Saigon and south

Saigon and south

Luke Nguyen
20 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city. It lies along the Saigon River, some 80 kilometres from the South China Sea. With 9 million people and over 6 million motorbikes, this bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan city always fills me with so much excitement and energy.

I head directly to Ben Thanh Market, a must-see for any visitor. Built by the French in 1912, it is surely Saigon’s most colourful and vibrant market and has everything you need, from fabrics and cooking gear to souvenirs, dry goods and fake Gucci bags. But I’m here specifically for the street food and fresh produce, and to cook one of Saigon’s most loved dishes: ‘Canh chua ca’, a tamarind and pineapple soup with fish, okra, tomato, elephant ear stems and fresh herbs.

I’m blown away by how fresh and cheap everything is. Pineapples, three for $1; tomatoes, 50 cents a kilo; herbs, a ridiculous 10 cents a bunch! With a spring in my step I move on to the seafood section, where most species are still kicking. Vietnamese love their produce super-fresh — alive where possible. My soup calls for mudfish, a fatty freshwater fish with great texture. The elderly lady selling them has no teeth and a great big smile, so I am drawn to her. She scales the big fish and chops it into thick cutlets, bone on. It costs $3 — a bargain!

Finding the soup ingredients is easy, but the market is so busy it takes two hours to find a spot where we are not in anyone’s way. The soup-making takes five hours to film, with locals demanding I make enough for them to all have a taste.

One of the locals tells me of a street-food dish I have to try. The only details she gives are: ‘It’s on Hai Ba Trung in District 1, just past Dien Bien Phu Street. She makes the best green papaya salad in town!’ So off I go in search of the Green Papaya Lady — but Hai Ba Trung is one of the longest streets in Saigon, so I’m not going to get my hopes up. As I pass Dien Bien Phu, I notice motorbikes pulling to the kerbside, all lined up in front of a cart with a cabinet filled with shredded green papaya. This has to be her!

As I approach her cart, she asks if I want to eat in or take away. Eat in? How do I do that, I ask. She points across the road, where her daughter is waving at me, directing me to cross the road. The street is busy, three lanes on either side, and the traffic is thick, so it takes a while to get through. The daughter hands me a plastic mat and tells me to sit under a tree, where many other locals sit waiting for their salad. She takes multiple orders and shouts out to her mother, ‘Ten portions!’ Mum is busy, working frantically to serve the motorbikes that are lined up for takeaways. Five minutes later, she carries ten portions of green papaya salad on a tray, crossing the road dodging traffic, trying not to get run over.

This is Saigon street food at its best: raw, chaotic, fun, quirky and delicious. I sit for hours watching the mother and daughter teamwork: the shouting of orders across the road and the weaving through the traffic is enthralling to observe.

As the sun fades and Saigon lights up, the energy of the city reaches another level. More street-food vendors appear as locals finish work, looking for a light snack before dinner. I notice a great-looking cart selling beef skewers, fish balls, wok-tossed corn with chilli, and beef rolled in betel leaves.

I’ve always wanted to cook on one of those classic food carts, so I chase after it as it is wheeled down the street. Tuan, the owner, kindly allows me to use it, and even volunteers to help me. Together we wok-toss thin slices of beef with lemongrass, garlic, chilli and wild betel leaf. The aroma of the lemongrass and garlic and the sweet scent of the betel leaf wafting through the streets attracts a queue of locals, who want to buy our dish. It is a winner, they love it!

The next morning we make our way to Cau Ong Lanh, a market neighbourhood in which both my parents grew up. Both sides of the family owned wholesale fruit stalls — Mum’s side selling mangoes, durian, jackfruit and dragon fruit, Dad’s side selling custard apples, rambutans, longans and lychees. The stalls were passed on to them from their parents, and my parents then passed the stalls over to their siblings when they left Vietnam. My grandmother, cousins, aunties and uncles still live there today and the market is still active, but on a much smaller scale. This area is my favourite place to visit in all of Saigon.

