Fish and crustaceans

Fish and crustaceans

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
39 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Vietnam & China

Among the silk shops, cafés and mini-hotels on busy hang gai street in Hanoi’s old quarter, there is a magnificent, century-old banyan tree in front of the co vu communal house. Revered in buddhist culture, the tree has survived the rapid urban development around it with its trunk and roots spilling onto the footpath.

In his public lectures, publicist Huu Ngoc likens Vietnamese culture to the banyan tree with its trunk representing the national identity forged in the Red River Delta and its branches symbolising foreign influences. The thickest branch of his symbolic tree would be reserved for China. For all the vestiges of French colonialism, it was the Chinese occupation and the subsequent uneasy relationship between Vietnam and its powerful northern neighbour that has made Vietnam the country it is today.

In the second century BC, a Chinese army invaded the fertile Red River Delta and stayed for an entire millennium. There were numerous revolts — often headed by women. The most famous was led by the Trung sisters, Joan of Arc–like characters who were able to take power for a couple of years before being defeated by ruthless veteran commander, Ma Yuan. Myth has it that, distraught by their loss, the sisters committed suicide by drowning themselves. Today, nearly every city and town has a Hai Ba Trung Street in honour of that early struggle for independence. It would take another eight centuries before Vietnamese forces, in 939 AD, were finally able to defeat the Chinese army at the famous battle of Bach Dang.

The Chinese brought Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, with the latter the most powerful influence. It introduced a new, strict hierarchy into public and private life, demanding respect of subjects for their rulers, children for their parents and wives for their husbands. While this philosophy made significant inroads into Vietnamese culture, it could not entirely displace the tradition of ancestor worship. Village life remained, to a large extent, beyond the grasp of the Chinese occupiers, as expressed in the popular proverb: “The Kings decrees yield to the customs of the village.” To this day, Confucian culture and ancestor worship live side-by-side in almost every Vietnamese household.

Chinese influence extended to food and food production through the introduction of modern agricultural practices. The ploughshare, water buffalos and fertiliser changed the landscape of the Red River Delta into a patchwork of rice paddies and wet rice cultivation established the concept that a meal consists of rice with supplementary food. The Chinese also introduced chopsticks which quickly became a symbol of civilisation.

The Vietnamese victory of 939 did not end the influence of Chinese culture on Vietnamese cuisine. In the 17th century, the emperor Le Than Tong accepted 3000 Chinese refugees after the overthrow of the Ming dynasty. They arrived on board fifty junks, sailing up the Mekong River and settling outside what was to become Saigon.

Over the centuries, the trading community became part of the greater Saigon region and the hub of Chinese culture in Vietnam centred on the district of Cholon, which literally means “great market” — Vietnam’s very own Chinatown. The trade was mostly divided along ethnic lines. Traders from Hakka controlled the import of Chinese herbs, Hokkien speakers the rice and migrants from Teochow the tea trade. Merchants from those different backgrounds also organised themselves into “Congregations” to deal with the Vietnamese and later French authorities. Many of the colourful Congregation Halls are now main tourist attractions.

The Chinese migrants brought new dishes from their home country such as roast pork buns, stewed pork belly and Cantonese noodle soups which formed the basis of the famous pho. They also introduced a restaurant culture to a country which, up to that point, was unfamiliar with the joys of eating out. At the height of the Vietnam War, Cholon was a vibrant commercial centre with a population of 800,000 ethnic Chinese and countless restaurants and gambling dens.

The great commercial success of the Chinese merchants, however, also attracted hostility. They were excluded from the rice trade in the 1940s, for example. After the communist victory in 1975, the Chinese trading community had to face even greater pressures from a government that was deeply suspicious of private business. As a result, many of the boat people who settled in Australia and other countries were of Chinese heritage and the Vietnamese restaurants in the West commonly serve the southern food they brought with them.

Mot, hai, Ba — yoh! Beer in Vietnam

Half past eight in the evening and it is closing time in the large bia hoi behind Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which locals know by its address, 19a Ngoc Ha, rather than its name. The shouts of ‘mot, hai, Ba — yoh!’ (‘one, two, three — bottoms up!’) Are getting fewer and further between. an hour later, the last red-faced patrons stagger out, and the staff sit down for a quick meal before the final clean-up.

This uniquely Hanoian experience dates back to 1961, when the Hanoi Brewery decided to make bia hoi, literally ‘fresh beer’: a low-alcohol, unpasteurised brew without any added preservatives — a cheap and refreshing drink for those hot summer months. Since then, the raucous, open-air beer gardens, which the brew’s success spawned, have become an integral part of Vietnam’s vibrant beer culture.

Bia hoi is collected at sunrise every morning at the factory gates by proprietors who have to accurately forecast the day’s consumption, as the beer only lasts one day. It is brewed quickly (hence the alcohol level of only 2–4%), it goes off quickly and is drunk quickly as well. The fact that bia hoi continues to ferment during the day makes for slightly different tastes at different vendors, even though the barrels might have been picked up at the same brewery.

These days, two more companies have joined Hanoi Brewery and the fresh beer market is divided up between them. Bia hoi is big business: there are hundreds of major outlets in Hanoi alone, not counting the many street stalls that might just buy one or two barrels off the big players to serve on the footpath.

Beer is one more legacy of French colonial times. Initially the French were only interested in importing wine from the motherland to Vietnam, but they switched first to importing beer, and then to brewing it themselves at the end of the 19th century after a devastating case of phylloxera disease wrought havoc on the French vineyards.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Vietnamese were slow to adopt the new drink, preferring their traditional rice wine. In the end, however, they turned to beer for reasons of fashion and policy. Beer made its first appearance outside French colonial society in Chinese gambling houses in an attempt to provide them with a touch of class, and it was subsequently taken up by the middle classes to show off their urban sophistication. The French monopoly on liquor also helped. Instead of switching from rice wine to the harsh, high-alcohol state-produced liquor, many Vietnamese chose beer as a refreshing alternative.

One of the beer pioneers was a decommissioned sergeant who had an interest and some expertise in brewing. He teamed up with a businessman named Monsieur Hommel to establish the ‘Breweries and Ice- Houses of Indochina’ (BGI), which included the Hanoi Beer company (Habeco for short), and produced a brew made from local rice and imported hops. The French left in 1954 and took with them a lot of beer-brewing know-how. Under j the guise of international solidarity among the newly formed socialist states, Czechoslovakia came to the rescue and in the early days of independence trained a new generation of brewers to make a Czech-style lager, named Bia Hanoi.

In the south, the famous ‘333’ beer is another example of how European traditions live on. The French brought the label ‘33’ from Germany in an attempt to introduce some German brewing expertise to France. Production soon shifted to Saigon, where the company continued to brew with German ingredients and technology, right until the North Vietnamese army stormed the city in 1975. After reunification, the new authorities nationalised the company and added another ‘3’ to the name for good luck — which obviously worked, as ‘Ba-Ba-Ba’ (333) is now one of the highest-selling brands in the country.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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