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Coconut and Pandan Ice Cream

Introduction:

It was a sticky, hot and humid day as we disembarked from the small boat and clambered on to terra firma. Having just visited the most amazing floating market on the Mekong, we were now in a little Vietnamese village. When I say village it was a few shacks with a local shop. Although we were one of many visitors to this village, the children still came running out, giggling, to meet us. We refilled our bottles of water and took respite from the midday sun. In the shade of the shop a few children were playing keepy-uppy with a large white feather that had been weighted at the quill with a few beer and soft drink bottle tops. It was quite ingenious, and these kids were pretty skilful at keeping this object airborne. Being the Englishman I am and with the footballing aficionado rivalling the best and with a somewhat misguided notion that the practical skills match the knowledge I entered the game with the kids. Initially it started off great, some sharp little skills and some showboating; I was also fervently perspiring. But then I had to do the typical dad thing – at that time I was years off being a father but the instinct was there nonetheless. I attempted to do a head height roundhouse kick to knock the feathered object back into the circle and I as I did so – well nearly anyway – the sound of an almighty rip penetrated the air. I was wearing some light long combat pants that I had bought in Saigon, and as I looked around the kids were on the floor rolling around in hysterics. I looked down and saw a rip along the whole inside seam from one ankle to the other. I retreated sheepishly. It was funny though.

The significance of this story and its relevance to the dish is more about the visit to the sweet factory immediately after this jocular pit stop. When I say factory it was another shack that housed a roaring fire with an enormous wok over it – where they made the sweets, an area for the sweets to set and a packing area. The sweets were then loaded on to a boat for delivery. It is here, however, that I discovered one of my all-time favourite Vietnamese flavour combinations; coconut and pandan. The flavour of these sweets has never left me and so years later I have recreated the flavour in the form of this super little ice-cream.

 

Serves: A few   |   Preparation:  1½ hours   |   Cooking: Resting overnight plus 2 hours

 

Ingredients:

430ml Full-fat milk |
450ml Single cream | Approximately 35% milk fat solids.
270ml Coconut cream |
5 large Egg yolks | Large eggs are roughly 58g each with a yolk yield of about 18g.
250g White sugar |
10 Dried pandan leaves | Pandan can be bought at Asian grocers. Fresh can be used also – maybe half the amount as fresh leaves have more oomph than dried.

 

How To:

To a heavy based pan add the milk, cream, coconut cream and pandan leaves; bend the leaves so that they fit into the pan and become submerged. Gently bring the milk and creams to just below the boil then remove from the heat, cover with a lid and let the pandan leaves infuse for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile add the egg yolks and sugar to a bowl and with a sturdy whisk beat until you have an airy and smooth mix. The consistency should be ribbon-like when you pick some up with the whisk and let it gracefully flow back in to the bowl.

Through a sieve, slowly pour the milk and cream mix into the egg yolks and sugar (therefore removing the pandan leaves), whisking continuously to ensure that the heat of the milk does not curdle the egg. Put the resulting custard mix (it is now officially a custard) in to a clean pan over a low heat. Using a wooden spoon continually mix the custard until it thickens – do not let it boil or else you will scramble your custard. A good test is to run a finger down the back of the wooden spoon and if the mark remains the custard is ready. Remove from the heat.

Put an ice-cream container (one that has air-tight lid) over a bowl of ice, and through a sieve pour in the custard mix. Stir for 5 minutes or so until the custard cools. Put the lid on the container and put the custard in the fridge overnight.

Churn the ice-cream in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you are using a compressor based churner, turn it on about 10 minutes prior to churning the ice-cream so that it is chilled. The reason being is that it is really important to freeze ice-cream as quickly as possible to ensure a smooth result.

Once churned freeze for a further two hours before serving.

 

Notes:

  • To serve the ice-cream it is good to remove it from the freezer about 15-20 minutes prior to serving. Not will it be at perfect temperature to eat, it will also be easy to quenelle  if you are at all feeling ‘cheffy’.

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.

Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup Hanoi Style

Introduction:

Where phở originally came from has proven inconclusive to researchers. From my little bit of digging around in Hanoi (Hà Nội) I found three theories each with their merits, but one in particular sounding the most likely. First off is a nice little theory that phở originated from the French word feu (fire) as in the dish pot-au-feu (a dish of soup, boiled meat and vegetables). The theory is plausible in that phở is pronounced the same as feu, and that it is a soup dish usually served with boiled meat. However, most of the ingredients in phở and pot-au-feu are different, and in the French version the meat is usually eaten separately from the broth whereas in the Vietnamese version the meat is in the broth, along with the noodles (phở).

Second off is the story that phở was invented during French rule by a talented cook in Nam Định City, which at the time was Vietnam’s largest colonial textile centre. The industry there was an amalgamation of French employers and Vietnamese labourers and the chef, whose name I couldn’t find, decided that to please both the colonialists and the locals he would base a soup on noodles (appealing to the Vietnamese) and beef (appealing to the French) and a few other available ingredients.

Finally, and the theory considered to be the most likely (according to the book PHỞ a Speciality of Hà Nội by Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton) is that the birthplace of phở was in the village of Vân Cù in the Nam Định province. The story goes that impoverished villagers created phở and then peddled their dish in Hanoi, about 100 kilometres ways. The phở was a huge success amongst both the poor and wealthy residents of Hanoi and this success may explain why several of the best phở chefs in Hanoi originate from Vân Cù Village. Vân Cù villagers do not know who created phở, they only know that in about 1925 a villager named Van became the first person to move to Hanoi to open a phở stall.

Although a year has passed since my 5 week sojourn to the astoundingly brilliant Hanoi, the memories of phở bò in particular remain entrenched in my bank of culinary experiences. The phở that I have created and posted here is a culmination of all the soups I tasted in Hanoi and advice I was given from the Vietnamese friends I made over there. I have tried to stay true to the Hanoian style: a simple, clean and uncomplicated soup that has a deep rich meaty and lightly spiced flavour, with a subtle hint of sweetness. The secret to a great phở is the broth – the broth will make or break your soup. This version is based on phở bò chin (boiled beef) and phở bò tai (rare beef).

 

Serves: 8  |   Preparation:  30-40 minutes   |   Cooking: 4 hours + resting overnight

 

Ingredients:

For the broth:
2 kg Brisket |
2 kg Beef bones | Get your butcher to cut them in to pieces.
300g Pork rib bones | Adds a ‘sweetness’ to the broth – advised by my Vietnamese friends and connoisseurs of phở
6-7 litres Cold water | Enough to ensure the bones are covered.
1 tbsp. Sea salt |
5 large Asian or French shallots | Unpeeled.
1 bulb Garlic | Unpeeled.
100g Ginger | Unpeeled.
1 Brown onion | Unpeeled.

For the spice pouch:    
5 pods Black cardamom |
3 quills Cinnamon |
10 Cloves |
6 pods Star anise |
1 tbsp. Black peppercorns |

Other flavourings for the broth:    
150ml Fish sauce | Also have some extra if the broth needs seasoning at the end.
90g Yellow Rock Sugar | This sugar tastes both richer and subtler than refined, granulated sugar. It also gives the broth a beautiful lustre and glaze. White sugar can be used but reduce the amount to about 60g.

Additions to the final Soup:    
200g per person Phở (Noodles) | Buy fresh from an Asian grocers.
1 bunch Garlic chives | Finely chopped.
250g Rib eye fillet beef | Sliced thinly.
25g per person Bean sprouts |
6 Spring onions | Chopped.
2 Birds-eye chilli | Finely sliced.
1 to 2 Lemon or lime | Quartered.
1 bunch Asian basil | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Coriander | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Perilla leaves | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Vietnamese mint | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
To season Fish sauce | Only of required.

 

 

How To:

Over a charcoal grill or a very hot griddle pan place the shallots, garlic bulb, ginger and brown onion and char-grill for about 20 minutes. We want the outer skin burnt and the inside soft; this really adds a depth of flavour of the broth. When done remove the burnt outer skins, discard and then chop up the rest in to smallish pieces.

Again over a charcoal grill or hot griddle pan toast the black cardamom pods, cinnamon quills, cloves and star anise pods for about a minute until really fragrant. Remove the spices from the heat and along with the peppercorns roughly grind them in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar. Make a pouch out of muslin cloth and add the spice mix. Tie up the pouch and set aside.

