Posts

Vietnamese Red Cabbage Salad

Introduction:

I recall being sat in the middle of steamy kitchen in a small town in Thailand; the two women speaking melodically in their native tongue. There was giggling, laughter and the percussion like sound of the wooden pestle pounding against the hardwood mortar. It was 7 in the morning and breakfast was being prepared.

I was here on a stopover prior to an adventure in the sub-continent, but it was here, in this kitchen, with these two ladies that my adventure began. I sat mesmerised at the high energy these ladies exerted whilst pounding the ingredients, especially in the humid heat. And yet they made it look easy, whilst smiling and maintaining a high octane conversation. Momentarily they would look up at me, look at each other, and then giggle before continuing the grind, as it were.

The next part is what I distinctly remember; moreover as it was something I had never seen before. One of the ladies showed me a large fruit item – which a few days after I learnt to be green papaya – and then began to fervently lacerate it with a large old looking chopping knife, more akin to a bone cleaver. Then she delicately shaved it and away peeled hundreds of finely formed ribbons. I noted this down in my mind’s journal, and years later I recall it as I am preparing a Vietnamese salad in the confines of a Melbourne kitchen; although this time with a carrot.

Given its close proximity to Vietnam there are many similarities in the flavour profile of the food from Thailand; the enchanting mix of the sweet, salt and sourness underpinned with garlic and chilli. And a great Vietnamese salad is very much about shredding and tearing, much like that which occurred those years ago in the steamy Thai kitchen.

Green papaya can be difficult to find and so I have substituted it for red cabbage which with carrot makes a visually stunning salad. I am very fortunate to be living very close to ‘Little Vietnam’ here in Melbourne so have great access to most of the herbs that I found and tasted when in Thailand and Vietnam. This salad has been carefully developed on and off over a few months, mainly to get a great balance of flavour; but there is everything right in you trying to find your perfect blend of herbs and flavours, using this as a base.

 

Serves: 2 to 4   |   Preparation: 30 minutes   |   Cooking: at least 30 minutes resting

 

Ingredients:

150g Red cabbage | finely shredded, known as chiffonade.
24 leaves Asian (Thai) basil |
24 leaves Vietnamese mint |
24 leaves Mint |
24 small sprigs Coriander | a small sprig is about 3 leaves.
24 leaves Perilla |
1 Carrot | peeled and shredded/ finely julienned.
1 serving Nuoc Cham | click here for recipe.

 

 

How To:

Prepare the nuoc cham at least half an hour before serving the salad in order for the ingredients to become intimately acquainted.

Place the Asian basil, Vietnamese mint, mint, coriander and perilla leaves in a bowl of iced water for about 5 minutes, to freshen and crisp. Remove the leaves from the water and roughly tear in to a large bowl. Add the shredded red cabbage and carrot. Mix with your hands.

A minute before serving add the nuoc cham to the salad and thoroughly, but carefully, mix with your hands so the herbs, cabbage and carrot are coated in the dressing. Leave the salad to marinade for one minute and then serve.

I find plating this salad using a hand has two benefits: firstly, most of excess liquid is drained and therefore there are no large ‘puddles’ on the plate; and secondly, it is easier to shape the salad on the plate.

 

Notes:

  • This is an incredibly versatile salad and goes particularly well with a medium rib-eye steak fillet, an extremely good quality pork sausage or even pan-fried snapper.

Spicy Caramel Pork Loin with Vietnamese Papaya and Apple Slaw

Introduction:

This dish is a great combination of healthiness and ephemeral non-healthiness; that being from the spike of sugar. Well, there is also the long-term consideration of the effect of belly pork on one’s rotundness if one eats the original dish from a great restaurant called Red Spice Road in the centre of Melbourne. I have eaten at the restaurant and made the exact dish at home. It’s spectacular with a fatty, sugary, spicy and salty meaty kick, off-set by acidity, tartness and fragrance from the slaw.

I had the in-laws over last weekend, and as is now customary, and because I chuffin’ love being in the kitchen cooking all day – seriously I do – I decided to do a partially experimental 3-courser. Partial in that some of the processes and elements I am cool with but some of the flavour combinations I had not tried before.

This post, however, is all about the starter.

