Saltwater people

Saltwater people

Luke Nguyen
20 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

Nha Trang

Less than a two-hour drive from Cam Ranh, we arrive at Nha Trang, the busiest coastal city in Vietnam. Foreign and local tourists flock here for its pristine beaches, islands and scuba diving. Yes, there is that tacky tourist element in the centre of town, but if you venture out a little, you’ll find a wonderful village atmosphere that makes Nha Trang such a special place.

It’s 7 pm; we drive past a busy roundabout, where I see a man on the kerb with his wok. He is right on the corner and he is cooking with fierce heat — flames rise high, illuminating the dark night. I have to stop the bus and see what he is cooking! He is a one-man show: all he has is his wok, gas bottle, bag of egg noodles, a cold-box full of assorted seafood, a container of garlic chives, bean sprouts and bottles of sauces.

I sit down on a tiny red stool, order my meal and just watch the people of Nha Trang do their thing — I just love street food.

I’m having such a good time that I decide to film my introduction to Nha Trang right here, sitting on the street, eating my meal, right in front of Mr Hot Wok cooking up a storm.

So I begin my spiel, the camera is rolling — and then I hear a loud crash and bang. Right in front of me, at the roundabout, two motorbikes have collided. Plastic shatters, both riders have fallen off their bikes and are now lying on the road. Traffic stops, people from everywhere come to their aid, picking their bikes up and helping them onto their feet. Both riders check to see if the other is hurt. Thankfully they are okay, and apart from a few broken plastic parts off their bikes, all is good. They both return to their motorbikes and off they go…

I couldn’t help marvelling at what I’d just seen. There was no cursing, no blaming, no voices were raised. On each rider’s part there was simply a sincere concern for the other’s well-being. Once they confirmed that the other party was not hurt and that there wasn’t much damage to their bikes, they just picked up their bikes and off they went.

If this had happened back in Sydney, an agressive stand-off would probably have ensued, with threats of physical violence or court action. But in the fifteen years I have been visiting Vietnam, I have never seen any road rage whatsoever. All the honking of horns you hear is not from motorists saying ‘Get out of my way!’ or ‘What the f**k do you think you’re doing?’ It’s more them saying, ‘Take care, I’m just behind you, coming through…’

You have to think that with 88 million people and 60 million motorbikes in Vietnam, there seems to be minimal road rage about, for all the people sharing the road. It’s quite incredible.

After the crowd disperses, we reshoot my opening piece about Nha Trang. Halfway through, Mr Hot Wok fires his smoking wok, throws his oil in, followed by the garlic and seafood — and the whole thing ignites so fiercely that the flames sear the hair on the back of my head. I couldn’t see it happening, as he was behind me, but I could definitely smell it.

It has been such an eventful night, but I do eventually get to complete my opening piece to Nha Trang!

The next morning I’m eager to hit the beach, as the heat hits a high of 40ºC. I jump into the not-so-cold water to cool down. When I return to my towel, a lady selling fresh lobsters greets me. I think I have gone to heaven.

For $10, she chargrills the lobster right on the beach. As the lobster is grilling, she bastes it with a delicious spicy seafood-based sauce. But wait, it gets better.

Once she serves up the lobster, she asks if I would like a cold beer with it. This is street food taken to another level!

The lady’s name is Lan, and I ask if she would mind us filming her cooking her lobster. She agrees, but refuses to give up her spicy seafood sauce recipe.

‘It’s my secret recipe — if I give it to you, then other street-food vendors could learn my sauce on your show and I may lose business.’

I totally understand where she is coming from. My parents were very secretive with their recipes too, for fear that the noodle shop next door would learn their recipes, replicate them and steal some of their business.

As Ms Lan chargrills the lobster, I make my own version of the spicy sate sauce. I simply grind up some dried shrimp, cook it in some vegetable oil along with lots of garlic, spring onion, dried chilli, chilli oil, oyster sauce, fish sauce and crab meat, then simmer it for 30 minutes. This sauce is slightly different from Ms Lan’s, but it is still so good, especially with the lobster.

