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Lemongrass and Chilli Chicken

Introduction:

After a morning’s trek with my seven year old son through the misty terraced rice fields that are home to the Hmong tribe, we are approached by a young man who calls himself Alex, or his helmet does, a member of this tribal community in Northern Vietnam. He is wearing non-traditional clothing for his day job – motorcycling tourists back to the main hill station of Sapa.

The month is January, a few weeks before Vietnam celebrates Tet, the festivities of the lunar New Year.

After I agree to take a ride from Alex we talk about life here in the village, and he tells me that their main livelihood is rice; rice feeds the village as well as provides the villagers with income (some of the women of the tribe also earn money by selling locally made crafts to tourists). He tells me that the whole year revolves around two events: the harvesting of the rice and Tet. Rice is the heartbeat of this community and each grain is sown, tended and hand-picked with the utmost care.

As we wend our way through the village to where Alex’s motorcycle is waiting we sidestep and dodge chickens, wild pigs, cows and irritated looking dogs. Alex explains that Tet is the time of year where all the family, including those that have flown the nest of the village to try their luck in modern-day Vietnam, return and celebrate with food and drink. When I asked about the drink he smiled and then giggled

“This is why rice is so important because it makes us even happier and funnier when we drink it”.

He’s referring to the locally brewed rice wine which forms a traditional part of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

We talk about food. He points at some of the animals wandering around and says that they are being prepared for the celebrations, “we eat the whole of the animal, especially the chicken. The whole chicken represents abundance and prosperity and this is the thing we cling to every year – the abundance of rice and prosperity for all our family wherever they are”.

As we approach the motorcycle, I have a wonderful respect for this kind of life; it is hard and parts of it I wouldn’t want, but the importance of food, of family and of having a belief that things will turn out for the good made me feel good. My son’s eyes were also opened to a new world, a new culture and an understanding of life beyond the distractions of our everyday life.

As was customary I haggled a price before the trip up the hill. The journey up the muddy steep track was hair raising but great fun. The last part was so steep that I had to disembark from the motorcycle and walk the rest, whilst Alex continued on with my son to Sapa. When I arrived we smiled, embraced and I paid him, with a little extra. That was the last I saw of Alex.

The humble chicken is such an important part of Vietnamese culture and its presence as a symbolic food is all around; from the blue legged chickens that I saw in Sapa market to the iconic dish of Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) that is present in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My memory of this beautiful trip to Vietnam is given to you by means of a dish that I cooked at a cooking class in Sapa; a chicken dish of course. I hope it provides you abundance and prosperity.

 

Serves: 2   |   Preparation:   15 minutes   |   Cooking: 30 minutes marinade + 10 minutes cooking

 

Ingredients:

200g Chicken breast or thigh fillet | Cut in to bite sized pieces.
2 cloves Garlic | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 x 2cm pieces Ginger | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 tbsp. Peanut oil |
½ medium Brown onion | Chopped.
3 stalks Lemongrass | White part only – finely sliced.
1 medium Red chilli Finely chopped – a medium heat chilli is great.
1 medium Red pepper Chopped.
1 medium Green pepper Chopped.
2 tsp. Soy sauce |
2 tsp. Oyster sauce |
2 Spring onions | White part sliced into 1cm pieces.
1 sprig Coriander and Thai basil | For garnish.

 

 

How To:

To a bowl add the chicken, the minced garlic clove, the minced ginger and some salt and pepper to season, mix well and leave to marinade for 30 minutes.

To a wok add the peanut oil and when hot add the finely chopped clove of garlic, the finely chopped piece of ginger, the onion and lemongrass. Stir fry for about a minute over a medium heat until lightly golden. Take care not burn any of the ingredients as it will add an unwanted bitterness to the dish.

Up the heat to high and add the marinated chicken pieces, chilli, and the red and green peppers. Stir well, and then add the soy sauce and oyster sauce.

Stir fry for a further 2 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Now add the coriander/ Thai basil and the spring onions and toss for 10 seconds. Serve immediately with steamed rice and garnish with some coriander or Thai basil.

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 – 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’.