From coast to countryside

From coast to countryside

Luke Nguyen
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

Mui Ne and Phan Thiet

Mui Ne is a small coastal town in the Binh Thuan province of south-eastern Vietnam, around 200 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City. Many Saigon locals and tourists make the drive here to enjoy the long stretches of beach, to wind down and escape the bustling city.

I am here, however, to check out the fresh seafood market, located right on Mui Ne beach.

It is 6 am and the market is absolutely pumping! On shore, there is a sea of conical hats; wholesale seafood buyers await the arrival of the fishing boats with their daily catch.

Within minutes, the water’s edge is completely occupied by blue and yellow fishing boats. They anchor, then transfer their catch onto round doughnut-looking bamboo boats, which are then rowed to shore to sell their goods to the highest bidder.

It is utter mayhem. There is screaming, shouting, arguing and haggling, with hands waving above heads. Large rusted scales are getting a real workout, weighing out hundreds of kilos of the freshest seafood I’ve ever seen. Piles upon piles of prawns, squid, clams, snails, fish, crabs, stingrays and even starfish are scattered on the sand. Buyers handpick the best-quality items, which are then sold on to smaller markets, restaurants and hotels.

I am amazed to see how the seafood is transported from the beach. Ladies fill two 20 kg baskets with seafood and carry the baskets on each end of a long bamboo yoke, which is then balanced and carried on their shoulder. They carry these heavy baskets on one shoulder, often for distances of 5 kilometres. I decide to give it a crack, but I only get a mere 10 metres before I need to stop, as balancing that amount of weight on one shoulder is extremely difficult and painful. Local ladies point and laugh hysterically at me — I am completely and utterly embarrassed, and in absolute awe of these hardworking, tough and incredibly strong women.

In an effort to save face, I quickly leave the scene and head to the Phan Thiet local wet market to catch up with my parents, who are spending some time with my Uncle Four. My dad’s brother, Uncle Four, runs a tiny noodle stall there with his wife and daughter, selling a pork rib broth served with silky soft rice noodles.

This recipe belonged to my father, who then passed it on to Uncle Four, who has been making a living from it for the last six years. The soup is wonderful and a favourite among the locals, so naturally I have to showcase it, but I also want my parents to cook it with me, just to keep it authentic.

What I’m not prepared for, though, is the constant bickering from my parents while we film the recipe. Dad says, ‘Now marinate the pork ribs with a tablespoon of fish sauce!’ Then Mum intervenes and says, ‘No that’s not enough! You need two!’

Dad then says to marinate it for an hour, but Mum wants to marinate it for two, so they argue about that as well. The recipe goes on and they both can’t agree on a single thing.

This is something I had to put up with throughout my whole childhood — Mum and Dad fighting about food. They would get so worked up about it that Dad would end up sleeping on the couch!

The recipe cooking and filming goes on for hours, due to the fact that they can’t agree on anything. I can see that Dad is getting really wound up, so I tell him to relax and to keep that smile up for the camera, but this just irritates him even more. So we end up cutting the segment short, and use my uncle’s already made broth instead, which is clear, aromatic and full of flavour.

Now all I have to do is serve a line of hungry locals at my uncle’s noodle stall. It sounds easy enough — blanch a handful of rice noodles, add some pork ribs, ladle hot broth over the noodles, then top the bowl with fresh herbs and bean sprouts. I’ve done this a million times, so I’m feeling pretty confident.

As I serve a piping-hot noodle soup to my first paying customer, my uncle’s eldest daughter intervenes and snatches the bowl off me, shouting, ‘What are you trying to do, send us broke? We sell our noodles for VND10,000, but the bowl you are serving is worth VND30,000! You’re giving them too many pork ribs. If they want extra pork ribs, they have to pay accordingly!’

So with my second bowl, I reduce the pork ribs by half… but still she continues to yell at me. ‘Listen — a bowl with one rib is worth VND10,000; two ribs is VND20,000; and three ribs is VND30,000. Got it?’

By this stage everyone at the market is laughing at me — but it’s working, as the queue for my pork rib soup is getting longer. I completely sell out in thirty minutes. Luckily I am now in my family’s good books again.

There is one more stop I have to make in Phan Thiet, to visit the family who supply the wonderful handmade rice noodles for my uncle’s stall. My uncle receives 15 kg of noodles every day, and they arrive piping hot, so I just have to see where they come from and how they are produced.

The family’s small noodle workshop is located right across the road from the beach. It is very dark. There seems to be no electricity; the only light coming in are thin beams of sunlight shooting in from small holes in the corrugated roof. The room is blackened from burning charcoal, and it is hot like a sauna as it is constantly filled with steam.

Two brothers work as a team, one pouring a thin layer of rice batter onto round stainless steel trays, then feeding these into a steamer fuelled by burning rice husks. After a few minutes the younger brother removes a steaming-hot round sheet of rice noodle and slices it into thin strips. The noodles are then bagged, weighed, and delivered straight to noodle vendors on the back of a motorbike.

Never have I seen such fresh soft silky rice noodles. I feel so lucky that I am able to visit these cottage industries that produce goods by hand and have managed to keep age-old cooking techniques alive.

