Monday, January 31, 2011

Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu Cua)

Soup is customarily served for breakfast in Vietnam. Phó, as it's known,
translates as "your own bowl," since it's one of the few meals where the
food is not passed around and shared. Phó are big bowls of steaming
noodle soup, with raw meat or seafood and any number of other
ingredients added at the last minute, like bean sprouts, cilantro, basil,
chili peppers, lime slices, and green onions, that all cook in the broth
while it's brought to the table. Phó can be spiced with fish sauce (nuoc
chili-garlic sauce and hoisin sauce, which are served on the side
in small dishes.

Small soups, by contrast, are served as first courses, and generally 

don't have noodles. They're served in small portions and are called Sup. 
The famous Sup Mang Tay, or Crab and Asparagus Soup is in this category, 
as well as Sup Nam Trang, a wonderfully complex soup of crab, shrimp, 
and dried white fungus.

Finally, the class of soups known as Canh are generally served family
style, out of one big bowl, and are then often spooned into smaller
bowls at the table with rice. They are generally light, and can be served
as a first course to whet the appetite. These include Canh Sa Lach Soan
(Watercress-Shrimp Soup), Canh Chua Tom (Hot and Sour Shrimp and
Lemongrass Soup), and Canh Chua Ca (Hot and Sour Tamarind Fish Soup).

While staying at Six Senses in Ninh Van Bay, I enjoyed Bun Rieu Cua, a
Vietnamese Crab Meat and Noodle Soup, for breakfast one morning. 

It's wonderfully flavourful and could also be served for lunch or dinner, 
as a main or soup course. One garnish that I noticed was served 
with many Vietnamese dishes, was Fried Shallots. They are sprinkled 
overtop soups, Pho, noodle dishes and even inside fresh spring rolls, 
and add a mild crunchy texture to otherwise mild flavoured dishes, as 
well as adding a decorative flourish to any presentation.

Vietnamese Crab Meat and Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu Cua)
Serves 5

2 tbsp dried shrimp, soaked in warm water
1 packet of vermicelli noodles (bun)
12 cups chicken stock
1/4 lb of ground pork
1 cup of crab meat, fresh or canned, drained
14 oz can of crab meat paste in spices (Lee Brand or other)
1 tbsp finely chopped shallots
1/2 tsp fine shrimp paste
1/2 tbsp of fish sauce
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 tbsp of sugar
4 large eggs, beaten
16 small grape tomatoes, halved
2 cups medium sized fried tofu, cut into 1" pieces
2 tbsp tomato paste

chopped green onion, sliced on a diagonal 
cilantro and mint sprigs
lime wedges
bean sprouts
crispy fried shallots (see below)

Soak dried shrimps in warm water until softened, about 1 hour. Then finely mince in a small food processor and set aside.

Cook the vermicelli noodles according to packet instructions, and set aside. Add chicken stock to a large pot and bring to a boil.

In the meantime, make the crab mixture. Combine ground pork, fresh canned crab, crab meat paste in spices, shallots, fine shrimp paste, fish sauce, coarsely chopped dried shrimps, pepper, and sugar. Add the beaten eggs and mix well. When the stock comes to a boil, slowly add this crab mixture into the stock. Then add the tomatoes and tofu and bring to boil again. Finally, season stock with additional salt or fish sauce. Mix in tomato paste for a nice distinctive reddish coloured broth. This is the Bun Rieu.

Add vermicilli noodles to individual serving bowls and ladle on the Bun Rieu. Serve alongside a  platter of mixed garnishes: chopped green onion, cilantro, mint, lime and bean sprouts.

Crispy Fried Shallots

4 tbsp vegetable oil
6 shallots, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat and stir-fry the shallots for 2-3 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Store immediately in an airtight container to keep crisp.

