Blog 24 Jan 18
Do you remember the first food that bowled you over? How old were you at the time? Where were you? Most important, what was that special mix of aroma, color, texture, flavour that made you take notice?
Despite having a family of excellent cooks, both men and women, when we arrived in Vietnam, my entire food universe was eclipsed by new sensations. Before even tasting the local food, I breathed in the scents. They were unusual and appealing–mysterious.
At first, because I was little more than one year old, I was not free to munch anything at will. At my very young age, most of my meals consisted of North American fare. Gradually, I was permitted more samples of 1 Dalat’s foods. After almost two years in Dalat, it was when we moved to 1 Saigon where I was able to indulge a new-found taste for Vietnamese food.
I discovered a particular world of sweet and sour, hot and cold, fat and texture. Colour and presentation were important in the final product. Foods conformed to an ancient and revered philosophy of health and beauty to be found in foods and their preparation. Of course, I did not specifically identify these things at the time, but they could be intuited with exposure to the foods. Years later, when teaching essay writing in English at Concordia University to non-native English speakers, a Vietnamese student presented an essay describing the Rule of Five: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet. These correspond to colours: white, green, red, black and yellow. There is more to the philosophy based on harmony and balance, that is, yin-yang. Therefore, this indicates a cuisine that is anything but slapdash or haphazard. What a fascinating lesson.
My earliest and most cherished food memory is being taken by our cook, Te Bah (“Auntie”), to the huge, colourful, bustling outdoor market in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in what was then South Vietnam, and watching the hundreds of white pennants strung on wires overhead swinging to and fro like bibs on a clothesline line across the lanes. The fragrance of rice paper disks, bánh tráng, drying on racks at the front of cubby-hole shops permeated the air. Catching the aroma of rice since that time never fails to ignite a craving. It is the one essential item in my larder.
Another clear early memory is sitting on the backdoor steps of our house in Saigon right outside of the kitchen, eating a half-baguette so fresh from the French bakery that the steam was still rising off the dough. My custom, copied from the servants, was to slice the baguette length-wise, rub it with lime, sprinkle it with nuoc mam, Vietnamese fish sauce, and cover the bread with fresh, sliced red chilli peppers. The combination of textures, fragrance and piquant peppers is something I have sought ever since leaving Saigon and my special snack hide-away. Sometimes simple can truly be the best.
Vietnam was a superb introduction to extraordinary food. Fortunately for me, I could continue training my gourmet proclivities living in Kathmandu, Bobo-Dioulasso, Ibadan and elsewhere around the world! I am grateful that my taste for fragrant, unusual foods had already prepared my palate for new adventures.
In Saigon, I remember my parents and their friends’ enthusiasm when they tried the Asparagus and Crab Soup at a highly-regarded French restaurant. It became my mother’s favourite soup and one she often talked about over the decades. When my parents thought my sister and I were old enough to dine at a restaurant, they took us to try the signature soup. Definitely worth our good behaviour! Several foods (e.g. tomatoes) and food preparations developed as a consequence of French colonization. Asparagus was introduced to Vietnam in a tinned version, or occasionally imported by the embassy, giving the soup a pale and delicate quality due to the white spears.
Years after leaving Vietnam, I was stunned to see a restaurant sign for a new Vietnamese restaurant in Washington D.C. called Crab and Asparagus. Could it be that it featured the famous Asparagus and Crab Soup? How many Vietnamese restaurants had I patronized without finding some of the staples found in Vietnam? A reservation was immediately made and I went the day after discovering the restaurant. The interior was elegant and refined with perfect lighting, beautiful artifacts, white tablecloths–everything you’d expect from a posh, professional restaurant. Naturally, I ordered the special soup.
My choice surprised the owner as this was a new taste for the region and had never been offered before. Our chat turned into something of a miracle. Our parents had worked together in Saigon. Her family had fled after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (or American War in Vietnam). The next evening, my parents were dining on Asparagus and Crab Soup and conversing with the accomplished owner of the restaurant who was among the comparatively few female university graduates to escape to the United States of America.
THE RULE OF FIVE REDUX
Vietnamese food is always colourful; the expansive array of herbs and greens are rarely cooked or often just steamed so the colour does not fade. There are numerous condiments that accompany most dishes with their varied colours. Chilli peppers provide the spicy note and accompany many dishes. One of my favourite flavours is the sour supplied by limes, fruits or vinegar. Pickled vegetables are very common. Limes are used in many recipes, particularly my own. Bitter melon is a common bitter food and used to make soup. The principle source of salty is the fermented fish sauce that is quite salty. I love its pungency. Vietnamese cuisine includes honey and sugar to satisfy its sweet tooth. There are also fresh and dried fruits that are common.
Two of my favourite snacks are cha gió and gòi cuón lau— the first crisp and crunchy, the second spicy sour with chillies. One of my favourite comfort foods is bits of meat, roasted or barbecued mixed in with glutinous rice and cooked in a large leaf shaped like a pyramid. My umami go-to treat. Once steamed, or at room temperature, untie the pouch and dig in. I adore bánh lá.
I have often wondered if it has just been the food alone or if other elements were also involved that gave me such a heightened sense of taste and smell? It was my good luck that my mother was a terrific cook and so were the wonderful people we employed.
Over the years, I have learned three or four things that have stood me in good stead. For example, I ask chefs and waiters, too, about the dishes I feel are extraordinary. Sometimes, they reveal all their secrets but, often, I must fill in the blanks. It is a diverting way to experiment in the kitchen. There are no holds barred when we are trying to recreate a special combination of flavours. My husband and I keep a very well stocked cupboard. We both have eclectic tastes in food so the items in the pantry fall into categories such as general staples, Asian foods, Italian, Spanish, French and so on.
A passionate palate can be a blessing and a curse: A curse when food is below expectations and, therefore, a great disappointment; a blessing when the dish is good, excellent or extraordinary–especially when it is shared with family and friends. The fresher and higher the quality of the ingredients, the better the food will look and taste. Settle only for the best.
1 I am using the spelling and names I grew up with. This is the way I relate to deep experiences in Vietnam.