To an 11 litre (or similar) stock pot add the brisket, beef bones, pork rib bones, cold water and sea salt. Ensure that the water covers the bones completely. Bring the meat and bones to the boil and then reduce to a rolling simmer for about 15 minutes. During this time skim any impurities that rise to the surface (usually a brownish foamy scum). By removing these impurities you will end up with a clear broth. Now to the bones add the chopped char-grilled shallots, onion, garlic and ginger, spice pouch, yellow rock sugar and fish sauce and then bring back to the boil. Now turn down the heat to low, cover the pan and let it simmer for about 3 hours. The broth will reduce during this time, which is what we want.

After 3 hours turn off the heat and then allow the broth to cool for about an hour. Now carefully pick out the pieces of brisket. Leave them to cool overnight. Now, strain the broth through a fine sieve into a smaller stock pot (I use a 5 litre one) and then allow it to rest overnight in the fridge.

Once rested in the fridge the stock will have a layer of solid fat on the surface. Strain carefully through a fine sieve lined with a double layer of muslin and then return the broth to your smaller (5 litre) stock pot. You should see a lovely translucent brown stock. Discard the muslin cloth as it should now contain all the filtered fat.

Now to prepare the rest of the ingredients: take the Asian basil, coriander, perilla leaves and Vietnamese mint and put in to a bowl of iced water. This will ‘crisp’ the herbs. Drain them just before serving. Heat the broth to just below a simmer and season with fish sauce if required. I added about 1 teaspoon. Thinly slice the cold boiled brisket (used to make the broth) discarding any ‘lumps’ of fat.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. In a large enough sieve place 200g of the noodles and blanch in the hot water for about 20 seconds. Loosen the noodles carefully during the blanching. Place the noodles in a serving bowl and repeat the process for the other serves.

Each serving bowl should now contain noodles. To each bowl add a good sprinkle of the finely chopped garlic chives, the bean sprouts, a few chopped spring onion pieces, a handful of sliced brisket and a few slices of the raw rib eye fillet. Now pour 3-4 ladles of hot broth into each bowl so that it looks like a soup. Serve immediately.

Prepare as a side a bowl containing the herbs and a dish containing the lemon/ lime quarters and sliced chilli. People can then add as much herb/ chilli/ lemon or lime to their soup. Remember a phở connoisseur first lightly stirs the noodles, then drinks a mouthful of the sweet broth.

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.

Chả Lụa – Pork Terrine

Introduction:

Stern faced, the guard in a snowy white uniform, gripping a menacing looking rifle and holding an intense stare that penetrated the thick grey granite, suddenly flicked his eyes my way and moved his head to the side in a manner filled with such focussed intent that I disembarked from my momentary pause and continued to walk, silently, swiftly and sullen faced. Fifteen seconds later I had ‘walked the line’ and emerged back in to the cold wind swept morning disturbed and exhilarated. I had just seen Uncle Ho, the revered hero and much praised leader of this great nation.

Embalmed to an incredibly life-like presence, he lays there with a perfectly wispy beard; arms delicately crossed on his upper torso; and wearing his favourite khaki suit. I have just seen a body that left this mortal coil in 1969 but looked as if it had been trapped in time, never to suffer the rigours of the ageing process again. It was eerie, disconcerting and surreal, yet given the context of what this person achieved and how people from around the world are intrigued by him, and how the locals’ are so still enamoured with him and driven to succeed through his accomplishments, it was also a wonderful, majestic and inspirational experience.

The Hanoians are terribly proud of their Uncle Ho, and this pride runs through it food. As he still forms part of the locals’ daily lives, so does cooking and eating together, and socialising. No more so when Hanoi’s classic dishes are on the table, one of which is chả lụa, or pork terrine.

Historical French occupation is still evident when one sees the number of bakeries and locals selling fresh baguettes on street corners; the smells could be from une rue de boulangeries à Paris, was it not for the intermissions of smoking char-grilled pork aromas. But these baguettes call out for something most European in its invention: pork terrine with pickled vegetables, tomato, cucumber and lettuce.