The original version of the chilli caramel pork and apple slaw is a real filler and is best suited to those of a ravenous disposition, as a main course. The flavours are just majestic though, so I set about converting the dish to an entrée. Out went the belly pork for leaner chops of pork loin and there was a reduction in quantity of the chilli caramel to just a wet coating rather than a sticky ocean. I added green papaya to the slaw, as this was something I had done when making a salad when in Vietnam and I really liked the freshness and texture of it. A green papaya is unripened and therefore only takes on a very mild flavour compared with its ripened form, but with the addition of herbs and a great zesty, salty, spicy and sweet dressing it is transformed in to the miraculous.

In fact thinking back, I first saw green papaya being prepared by my uncle’s partner in Thailand. I remember her peeling away the skin and then chopping in to it with a cleaver to about an inch deep. After a fair few chops she then peeled the flesh and the fine papaya strips fell away. This is how I prepare green papaya now.

I have modified the slaw and the nước chấm to what my palate thought was a good hit. Also, some cooking times have been modified from the original. I have also introduced some crunchy texture by adding crumbled five spice pork crackling as a garnish on the dish.

The result was a classy dish that managed to capture everything I had done with the original dish, but with the benefit of still leaving plenty of room for the main course (dessert one can fit in anyway regardless of the quantity one has already consumed).

The main course was a poached sole fillet on a bed of wild rice and finely julienned squid, topped with a very smooth and silky Sri Lankan curry sauce. And dessert? A Chocolate fondant with a salted caramel centre topped with chocolate sauce and cream (a Raymond Blanc classic). These will come later.

 

Serves: 4 as a starter   |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: 2 hours 30 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the pork loin:    
2 x 250g Pork loin chops | Remove the fat; it will be used for the crackling.
Enough to cover the pork loin Chinese master stock | Recipe for Master stock is here.

For the crackling:    
2 strips Pork fat | From the pork loin chops above.
2 pinches Chinese 5-spice powder | Recipe is here, but it can be bought from Asian grocers – or you may have your own version.
2 pinches Sea salt |

For the Chilli Caramel Pork:    
50g Arrowroot (tapioca flour) |
1 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder | See here for recipe.
½ litre Grapeseed oil | For frying. Other non-fragrant oils can be used e.g. groundnut or canola.
1 serve Chilli caramel | Recipe for 1 serve of chilli caramel is here.

For the Slaw    
65g Green savoy cabbage | Cut chiffonnade.
½ medium Granny Smith Apple (green) | Core the apple and thinly slice. Cut the slices in to fine matchsticks (julienne).
20g Green papaya | Thinly shredded.
12 leaves Mint |
Vietnamese Mint 12 leaves  
12 small sprigs Coriander | A small sprig has about 3 leaves.
To taste Nuoc cham | Used as a dressing, the recipe can be found here.

 

 

How To:

Pre-heat an oven to 150 deg C (300 deg F). In to an oven proof dish place the pork loin chops (with the fat removed) and then pour over the master stock until the chops are completely covered. Tightly cover the dish with foil.

Score the pork fat strips on the outer side (that is, the side that was not attached to the flesh). Sprinkle the sea salt on to a bench surface and then press the scored side of the fat into the salt. Now sprinkle the Chinese 5-spice powder over the scored side. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment and place the pork fat, scored side up, on the sheet.

Put the pork loin in master stock on the top shelf of the oven, and the pork fat on the bottom shelf. Cook for 2 hours. After 2 hours remove the pork from the oven, take it out of the master stock and place on a cooling rack until completely cool. The master stock can be reserved (see master stock post).

Put the pork fat on the top shelf of the oven after the 2 hours are up and the ramp it up to 220 deg C.  Cook for a further 15 minutes until the crackling is bubbled and looks really crispy. Remove the crackling from the oven, leave it to cool and then crumble it so that the pieces are big enough to give a nice crunchy texture.

When the pork loin has completely cooled, carefully, using a sharp thin knife otherwise the pork may flake, cut it into strips.

To a bowl add the arrowroot and teaspoon of Chinese 5-spice and mix. Now carefully, so as to avoid breaking them, coat the pork loin strips with the powdered mix shaking off any excess.

Heat the grapeseed oil in a wok or deep frying pan until the temperature hits about 180 deg C. In batches of two or three fry the pork loin strips for about 3 minutes until the coating has browned. Set the strips aside.

Now prepare the slaw. Put the mint, Vietnamese mint and coriander in iced water for about 10 minutes to ‘crisp’ them up. Put the julienned apple, chiffonnade cabbage and shredded green papaya in a non-reactive bowl. Drain the herbs from the iced water, and tear them up into the slaw.

