Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hello friends, and welcome to the food edition! It's quite long...

Disclaimer – Dear VSO and my employer, it could appear from this post that I spend all my time here eating. Please rest assured I am doing some work in between. Thank you.
Before you read any further lets set the scene.
I’d like you to take a minute to take yourself to Vietnam....

Imagine you’re cooking roast dinner for 20. Imagine it’s the middle of summer. You’re cooking in a tiny kitchen with no windows. Imagine the oven door is open. Imagine you’re wearing thermals under a jumper under a down jacket and trousers.

Are you sweating? Do you want to get inside the fridge, or eat some ice? And have you got lots of noisy laughing hungry people around?
Ok, now you’re here with me....
As with any food, I’d say it’s only truly special in the right place, at the right time. So when I talk about the extreme deliciousness of a big bowl of fat slippery peanut-y shrimpy salty chilli-spiked noodles at 7am for breakfast, you have to remember that the heat, the lightning-speed of digestion of highly refined white rice noodles, and an hour and a half cycling every day lead to a constant, ravenous hunger, and nutritional needs slightly different to the average day in England!
So if you want to cook Vietnamese, try to do it on a warm summer evening, and eat outside. I wouldn’t take the realism so far as to put ice in your beer until it’s half water (it’s really not very nice) – I’ll assume you have the luxury of a fridge, so use it! A cold light beer or cool white wine will be much better (and please.... have one for me...?)
I have a gas ring here in my room, but it’s just as cheap and the cooking undeniably better outside. And of course the unexpected and delightful happens when you step out of the door. I get to practice Vietnamese, make friends, and am spoiled for choice with places to go. Eating very well, I struggle to spend £1.50 a day. Thanks to ma and pa Otto for bringing us up to try anything. Being vegetarian or squeamish would really limit the culinary adventures.
A note on food shopping....

My friends, I know a lot of you are deeply committed to local production and consumption of regionally and ecologically appropriate foods. But I think you’d accept that you’re all pretty special people, and that the UK’s robotic Tesco-loving majority have little (although possibly growing?) concern or engagement with the idea.
Here in Vietnam, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of people still live in rural areas, and everybody who is able to works the land (often in addition to other jobs). Every village is based around the market, and you will rarely eat anything that’s travelled more than a kilometre. Beer is produced in nearby Da Nang. Seafood comes 15km, within hours of being landed.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not crediting the average Vietnamese with any more long-sightedness or care for the environment than your average Brit – it’s just the way things are here, and I’m sure if there were supermarkets people would use them, and if people could afford to buy everything they would. But still, it’s the norm rather than the exception to keep a couple of pigs and some chickens in a lean-to at to the back of the house. Green veg and herbs grow in almost every garden, and rice in the fields. If there’s space there’ll also be sweet-corn, pineapples, peanuts or chillies. Generally, produce is eaten and stored by the extended family, with a few people supplying the markets.
It’s surely the way things should be, and I hope it doesn’t change too much.
So now onto the food........
Breakfast (an sang)
I spent my first three weeks trying everything and anything i cycled past. Good smells led to a couple of accidental front-room wanderings, and I had to kiss quite a lot of frogs before I found my prince, but hey....
Some ‘frogs’ were really quite repulsive, the worst being noodles in stock with a gristly flubbery pigs knee and cubes of congealed pig blood. ‘Khong ngon’ (not delicious).
Perfectly acceptable ‘frogs’ (but just not quite right)... are baguettes (with meat or cheese spread and chilli and fish sauce and herbs), sticky sweet rice cooked with various beans, and pho (pronounced fur-uh) – flat translucent rice noodles in beef stock with barely cooked lean beef slices, bean sprouts and spring onions. you add chilli and herbs (thai basil, mint, cilantro and some curious other) as you like (this is the dish I cooked in Bristol if you were there).