I first tried chả lụa courtesy of our friends in Hanoi, who declared that they have a relative nestled in some back alley downtown that produces the best chả lụa in Hanoi. It was magnificent; from the unwrapping of the banana leaf and local newspaper that is was encased in to the wonderfully smooth texture. I attempted to replicate this in Hanoi and only having the use of a cleaver and a pestle and mortar could not get the pork fine enough or paste-like enough to obtain that silky finish. It was something that would have to be worked on back home.

Fast forward 5 months, and a few chả lụa(s) later I have finally managed to make that beautifully aerated and smooth terrine; one that will never be quite as good as Hanoi, but nonetheless very close. I am sure Uncle Ho would have been proud.

 

Serves: A few  |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: 1hour + resting overnight

 

Ingredients:

500g Pork shoulder | Get your butcher to mince this on the finest setting if you don’t have a mincer at home.
2 tbsp. Fish sauce | A good quality fish sauce if you can obtain it.
1 pinch Sea salt | I use Maldon sea salt.
1 large egg Egg white | Free range.
2-3 Banana leaves | Can be bought at many good Asian grocers, fresh or frozen.

 

 

How To:

Put a large pan of water on heat until it is simmering. Next put hot water into a sink and soak the banana leaves for about 5 minutes, then remove the leaves and pat dry.

The next stage can be a) pretty easy if you have a good food processor b) very healthy if you don’t as you’ll need to expend a fair bit of energy to pound the meat. I did it the second way when in Vietnam, but now I am back in Melbourne I opt for the first way.

a) Add the mince, fish sauce, sea salt and egg white to a food processor and process for about 3-4 minutes. The result needs to be an incredibly smooth paste.

b) Add the mince to a large mortar and pound the meat with a pestle until a very fine paste is achieved. Then add the fish sauce, sea salt and egg white and pound a little more until consistent. This method can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

Lay one banana leaf along your bench top and then place the other at right angles across the middle of the first one (You should have a large cross shape). Place the smooth pork paste in the middle in an as close to a cylindrical shape as possible.

Now take one end of the banana laying parallel to the bench and gently, but fairly tightly, wrap it over the pork paste. Now do this with the other end and then tuck the excess banana leaf underneath. Now with the banana leaf at right angles to the bench take the end furthest away and wrap it over the meat, towards you. Now take the end closest to you and fold over the meat, away from you. Now roll the parcel to take up the excess banana leaf. You should end up with a tightly wrapped cylindrical parcel. Roll the parcel a couple of times to ensure the meat paste is cylindrical. Now tie the parcel with string, ensuring that it is tight enough to hold the banana leaves together but not too tight to ‘dent’ the meat paste.

Place the parcel in the simmering water; the heat should be on the lowest setting. Cover with a lid and cook for 1 hour. When finished allow the parcel to cool to room temperature and then place in the fridge overnight. Your chả lụa is now ready. Open at one end and slice. Keep it in the fridge wrapped in the banana leaf so it stays moist.

 

Notes:

  • Traditionally eaten in Hanoi with fresh baguettes, pickled vegetables, tomato and cucumber.

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 – An Interlude

In about 30 minutes time we are heading out to the train station in Hanoi to take an overnight train to the hill town of Sapa. Luke Nguyen, a well know Vietnamese-Australian chef, wrote a book called ‘Songs from Sapa’ where he travels through Vietnam, picking up local recipes and food experiences around Vietnam. He starts his journey in Sapa, and has an amazing culinary experience here – which is what we are hoping to do. So there’ll be a big update on here once we return to Hanoi. In the meantime I have to share with you that my daughter and I took a long and tiring walk through Hanoi city in search of a glimpse of the Red River.

 

The Red River Running Alongside Hanoi

The Red River Running Alongside Hanoi

 

Having reached it, we can say it was an experience if not the second coming, as it were. A young Vietnamese man ventured out into the overgrowth by the river to cut down what looked like pampas grass. This was a romantic gesture to his girlfriend who was waiting patiently. However, when he returned and saw my five year old daughter he decided to share his hard-worked for prize, much to the amusement of his girlfriend. On the way back to the middle of the city we found four women sat by the road making banana fritters. Sometimes you just walk by and smile, which we did. But fortunately I decided to go back and purchase one.

All I can say is that it was absolutely delightful. Sometimes we must just step out, see and try new things or else fantastic experiences can pass us by. Now for Sapa.