Da Lat

I’ve worked my way up to the central highlands of Vietnam, to a small romantic town called Da Lat. We’re about 300 kilometres from Saigon and 1500 metres above sea level, but by road the journey takes up to six hours. The town’s location helps keep it a little less trafficked by foreign tourists, but local Vietnamese tourists fill the town in the busy season, escaping the stifling summer heat of the lower-lying regions.

Once known as ‘Le Petite Paris’, Da Lat’s ageing architecture still retains some of the grandeur of the past — but with some love and attention, it could easily become, once again, the sparkling city of the central highlands.

As we drive into town, it feels like I’m in the French Alps during springtime, with French villas and mountains covered in tall pine trees. The refreshingly cool weather offers perfect conditions for growing the top-quality herbs and vegetables that Da Lat is so well known for.

Naturally, my first stop is the very pretty Da Lat market, and luckily I arrive early enough to watch the wholesalers selling their produce to the stallholders. Hundreds of enormous trucks empty their loads of fresh artichokes, broccoli, cauliflowers, avocados, strawberries, potatoes, carrots and an array of herbs onto the surrounding streets and footpaths of the central market.

This area is like a city within itself at this hour — there is so much activity, and the most amazing colours.

I immerse myself in the middle of all the chaos, among the food vendors who are selling warm sticky rice and noodle soups to the market people. They are all really excited to see a camera crew in their workplace. I am pulledin all directions, each vendor wanting me to showcase their particular product. I love their passion and how proud they all are of their produce.

The name Da Lat, which originates from the hill tribe people of this region, means ‘Stream of the Lat people’. The Lat people are highly gifted in agriculture, and today Vietnam is the world’s largest coffee producer, with 85 per cent of the crop being grown in the Da Lat central highlands.

The French introduced coffee-growing to Da Lat in 1857, and it is now one of Vietnam’s major sources of income, with almost 2 million tonnes exported per year. Most of the coffee plants produce robusta beans, with the production of the more superior arabica beans increasing every year.

We head high into the mountains, deep in the pine forests, to search for a particular variety called ‘ca phe chon’, also known as ‘weasel coffee’. Mr Toan, a local weasel coffee farmer, tells me that this prized coffee is the most expensive in the world, fetching up to $40 a cup.

Mr Toan explains the process in the most simplistic and logical way.

‘The weasels skilfully pick the ripest red coffee berries to feast on. As the weasels digest the berries, enzymes within the animal break down and remove the bitter taste of the bean, when it’s in the digestive tract, before the beans are expelled a few days later. My children then collect the expelled beans, wash them, and dry them in the sun before I give them a light roasting.’

Mr Toan grinds some of his fine coffee, presses it into a Vietnamese coffee filter, then fills it with boiled water. I sit patiently and watch the coffee drip slowly into my glass.

From ‘poo to brew’, this coffee is incredibly full-bodied, but without the customary bitterness and acidity. It has sweet notes, with a hint of subtle caramel and chocolate. It is wonderfully aromatic with long, clean flavours. After sampling this memorable drop, I now understand why coffee connoisseurs around the world are obsessed with this variety of coffee beans.

The more time I spend in Da Lat, the more I come to realise just how much the French influenced Vietnamese cuisine. Not only did they introduce coffee to Vietnam, but also foods such as the much-loved baguette, pâté, mayonnaise, cheese, and even beef.

As a kid, I used to have a baguette for my school lunch almost every day, and that baguette was always filled with pâté, mayo and some cold-cut meats. However, I never realised that my traditional Vietnamese ‘banh mi’ was actually a typical French pork baguette.

So many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine have French origins, the most obvious being ‘pho’, a Vietnamese beef noodle consommé-like soup that is believed to have originated from the French beef dish ‘pot au feu’; both dishes use marrow bones and charred onion for superior colour and flavour. The Vietnamese never consumed beef before the French colonised Vietnam — cows and buffaloes were only working animals, used for ploughing fields. But today, beef is loved by most Vietnamese. You will find pho restaurants throughout the country, and street-food vendors selling the popular Vietnamese version of steak and pommes frites, called ‘bistek’.

In the late 1800s, the French also introduced exotic vegetables to Vietnam — vegetables such as asparagus, tomato, potato, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, beetroot, broccoli, choko, pumpkin, artichoke, zucchini, green beans, kohlrabi and celery, which are not native to Vietnam but are now abundantly grown around Da Lat.

I spend the next few days searching for recipes featuring these introduced vegetables. One of my favourite ingredients from Da Lat is the pumpkin flower, which can be wok-tossed in a stir-fry, blanched and added to salads, or simply stuffed and flash-fried. Da Lat is famous for its varieties of edible flowers, so I buy a whole bunch from a local organic farm and take it to one of the oldest French-built hotels in town, called the Da Lat Palace. I set up my bench outside the hotel, next to their vintage Citroën overlooking French villas and churches, and prepare my pumpkin flower dish, which I stuff with pounded prawns and fresh dill.

Cooking this dish in Da Lat, surrounded by French architecture and grandeur, transports me back to Indochine — a colonial Vietnam that I was too young to know about, but an era I am determined to discover and learn more about.

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