Desserts in Vietnam usually follow one of two directions: french-inspired sweets such as creme brulé, bananas flambé, rice or tapioca pudding; or an assortment of fresh local fruit, such as passion fruit, jack fruit, papaya or watermelon, as pictured above. Light and refreshing, a mixed platter of exotic fruits offer guests an opportunity to sample a little taste of Vietnam's seasonal bounty. One note on the passionfruit: it can be a bit sour, but if you add a teaspoon of simple syrup overtop, it makes a very tasty and dramatic presentation.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Vietnam: A Culinary Retrospective - Appetizer Rolls

Vietnamese Appetizer Platter at the Spices Garden Restaurant, 
Hotel Metropole, Hanoi

After a fabulous month of exploring the cultural and culinary pulse of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and delving into the regional ingredients used in the aromatic cuisines of these fascinating cultures, it's now time for some recipes!

One of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking is the abundant use of fresh herbs and dipping sauces served on the table to enhance the flavours of any dish. Another hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, is their love of wrapping parts of the meal in rice paper or leafy greens, and the variety of simple dishes that normally comprise a typical meal — from delicate soups and stir-fries, to well seasoned grilled dishes served with rice or noodles. With the widespread popularity of Asian cuisine these days, most ingredients can be found in supermarkets, local Asian Markets, or of course, T & T Supermarket at 222 Cherry Street which sells fabulous Chinese and unusual Asian produce.

Grilled Leaf-Wrapped Beef Rolls (Thit Bo La Lot)
Makes 8 skewers

This is one of my favourite Vietnamese appetizers. Lot leaves, or Wild Betel, grows in great abundance across Vietnam, and can be found growing on the side of many country roads. Slightly harder to find in Canada, they sometimes carry it at T&T Market — or vine leaves can be used instead.

1 lb ground beef
24 large wild betel leaves*, or grape leaves soaked in water to soften
8 bamboo skewers, soaked in water before using (optional)
1 tbsp vegetable oil

2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp minced lemongrass, from the inner part of the stalk
2 shallots, minced
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp oyster sauce
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper

Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Pour the marinade over the ground beef and mix well until blended. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

To make the beef roll, place 1 tbsp of the beef mixture onto the betel or vine leaf. Fold one end of the leaf over the filling, fold in the sides, then roll up tightly. Thread the rolls onto bamboo skewers or place on an aluminium covered baking tray, seam side down. Or, if you want to be really tricky, try using the Betel leaf stem to secure the roll in place. Continue to make all the rolls, brushing with oil, then placing on baking sheet.

Set the oven on broil and grill the rolls in the pan for about 5 minutes each side, until all the leaves are slightly shrivelled and charred.

Serve on a decorative serving platter with Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip (see below).

* COOK'S NOTE: Wild Betel leaves are known as la lot in Vietnam, daun kaduk in Malaysia and Indonesia, and cha phluu in Thailand. If you can't find them in local ethnic markets, try T&T Supermarket at 222 Cherry Street in downtown Toronto. They sometimes have them.

Classic Pork and Crabmeat Spring Rolls
Makes 12 rolls

12 dried rice paper wrappers (8" round)
Vegetable oil for deep frying

2 oz. dried glass noodle (also known as cellophane noodle) 
1 large egg, beaten
8 oz ground pork
1 cup cooked crabmeat
1 small onion, diced
 2 spring onions, minced
1 small carrot, grated to make 1 cup
2 cups bean sprouts, seed coats and tails removed, blanched and drained
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tbsp fish sauce

12 butter lettuce leaves
Sprigs of mint
Sprigs of cilantro
1 small cucumber, cut into matchsticks

Soak the glass noodles in water until they become soft and translucent. Drain and cut into 2" lengths. Make the filling by combining all the ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well until blended.

To make a roll, briefly dip a rice paper wrapper into a bowl of water, then remove and place on a dry surface. Place 2 tbsp of the filling along one side of the wrapper. Fold the closest edge of the wrapper over the filling, then fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up.

Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan over medium heat until hot. Gently lower in the rolls into the oil in small batches, using a wire mesh strainer if you have one. Deep fry for 3-5 minutes until golden brown and crispy on all sides. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the rolls are cooked.

Place the rolls on a decorative serving platter with the garnish and serve with Vietnamese fish sauce dip (see below). The spring rolls can be rolled within the butter lettuce leaves and mixed herbs, or enjoyed on their own. Try it each way and decide which one you like best.

Chef Tinh's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip (Nuoc Mam)
Makes 1 cup

This is my favourite recipe for fish sauce dip that I had while in Vietnam, courtesy of Chef Tinh at Six Senses Resort, Ninh Van Bay outside of Nah Trang. It's full bodied due to the peanuts and wonderfully flavourful. It works well with fresh spring rolls too.

2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp fresh red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp chopped unsalted peanuts

Blend all the ingredients together and mix to combine. Serve in small dipping bowls for each guest, along side the platter of spring rolls.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Japan Airlines Kyoto-Style Kobachi and Dainomono

On the last leg of our Culinary Journey Through South-East Asia, I had the great pleasure of flying Japan Airlines (JAL) from Saigon to Kyoto, then Kyoto to NYC. The staff were excellent but what really stood out was the food served on the flight in Business Class. With a choice of either a Western or Japanese-style dinner and drinks menu, I definitely chose the latter and it was superb. Exclusively created by Hiroshi Takami, a fifth-generation Chef of 'Kyoryori Watakame' in Kyoto, the menu was inventive and delicious. Among the many beverages to choose, there was a Sake that caught my eye — Isonosawa-Shun — that came in a distinctive blue coloured bottle. It could be served either cold or warm, but as it was an aperitif, I ordered it chilled. 

The Sake was delicious — slightly sweet but oh so smooth! It's is a great alternative to white wine and can also be served over ice with some Japanese rice crackers, or Arare, which are little bite-size colourful snacks that come flavored with soy sauce, nori (dried seaweed), kombu (kelp), sesame seeds (both black and white) or soybeans, and can be found in most high-end supermarkets these days. I think I've seen the Sake at the LCBO too.

The first course of the Japanese-style dinner that arrived was Kobachi, a gorgeous assortment of eight little tastes served in small porcelain bowls. The attention to detail in the presentation and individual garnishes was inspiring. I spent as much time admiring the skill and artistry that went onto this creation as I did savouring each of the wonderful taste sensations, which included: (left to right, top to bottom) Poached 'Komatsuna' Vegetable with Mustard; Sea Bream rolled with Kelp and Steamed Fish and Egg Mousse; Fried Radish and Conger Eel; Simmered Sardine with Dried Bonito Flakes and Fried Tofu; Soft Tofu-Style Cod-Roe with Soy Sauce Starch; Sea Bream Sushi with Turnip and garnished with a skewered black bean and picked radish; Vinegared Flounder with Kelp Julienne; and Steamed Fish Mousse and 'Hijiki' Seaweed rolled 'Yuba' Crepe. Each Kobachi was unique and great fun to eat, offering a lovely flavour balance between sweet and sour, salty and savoury (umami).

There were two main courses, or Dainomono, to choose from on Hiroshi's menu: Roasted Japanese Pork with Sweet and Sour Sauce and Cod Roe Quiche, or Grilled Greenland Halibut with Egg White Mousse and Steamed Crabmeat Mousse rolled with White Cabbage. A hot bowl of fragrant Miso Soup preceeded the arrival of the Dainomono, and came in a traditional small black lacquer bowl. Warm and satisfying, it provided the perfect foil for the richer flavours to come.

Grilled Greenland Halibut with Egg White Mousse 
and Steamed Crabmeat Mousse rolled with White Cabbage

Roasted Japanese Pork with Sweet and Sour Sauce and Cod Roe Quiche

A selection of tangy Japanese pickles and steamed rice accompanied the two Dainomono. Although very tasty, the entrées lacked the visual élan of the Kobachi. The steamed crabmeat mousse was excellent though — well worth trying again at home! 