After we film the making of the sauce, Ms Lan tells me that the local council are going to ban vendors selling food on the beach. If they get caught, they will face a hefty fine.

I am dumbfounded — why would the council do that? Wouldn’t this incredible food experience that I’ve just had bring more business to Nha Trang? For me, this is such a unique dining experience, and one that is not easily replicated anywhere else in the world.

So, if you do make it to Nha Trang and there is no longer a Ms Lan offering you her delicious lobster and secret spicy sauce along the beachfront, then I am sorry for all of us. One can only hope the council members will come to their senses and change their mindset on this.

Another ‘must try’ in Nha Trang is a great local seafood restaurant at the north end of the main street, Tran Phu. The restaurant is called Muoi Do, and it has a great array of live seafood out the front to choose from. They will cook it any way you like, and even better, they only charge street-food prices.

Quy Nhon

Nestled between Hoi An and Nha Trang is the small, quiet fishing town of Quy Nhon. Driving in here the view is so picturesque, with tall mountains overlooking the still, turquoise waters.

Quy Nhon is a real change of pace. It’s off the tourist trail, so you get to experience a typical local village. Its attraction for me is the real insight it offers into the daily lives of the local people. As I walk the streets in the early morning, I meet a street vendor with a tiny space on the street. She is selling pork belly and tells me she has to wake up at 4 am to secure that small space. Another gentleman I speak to has been selling his fresh herbs and vegetables, in the exact same spot on that street, every day for about the last sixty years.

Through these locals I learn so much about the region and the foods that are created here. A wise elderly man tells me of a close friend of his named Mrs Ha, who is well known for making the best silken tofu in town, by hand. I absolutely love tofu, and my mission in life is to convert those who despise it— and believe me, I have already converted many.

Mrs Ha’s home is set in a small, quiet village just on the outskirts of town. Her home is gorgeous, surrounded by tall bamboo trees, old wooden horse carts, buffaloes and stacks of hay. Steam rises from all corners of the yard, emanating from oversized blackened woks, fuelled by sticks, simmering Mrs Ha’s freshly pressed soy milk. I see Mrs Ha in the yard behind an old stonemill, grinding the soaked soya beans. It seems like nothing has changed here in a hundred years.

I consider it an honour to see this. Just being here watching Mrs Ha and her family work in these traditional ways, where techniques have not changed throughout five generations of tofu-making — well, it is becoming a rare sight inthe world, and so lucky am I to be part of it for a moment.

As I sit here learning the art of creating handmade tofu, I begin to appreciate tofu even more. It’s incredible, the amount of hard work that goes into making those silky-soft curds.

Firstly, Mrs Ha soaks the soya beans in water for 24 hours. The beans are then ground and pressed through a stone mill to produce the soy milk. The milk is brought to the boil, then simmered in the large woks for half an hour before being strained through a large sheet of muslin (cheesecloth). A natural coagulant is then added to the milk that begins to form thick tofu curds. The curds are transferred into wooden moulds, where the tofu is pressed down with heavy weights for 15 minutes. The tofu is then taken out of the moulds, sliced and delivered to the markets still steaming hot — what a process.

I buy a block of Mrs Ha’s silken tofu, simply stuff it with finely diced lemongrass and chilli, then flash-fry it until both sides of the tofu are crisp. The soft and firm textures work wonderfully, and the lemongrass and chilli flavours coating the tofu make it even more delicious. After trying this dish, our cameraman and director, who both never really liked tofu, are easily converted. Ha! Another two bite the dust…

The laidback lifestyle in Quy Nhon is infectious. Even though work is hard in the scorching heat, locals move at a pace that suits them. I decide to do the same, so I hitch a ride on the back of a buffalo cart to the Thien Huong Pagoda. Now it does take quite some time to get there, but I do get to learn more about the famous pagoda from my buffalo driver, Mr Quang.

