Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years Eve 2010 in Saigon

With so many wonderful restaurants in Saigon to choose from, the big question had to be — "Where to eat on New Years Eve?" A culinary favourite among locals is Quan An Ngon and is considered to be the best Vietnamese food in the city. It's not fancy, but it's 100% authentic Vietnamese featuring Saigon's finest street chefs all under one roof. Ngon, which means 'delicious', is a big, breezy open air colonial-style mansion with high-ceilings, large exterior balconies and tropical interior courtyards complete with draping twinkle lights.

Ngon is always packed, with both locals and expats, but it really comes alive at night. The atmosphere is chaotic — a cacophony of laughing, chattering guests, shouting waiters, and clanging pots and pans. The main courtyard of the building is surrounded by many outdoor cooking stations, each serving a particular street chef's regional specialty — a veritable culinary survey in Vietnamese cooking — and the prices are cheap, especially North American standards. Thanks to our wonderful guide Thanh, we were able to stop by Ngon earlier in the day to make reservations for New Years Eve (he knew the owners!), and were given a guided tour of the cooking stations and the dishes being prepared. 

Even so, the 15-page menu is a real challenge for the uninitiated. We pointed gingerly to dishes on the menu and waited breathlessly to see what delights arrived! Fortunately everything is good and made from only the freshest, local ingredients. Meals are a leisurely, multi-course affair, and feature many noodle or vermicelli-based dishes with vegetables, chicken and pork, a huge variety of pho (noodle soups), and all kinds of seafood. We ordered six dishes including grilled crab, stir-fried vermicelli with vegetables and seafood, rice paper wrapped vegetarian spring rolls and minced shrimp on sugar cane, and with 2 glasses of beer, our bill came to $27! 

The real shock came as we tried to make our way back to the hotel among the thousands of revellers, as we all weaved precariously through the gazillions of honking scooters, that are notorious for treating traffic signals as a 'suggestion' only! Pedestrians beware. We made it back to our hotel intact but with the time change, we heralded in 2011 fast asleep in our beds, with visions of spring rolls dancing in our heads!

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls
Makes 8 spring rolls

2 oz rice vermicelli
8 rice wrappers (8.5 inch diameter)
8 large cooked shrimp - peeled, deveined and cut in half
2 tbsp chopped fresh Thai basil
3 tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
2 leaves lettuce, chopped
4 tsp fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp garlic chili sauce

1 red chilli, sliced thinly

Bring a medium saucepan of water to boil. Boil rice vermicelli 3 to 5 minutes, or until al dente, drain and let cool.

Fill a large bowl with warm water. Dip one wrapper into the hot water for 1 second to soften. Lay wrapper flat. In a row across the center, place 2 shrimp halves, a handful of vermicelli, basil, mint, cilantro and lettuce, leaving about 2 inches uncovered on each side. Fold uncovered sides inward, then tightly roll the wrapper, beginning at the end with the lettuce. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

In a small bowl, mix the fish sauce, water, lime juice, garlic, sugar, chilli sauce and sliced chilli.

Serve rolled spring rolls with the fish sauce on the side.