For dessert — Apple and Caramel Cinnamon Mousse. Smooth, delicate and dotted with diced Lichee and a thin slice of pressed fig and almond, this caramel confection held another surprise — the demi-lune apple garnish was actually caramelized apple mousse with a wafer thin slice of candied plum along its edge.  This is airline food? Incredible. After a hot cup of Japanese Green Tea to finish the meal, I turned off my overhead light and with a sigh of contentment, lay my head down and slept the rest of the way home.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Best Airport Business Lounge - Cathay/Hong Kong

Writing a food review on an Airport Business Lounge may sound a bit odd, but when travelling abroad, unexpected surprises can make the difference between a ho-hum flight experience, and an exceptional one. The Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge in Hong Kong is one of those exceptional places. 

Hong Kong International Airport was built in the early 1990s on a small island, much of which was man-made and took just over six years to complete. The cost — a staggering $20 billion! The airport itself is a modern and impressive complex. Home base for Cathay Pacific, the Business Class Lounge is a testament to the high standards employed by what is considered by many to be, the Best Airport in the World.

The Business Class Lounge features a fabulous Noodle and Dim Sum Bar with freshly made Har Gaw and Siu Mai which are kept warm in traditional bamboo steamer baskets — replenished on a constant basis. You can also choose from Seafood Wonton Soup, Steamed Pork Buns and stir-fried Vermicelli with spring onions and julienned vegetables. They even supply their own beautifully carved chopsticks, which are complimentary to guests. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I am now the proud owner of a set!

A white jacketed barman at The Champagne Bar serves chilled champagne in tall glass flutes, with or without a selection of over 10 fresh squeezed juices, including mango, watermelon, kiwi or any combination you desire, plus an enviable selection of red and white wines kept cool in a big bucket of crushed ice. Want a custom made Smoothie — he'll do that too! There's also a fresh Seafood and Raw Bar with smoked salmon, parma ham, french cheeses, assorted salads, exotic fruits and freshly basked croissants and dozens of other delectable warm pastries and home made breads.

As the first ones to arrive in the lounge at 5:30am, we had our pick of places to sit and relax within the 40,000 sq. ft. emporium to relaxation and gastronomy, and of course, we were also the first to sample the complimentary delicacies that beckoned us. With over four hours to wait for our connecting flight, we did just that and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of champagne, fruit smoothies, dim sum and fabulous cappuccinos, custom made by the full time Barista!

The Cathay Pacific Business Lounge is doing everything right. From the array of comfortable seating environments suited to every taste — Private pods with a screened in banquette, desk and computer terminal to sumptuous leather sofas, leather clad bar stools and 'Quiet Areas', designed for those wanting to catch a little shut-eye — coupled with the high quality interior design and finishes, and top quality culinary temptations, it's a wonder Cathay passengers ever make their flights. 

Truc Mai House and Le Ly's 'Heaven and Earth'

Our last day in Saigon. We depart late tonight for Tokyo, where we have a three hour stopover, during which time I have great hopes of enjoying some authentic Japanese sushi. Nothing like wasabi at 3:00 am to cure jet lag! Then there's an exciting 13-hour flight to New York City with six hours wait until our connection back to Toronto. With little more than topsiders, jeans and a summer jacket, we intend on avoiding our inevitable return to real-life a wee bit longer, and grabbing a cab into Manhattan to enjoy a leisurely lunch at Balthazar, our favourite NYC fin-de-siecle french brasserie in SOHO. A bowl of their delicious hot bubbling onion soup, some steak-frites and a glass of wine, and we'll be ready to head back to Toronto. After almost a month away in south-east Asia, we've had some unique experiences, some of which are intangible, like the music of Truc Mai House and the writing of Le Ly Hayslip's autobiography 'When Heaven and Earth Changed Places'