To me, Cau Ong Lanh is the ‘real Saigon’; it feels as though nothing has changed for hundreds of years. The locals experience a lifestyle similar to the generation before them. The closeness of the community here — both in proximity and in kind — can be shocking at first, but for me always admirable and unique. The bond these people share relies heavily on the cramped environments in which they live. And as much as this style of living is based in poverty, the richness of the relationships within the community cannot be replicated. Walking through its narrow laneways gives a true sense of the lifestyle of the Vietnamese people. Every time I return to visit my family here I imagine a life I might have had if my family didn’t flee Vietnam. I may have run my own noodle cart, or stayed within the family business of selling fruit; maybe I would’ve still ended up in the restaurant industry, and worked my way up to having my own place. Cooking, eating and spending time with my family in Cau Ong Lanh makes me appreciate the simpler things in life. We focus conversation on food, family and neighbourhood gossip and life feels a little less complicated for a moment.

Another area I love to visit is Hoc Mon, an hour’s drive from the city, where my Aunty Eight lives. I actually don’t know my aunty’s real name; I’ve only ever addressed her by the number eight.

In Vietnamese culture, your parents are always regarded as number one, and the first child as number two, the second as number three and so on. It is rude to address your elders with their name; you must only address them by the position they are in the family. On my mother’s side there are twelve children, and on my father’s side there are ten, so growing up trying to remember each uncle and aunty’s number was a little tricky.

Aunty Eight runs a wholesale corn business; she receives truckloads of corn each day from Da Lat, in the central highlands. Her team sorts the corn into eight different grades, the lowest grade sold to make corn flour and the highest for grilling or making sweet puddings. My aunt kindly shares a recipe using the first grade corn when it is young and still white. Using it unripened releases a milky sap, which results in the pudding being slightly thickened, with great texture. My Aunty Eight is fun, loud and is always the life of the party, but she is extremely shy in front of the camera. This side of her I just adore watching.

Mekong Delta

The Mekong River is the twelfth largest river in the world and the seventh longest in Asia. It travels through five other countries, offering unique and diverse freshwater ecosystems specific to each region, before winding its way through Vietnam, where it spreads into hundreds of waterways that make up the Vietnamese Delta. Known as the ‘Vietnamese rice basket’, the Delta is now the world’s largest rice producer and exporter.

The lower Mekong Basin is one of the most interesting regions of Vietnam, purely for its array of specialty dishes and produce. A four-hour drive from Saigon brings us to Can Tho city, and as we check into our hotel, I tell the crew to have an early night: we have to rise before the sun to catch the colourful floating markets.

It is super early — not even the roosters are awake. We are ushered onto a long-tail boat, but no one says a word as we are all still half-asleep. After a twenty-minute silent boat ride we arrive at the floating market and everyone’s face suddenly lights up with surprise and excitement. We are now wide awake and our cameraman is already on his feet with camera on shoulder, eager to capture everything on film.

We are surrounded by hundreds of boats, all specialising in one particular fruit or vegetable. The colours are just incredible; it’s like being in a candy store for photographers. Everywhere you turn, stunning and vibrant colours are popping out of the landscape!

The river people of the Mekong live on houseboats, river stilt houses, fishing boats and in urban townships, making the massive waterway a hive of activity during the day, with thousands of boats trading and exporting goods.

Large boats transfer mounds of plump mangoes, rambutans, watermelon, cabbage, lettuce, lychees, rockmelon and jicama to smaller boats that then transport their buy to markets in Saigon, while along the riverbanks I witness the daily lives of the Mekong Delta people.

There is no sense of privacy here. Everything is open to public viewing. You see people bathing in the river, kids brushing their teeth, ladies combing their hair, mums steaming noodles… it’s a real feast for the senses.

I really enjoy cruising this area of the Mekong; there is so much activity and colour. My favourite thing is seeing the floating food vendors — not street vendors, but boat vendors. Small boats row past selling noodle soups, congee, salads or grilled meats to larger boats. As I order my cold vermicelli noodles with chargrilled pork, a floating cafe rows past, so I order a hot Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk… I am a very happy man.