But my true love and addiction, and the one I greet with a big smile any time of day, is a regional dish called ‘my/mi quang’. This is a concoction of fat slimy oozy soft rice noodles, salad leaves, herbs, prawns, tiny duck eggs, crushed peanuts, broken up flat rice cracker/cake, a little chilli jam and a bit of delicious flavoured broth/stock from cooking the prawn and eggs. You jumble it all together with chopsticks and get your face into it. Utterly amazing. (see video at the end)

Lunch (an trua)
I’m lucky enough to eat at work, where an angel cooks up a storm for a massive 10,000 Dong per day (about 30p). Lunch is a prolonged affair – from around 11 to 12.30, and for a nation of very lean, slim people, it’s astonishing how much they can eat.
Here’s an idea of the kind of things we tuck into;

  • Boiled/steamed rice, with bowls of aubergine, fried tofu, grilled spiced pork, chicken soup, stir-fried greens (mustard greens, green beans, sweet potato leaves, banana flower leaves, boiled eggs, water spinach etc), tofu and tomato soup, fried fish, pumpkin soup, shrimp soup, omelette, stirfried beef with tomato and pineapple

  • Self-made ‘spring rolls’ – translucent rice paper, which you roll around leaves, herbs, beansprouts and slices of meat (normally pork or shrimp), and dip into a sauce as above, or a satay-style peanut affair. Delicious.

  • mi/my quang (as for breakfast)

  • mi/my ga (as above but just with chicken)

  • rice soup, a dark purplish dish, cooked slowly, with black beans and beef and spring onions
A lot of people eat vegetarian food on the first and the 15th days of the lunar calendar, something to do with special respect to the ancestors. I’ll try and find out more about this.
Meals are normally followed with fruit – papaya, pineapple, watermelon, bananas, young guavas, apple, pomelo, durian, dragon fruit, lychee, and some others that I haven’t established names for yet! I believe in eating native fruit, but until coming here, I didn’t fully appreciate the dulling, deadening effect that mass production, market standardisation and world travel has on fruit. A banana from Sainsburys (even fair trade) just cannot be considered any relation to a banana here. They may look ugly – short and stumpy, but they taste very intense, sweet and creamy, a bit like banana custard. Incredible.
Luckily, after this midday feast, everyone takes at least an hour nap. It’s really too hot to do anything at all other than digest.


Snacking is a big part of life in Vietnam. Here in Quang Nam snacks include French-inspired baked goods (although in my opinion they all taste the same, and are so packed full of sugar, preservatives and colourants they’re not really enjoyable), peanuts steamed in the shells (lots of these at the moment – they’re being harvested), sweet gelatinous rice ‘balls’ or little pyramids, cooked with sugar and nuts, and wrapped in banana leaves (for texture think those chicken fillet things some girls put in their bras), tiny snails – steamed and eaten with a toothpick, and of course.... fruit, fruit and more fruit.
Occasionally, at the end of my ride home, I'll stop for ‘sinh to’. This has two functions – firstly, in my role as token foreigner in the village, to provide the high school kids with entertainment (I’ve taken to trying to get in before them with “hellowhatisyourname?” – watching them all surprised and confused when their line has already been said, and they don’t know how to answer is quite funny), and secondly to treat myself to this magic combination of crushed fruit, crushed ice, condensed milk and dried coconut shavings. 10p, cold, delicious, and gives you a sugar rush for at least 20 minutes before you crash out on your bed.
The Vietnamese appetite for sugar is quite amazing. A popular evening activity is to sit out in the street at a ‘che’ stall (see picture below). It’s hard to describe, but it’s somewhere between a drink and a desert, created from a variety of sweet, gloopy stuff – sweetcorn, black bean, red bean, ground rice, and other unknowns, sweets (brightly coloured), glace-type cherries, condensed milk, and crushed ice. It’s so sweet it hurts your teeth, and the texture when it’s all mixed up is a bit like gelatinous vomit. Sorry....! A lot of people love it, but it’s definitely not my favourite....

Evening eating
This is normally along the same lines as lunch. There are wonderful, cheap local places. I tend to go to a roadside ‘pho’ stall with tiny red plastic stools, to eat noodles with my knees around my ears, or to one of the many ‘com binh dan’ (literally ‘proletarian’ rice) places where you get a plate piled with rice and choose what else you want to heap on top.
Other options within 100m of my accomodation are;

  • chicken or beef (thit ga/bo) with noodles or rice (mi/my/bun/com)

  • shrimp/pork meat cooked on sticks over a barbeque and rolled in rice paper with leaves and herbs (nem lui)

  • fried spring rolls (nem)

  • thin rice noodles in broth with small pieces of spiced barbecued pork or fish and leaves (bun cha)

  • fried omelette/pancake with shrimp, again, wrapped in rice paper with leaves and beansprouts and dipped (banh goi).
------------- Celebratory meals -----------------------------------

This is where things get a little unpredictable.......

