I have a theory about the best way to eat during the sweltering dog days of summer. I take my cue from sun-belt lands that have scorching climates all year long. Hot climates generally produce cooking styles well suited to warm weather eating. And nowhere is this more true than Vietnam.
I visited Saigon hot on the barbecue trail, and didn’t have far to go to strike paydirt. My hotel, the New World, was located across the street from Saigon’s Ben Thanh Central Market. And as at markets throughout Southeast Asia, Ben Thanh was teeming with grill jockeys.
A favorite stop was a stall where a woman grilled chicken wings that had been marinating in a fragrant paste of lemongrass, garlic, and fish sauce. Another vendor proffered an egg that had been "hard-boiled" (roasted) over a coconut shell charcoal fire. I wrapped it with a sprig of mint in a lettuce leaf and dipped it in nuoc cham, Vietnam’s delicate table sauce-a piquant mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. The combination was stellar.
Grilling is ubiquitous in Vietnam, first because it produces such flavorful food, and second because it’s so cheap to prepare. As in Thailand and Indonesia, coconut is a major crop here and the tree’s by-product-coconut husks-makes excellent charcoal.
But grilling isn’t only for the poor, a fact brought home to me where I stopped next-a tiny restaurant called Vietnam House. Located on the second floor of a fashionable townhouse on Dong Khoi Street, Vietnam House seems to exist chiefly for the pleasure of deep-pocketed foreigners. This has both advantages and drawbacks: You get to dine among lacquered screens and gilded wood carvings, serenaded by live, twangy Vietnamese classical music and served by waitresses in ao dai (slit dresses). On the down side, you feel a little like you’re in Epcot.
I wouldn’t say Vietnam House specializes in grilled fare, but two items here rank as world-class barbecue. The first is chao tom, an ingenious combination of shrimp mousse that is grilled on a piece of sugarcane. You don’t really eat the cane, so much as chew it to release the sweet juices.
The other dish is bo goi la-lot, beef grilled in la-lot leaves and served on tiny skewers. La-lot is the piquant leaf of a Southeast Asian vine that reminds me a little of basil. The beef fairly sizzled, its fat counterbalanced by the herbal tang of the leaf.
A counterpointing of grilled meats with vegetables, specifically with lettuce and aromatic herbs, and noodles is one of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine.
A Meal Outdoors
No dish represents the Vietnamese penchant for enriching small portions of grilled meats with a large proportion of noodles and vegetables than banh hoi thit (grilled pork with rice noodles) and its sister dish bo bun (grilled beef with rice paper). And no one makes them better than the restaurant Thanh Nien.
I enjoyed my grilled pork in the restaurant’s airy courtyard. To my left, stood a grove of bamboo to my right, a thatch-roofed portico. Oscillating fans stirred the torrid air. The tables around me were filled with fledgling capitalists chattering on cellular phones.
As I sipped an icy "33" Export beer, the waitress set before me three plates. The first contained neatly coiled, snowy rice noodles. The second held the actual pork, which had been thinly sliced, marinated in a fragrant mixture of lemongrass, shallots, and vodka, and smokily charred on the grill. The cooked slices were then dusted with an aromatic sprinkling of chopped scallions and toasted peanuts, the former for pungency, the latter for sweetness and crunch.
The final element was a salad platter that turns up on all Vietnamese tables. The refreshing assortment included lettuce and basil leaves, sliced cucumbers, mung bean sprouts, and crisp, pointed slices of star fruit. To eat the dish, you wrap a coil of noodles and a slice of pork in a lettuce leaf, with basil for fragrance and slices of cucumber and star fruit for crispness.
The result is a morsel perfect for summer, being simultaneously hot and cold crisp, soft, and chewy sweet, salty, lemony, and aromatic. I can’t think of a dish in the West that comes close to achieving such a complex interplay of temperatures, textures, and tastes. And it’s fun to eat.
Search for the word "Vietnamese" to find the many Vietnamese recipes in this book.
"I must say this is the best recipe software I have ever owned."
"Your DVO cookbook software saves me time and money!"
"I saw lots of recipe software for PC computers but I was having a hard time finding really good mac recipe software. I'm so glad I discovered Cook'n! It's so nice to have all my recipes in a computer recipe organizer. Cook'n has saved me so much time with meal planning and the recipe nutrition calculator is amazing!!!
My favorite is the Cook'n Recipe App.