VietNom…to say that I loved the food of Vietnam would be a serious understatement. I easily ate vegan, with a few bites of fish here and there, during my three-week tour and was perpetually delighted when six-course meals were placed before me. The food was fresh and expertly prepared–plant and nutrient dense, with rice as a base appearing in grain, noodle, and wrap form. My positive experience with unique textures of tofu has inspired me to be more courageous about experimenting with it at home. I’m fooling around with jackfruit and a cia boa knife now, too. While dining in the streets of Saigon, an entree I found revelatory looked like a plate of fried scallops, but had a luscious creamy custard-like tofu interior. I am still thinking about this ingenious dish, Tau Hu Chien…
Vietnam is a thrifty and efficient nation. Market shopping is a daily event, and vendors ‘pop-up’ fish stalls and rice noodle stands wherever they like along busy sidewalks. You don’t have to search far for immediate access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and rice noodles. I did not see anyone begging in the streets, as families care for their own, and take tremendous pride in recreating traditional recipes from modest local sources. Because the food chain is so vital and efficient in this tiny nation of 95 million people, it is considered very rude to waste or to leave any food uneaten. This is especially true if the meal is cooked in someone's home. It's a strong insult to the farmers and fishermen who made the meal possible. So heads up: don't take more than you can eat, especially if you find yourself at one of the big hotel breakfast buffets (Hanio's Melia is, hands down, the best in country!) It's also mandatory that many compliments are given throughout every meal.
The textures and unique varieties of vegetables combined with sauces like lime & pepper, tamarind, chili, and peanut kept my eyes popping and the curiosity flowing. I won't be able to type the Vietnamese names of most foods due to the lack of the essential seven accent letters in Vietnamese, which radically modify the meaning of words, but I'll share a few of my favorite foods.
In a delightful Hoi An vegan garden-restaurant I enjoyed 'Hoi An Pancakes' ('Bun Sow' is my English strangulation-translation) a crispy tumeric-spiced rice flour crepe that was loaded with bean sprouts and peanuts. It's on almost every casual menu in Vietnam as it’s a national dish. You will find it on Viet menus in America, too. To eat it, you take a piece of the crepe (it is cut like a pizza slice) lay it in some butter lettuce, load it with fresh mint, cilantro, and peanut sauce, roll it up and devour it. It's like biting into a bag of potato chips–I almost passed out from the sheer delight of this fantastically sensuous experience. This is definitely one of the best things I have ever eaten! Eager to know more about it, I was happily surprised the next morning at our cooking class: it was the first recipe we learned how to make. So now you, too, can try this at home; recipe follows.
A dessert version of this crepe looks like a 'peanut brittle pizza' and was available all over the marketplace for a dollar. If a sesame cookie and a piece of peanut brittle had a baby, and a rolling pin crushed it smooth, the result would be this addictive snack, Keo Dau Phong.
Another favorite dish was a clay pot soup prepared ‘Quang Nam’ style with fresh rice noodles and veggies simmered together for ten minutes. It was an amazing treat to make our own rice noodles—a simple, but not easy process! There really is no comparison to eating fresh noodles. I noticed in my local Vietnamese grocery that fresh noodles are sold in the fridge section, so I’m committing to this easy upgrade going forward. They are super fast to prepare: simply pour boiling water over desired amount of noodles, let stand for a minute, strain. No fuss, no waste, no pots. The aromatic lemongrass-garlic-shallot flavor combination is a winner in any dish, simply smash together desired amounts. To keep your Indochine buzz alive, I recommend infusing your food with these ingredients on a regular basis. Check out The Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An, our cooking class site; this link describes all the favorite herbs and spices of Vietnam. Their soup recipe features fish, but the method easily adapts to vegan ingredients. A small dutch oven works fine as a claypot.
Of course, fresh spring rolls were everywhere, and we ate lots of their goodness loaded with mint, carrot, mango, jicama, tofu, ginger and cucumber–the varieties are limitless–slathered with sauces like peanut and sweet and sour. I ate all of the carb-forward rice-based dishes and loved my energy levels and lack of weight gain during the trip. I didn't notice that I hadn't eaten wheat for three weeks—until I got home to a veggie burger bun, and then felt awful—choky throat and night sweats. Going forward, I'm sticking with rice-based products whenever possible.
Experiencing a plethora of new culinary sensations day after day is both delicious and daunting. Three of my favorite things, cashews, coffee, and chocolate were all exceptionally fine and provided a nice respite when my traveler's palate got over-stimulated. Fresh fruit was a bountiful and welcomed treat for us winter-weary Vermonters. The polka-dot wedge of fruit in the foreground below, right, is dragon fruit; it has a mild flavor, pleasing texture, and sassy style (see red fruit photo at top of blog). Vietnam-produced ‘blood cashews’ (the nutritious skin is retained) are ‘next level’ satisfaction for nut freaks—many of us were giddily addicted and even hauled a few pounds home.
Hoi An Pancake (Banh Xeo/’Bun Sow’)
Crepe Ingredients for 4
Rice batter: Whisk together 1-cup dried rice flour with 1.5 cups water; add a pinch of salt, 1-T cornstarch, and .5-t of turmeric powder. Leave at room temperature for 1 hour.
Toppings: any combination of cooked shrimp or pork (optional); thinly sliced green onions, peanuts, and fresh bean sprouts that have been quickly steamed and blotted on paper towel.
Wrappings: Boston bib or butter lettuce whole leaves; fresh mint, cilantro, and Vietnamese basil; a packet of rice paper, lightly moistened.
Heat a little vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan. Stir batter and pour in just enough to create a thin layer.
Fry on medium to high heat until the bottom of the crepe is crisp. Flip the crepe to toast the other side.
Top with herbs, bean sprouts onion, and peanuts.
Cook multiple crepes adding a little oil each time to the pan.
To Serve: Each guest takes a slice of crepe and sets it in a piece of lettuce leaf. Add desired toppings and wrap in moistened rice paper. Dip into peanut sauce (or slather it in before wrapping, as I prefer!) Detailed tips for nailing this recipe are here.
Peanut Sauce: In a saucepan combine 1-t crushed garlic; 2-T crunchy peanut butter; 1-t fish sauce (VG version available); 1-t brown sugar or honey; 1-t soy sauce; 1/2-cup coconut milk. Whisk together and heat for 30 seconds. Add lime juice if needed.
I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me.