I haven’t yet worked out any kind of ‘game plan’ for eating out with Vietnamese on a special occasion or with work. Things go differently every time, and it’s always a challenge to eat approximately the right amount. Sometimes I’ll politely and heartily tuck into the dishes at the table, only to then discover that this is the first round of dishes. Which may, or may not be followed by one or more rounds of dishes. Which may, or may not be followed by one or more meal(s). At one or more restaurant(s).
At other times I’ve barely picked at the dishes, in anticipation of the above scenario, and that’ll be it, and they’re gone and I’m hungry all afternoon/ night. Although on balance it’s seeming that this ‘under-eating’ situation occurs far less often than the ‘got-to-eat-this-to-be-polite-but-I’m-completely-stuffed' situation...
The vast majority of Vietnamese I’ve come into contact with are very thoughtful generous people, and they love to treat visitors to the local specialties. I totally appreciate these gestures, and have experienced some fabulously bizarre meals as a result.
Two of the most noteable ones....

  • at 10am on a Thursday morning, a celebratory lunch with local government officials and the staff from the rehab centre consisted of copious beer (tram phan tram! = 100% = down it), jellyfish, snails and fish hotpot, followed by karaoke and more beer.

  • an evening three-restaurant extravaganza which included river snails almost the size of tennis balls, fried locusts (crunchy and delicious once you get over the mental block), bats (they arrive whole, with their wings wrapped round them like they’re cold, black, shrivelled and tasting, well, like skin and bone barbecued), birds (again, arrive whole, lots of bones, heads with eyes and beaks a little disconcerting, but the meat pretty tasty), pigeon soup (which sounds like it could be good, but the method of cooking is to grind up the whole pigeon (obviously not the feathers, but everything else) and drop blobs of this gristly bony mixture into rice soup), and of course... plentiful watery lager. Mmm mmmm mmmmmmm.
Naturally I’m telling you about the more unusual ones. In every case, meals with friends and local colleagues are full of welcome, belly laughs and pride in the food. And every time I am grateful to be as integrated as a tall white English speaker can be. The highlight of my ‘eating with work’ has been a gorgeous three hour seafood feast on a deserted beach with some fab young people from hanoi, while on a working trip with Vietnamese staff of my employer (an American veteran organisation). It's definately not all bad!


Now, I promised some recipes....

These are very rough, and adapted a bit for ingredients you’ll be able to find easily in England (OK, don't tell me, all my talk about imported fruit and veg is going out the window now!) You’ll need to play around with quantities as I don't know exactly.
Tamarind prawns

Put a centimetre or so of vegetable oil in a pan, get it hot, and stirfry as many large prawns as you can get your hands on. When they’ve just turned pink, tip most of the oil out. Turn down the heat a bit, and add an appropriate amount of chilli/garlic sauce (you could always smush up some mild chillies and garlic with some oil to make this). Add loads of tamarind paste (should be sticky and peachy – you buy it in plastic bags here, but I think in jars in England), some sugar and squeeze in some lemon juice. Cook up until all sticky and gooey, and eat with your fingers.

Stir-fried aubergine / tofu with dipping sauce

The first bit’s obvious – stir fry big chunks of aubergine / tofu with a little bit of chilli until soft (aubergine) or a bit browned and shrivelled (tofu)

Tam makes her sauce by crushing up a few cloves of garlic with a couple of chillies (she uses hot red ones, but go with your taste) and a good teaspoon of salt (she uses MSG, up to you). Add a tablespoon or so of sugar, and probably the juice of half a UK lemon. Then roughly 200ml of warm water to dissolve the salt and sugar, and finally about a third of the volume again of fish sauce.

Pho (pronounced fur-uh, first syllable stronger and higher tone)

Here, pho is normally made with beef, occasionally chicken. When I made it in the UK I made it with both, and it was pretty special. Everyone here will tell you a slightly different way to make it, and everyone says that their mother’s is the best in the country. Play around with it.