One hundred years ago a young boy was herding his buffaloes when he found an old, small statue of Buddha on the ground. He took the statue home to his parents, who did some research and learnt that the statue dated back to the Nguyen Dynasty. The village saw this as a great omen, so they decided to build a pagoda at the exact spot where the statue was found. Today, it is called the Thien Huong Pagoda, one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam. The head of the pagoda is known as Master Monk. He was born on the seventh day, in the seventh month, in 1977. These numbers are incredibly lucky in both Vietnamese and Chinese culture, so he is believed to have spiritual healing powers, as well as the power to predict the future.

Thousands of Vietnamese fly from all over the country to Quy Nhon to meet him. Before opening a business, they seek his advice and get him to walk through their workplace for a blessing and to consult on the feng shui.

At the pagoda I am greeted by young boys in dark brown robes. They are all orphans, many of them with a disability. The head monk takes them in, teaching them Buddhism, and tries to help them assimilate back into the community. The pagoda is a lifeline for so many children in the area.

The boys tell me the Master Monk is due back later in the afternoon from a trip to Germany. Master Monk is now well known not only in Vietnam, but also around the world.

Locals from Quy Nhon have come to the pagoda to help prepare a vegetarian feast for his return. The town’s best cooks are here, lending a helping hand. I benefit from it too, as I get to learn many new delicious vegetarian dishes. One particular dish I have to cook is rice stir-fried with lotus seeds, carrots, green peas and shiitake mushrooms. The rice is transferred into a parcel made of fresh lotus leaves. It is then steamed for five minutes and served with fresh lotus flowers and chilli — a stunning-looking dish.

By the time we finish cooking, some 200 people have arrived to welcome the Master Monk back home. Three long trestle tables are covered with vegetarian dishes. His car arrives, he steps out to a royal reception. This guy is treated like, well, Buddha himself. I am already in awe of him.

He walks directly towards me and hands me some long-life beads. He blesses them and puts them on my wrists. I feel very honoured and fortunate to have met him and be blessed by him. After much feasting and ceremony, I leave the pagoda a very happy and lucky man.

Hoi An

Travelling through Vietnam, you learn patience. Our journey from Quy Nhon to Hoi An is seven hours by road. When we arrive, the sun has already set. There are no street lights, but the entire town is dotted with thousands of colourful lanterns, lighting up ancient old buildings and cobbled streets, a slow-flowing river and pretty foot bridges. Have I arrived at a movie set, I wonder. This place is so incredibly charming and romantic, it can’t be for real. As I stroll through the ancient town — one of the few places in Vietnam with many of the original buildings and streets preserved — I soon realise it is like this all the time. There is no special festival going on, this is everyday Hoi An.

The beautiful port town of Hoi An began as a trading centre along the Thu Bon River. The town was a crossroads of economic and cultural flows throughout Vietnam and South-East Asia from the end of the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. It was also the gate through which Buddhism and Christianity were introduced to Vietnam in the seventeenth century.

Walking through town, I notice an obsession with food. I am surrounded by street food, market food, restaurants, cafes, and even little old ladies sitting on the streets with a steam pot and a kerosene lamp. The kerosene lamps signify what it is they are selling — duck embryo eggs. I just have to try one! Now before you squeal, you must understand that before the French colonised the country, Vietnamese people only ever ate fertilised eggs. It was the French who introduced unfertilised eggs: boiled, scrambled, poached and the much-loved omelette. However, even today, many Vietnamese love their embryo eggs.

I take a seat at the egg stall and ask our cameraman to start rolling. As I crack the egg open, my director says, ‘Cut! I don’t think we should feature this embryo egg on television Luke. It might freak people out and we may get hate mail.’

I quickly bark back. ‘My family ate these embryo eggs all the time when I was growing up. It is a delicacy for us, and on top of that, they are delicious! Just because people in the Western world have never eaten or seen them before does not make it wrong or horrible to eat them! We are making a cooking program on foods of Vietnam, and this is one of them. Cameraman, let’s roll!’