Tru Mai House is home to a charming Vietnamese couple, musicians Tuyet Mai and Dinh Linh, who perform traditional Vietnamese music from their small home in central Saigon. Dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of traditional folk music, the couple perform on a great variety of classic time honoured instruments, like the hauntingly beautiful Dan Bau, a single-string monochord zither made from bamboo that used to be played by blind men who were particularly sensitive to musical notes, and were thus able to create highly sentimental and beautiful sounds that were supposed to have made all the village women weep. If one sound had to be chosen to evoke Vietnam, it has to be the sound of the Dan Bau, a traditional instrument of purely Vietnamese origin. 

Then there's the Dan Da, an ancient traditional Vietnamese lithophone, kind of like a xylophone, made of 11 chiseled stones of different shapes and sizes in order of their different tone levels, which are struck with a small wooden hammer. It has a beautiful relaxing sound much like water rippling through a stream. Given that the heritage of Vietnam's traditional folk music came from simple people living in small mountain villages or rural hamlets, it's no wonder that the music they created was inspired by the sounds of nature. Hearing Tuyet Mai and Dinh Linh sing and perform traditional Vietnamese folk music on their private collection of age-old instruments in their own home, was a unique experience and left us with a melodic sense of Vietnam's culture as it might have been hundreds of years ago.

Then there's the heartbreaking reality of Vietnam's culture as it was 40 years ago, as told by Le Ly Hayslip, the award-winning author of two memoirs chronicling her extraordinary life in Vietnam and America: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. When our wonderful Hoi An guide, Mein, suggested that I read Le Ly's book, I was glad she did. It has been my constant companion as I've traveled through Vietnam and has given me a better understanding of Vietnam's history during the French occupation, the American War and the Viet Cong, all from the perspective of a young girl growing up in a small village. 

It is said that in war heaven and earth change places not once, but many times. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is the haunting memoir of a girl on the verge of womanhood in a world turned upside down. The youngest of six children in a close-knit Buddhist family, Le Ly Hayslip was twelve years old when U.S. helicopters langed in Ky La, her tiny village in central Vietnam. As the government and Viet Cong troops fought in and around Ky La, both sides recruited children as spies and saboteurs. Le Ly was one of those children.
Before the age of sixteen, Le Ly had suffered near-starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and the deaths of beloved family members—but miraculously held fast to her faith in humanity. And almost twenty years after her escape to America, she was drawn inexorably back to the devastated country and family she left behind. Memories of this joyous reunion are interwoven with the brutal war years, offering a poignant picture of Vietnam, then and now, and of a courageous woman who experienced the true horror of the Vietnam War—and survived to tell her unforgettable story.

A survivor of the Vietnam war, Le Ly has been the victim of all the horrors of that conflict, both reported and unreported, for most of her life. Although she has every right to be bitter, she has chosen to forgive her enemies and move forward to help others rebuild their shattered lives — making a difference in the United States and in her homeland.

Returning to her homeland in 1986, she established the East Meets West Foundation to help people who had no jobs, no medical care, and especially the children with no reasonable expectation of improving their lot without some outside help. Le Ly also wanted to help heal the wounds of war between America and Vietnam.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Floating down the Mekong on the Song Xanh

About an hour or two south of Saigon is the fertile Mekong Delta, Vietnam's 'rice bowl', the highest producer of rice crops, vegetables and fruits in the nation. The mighty Mekong River originates in the Tibetan highlands, then makes its way through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia to South Vietnam before flowing out into the South China Sea, or the East Sea as the Vietnamese prefer to call it. The Mekong's Vietnamese name, Cuu Long, means Nine Dragons, and represent the nine mouths of the delta that flows into the East Sea. The final leg of our Culinary Journey through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, took us to the small hamlet of Cai Be, where we embarked on our private two-person Sampan — The Song Xahn — an authentic bamboo covered river boat that would become our home as we floated down the Mekong and the many small canals that wind their way through the delta. 