It is 8 am and the hustle and bustle of the market is all over; I’m glad we got there early. We move on to a small village an hour away along the Mekong called Rach Goi, in search of my great uncle, the brother of my Chinese grandfather. He is the local Chinese herbalist, so he won’t be hard to find.

Some local schoolkids quickly show me to Great Uncle’s store. He is in his 70s, but ever so healthy and bubbly — and most unexpectedly, he speaks with me in English. I feel quite emotional as I didn’t get the chance to meet my grandfather or anyone from his side of the family, so to meet his brother was very special.

After Great Uncle examines my health by simply holding onto my wrist and looking into my eyes, he offers some words of wisdom: ‘We need to eat more slow food and fill our body with a balance of cold and hot foods — yin and yang.’ He then shares a recipe for one of his favourite medicinal soups, made with his secret concoction of Chinese herbs, slow-cooked with pork ribs. I steam the pork ribs for three long hours, with all the flavour extracted from the bones and all the Chinese herbs and dried fruits. It is so clean and aromatic, and with every mouthful I can taste the goodness — definitely my favourite dish of the Mekong Delta region so far.

Keen to delve deeper into the culture of the Mekong Delta, I head further south to meet up with more family members, this time on my grandmother’s side. We arrive at a small house right on the riverbank, where 40–50 people greet us. Amazingly, they are all family! They are just as excited to meet the crew as I am to meet them. One young cousin eagerly asks, ‘Do you want to go catch coconut rat with me? It tastes delicious!’

I burst out laughing, as it is not a question I hear often. We scurry off into the jungle in search of the coconut rat. Now, these rats are not your standard rodent rats, as these ones nest up in coconut trees. They are clean and their flesh is sweet, as they feed only on coconuts.

My cousin climbs up the tree like a little monkey, so I nickname him ‘Funky Monkey’. He shakes the nest as I wait below, stick in hand. One coconut rat falls at my feet, looks directly at me, and shoots off as I chase it, slapping my stick down trying to hit it on the head. It is too quick, or I am too slow, so I apologise to my cousin for failing to catch it. He giggles and says, ‘No worries, let’s go catch some snakes!’

I end up spending three days with my family along the Mekong, immersing myself in the culture and lifestyle of the Mekong River people.

My uncles and I wake early in the mornings and jump straight into the river to freshen up. My aunties then spend the majority of the day harvesting rice from the green paddies while the men go fishing for mudfish, tilapia and snakehead fish, and the children pick plump succulent mangoes, jackfruit, lychees and durian from the fruit orchards.

All the produce is then collected and packed onto longboats, then the eight-hour journey up the Mekong River to the wholesale markets in Saigon begins.

Everything about my family’s livelihood here revolves around the Mekong River. This mighty river is the water source for their rice crops and fruit orchards, supplies them with hundreds of kilograms of fish each day, and is also their main means of transport.

I begin to marvel at just how many Vietnamese families along the Mekong Delta rely solely on the river to survive. This amazing river gives my family and millions of others nourishment and life.

Phu Quoc

We are at Ho Chi Minh City airport. Our excess luggage is 150 kilograms; luckily Vietnam Airlines is our main sponsor, so we’re hoping this gives us some leeway. We board our tiny light plane to fly to one of the most underdeveloped tourist islands in the world — Phu Quoc.

As the plane gears up to take off, I notice a cart with half our luggage and equipment still on the tarmac. I wave our air steward over, pointing out the window, and ask what all our gear is still doing down there. He calmly replies, ‘Oh not to worry, it’ll arrive on the next plane.’

I turn to Macca, our cameraman, and we both laugh. Luckily he has carried his camera on board, or else we wouldn’t be able to film anything when we arrive.

We arrive at our hotel, located right on the beach; the sky is blue and the water is still and crystal clear. With no luggage to check in, we strip off and run directly to the water. There is not a soul in sight, the sand is cool and pure white — I think we have just landed in paradise.

Apart from its pure beauty, Phu Quoc is also known to produce the best fish sauce in the world. The Vietnamese consume over 200,000,000 litres of fish sauce every year. Divide that by a population of about 88 million, and that’s about 23 litres. Can you believe it? I can. Fish sauce is the essential ingredient for Vietnamese cooking — we use it in everything.

