I just returned from a couple of weeks in Viet Nam. It was an amazing trip. In Viet Nam you’ll find the whole cultural spectrum of primitive to ultra modern often chock-a-block to each other. The foods are wonderful, the best being what you find on the streets everywhere. Flavors and ingredients differ in this long, narrow country. In Hanoi, the capital in the north, food is more hearty and rustic, no doubt driven by the weather there which can be pretty cold in the winter.
As you move south, the beautiful beaches of the China Sea in Da Nang are quickly being developed into first class resorts. Reminds me of the beaches in Mexico 30 years ago. Probably says get there before it becomes too touristy. Europeans are flocking there to buy homes and condos because of the temperate weather and cheap prices. As you’d expect, cuisine is heavily seafood oriented.
Saigon in the south is tropical and lush. The nearby Mekong Delta is one
of the most important food-producing spots in the world. Every where you look are rice paddies, bananas, fish farms, ducks and four-footed animals of all kinds. The food here reflects that diversity.
Though you don’t see much of the French influence today (with the exception of the delicious Bahn Mi sandwich made with a classic French baguette) the French dominated the region from 1887 when French Indochina was formed which included what we know today as Viet Nam along with Cambodia and Laos. This ended in 1954.
My observation is that Vietnamese food differs from Thai not so much in terms of ingredients but more a subtlety of flavor (probably a contribution from the French) in seasoning . . . Vietnamese being not so fiery chile influenced as Thai often is.
A dipping/table sauce that appears everywhere is Nuoc Cham. There are as many variations on the recipe as there are people who make it. Below is my riff on Nuoc Cham in a fish salad. This particular recipe is one that I’ll be preparing for this year’s Cooking for Solutions event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in May 2011. Go to www.montereybayaquarium.org/vi/vi_events/cooking for more information.
VIETNAMESE SALAD WITH FRESH TROUT
Any crisp vegetables that you like could be added or substituted here. There are several inexpensive tools on the market which make julienning a snap. I’m pan cooking the trout here but you could also grill or poach it. I love serving this in little Asian to-go boxes!
2 completely boned trout, about 10 ounces each
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 ounces thin rice noodles softened in warm water and drained
Toasted sesame oil
2 cups very finely sliced green or Nappa cabbage
1 cup or so carrot cut in fine julienne
1 cup or so finely julienned daikon radish, crisped in ice water and drained
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into fine julienne
2 cups seeded and thinly sliced English cucumber
Nuoc Cham (recipe follows)
1/4 cup or so loosely packed tender cilantro and/or mint sprigs
2 tablespoons chopped toasted peanuts
Season the cavities of the trout with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime. Add oil to a large skillet and, over moderately high heat, cook the trout until just done. Remove and set aside to cool. Remove skin from trout and break fillets into large pieces. Set aside.
In a bowl toss the noodles with a few drops of sesame oil. Combine the cabbage, carrots, daikon, red pepper and cucumber and gently toss with the noodles. Add the trout and artfully arrange on a plate or in a small Asian to-go box. Spoon the Nuoc Cham over and top with cilantro and chopped peanuts. Serve immediately with chop sticks.
Makes about 1 cup
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon minced fresh red chile or to taste
2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
5 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving for flavors to develop. Adjust salt/sweet/tart/hot flavors to your taste.
John Ash © 2011