Warm the caramel chilli in a wok (low-medium heat) until it becomes liquid. Add the fried pork strips and stir until well coated and warmed – this will takes about 2 minutes.

Add the nước chấm to the apple slaw, enough to wet the slaw but not so much that it is calling out for a life-jacket. Mix it with your hands.

To serve place a neat pile of caramel pork strips onto each plate and pour over any excess caramel (share it of course). Carefully place a handful of the apple slaw on the pork and finally sprinkle over some crackling crumbs. Chúc ngon miệng.

Lamb Stock

Introduction:

Making stock can be a right royal pain in the derriere – the concept I initially struggled with was spending hours cooking something that was not going to be eaten straight away. The roasting, boiling, skimming, simmering, filtering, chilling, skimming, filtering… and for what? For liquid gold, that is what. And that is why the struggle was only initial because when I discovered the potential of home-made stock it became a culinary pleasure; a necessity; a vital part of flavour in the kitchen.

Lamb stock is amazing. Reduced down to a glace (when a stock is reduced to 10% of its original volume) or demi-glace (stock is reduced to 25-40% of its original volume) you end up with a wonderfully rich sauce which can transform the nice into the incredible; something I believe is used in the armoury of good chefs to elevate their food into the heavenly.

I really like to understand why things happen and what happens when cooking and have recently been interested in stocks. Have you ever wondered why red meat stocks are cooked for much longer than chicken or fish stocks? Why does the fat that aggregates at the surface of a stock have very little taste yet we know that the fat in marbled steak contains a lot of flavour? What is the initial foam that accumulates on the surface and why should it be skimmed?

 

Quick answers to these questions:

Red meat bones are more robust than chicken, which are more robust than fish. Apart from compounds that are easily extracted from the connective tissues in red meat when making stock there is another process that occurs. This process is the break down (hydrolysis) of collagen, the main protein of connective tissue, to components such as gelatine. This break down requires prolonged exposure to heat (simmering), usually for a few hours. Apart from the other ingredients, such as herbs and vegetables, this breakdown of the connective tissue is what imparts the wonderful flavour to stock. In addition, the browning of the bones prior to simmering promotes the Maillard reaction (breakdown of surface proteins) which adds significant flavour to the stock.

Regarding the tasteless fat on the surface of the stock – usually flavour components are fat soluble or water soluble (there are chemicals to help components dissolve in both, but that’s getting too much into chemistry!). It is believed that the compounds that are extracted during the simmering and breaking down of the collagen in stock are water soluble so dissolve in the water and not the fat; hence tasteless fat. When cooking steak the collagen and fat is not heated long enough to break down so the flavour remains in the fat.

And that foam at the surface of the stock – these are proteins that broken down and then coagulate and form the foam. They don’t add any value to the stock, and need to be removed especially if you are making a clear stock, such as a consommé.

There is a whole science around what happens when making stock which I have only just scratched the surface of. However, the bottom line is that whatever wizardry happens during the cooking, a great stock should be on hand…and here’s your chance now to make yourself a super little lamb stock.

 

Serves:  2.5 litres   |   Preparation:  1 hour + settle overnight  |   Cooking: 5 hours

 

Ingredients:

2.5kg Lamb bones | Cut into 10-15cm pieces.
2 Carrots | Peeled and roughly chopped.
2 Celery sticks | Roughly chopped.
2 Brown onions | Peeled and roughly chopped.
½ kg Tomatoes | Nice and ripe – you can use Roma, as an example.
1 Bouquet garni | See Bouquet Garni for Chicken and Meat – substitute rosemary for tarragon.

 

 

How To:

Preheat oven to 180 deg C (350 deg F). Put your lamb bones in a roasting tin and roast in the oven for about an hour. We want to see some lovely browning and great lamb aromas emanating. Put the roasted bones in a stock pan with 5 litres of cold water. Discard any lamb fat from the roasting tin. Add 100ml of water to the roasting tin, heat it on the stove top, and using a wooden spoon deglaze the tin. Pour the deglaze into the stock pot.

Bring the water and bones to the boil and then reduce the heat until the water is simmering. Skim away the foam that congregates at the surface. The best way to do this is to take a small ladle or tablespoon, swirl the water until the foam moves outwards and then skim. When the water is clear add the vegetables, tomatoes and bouquet garni. Bring back to the boil and then put on a very low simmer for 4 hours, leaving the pot uncovered.

When the four hours are up strain the stock through a fine sieve and then allow the stock to cool. Put the stock in the fridge overnight. The fat will rise to the surface and solidify. Remove the hardened fat and then strain again through a fine meshed sieve.