Our stewards for the two-day river journey included Lan, a friendly sixty-three old Vietnamese gentleman, and three charming young men who would act as our captain, cook and man-Friday. Our first stop was Le Longanier, a superb Indochinese villa nestled in a lush tropical garden by the river, where we were greeted by a beautiful young woman dressed in a traditional ao dai, who escorted us to our table were we would be dining for lunch. Toronto seemed a long way away at that moment!

Lunch at Le Longanier was a delicious set menu that started with a light Potage de Legumes du Jardin, followed by Le Longanier Spring Rolls, filled with fragrant fresh crab and mixed vegetables, decoratively served on a fresh pineapple half.

Potage de Legumes du Jardin

Rouleaux de printemps Frits 'Le Longanier'

The piece de resistance was the locally caught Elephant Ear fish, a traditional Mekong dish, that was served flash fried and with rice paper and fresh greens which was rolled all together and dipped in a tangy dipping sauce. I tried some of the fish on it's own to see what it tasted like without the condiments and found it a wee bit bland, however the presentation scored very high points!

Poisson a 'Oreilles d'Elephant' Frit

If that wasn't sufficient, a platter of mixed stir fried vegetables arrived with Caramelized Clay Pot Pork and a bowl of steamed rice which was topped with a cone-shaped banana leaf to ensure the rice stayed hot on it's way to the table. Very nice indeed!

Assortment de Legumes Sauté au Soya

Riz a Banane

Following lunch we boarded our Sampan and started drifting leisurely drifting along the Mekong, on our way to Sa Dec, one of the Mekong's busy brick making regions and home to many rice whitening factories. Nothing goes to waste in Vietnam. Once the rice is hulled, the husks are used to fuel the brick kilns and many other light industry in the region — as witnessed by the many barges we saw carrying tons of the dried rice husks. Even the ash from the husk is bagged and sold to farmers to fertilize their rice fields, and so the cycle continues all over again.

The Mekong is indeed a mighty river and a busy highway for the region's many boats and barges, transporting fish to market or to some of the enormous processing plants that dot the banks of the area's major centres. Commerce also takes the form of many floating markets that congregate every day selling everything from sweet potato, pineapple, custard apples, watermelon and mango to floating convenience stores and coffee shops!

A Floating Convenience Store

A Banana Boat with produce hoisted high 
as a sign of what's for sale

Everywhere we went, children ran out of their homes yelling and waving "Hello! Hello! Hello!" Most people that we passed greeted us with a wave and a big open smile, even people toiling hard at work, sweat on their brow — they all had time to make that personal connection. For a nation that has gone through so much hardship over the years and with many continuing to feel the manacles of poverty, I am humbled by the Vietnamese and their enormous capacity to take joy in the small, but important things in life — family, tradition and the promise of the next generation. 

A little vignette — as we were visiting Uncle Ton's monument on Tiger Island, we came across a group of local students contributing their time to help maintain the shrine. As we approached, they all began to stare and look at us with great curiosity. Our guide Lan told them we were Canadian and encouraged them to practice their english and ask us any questions they might have. Following a fit of giggles, some brave teenagers stepped forward and asked us why we had come to Vietnam and what our was our favourite part of our trip. I told them we had come to Vietnam to visit and explore their beautiful country. Our favourite part — meeting the people. Without a doubt, the Vietnamese people, especially the children, are among the warmest people I've ever met. As we were saying goodbye, they insisted on getting a photo of all of us to commemorate the event.