As I peel away the shell, the thin membrane is exposed. I pierce the membrane and drink its juices, and it is wonderfully delicate and clean — like sipping on a duck consomme. The entire film crew can hardly watch. The cameraman actually has one hand over his mouth, and one eye closed. I take the embryo out of its egg and reveal its tiny formed body, fertilised for only 15 days. I bite into its soft but crisp flesh, crunching on its head, bones and beak. The entire crew have left the scene and have just left the camera rolling on record, but I don’t care. I am in a moment of culinary joy. This is real food, in real Vietnam...

The next morning I am excited: I have managed to track down the family who makes the much-loved Cao Lao noodle! Only one family in Vietnam knows how to make this noodle, and Hoi An is the only town where you can try it. The noodle reminds me very much of the Japanese udon, but has more of a bouncy consistency and subtle grain texture. The secret to the noodle, it is said, is the local water, which is taken from Ba Li Well, with its colour and flavour being attested to the added ingredient of burned ash.

At 8 am, when I arrive at the Cao Lao noodle-making family home, they are already at work. This family has been making the Cao Lao noodle for 300 years, the secret recipe passed down from one generation to the next. The building they are working in seems just as ancient as the recipe.

Everything is made by hand. The entire extended family work day and night to produce the noodle — even the grandparents, in their 80s, are rolling and kneading the dough. First the rice grains are soaked overnight, then cooked for half an hour and kneaded until smooth. The dough is then rolled and steamed, before being cut with giant cleavers into long noodle lengths. The noodles are then covered in banana leaves and steamed once again, before being distributed to the entire town.

Apart from the wonderful noodles, nostalgic buildings, tasty street food, secret laneways and illuminated lanterns, the other sight that will take your breath away is the vibrant green rice paddy fields surrounding Hoi An. I could sit in front of one all day and watch the slender rice stalks gracefully sway from side to side with the passing breeze. For me, looking out at rice fields has the same calming, soothing effect as looking out to the ocean.

I hire a bicycle for $1 a day, then ride out to China Beach, where there is a long stretch of the lushest rice paddy fields you will ever see. I am taken back by its beauty, and today I am in luck — there are many rice farmers out working, while some are taking a lunch break. I rest my bike against an old tree and make my way over to ask what they are cooking.

The farmers tell me they always prepare the simplest dishes out on the field — just a meal with good protein, herbs and vegetables to give them the energy they need to do the long hours of back-breaking work in the intense heat. To me, their ingredients look gourmet: whole mudfish, fresh mint, rice paper, vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber, star fruit, and of course a dipping fish sauce. But they have no cooking utensils, or any form of stove or grill to cook the fish. An elderly man explains, ‘Look around us — this entire rice field is covered in dry rice stalks for us to use. Just place a sharp bamboo stick through the fish, pierce the stick vertically in the ground, stack a mound of dried rice stalks over the fish in a pyramid, then simply light it.’

Excited, I offer to cook their lunch, and they agree with joy. So I carve a sharp edge on one end of a thin bamboo stick with my knife. I pierce the stick through the mouth of the fish and out its tail, then dig the stick into the ground. Then I pour some water into the fish’s mouth to keep it moist, and cover the fish with all the dried rice straw I can find, until it looks like a mini teepee. I light the straw and it ignites rapidly. I stand right back, thinking I may have placed too much straw around that poor mudfish.

This ingenious cooking technique chars, smokes and steams the fish at the same time. After 5 minutes, the fire has burnt out. I remove the charred straw to find the fish completely black and burnt to a crisp. Peeling the skin back, I am rewarded with the most moist and succulent white flesh. Something takes over me: I forget the other ingredients in the recipe and start eating the fish, just as it is, on that bamboo stick. I feel like a caveman, but it is just so delicious. Moist, soft, smoky and perfectly cooked, the mudfish is yet another revelation.

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