 

Notes:

  • The stock keeps for about a week in the fridge; otherwise freeze in portions.
  • Lamb stock has a very distinct flavour and is therefore mostly used in lamb based dishes.

 

Vietnam – The Conclude

Physically I am back in Melbourne. The rest of me is still twisting and turning, smelling and eating, listening and chatting, and sipping Vietnamese ca phe at my local.

 

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

 

Hanoi has been an eye opening time that has left me both saddened and inspired. I have loved the simplicity and camaraderie of the Hanoians, and therefore have returned to the ‘routine’ of life, saddened. However, having removed myself from routine and having had the honour and pleasure to ‘live’ in such an exhilarating environment for a month has left me feeling inspired and with a fire in my belly to achieve anything I desire, especially with reference to cooking.

I hold true to what I said in a previous post and that is you can only truly experience cooking Vietnamese when you have cooked in Vietnam. I will also say that you have only truly eaten Vietnamese when you have eaten it in Vietnam.

 

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

 

In Melbourne there is an area called Little Vietnam, or Little Saigon. Before I went to Hanoi I would rave about the food here – real Vietnamese food. Recently there was a festival there celebrating the lunar New Year; it was just after we had arrived back in Melbourne. Feeling ‘home’ sick for Hanoi we were in a frenzy to get down there and drown ourselves in pho. But this time it was different. Don’t get me wrong it was still good, but it just wasn’t a patch on those grubby little street stalls in the Old Quarters. It was almost as if it had been commercialised to suit a broader palate.

I am a great lover of the Melbourne food scene, and the ingredients you can get here are fantastic, so this is no blight on Melbourne, or indeed Little Saigon. It’s just that I have experienced how simple food can be simply perfect if it is made perfectly. This is something I hope that I will carry forward in my culinary adventure, wherever it takes me.

Over the next few weeks I will be testing out recipes gleaned from various sources in Hanoi, and will be putting them on this blog.

When I travelled in India, which was one of the most inspirational periods of my life, there was a saying that went:

Journeys are forever. People come and go,

And the eternal fascination of India endures.

And when it’s difficult to say goodbye,

India has a popular saying that translates to mean

“I go, so I may return”.

…and this is my ‘conclude’ dedicated to Vietnam.

 

Beautiful Sapa

Beautiful Sapa

Vietnam – The best Pho in Hanoi is…

…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:

1)      For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.

2)      The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).

Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked.  The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.

 

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

 

Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.

 

Pho Ga - Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga – Chicken Noodle Soup

 

3)      The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.

4)      Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.

I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).

We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.

We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.

We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.

But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.

I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.

 

Number 10 -  Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

Number 10 – Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

 

As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’

Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.

 

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

 

The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.

Vietnam – Sing for your Sapa

I was talking to some other traveller about taking a cook class in Sapa, and she replied that she cooked Vietnamese already as she had two Vietnamese cookbooks back at home. I thought about this and retorted that I don’t believe anybody has ever cooked Vietnamese until they have cooked it in Vietnam. I likened it to learning a language. You can learn a language from a teacher or textbook, but it is not until you speak to people in their native language, usually in the country of origin of the language you are learning, that you can truly speak the language. Why? Because most of language is about culture – something you cannot pick up through study but by practical application. And so I told the traveller that I believed that cooking was the same – there is a culture about it, as well as the variations in availability and quality of ingredients. With this is mind, and given that I already have two Vietnamese cookbooks thus making me a Vietnamese chef, it was time to take a cooking class, and Sapa was the perfect place to do it. The traveller I was talking to also decided she was going to take a class before leaving Sapa!

The place that offered the cooking courses was a hotel/ café (Sapa Rooms) in the main drag of Sapa, 30 metres away from the food market. The inside was best described as contemporary hippie, and at the end of a long wooden table was a feisty but personable and well-dressed Vietnamese girl – with an Apple Mac, bookkeeping ledgers, a large diary and a credit card reader – a very good set-up for a remote hill station in north-west Vietnam. The cooking classes were for a minimum of two people, and as this is winter in Vietnam, there were no other takers, so my wife and I decided to do the cooking course together, with kids in tow.