Stuff you need....
  • a chicken (or two, depending how many people you’re feeding)
  • some good quality beef (I used tail fillet which is cheaper than normal fillet, you basically need something you can slice and barely cook . Just guess how much each person will eat, bearing in mind there’s a lot of other stuff. If Alex is coming for dinner, double what you think)
  • rice noodles (you’ll probably need to go to a Chinese / Vietnamese shop for these. Look for dried, see-through noodles, roughly the width of the tape in a cassette. You’ll need quite a lot of these. If they’re in ‘nests’ get one nest per person at least.
  • spring onions (roughly one each)
  • a huge piece of ginger (as big as your hand)
  • star anise (3-4)
  • green cardamom pods (8 or so)
  • shallots (6 or so)
  • a bulb of garlic
  • 2 stock cubes (veg, chicken or beef all fine)
  • beansprouts (enough for a small handful each)
  • thai basil (a big bunch)
  • mint (a big bunch)
  • coriander (a big bunch)
  • fish sauce (not essential, but great if you’ve got it)
The idea is to do all your prep early on:
Cook up the stock (needs at least an hour to cook) –
  • Wash the chicken well, and put into the largest casserole / stock pot you’ve got. Add boiling water, and bring back to the boil (this is to clean the chicken). Tip out the water.
  • Put the ginger, the 6 shallots, and the garlic bulb directly onto the gas flames (you could do this on a barbecue or with a blowtorch, I guess) turning until blackened and a bit soft, then wash off any loose carbon.
  • Put these, the chicken, the star anise, the cardamom pods and stock cubes into the pot (I used veg but you can use chicken or beef) and fill with water, 4/5ths full. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for at least an hour.
Blanch the beansprouts (1-2 minutes) and drain

Slice the beef as thinly as you can without falling apart (roughly the thickness of a pound coin is good) and chop the spring onions into rough 2-3cm chunks.

Wash the leaves and herbs (no need to chop, just remove any tough stalks, and pull apart a bit), roughly chop the chillies, quarter the lemons and put all of this on a big plate/plates to go in the middle of the table

Put the noodles into a big bowl of cold water as soon as you’ve made the stock. This stops them sticking together when you cook them.
Then when you are ready to eat

- take the chicken out of the stockpot and separate off the meat

- cook the soaked noodles very quickly (put in a sieve into boiling water for 2-3 minutes, until soft and white), and place them in the bowls

- add some of the cooked beansprouts

- put enough beef and sliced spring onions for one person in a ladle and dip it under the surface of the stock to just colour the beef, and add to the bowl

- add some chicken

- ladle in stock to cover the noodles and meat

- add a few drops of fish sauce if you’ve got it

- repeat for everyone (get some help here?)

- everyone adds as much or as little of the stuff on the table as they like

- your friends think you’re brilliant. wahey!

Late night pho on my street


  1. Wow!

    That was the most thrilling bit of food writing I have read in ages.

  2. You got it! shame you didn't join us on the Hoi An cookery course. We were taught that eating noodles without chilli is like making love without kissing! Should have asked our chef to describe the flavour of one of those small stubby creamy coloured exquisite bananas .

  3. han span! knowing your voracious appetite for recipe books, i am truly honoured xx
    and chi kathy, i wish i could've joined you, but i had to get back to work (see... I DO do some!!)

  4. Just made pho for some friends. Brilliant. Also the cold water on the rice noodles tip really works - I've had a lot of trouble with this type of noodle in the past!

    Thanks Luce x

  5. Lucioooo!

    I'm currently eating a soggy cheese sandwich whilst reading your blog for foodies...I don't think I'm going to bother to eat any more.

    Seems like your getting well into 'Nam though and making us all very jealous as you go, however someone mentioned that you might be a little lonely, so I've organised some people to come visit.

    They (Vicki and Tom) are currently in Hong Kong, but let me know how's best to get in touch, where exactly you are (sorry - I should've paid more attention!) and I'll make sure they come and keep you company; although you must stitch them up with some childish food prank, naturally!

    With massive envy!