We make our way to Phu Quoc’s largest fish sauce factory. We are still ten minutes away, but the pungent smell already permeates the surrounding area. Our sound engineer Rob is worst affected. He can’t stand the smell. Covering his nose with his shirt, he refuses to step foot into the factory. Now Rob is built like a bullock, but really he is nothing but a big girl! He stays in the van as I check the place out.

I am astounded at what I see. Two hundred enormous wooden vats, each containing ten tonnes of fishy goodness. Seven tonnes of fresh black jaw anchovies are coated with three tonnes of sea salt and are left to ferment for 14 months. During this time the sea salt draws out all the liquid from the anchovies. The clear amber liquid is then pressed out from the vats, creating first-press premium fish sauce.

The quality of this sauce is amazing. Yes the smell is pungent, but the flavour is not overly salty, and has subtle sweet caramel undertones. It is unlike any other fish sauce I’ve tried, and I must say far superior to the Thai varieties. When buying fish sauce at your local Asian market, always go for the premium Vietnamese fish sauce. It is slightly more expensive, but well worth it ,as it does not contain any added salt, sugar or water. It is pure ‘fish water’!

I’d really like to cook a dish in the fish sauce factory among all the wooden vats, as it feels like being in an old winery, but none of the crew are too keen on the idea of spending four hours among the thick aroma of fermenting fish. So we decide to charter a fishing boat and head out to deep waters to try our luck on catching squid.

I’ve never caught my own squid before. I am simply given a hand line with a thing called a ‘squid jig’ attached to it. It has four hooks and is in the shape of a small fish. All I have to do is throw it in the water and wait.

And wait I do… for three hours, in fact. The captain says we should try again tomorrow as he can see a strong storm heading our way. Squinting my eyes, looking into the distance, I see that he is right — the sky is dark, almost black. But we don’t have another day to spare, so our director Michael insists that we give it another hour. The sea is getting choppy, our boat is swaying heavily from side to side. The captain decides to shine strong bright lights into the water to attract the squid. It works — I finally get one!

I burn some charcoal, remove the squid’s ink sac, and simply coat the squid with sea salt and pounded red chillies before chargrilling it. By the time we are almost finished filming the dish, it is already dark, raining heavily, the sky is angry and loud, lightning is striking all around us.

We are still out in deep water, but we have not yet taken the final dish shot. The boat is rocking way too much for Macca to use his tripod. So he places the dish on the floor and lies down with the camera in front of him. He presses record, and as the taperolls, a sequence of lightning strikes in the distance, in front of the camera. When he stops rolling, we play the shot back to see if he captured the lightning strikes. Indeed he has! The lightning looks computer generated, but I can assure you it was real. It looks incredible — my favourite food shot of all time.

The proximity of the sea and a nearby mountain chain give Phu Quoc a unique climate, with regular rainfall, conducive to growing another local product that has put Phu Quoc on the world culinary map: high-quality pepper.

Visiting a Phu Quoc pepper plantation is an amazing experience. The vines are slender and tall, the colours vibrant red and bright green. The family I visit has been growing peppercorns for four generations, and it is great to see that they are still using traditional farming techniques.

All the peppercorns are handpicked. The family’s three young children are responsible for gathering up all the mature peppercorns that have fallen to the ground; mum, dad and the aunties and uncles pick the young green peppercorns off the vines, while grandma scatters and rakes all the collected peppercorns in the backyard for drying under the sun.

The peppercorns are rotated manually every hour for four days, and I love the fact that they only use organic fertiliser — no chemicals. The end result is a delicate, spicy, sweet, floral, aromatic and crisp pepper, renowned as one of the finest in the world.

I can’t resist cooking a dish featuring these marvellous peppercorns. So I grab one of their free-range chickens, pick a handful of fresh green peppercorns straight from the vine, pluck a young green coconut from their palm tree and slowly braise the chicken in these wonderful ingredients, and simply allow the natural flavours to speak for themselves.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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