 

Road Coming in to Sapa

Road Coming in to Sapa

 

We arrived early next morning at Sapa Rooms, and met Cường, the chef who was to be our guide and mentor for the day. He was a young man in his early twenties from a town called Haiphong (a sea port), who had studied to be a chef at the famous KOTO (Know One Teach One) restaurant school in Hanoi – KOTO was set up by its founder Jimmy Pham, whose mission was, and is, to train disadvantaged kids and street kids in areas of hospitality in order to give them a chance to have a career and live their dreams. It’s a similar concept to Jamie Oliver’s 15 restaurants. Cường had moved around in chef jobs since graduating from KOTO and had ended up in Sapa. His dream is to work as a chef in Dubai.

Our first port of call was the market where Cường showed us around and answered any culinary questions we had. It was a real education to understand what the different herbs and the green leaf vegetables were and how they formed a major part of life for the residents of Sapa and more importantly to the nearby hill tribes of the region. He pointed out some green tea, something I had only ever seen in its dried form, and bought a bunch and said “I will make you some later”.  The market at Sapa is fairly compact, but it offers a wonderful range of local produce: from oranges, sour apples, mangosteens, rambutan, strawberries, mangoes and green papaya to green tea, wood-ear mushrooms, corn, a variety of green leaves and lettuce, perilla leaves, Vietnamese mint, garlic chives, bean shoots, mung beans, coriander and Asian basil.

 

Produce at Sapa Market

Produce at Sapa Market

 

Rambutan in Sapa Market

Rambutan at Sapa Market

 

Greens at Sapa Market

Greens at Sapa Market

 

Mushrooms at Sapa Market

Mushrooms at Sapa Market

 

Fresh Fruit at Sapa Market

Fresh Fruit at Sapa Market

 

Then there are the varieties of rice such as sticky rice, wild red rice and the common local long grain rice, dried mushrooms, buffalo meat, shrimp, beans and pulses, and cuttlefish (which was probably the only non-local product).

 

Dried Shrimp at Sapa Market

Dried Shrimp at Sapa Market

 

Dried Buffalo Hanging at Sapa Market

Dried Buffalo Hanging at Sapa Market

 

Chickens on Display at Sapa Market

Chickens on Display at Sapa Market

 

Finally, we went through the meat market where laid out on huge wooden tables was buffalo, wild pig and cow(beef) meat. In fact every part of each animal was laid out on the tables. On another table there was large container of plucked chickens, all with their feet in the air, including the legendary blue chicken – with its blue feet and legs.

On the final table was the most confronting; dog meat, including the skinned head, with its gnashers(teeth) showing. Although I am not in any hurry to try dog meat I fully appreciate, having been in Hanoi for nearly a month, the importance end even prestige that it has in northern Vietnamese culture. These dogs, just like cattle, are bred specifically for consumption and so in that sense are clean and hygienic.

After such an insightful visit around the market, the next stop was 7km from Sapa, down in the valley, to a mountain retreat for the cooking lesson. This particular day was quite chilly and when we arrived we realised that we were cooking outdoors. To be honest it was a beautifully constructed wooden shelter, complete with kitchen and portable coal fires. For all those famous chefs that have done their on location cooking in far and exotic places, I am sure that very few would have had such a peaceful, picturesque and ‘fresh’ environment like this to cook in. As we looked out we could see, through the mist, the stepped rice fields wending their way in to the valley. Simply put it was stunning.

View of Rice Fields from Sapa Cooking Class

View of Rice Fields from Sapa Cooking Class

 

So what were we going to cook? The menu was simple, but the balance of flavours and wonderful local produce made it very special: rice paper rolls with chicken and shrimp; green papaya salad; chicken fried with lemongrass and chilli; and finally for desert, sweet potato and tapioca with sweet coconut chips.

 

Fresh Ingredients for Sapa Cooking Class

Fresh Ingredients for Sapa Cooking Class

 

Spices and Sauces for Sapa Cooking Class

Spices and Sauces for Sapa Cooking Class

 

I will put the recipes on here, so won’t go into the details of each dish in this post, but suffice to say that Cường took us through the dishes with simplicity and precision, explaining what each ingredient was and how it was contributing to the dish.

Our lunch was what we had cooked/ prepared. Vietnamese, like a lot of South East Asian food, is about the balance between salt (fish sauce or soy sauce), sweet (refined sugar or palm sugar), and sour (rice vinegar and citrus fruit juice such as lime).  So from the dipping sauce for the spring rolls to the salad dressing for the papaya salad I had never had such a wonderful balance of flavours; flavours that were enhanced with the freshness and intensity from the likes of the pungent garlic, the tart mango and papaya and, in the salad, the quite incredible dried beef which had a wonderful sweetness to it.

