This post might include affiliate links for your convenience.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pepper Plantation

Think "tropical island" and you probably conjure up sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and glistening sunsets. Phu Quoc, just off the coast of Cambodia has all of that. It also has fishing villages, fish sauce and pepper plantations. So guess where my breaks from the pool were spent? Pepper is such a common ingredient it's easy to not give it a second thought. But seeing it grown and fortunately for me, seeing it harvested, is something I'll never forget. The berries are only harvested once a year so I can't believe my luck in being there just in time. Pepper or piper nigrum grows on a vine that is staked to the ground. The towering plants grow and bear fruit for 18 years. From the same vines and fruit we get the most common black pepper, the less common white pepper and most uncommon green pepper. The green peppercorns are sometimes bottled when fresh and usually you only find them in recipes for steak sauce. They are much more prevalent in Asia where they are g...
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Coming Home with Groceries

My month of travel is almost over. I am now on a tropical island doing a whole lot of nothing. But before I left Saigon the last time I did a little grocery shopping at a local department store. Ok, a lot of grocery shopping. And it's possible I will do even more before my flight leaves. While it is sometimes a bother to choose knick knacks for your friends and relations, I find nothing so satisfying as grocery shopping in a foreign country. With globalization there is much to be found "everywhere" but not everything. For instance here in Vietnam there are tons of teas and nut candies and brittle that I would be hard pressed to find at home, and not nearly as cheaply. In Thailand, China and Vietnam you find all kinds of nut brittle--cashew, sesame seed, melon seed and peanut. Some have thin little layers or rice paper too. They are freshly made, crisp and crunchy and taste better than anything I can find at home. I bought it in a myriad of combinations and sizes. I&...
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cha Ca La Vong

Pizza in New York, a croissant in Paris, fish and chips in London. Cliches or must do's for any tourist? When it comes to Hanoi, every guide book will steer you to Cha Ca La Vong for the one and only dish (there is no menu) Cha Ca fish. As you can see, it's a turmeric scented white fish cooked in oil over an open flame at the table, with batches of dill and scallions. It's served with bowls of rice noodles, scallions, cilantro, hot chiles, peanuts, and if you like a thick pink sludge of shrimp sauce. You mix it up in your bowl as you like, and enjoy it, just like everyone else in the place. It will cost you less than $4 per person. Cha Ca La Vong has been around since 1871 and been run by 5 successive generations of the Doan family. Even the street was named for the dish. Sure, it's a touristy thing to do. But it tastes great and is a lot of fun too. Cha Ca La Vong 14 Cha Ca Street Hanoi 84-4/825-3929...
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Lotus Tea

When you are in Hanoi or Saigon it's easy to forget how most of Vietnam is rural. Driving through the countryside you see beautiful landscapes, mountains, rice paddies, and gardens everywhere. Banana trees are heavy with fruit and tea grows on manicured terraces. In addition to rice and coffee, tea is also grown for export. While Lipton tea is popular here as it is in neighboring Thailand, the two main types of green tea, jasmine and lotus are more prevalent.They are also served at just about every meal. Lotus tea is green tea flavored with lotus. It is pale green and has a delicate perfume, distinct from other teas and very pleasant. I could drink it every day. When I purchased some boxes made from cassia (cinnamon) in the city of Hoi An the vendor pressed a packet of lotus tea in my hand. I'm sure she had no idea how precious it would be to me...another flavor of Vietnam. FOOD...
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pho 24

Do you know what the fast food of Vietnam is? My guess is it's got to be pho. Sound like a local and call it "fuhr" with a very soft "r" almost like "fuh". Pho is available just about everywhere and there is even a very good chain restaurant called Pho 24 that sells it. A bowl costs about $1 and most people choose to eat it out rather than to make it at home, so I'm told. Pho is rice noodle soup and it's not so easy to find really great versions. It's basically four elements--broth, noodles some kind of meat and fresh garnishes that often consist of fresh herbs and chilies. The quality of the broth is key. It can be flavored with spices like star anise and cinnamon or not. It varies all over Vietnam but the beef version is famous here in Hanoi. Pho 24 is a clean, bright and friendly chain of pho shops and a bowl of pho here costs $1.25. Why 24? They say it takes 24 hours to make and includes 24 ingredients. The balance of flavors and textu...
Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Making Rice Noodles

In the picturesque town of Hoi An we got to take a half day cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School . First we were guided through a trip to the market to learn about the fresh products we would use, then a boat ride to the school, a walk through the herb garden, and finally the lessons and a delicious meal that we cooked ourselves. Two of the dishes interested me the most, making rice noodle for Spring Rolls and making banh xeo, a kind of crispy omelet pancake that I love. If you have ever made fresh Spring Rolls with rice paper you know how difficult the paper can be to use. Typically you soak it but if it gets too wet it falls apart and if it isn't moist enough it's not pliable. At the class I learned two things about rice paper. One is that when you buy the premade sheets, the best way to soften them is NOT to soak them in water, but to place them in a plastic bag with banana leaves (which are readily available in our Chinatown). The result? Soft and pliable rice pap...
Sunday, January 07, 2007

Puffed Rice Candy

Remember rice crispy treats? On the river in the Mekong delta we stop to visit a small workshop where they are puffing the rice, mixing it with sugar and peanuts and rolling out the candy. Sorry the photos go backwards! www. flick r .com FOOD...

French Food in Vietnam

I came here to eat Vietnamese food, but French food is very much part of the culinary landscape. So I eat French food too. Actually I enjoy French food. So far anyway, the French food I have had has been excellent, though not exactly the same same as what I find at home. I wasn't around in the 1950's but I can only imagine it was somewhat like dinner at Le Mekong or Augustin's in Saigon/HCMC. At Le Mekong a guitar player and violinist entertain the happy diners. The menu is French with nothing nouvelle about it. Like the menu at the more bistro style Augustin's it is filled with pate, escargot, duck a l'orange and chocolate souffles for dessert. Everything is delicious with no surprises except perhaps for the bill which takes you back to the 1950's. Dinner for two with wine? Around $30 - $60 max. I can't remember the last time I ate by candlelight, and the vaguely country French interiors of these restaurants are familiar yet out-of-the-ordinary in Sa...
Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ben Thanh Market

www. flick r .com FOOD...

Breakfast Buffets--Asian Hotel Style

Asian hotel breakfast buffets are a spectacle that cannot truly be captured by camera. There's nothing quite like them. A typical day? Here at the Hotel Majestic there is a selection of exotic fruits including those tiny creamy bananas and juicy polka dotted dragon fruit. Next a selection of cold cuts and salads. Who eats salad for breakfast? Then you find two soups, one is a rice porridge with a myriad of toppings to go with it, the other is pumpkin. Now you reach the French pastries, at least 4 or 5 of them. It's amazing that a croissant can be both crunchy and tender in this humidity. On to the cereals, pork spareribs, Chinese greens, and omelet bar, dim sum selection and some kind of noodle soup, made to order. In the middle of the night I wake up wondering what I should have for breakfast. A tour of the mornings offerings is the first order of business. And like sneaking a peek at someone elses grocery basket I find myself perusing the passing plates to see what odd co...