for me and my partner.
Buying prawns at the Hoi An market
Buying the fish, Son chose a piece of long fin tuna saying he prefers it to blue-fin or yellow-fin tunas because of its clear flesh and its flavour. He explained that long-fin (or Pacific albacore) is much paler than either of the other tunas. More importantly for me, it is sustainable, not threatened by over-fishing. It was a small fish and Son selected a section of fish towards the tail, weighing about 1kg, which he carefully carved off the bone, creating four individual fillets; he also removed the skin.
The pomelo salad was made with segmented pomelo, carrots and prawns and had a dressing made with passion fruit pulp. The fresh spring rolls had prawns, carrot, cucumber mint, noodles and passionfruit pulp; they were accompanied by a pineapple, sugar and vinegar dipping sauce. The tuna was marinaded in lemongrass, shallots, basil, ginger, soy, oyster sauce; it was then seared over high heat; it was presented with a celery sauce. What I particularly like about Vietnamese food is the use of fresh herbs.
Here are some photographs of some of the produce and food I enjoyed in Vietnam.
One big highlight of my trip was travelling to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City. The company was Saigon River Express, the trip was by speedboat. The tour guide was very informative and eager to answer questions and staff were excellent and the chef who accompanied us prepared a simple meal. Read the review on Trip Advisor written by Bob Evans who accompanied me on the trip.I could not help making the comparison with Sicily. The produce was fresh, people shop daily, the vendors happy and proud of their fresh produce. The food we ate was authentic Vietnamese, the produce local and the chef and staff were very enthusiastic for us to try new produce. Staff responded to our enthusiasm and interest in what we were seeing and eating. Whether in homes or in restaurants I have always found Sicilians to be hospitable, generous, eager to please, warm and engaging; the Vietnamese people we encountered on this trip were no different.
MEKON RIVER CRUISE
Monks hatch and breed fish catfish in the monastery and return them to the river – a kind of thank you” we take fish from the river, we give it back”
Selection of preserved and fermented fish and shrimp paste
A few slices of the arica nut are wrapped in betel leaves for chewing – better than tobacco as a stimulant
Elephant ear, stalks of plant are used as a vegetable in cooking
Fresh rice spring rolls
Deep fried elephant fish
A platter of Milk apples. A large selection of luscious fruit and coconuts were bought at the Thu Thua market and offered to us throughout the day. We were pampered and never hungry.
On the whole the places I have eaten in Vietnam have been of high standard. There are many restaurants to choose from and as in Australia or when I am in other parts of the world, I am very selective before deciding where to eat – this can take some researching and sometimes even checking the place out beforehand.
I have perched on small stools to eat in some of the street stalls and have eaten in a bia hoi (beer hall) where Vietnamese men seem to consume large quantities of beer. Sometimes I have not known what I have been eating-; sometimes what I have indicated I wanted has not been on the English menu (if there is one) – I have pointed to what others are eating.
We are all familiar with traditional Vietnamese food – dumplings and spring rolls. and there was certainly much of these to be seen.
But I have also eaten at the high price restaurants and have particularly enjoyed the more sophisticated “fusion” food served in many eateries – most of these has been in Hanoi.
Just like the rest of the world, simple traditional Vietnamese recipes have responded to trends and outside influences. Like in Australia, simple traditional recipes have been enhanced by progress: the increase in printed media, travel, availability of produce and its inhabitants (first mainly European, then Asian migration and more recently from South America, Africa and the Middle East). With easier access to books, the internet, more opportunities to travel and engage with travellers, Vietnamese chefs are adapting and elaborating on age-old staples. As expected there is a strong French influence in the cuisine but also that from different neighbouring Asian countries; the food in these restaurants is described as ‘fusion’ food or ‘modern’ Vietnamese food.
However, last night in Ho Chi Minh City I ate:
Spicy clear grilled beef with kumquat, mustard sprouts, lemongrass, herbs and small, white eggplant (raw).
Mustard leaf rolls with prawns and crunchy vegetables (carrots, lily stems).
Hoa Tuc salad with seafood, fresh palm hearts and lotus stems.
Salad Thiem with lily flowers, bok choi, water spinach and garlic.
I particularly liked food in Hoi An and will write about Lantern Town Restaurant in the near future.
No, this is not Sicily, I am in Hanoi, in Vietnam. And the Vietnamese eat kohlrabi and the green leaves just like the Sicilians do. In Hanoi, I have yet to have seen them in restaurants so I do not know how they are cooked.
My relatives who live in Ragusa (south-eastern region of Sicily) make causuneddi (Sicilian). These are small gnocchi shaped pasta which is known by different names in other regions of Sicily, for example, gnocculi,gnucchiteddi,cavati andcaviateddi(in Sicilian).
The kohlrabi that my relatives buy are usually much smaller in size and can also be tinged with purple. They are always boiled with the tender leaves sprouting from the centre of the and some cotenne, strips ofpig skin. The pig skin may not sound very appetising, but they really boost the taste.
Although the kohlrabi are in there, they are very hard to see in this photo below. You can however see the causuneddi.
Most of the time the Ragusani add borlotti beans as well. The causuneddi are added to the cooked and boiling soup like mixture last of all. It is like a wet pasta dish and very delicious. Of course, it is never bought to the table without having had fragrant extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top.
In Vietnam, I am also eating the leaves and tendrils of some sort of pumpkin. These greens are very much like tenerumi that the Sicilians love. In Sicily they are made into a soup.
Here in Hanoi they are stir fried with garlic and presented as greens.The photo below shows the pumpkin tendrils.