 

Spring Rolls in Sapa Cooking Class

Spring Rolls in Sapa Cooking Class

 

Spring Rolls and Green Papaya Salad from Sapa Cooking Class

Spring Rolls and Green Papaya Salad from Sapa Cooking Class

The fried chicken dish exuded the majestic flavour and smell of lemongrass with that impish kick of chilli. Finally, the sweet potato desert, that only worked when you ate it with the coconut chips, finished off a memorable experience. And of course we were treated to the fresh green tea, which seemed to have a digestive power about it, as well as it cleaning the palate.

After the meal we sat for an hour on a very cold day around hot coals warming our hands and feet, and reflected on a perfect day, whilst looking out on perfect country.

Panoramic View from Sapa Cooking Class

Panoramic View from Sapa Cooking Class

Vietnam – In Sapa

We disembarked from the overnight train in Lao Cai, after a 9 hour overnight, truly Vietnamese, truly bumpy, truly noisy but truly exciting journey. It was nonetheless an incredible experience travelling through the North Vietnamese country in the dead of night. The children slept for 8 of the 9 hours. My wife and I sat mesmerised looking out of the window picking out silhouettes of shacks, hills, trees, rivers and small villages. Ever so often we would pass a tarpaulin propped up with sticks under which people would be sat around a fire at the side of the track. A far cry from downtown Melbourne.

It was 5.30am and wearily in the cold morning air we grabbed our backpacks and found our minibus amongst the hustle and bustle of the melting point of global travellers, hotel operators, taxi drivers, playing card sales ladies, hot chestnut purveyors, Lao Cai locals and government officials. The next part of the journey was a 35km passage to Sapa, along an ever climbing, curvaceous and undulating road, which involved being thrown left, right, up and down for over an hour. We hoped Sapa would be worth it.What seemed like a lifetime soon ended and we were driving through a built up and bustling town literally carved into the side of a mountain.

It is quite amazing to think that this hill station had been built by the French in 1922, but had been inhabited many, many years before by the tribes’ people of Northern Vietnam. Here we were in 2013 parked outside our hotel.

 

The Train to Lao Cai

The Train to Lao Cai

 

Was Sapa worth it? If I had travelled this journey only for one view of this earthly wonder then it would have been more than worth it. As we dumped our backpacks in our room and then stepped outside, the cold mist had lifted and we were presented with the most breathtaking panorama imaginable, which included on our doorstep mount Fansipan – the highest point in Vietnam.

 

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

 

From our vantage point we could also see the bustling market place only 200 metres away and of course for me the most important aspect of that was the array of fruit, green leaves, herbs, meat, fish and noodles I could see. I was itching just to be let loose in Sapa, to smell, see and consume.

Our hotel, Cat Cat View, overlooked a village, named Cat Cat, 3 km away. We had heard reports before arriving in Sapa that the weather was cold and very misty and therefore visibility was low. On our arrival the mist had lifted the sun had broken through and all of a sudden there was a mass of blue sky. This meant we could clearly see Cat Cat and the incredible giant steps that cascaded down the hill sides; the rice fields. You could also see banana plants, paddocks of lettuce, greens and herbs, and roaming animals such as ducks, roosters, wild pigs and buffalo – a truly self-sufficient environment.

 

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

 

By now it was about 7.30 and with a ravenous family in tow breakfast was beckoning, so we ate breakfast at the hotel with other travellers that were staying there. The first thing that struck me on the menu, which I am afraid to say was very un-Vietnamese, was a full English breakfast. After the journey we had just had I chose this over the Pho. The idea for the ‘English’ breakfast on the menu became apparent when we met an English chap in the restaurant. He was married to the Vietnamese hotel owner and had a great story of how he arrived in Vietnam.

He was a teacher, teaching in Southern England when he came out to Vietnam as a traveller and on arrival in Sapa did some volunteer teaching in the local school. It was here that he met his sweetheart, but after his visa expired he had to return to England. Realising that the long distance relationship could not work, and being tired of the same routine in England, he tried to find a way to move closer to Vietnam. He managed to secure a teaching post in Hong Kong, which although not ideal, meant he could be closer to his loved one. He spent some time commuting between Hong Kong and Sapa, which over time was draining. A decision had to be made as even though they loved each other very much the distance between Honk Kong and Sapa was still too much. His loved one was running the hotel in Sapa, and as it was (and still is) a family business, it was just not possible for her to move. As fortune would have it a teaching post opened up in Hanoi at an international school and so he was able to move to Vietnam, with the commute now an overnight process. And this is where they are right now. He manages to go to Sapa every month or two, which is still not ideal as he now has a young daughter in Sapa who misses him terribly when he’s not there, but I am sure in the very near future the family will all be together permanently.

