Expect the unexpected on this gastronomic adventure written by Australian Writers’ Centre graduate Dianne Bortoletto. You can find her at travelletto.com
Everyone says that the food in Vietnam is “delicious” and “so fresh”. You hear it all the time. My mother never cooked with lemongrass, coriander, or fish sauce and the few Vietnamese restaurants I’d been to in Australia were, well, ordinary at best. It was only when foodie friends returned from Vietnam raving about the county’s cuisine that I realised I was missing something.
A small mention about a food writing tour of Vietnam in a previous issue of Latte jumped out at me. Two things crossed my mind: this was a chance to properly explore what I was missing out on with Vietnamese food, and an opportunity to have a tax-deductible holiday because a learning element was involved. Win-win. Nine days touring Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City interviewing chefs, visiting markets, attending cooking classes, eating and learning how to write about it … I felt compelled to go.
Walking around Hanoi, the country’s capital city, was an attack on the senses. I met traditionally dressed vendors complete with peaked conical hats and bamboo yokes across their shoulders suspended with baskets filled with sliced pineapple, mandarins, French bread, bunches of morning glory and mint, or colourful flower. The sound of traffic and tooting horns drowned out the chatter of locals squatting on stools outside shops. And the low hanging heat and sticky humidity mixed with the alluring smell of street food like chargrilled chicken, fried onions, ginger, and garlic.
One unexpected smell was the familiar headiness of freshly brewed coffee. I had no idea that Vietnam was the biggest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. There is a strong coffee culture in Vietnam and cafes every few metres where locals enjoy both hot and cold preparations.
Hanoi is famous for egg coffee – coffee made using a whole egg whipped with sweetened condensed milk. The egg-froth is like a floating cloud over the strong black filtered coffee. Not surprisingly, it tasted like a sweet tiramisu meringue.
I had learnt something unexpected with Vietnam’s coffee, but what I really wanted to learn about was the food. The Australian Writers’ Centre food writing tour to Vietnam lined up some of the best in the business to teach us, escorted by esteemed food journalist Carli Ratcliff.
The Hai Bā Trung District of Hanoi is home to Vietnam’s top female chef, Mai Tran Thi Tuyet, known to her students as Chef Mai. The gentle grandmother of three opened her three-storey terrace home, grand by Vietnamese standards, to share her passion for teaching straightforward dishes that anyone can cook at home. Eager to learn, I sat at her kitchen table as she demonstrated how to make banana blossom salad, sautéed chicken with lemongrass and turmeric, sour and spicy fish soup, and fried spring rolls with dipping sauce.
The cooking class began at her local market where we shopped for ingredients. Chef Mai led the way through narrow lanes flanked with stalls set up on temporary tables, upturned crates and on plastic ground mats. She pointed out typical Vietnamese ingredients and my eyes darted from one thing to the next – mounds of Vietnamese mint, perilla, betel leaf, coriander, basil and saw tooth herb, stacks of tropical fruit including dragon fruit, watermelons, mangosteen and limes, crates of vegetables from bitter melon to cucumbers to eggplants to yams, slabs of meat from every part of the animal, baskets filled with clams, shrimp, eels, and snails, trays of fresh fish from almost microscopic to trophy-winning in size, sacks of iridescent powders and gnarly shaped spices, and freshly-made rice and egg noodles rolled into neat bundles ready to take home.
After cooking came my favourite part, the tasting. As we savoured the wholesome food Chef Mai had prepared, Carli our writing teacher explained the importance of properly describing each dish in our writing. “Saying something is ‘delicious’ means nothing to the reader.” Words that will forever ring in my ears when I’m writing about food. We discussed how each dish looks, smells, tastes and its textures as my appreciation for Vietnamese food climbed with each mouthful.
Sofitel Hotel chef Hai Ly Do, known as Chef Ly, led the Hanoi street food walking tour. Her in-depth knowledge of Vietnamese food was evident as she talked about the stallholders who often offered just one dish such as Bun Cha, coal grilled pork with rice noodles.
Stalls selling sweet glutinous rice cakes, marinated jellyfish, fermented pork sausage wrapped in banana leaf bow-tied with string, stuffed rice-batter pancakes and variations of fresh, steamed or fried rice paper rolls were just some of street food we encountered. On the street is where eating Vietnamese food gets really interesting. The best bowl of pho bo, a beef noodle soup, I had in Vietnam cost A$1.50 from a street vendor.
A heritage village
Leaving the swarms of scooter traffic in Hanoi, I flew south to Hoi An, a 15th Century UNESCO Heritage village on the country’s mid-south coast. Colourful colonial architecture along the river and streets devoid of traffic jams was instantly calming. Neat shops boasted talented tailors and were filled with rolls of fabric from delicate silks to thick-weaved gabardine, custom leather shoemakers, as well as ready-made clothes. The large market in the centre of Hoi An was less frantic than the one in Hanoi but every square inch was filled similarly with food stalls, fresh produce, and kitchen utensils.
The popular Red Bridge Cooking School is a tranquil boat ride from centre of Hoi An. Set amongst a lush garden with a canopy of cooling trees, a team of assistants helped us cook fresh rice paper from a thin batter poured onto a tightly tied cloth over a big boiling pot of water, much like a drum. Once steamed, we lay thinly sliced carrot, bean sprout, coriander, spring onion, cooked prawns and pork before rolling the wet rice paper into a cigar. My favourite dish was the claypot eggplant, sautéed quickly over high heat with garlic, lemongrass and tomatoes, then balanced with sugar, salt, and fish sauce and topped with generous amounts of spring onion, basil and coriander before serving. It’s a quick vegetarian dinner I’ve successfully replicated at home using a regular saucepan.
Further south in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I was reminded that Vietnam is not all rice paddies and bicycles, but indeed a modern country not immune to commercialism. Skyscrapers and neon advertising were unimaginable in Hoi An, yet they abound in Ho Chi Minh City. You can even roll your own rice paper rolls at one of the many fast-food chains aptly called “Wrap and Roll”.
At the Saigon Culinary Art Centre Chef Quy explained that Ho Chi Minh City’s cuisine is sweeter and spicier than the food in north. In the purpose built cooking school, she taught us to make pho ga, a chicken and rice noodle soup many consider to be the national dish of Vietnam.
The Vietnamese philosophy to food is one I admire. Locals shop daily at markets, not supermarkets. Farmers kill their animals at around 4am the day they intend to sell the meat and they stay at the market until it is all sold, selling every part of the animal. As the day goes on, the cheaper the meat becomes. Seafood and fish are sold either still alive in water, or freshly caught that morning. Despite the lack of refrigeration in each of the three markets I visited, everything smelled and looked fresh. The fish area particularly struck me because it smelled clean like the ocean, not rancid, even in Ho Chi Minh City.
After nine days of eating my way from the north to the south, I left my ambivalence to Vietnamese food behind. It is healthy and packed with flavour thanks to the freshness of ingredients and punchy aromatics like garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lime, chilli, fish sauce, and the abundant use of herbs and spices. I’ve been converted.
The Australian Writers’ Centre’s Food Writing Tour of Vietnam is from 16 to 24 May 2014. For more information visit: WritingInVietnam.com
All images by Dianne Bortoletto from travelletto.com