by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
3rd Stop: Central Coast and Hoi An, Vietnam
Rotting fish may sound unappetizing, but it's one of the crowning flavor ingredients in Vietnamese cooking. I'm standing over a barrel of oozing, fermenting fish, which will eventually be synthesized into fish sauce, or nuac mam (the Thai's call it nam pla). A few weeks ago, the fish were salted down, sealed in an earthenware container, and left in the sun for a week. Then the fish were drained and the process repeated; in several weeks the liquid will be bottled for use at table or in kitchen. This particularly ugly, pungent concoction still has a couple months more to go, and in its present condition, any Westerner stumbling upon it would immediately call in the hazardous waste team for removal.
But when fish sauce is ripe and ready, it's magical. If used judiciously, it adds just the right amount of saltiness and heightens the overall flavors of a dish, losing its fishiness when cooked or mixed with other ingredients. But be careful not to add too much fish sauce, or it will overpower other, more subtle flavors, in the same way that too much salt can turn a dish from perfectly seasoned to inedible.
Phan, my guide and student chef, explains the merits of fish sauce: "A good nuac mam should smell like the ocean on a sunny day, pleasant and aromatically salty. A bad fish sauce smells strong and makes your nose wrinkle. Not all fish sauces are good. The best ones are pale gold and come from the first draining, and are called 'nhi.' For fish sauce, nhi is the same level of quality as your extra virgin olive oil."
Vietnam's food reflects the confluence of its many cultures—over 80 tribes speak some 36 languages. The most predominant influence in the north comes from the Chinese, who supplied Vietnam with chopsticks, stir-frying, vegetarian Buddhism, and noodles. In the south, the rest of Indochina injected curries, spices, fresh herbs like lemon grass and mint, and shrimp paste. With the more recent French came baguettes, café, sautés, and patés. "We have over 500 traditional dishes," Phan says proudly. With so many cultures, it's easy to see why.
The mish-mash of peoples have made this narrow bamboo-pole of a country distinctively unique—a 'whole' which is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Whereas the Chinese use soy sauce as their main salty seasoning, the Vietnamese rely on fish sauce, yet subscribe to the Chinese balance of the five flavors (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot). The Chinese use wheat wrappers for their spring roles, the Vietnamese use rice paper wrappers. While the northern Vietnamese tend to cook their vegetables Chinese-style in oil, the Southeast Vietnamese prefer them raw, crisp and crunchy, loading their dishes with fresh green herbs and scarcely using oil at all.
As Phan and I head back to the bustling market in Hoi An (an enchanting river town south of Danang), two youngsters approach us tapping a pair of wooden sticks in a repeated rhythm. I've seen this type of performance throughout Vietnam. "They're advertising for a soup shop," explains Phan. "They'll take your order and bring you hot pho." Pho is the beloved Vietnamese soup, made from beef in a rich stock and eaten largely for breakfast, but served all day long. It's extremely satisfying and addictive.
As we walk to our car, we appear to be trolling for children. Not intentionally, of course, but when any visitor shows up, kids always appear, friendly and curious. In Vietnam, children take care of each other, despite age or gender differences. Five year olds carry younger siblings on their backs, and teenagers frolic with preschoolers. I pass out a few mooncakes to the immediate swarm and am pleasantly amazed to see the children rush off to eagerly and generously share their treats with other kids lagging behind.
The mooncakes are special goodies, part of the approaching nationwide Mid-Autumn Festival, Tet Trung Thu. Originally a celebration of the harvest moon, the festival has evolved into a particularly joyous time for children, who sport masks, bang on drums, and swing colorful lanterns—symbols of the sun—shaped to depict dragons, butterflies, rabbits, boats, and other positive symbols. The Chinese in China also observe the same festival, and like the Chinese, the Vietnamese celebrate by giving mooncakes, richly crafted pastries stuffed with a sweet center, usually lotus seeds, and adorned with fancy imprints. (The original mooncakes were invented to commemorate the victory of the Han Chinese over the Mongols.)
Phan takes me to the home of the Nguyen family, which also happens to be a restaurant on the lower level. Mrs. Nguyen seats us, wearing the elegant ao dais (a straight cut silk gown worn over flowing pants), said to be a French fashion influence based on the design of the traditional Chinese cheong sam. Half a dozen children eagerly take turns climbing onto our laps, touching my glasses and earrings, and singing nursery rhymes in mixed French and Vietnamese. Quite appropriately, the dish we are about to enjoy appears to be a similar harmonious meld of France and Vietnam—known as Happy Crepes or Hue Pancakes.
(I do not exaggerate when I say Happy Crepes is now my favorite Vietnamese dish. Since I currently love Vietnamese cuisine above all others, this dish is really 'the best of the best' in my mind, though it's hard to beat their spring rolls and other specialties.)
Happy Crepes are made with a thick rice flour batter, fried in a pan until the edges become crisp and airy, and the center is light and tender. They are also known as Singing Crepes, because of the sizzling sound the batter makes when it hits the hot oil. The crepes are served folded in half, filled with a stuffing of stir-fried pork and vegetables in a rich, spicy sauce, finished with fresh, raw bean sprouts, cilantro and mint. Nuac mam is served on the side. Absolute heaven!
At the end of the night, when their work is done, the Nguyens gather the children and join Phan and I for a walk by the Thu Bon river. Tonight is the one night each month when the houses in the main streets are lit up with candles in their windows, doorways and all along the riverfront. It's a gorgeously amazing site, and a monthly tradition recently instituted by the city council. Everyone comes out to inhale the view, old couples in traditional garb stroll by, young people play chess by candlelight, and everyone shares in the sense of peace and harmony.
In a few nights, the streets will glow with even more festivities: at the festival of Trung Thu, boys and girls in papier-mache tiger masks will perform a procession of unicorn dances under the brilliant red face of the full moon, before the children's lanterns are set free to float cheerfully on the water. And most of all, to the delight of children and adults alike, there will be plenty of mooncakes for all.
The Food of Vietnam
Authentic Recipes from the Heart of Indochina
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October 1999 Itinerary...
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 1999 and modified August 2007
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