Back to the breakfast – it was great. Imagine, it consisted of wild pork (bacon) grown and cured in Sapa, duck eggs, locally grown tomato and cucumber, freshly baked French bread, a frankfurter-like sausage which we have seen lots of around Hanoi, and fried potatoes. This was a full ‘Vietnamese’ not ‘English’.

 

Vietnam – Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở Gà)

Introduction:

Here is the first of the fruits from my Hanoi experience; chicken noodle soup – phở gà. Along with the beef version this is an absolute staple of locals in Hanoi, and is traditionally served for breakfast. I have been fortunate to eat at a number of street food stalls serving phở, the more general term for noodle soup (its literal translation is noodles), however I have been extremely honoured to have been invited in to the kitchen of the owners of our rented apartment here to see first-hand how this fantastic dish is prepared.

What I have done is taken elements of every version I have eaten and tried to come up with a definitive recipe; which to be honest is not possible as every one that makes phở in Hanoi has their own version and secret ingredient(s) or method.

The first experience of cooking this dish was to procure the chicken from a local market. When you buy a chicken here it looks like a chicken; head and feet intact. Vietnamese chickens are not as ‘fattened’ as the western counterparts, so there tends to be less meat on the carcass. However, they are packed with flavour which is a great basis for the broth – the element which a great phở hinges on. Having bartered for a local chicken I then bought the noodles ready-made. It just makes sense to do it here, as you can buy 1kg of fresh noodles for about $1USD. Finally, I found a stall that sold such an incredible array of local herbs; a cook’s heaven. However, it was the Asian basil (also known as Thai basil) with its sweet, aniseed aroma that stood out from the rest, and so I decided that this should be the one to finish off the soup – of course with some fiery chilli and zesty lime.

 

Serves: 6-8   |   Preparation:  40 minutes   |   Cooking: 1-2 hours

 

Ingredients:

About 1.5kg Chicken | I used a Vietnamese chicken, which seems to have a lot of flavour – definitely use a free-range one, maybe organic, if you’re not in Hanoi!
2 tbsp. Sea Salt | Used to salt the chicken.
6 Spring onions (scallions) | White part only – roughly sliced.
6 cloves Garlic | Garlic bulbs in Hanoi are small, but pack a punch – I used a whole bulb, but 6 medium to large cloves will do.
About a 5cm piece Fresh ginger | Peeled and thinly sliced.
About ½kg Pork bones | These add a ‘sweetness’ to the broth – get them cut into 10cm pieces.
3 tbsp. Fish Sauce | I used a ‘butterfish’ variety that’s available here, but regular fish sauce (good quality) is fine.
2 tsp. Sea salt |
2 tsp. Sugar | Not sure what kind of sugar I used – I bought it from the market, procured from a large sack. Its sweetness was like raw sugar, but its appearance was like golden castor sugar.
2 tsp. Garlic oil | Make garlic oil by frying 6 finely sliced garlic cloves in 250 ml of vegetable oil (at 180 deg. C) until golden brown. Drain the oil. The garlic can be used as garnish and the garlic oil stored in a refrigerator for a week.
1kg Fresh noodles | I had the privilege of being able to buy great noodles here. You can by dried rice noodles and prepare yourself. However for a good consistency it is better to buy fresh packeted rice noodles.
8 Spring onions | Sliced.
8 Garlic chives | Finely sliced.
1 or 2 Red chilli | Finely sliced with seeds.
1 Lime | Cut into 8 wedges.
A few Herbs | To serve. Here I used Asian basil. You can also use Vietnamese mint, perilla leaves, and coriander. The one thing about Hanoians and their phở is that they don’t add too much to the soup – they let the chicken, broth and noodles speak themselves.

 

 

How to:

The first step is to put the chicken in a plastic bag and add the 2 tablespoons of salt. Shake the bag and ensure that the salt is evenly spread around the chicken. Leave this for about an hour then remove the chicken and rinse thoroughly to remove any salt.

In a mortar and pestle pound the spring onion and garlic to a paste. Put the chicken in a large stock pot and add 5 litres of warm water. Over a medium heat bring the water to a gentle simmer and cook the chicken for about ten minutes, skimming away any impurities (foam) from the surface of the water.

