It’s been a while since my husband and I returned from our month-long trip to Vietnam – the one that significantly changed my outlook on traveling to new countries as a non-meat eater! As promised, here is a photo journal of our food adventures.
I also included one of my favorite recipes from the trip – Steamed Lemongrass Fish. Enjoy!
One of the highlights from our month in Vietnam was a day-long cooking course at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An. The class included a visit to a farm and the market, pictured below.
Vietnamese food uses many fresh herbs, several varieties unfamiliar to us here, like sawtooth coriander and Vietnamese celery, which is nothing like our celery. The flavor is similar, but imagine a plant that looks like Italian parsley, is dark green and only has celery leaves, no stalks. Our day began with a visit to an organic herb farm. Ngoc, our guide, explained how a variety of river kelp is used to protect the plants, both by keeping moisture in and bugs out. The workers in the fields are mostly women.
Vietnamese food uses lots of spices and aromatics. Shallots, limes and birds-eye chilies are all used, just like in Thai cuisine. Rock sugar and star anise are commonly used in Vietnam, but not in Thailand.
We then sat in a beautiful home and were treated to a refreshing herbal drink, and then we returned to Hoi An, to the market. One of the reasons Vietnamese food is so tasty is that everything is bought fresh that day. Here, Ngoc, our guide shows us how banana flowers grow.
Our class consisted of a German woman, an Australian couple and us. Here, we learn how to make a national dish, fish in a clay pot. Our recipe called for oil, but Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Nguyen, which I bought as soon as I got home, recommends using pork fat. The entire cookbook is mostly recipes for things I’ll never eat as written, but I am glad to have it my collection anyhow. This week, I made a chicken recipe from it substituting seitan. As I wrote before, it is extremely difficult to eat vegetarian or kosher in Vietnam. Fish sauce, made from fermented anchovies, is the most frequently used condiment, even on vegetarian food (It is such a part of the culture, in fact, that in an excellent memoir I read there called Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham, a Vietnamese-born American tells a Vietnamese person he is “one-hundred percent fish sauce” when his Vietnamese background is questioned.) While the Vietnamese eat lots of vegetables, they believe that they are always improved with a little pork, shrimp or fish sauce for flavor.
Paulie (my husband) watches Ngoc make rice noodles for Pho, the national beef soup of Vietnam. White rice that has been soaked overnight is blended at high speed with water to make a batter that is then formed into pancakes on cheesecloth over boiling water. After a few seconds, the pancake is lifted off, and cut into noodles. The rice pancakes can also be dried whole, or in noodle form to make the rice paper or noodles available in the United States in supermarkets.
I use a mortar and pestle to crush shallots, lemongrass, garlic, a birds-eye chile, sugar, salt and pepper that will make a paste to cook with shrimp.
Here, Ngoc folds shrimp with lemongrass and shallots into banana leaves before grilling. I have already made this twice at home with tilapia, and it is delicious. See the recipe below.
Watch those chopsticks move! Ngoc tosses a salad of green papaya.
Grilled chicken sits atop the papaya salad inside a banana flower blossom. Grilled rice paper finishes the dish.
After cooking for hours, we get to enjoy our creations. This was definitely one of the best parts of the day.
Steamed Lemongrass Fish
If you can’t get banana leaves, foil will do just fine, though it’s nowhere nearly as pretty.
1 to 2 pounds fish (firm flesh, like tilapia)
2 stalks of lemongrass
1 garlic clove
1/2 birds eye chili (if you cannot get the chili peppers used in Thai cuisine, a Serrano pepper will do, use only a bit of it.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
Peel lemongrass and remove stalk. Cut into very thin strips and put into mortar. Cut shallots, garlic and chili into small pieces and add to mortar. Add salt, pepper and sugar, and pound mixture with pestle until finely ground. Add oil.
Tear off a square sheet of foil. Rinse fish, and lie in center of foil. Spoon mixture over fish, and then fold sides of foil to the center to make a packet. Seal the edges together as well. Put on a hot grill pan or barbecue about 10 minutes, or until fish flakes easily.
For anyone interested in seeing more of our Vietnam trip, you can access our slideshow here. As is, the entire thing takes 20 minutes to watch.