Add the spring onion and garlic paste, and the sliced ginger. Cook the chicken for a further hour (vary slightly for smaller/ larger chickens), ensuring that the water does not go past a gentle simmer and also as important turn the chicken every 15 minutes to ensure even cooking. We want to cook the chicken as gently as possible, whilst also extracting the flavour in to the water.

Once cooked, remove the chicken from the water and set aside to completely cool. Now add the pork bones, fish sauce, salt, sugar and garlic oil, and gently simmer for a further 25 minutes. Remove the pork bones and discard, and then strain the broth through a fine sieve and return to the cleaned stock pot.

To serve, heat the broth so that it’s on a gentle simmer and take one portion of noodles (about 125g or so) and blanch them in the broth using a cylindrical strainer (this is the first time I had seen this technique, but it works great). Add the noodles to a serving bowl, then slice a good portion of breast from the chicken (with skin) and add to the bowl along with a couple of pinches of garlic chives and spring onions.

Now pour over the broth until it has completely covered the noodles and chicken. Repeat for the other portions. Serve the chilli, herbs and lime separately. Please enjoy.

 

Notes:

  • This is just one version of this classic dish – it is pretty close to the versions I have eaten here in Hanoi.
  • I originally was going to cook the chicken for about two hours, but the waft of the broth must have risen to the apartment owner’s residence, and in a flash she came down, felt the chicken, picked up two chopsticks, picked up the chicken with the chopsticks, lifted it out of the broth, plonked it on the bench and said ‘ready’. She then toddled off. Of course the chicken was perfect (and so the cooking time is an hour!)

Bouquet Garni for Chicken and Meat

Introduction:

I remember in years past following recipes that asked for a bouquet garni and being quite put out by the need to collect numerous species of herbaceous plants, plus a few other odds and sods, and then have to wrap my gathering in muslin cloth or tie it with ‘kitchen’ string (which of course never existed in my culinary world), and all for what? No, it was way too much hassle to even consider something that would only be thrown away at the end of cooking. And by the way some clever company had designed some teabag like contraption which contained the dried variety of everything you needed to flavour your stew or casserole – no, I never used those either.

Roll on to recent times, and you will see a different outtake on the humble bouquet garni. If flavour is what is important in your cooking, and I am bordering on the rhetoric there, then a bouquet garni is what will deliver that piece de resistance in terms of that flavour. For me it is now an empirical part of any stock that I make, and is used when appropriate to flavour sauces and casseroles. The beauty of it is that it can, and should, be a representation of what you can obtain locally. For example in Provence rosemary is always added, whereas in Old French cookery cloves and various herbs were bundled together and wrapped in a thin rasher of bacon. In Italy there is the mazzetto, which contains rosemary, sage and often celery, leek or orange peel.

The composition is unlimited, but always consider the harmony that is trying to be achieved with the final dish or stock.

This basic recipe is for a bouquet garni that I use when chicken or meat (lamb and veal) is the principal component, mostly in stocks. The inspiration was from Michel Roux – the idea of wrapping everything in a leek is genius, just as long as I have some of that kitchen string (which I now get from the local butcher in 500km…ish balls).

 

Serves: 1 stock or casserole   |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: Dependent on the dish

 

Ingredients:

1 medium sized Leek | Trim the ends keeping the white part – remove the outer layer and use the next two layers.
2 Bay leaves | I use fresh bay leaves for their more vibrant flavour (not necessarily more intense). Dried can certainly be used.
½ stalk Celery | Cut into thin  strips.
6 Parsley stalks | The stalks have an intense flavour.
1 sprig Tarragon | Fresh.
1 sprig Thyme | Fresh.
6 whole White pepper corns |
4 whole Black pepper corns |

 

 

How To:

Take the two leek layers that have been prepared. Lay them out flat with the top of one layer overlapping the bottom of the other layer.

Over the leek layers lay the bay leaves, celery strips, parsley stalks, tarragon sprig, thyme sprig, white peppercorns and the black peppercorns. Now the slightly tricky bit – wrap the leek fairly tightly round the ingredients and then tie each end with kitchen string, tight enough to hold the bundle together, but not too tight as to cut through the leek. Now that’s done put it in your stock or the dish that you’re preparing, sit back and enjoy the aromas from the kitchen.

Notes:

  • It’s important that the leek is really fresh for this to work. I have had countless times where when trying to wrap the leeks they just snap. I rarely have this problem with fresh leeks.