As we made our way down the steps and back to our Sampan, they all waved and shouted with big smiles, "Goodbye! Goodbye!" If this is Vietnam's future, it's going to be very bright.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Private Vietnamese Cooking Class in the Garden

Our last morning in Ninh Van Bay started off brilliantly when I had the good fortune of running into Wayne Lunt, the General Manager of Six Senses, who graciously offered to organize a private cooking class for myself and Chef Tinh in the outdoor kitchen of the resort's fabulous Organic Garden. As all guests are provided with an old-fashioned bicycle to make their way around the property, I arrived at my al fresco rendezvous on my two-wheeler, eagerly awaiting my one-on-one class, camera in hand.

I ran into Wayne again en route to my cooking class, as he and a number of sous chefs were reviewing the options for extending the scope of the existing organic gardens and also looking at the possibilities of distilling essential oils from the plentiful vegetation on the property. Even so, he took the time to walk me to the organic garden, where he introduced me to Chef Tinh, who would be my culinary compass for the afternoon. 

Chef Tinh and I began the by walking through the extensive herb and fruit gardens, where a huge selection of traditional Vietnamese herbs were growing, from tangy Chinese Coriander, Morning Glory, and Vietnamese Mustard to Wild Betel, also known as Lot, a fragrant leaf that is used for delicious Thit Bo Nuong, spicy beef rolls which are wrapped in Betel leaves and grilled over an open flame. We ambled through the garden and made our way slowly to the outdoor kitchen that had been set up for the cooking class.

Chef Tinh

Our menu for the afternoon was to be Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls with Tiger Prawns, Tofu and Chicken (Goi Cuon), Hot and Sour Fish Soup (Canh Chua Ca) and finally 'Hideaway' Seafood in Clay-Pot (Hai San Kho To). Chef Tinh's sous chef had already prepared all the time intensive mise-en-place of julienned vegetables and rich fish stock before we started, so cooking was a doddle. I wish I had a sous chef at home who would do all my chopping! We worked together on two cooking stations that had already been set up in the garden, and began to make the fresh spring rolls by first soaking the translucent rice paper in water, than laying it flat on a dampened cloth. A small portion of cooked vermicelli noodle, julienned vegetables, crispy tofu and cooked chicken are placed in the middle of the wrapper, then rolling it up half way, the sliced prawns and chive are added. The spring roll is then wrapped tight. By adding the prawn and chive at the end, they shine through the translucent wrapper and add to the decorative flourish of the finished spring roll. Dipped in a spicy sauce — the spring rolls looked fabulous and tasted delicious. 

Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Tiger Prawns and Tofu

The next two dishes we made featured local seafood caught fresh every day from the many fish farms that dot the coast from Nah Trang to Ninh Van Bay, as well as produce from the Organic Garden, such as Banana Blossoms, fresh pineapple, okra, tamarind and hot red chilis. Using fresh fish stock, the ingredients are cooked quickly in clay pots which hold the heat and lock in all the flavour of the rich seafood and fragrant broth.

Hot and Sour Fish Soup

'Hideaway' Seafood in Clay Pot

The opportunity to learn a little more about Vietnamese cuisine and the unique herbs and ingredients that are used to create the fresh, fragrant dishes that have marked our culinary journey through north, central and south Vietnam, and having the opportunity to spend time with such a charming fellow foodie in such a beautiful location, is a special memory I will take with me forever.

Me and Chef Tinh, in the Outdoor Organic Garden Kitchen

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Six Senses of Ninh Van Bay

After almost three weeks of exploring Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, we find ourselves on the tranquil beaches of Ninh Van Bay in the exceptional setting of Six Senses Hideaway Retreat. Set on a private peninsula of pristine beaches and verdant palm trees, Six Senses can only be accessed by the resort's private launch, as there are no roads leading to this earthly paradise, which feels more like a private island. Stepping ashore, we are introduced to Ahn, our private butler, who escorts us to our secluded 2-storey beachfront villa with it's own pool, outdoor shower garden and 2nd floor open-air living area offering exquisite views of the crashing waves and evening sunsets — an idyllic setting where traditional Vietnamese architecture has blended into the area's natural surroundings of imposing rock formations, lofty Hon Heo mountains and lush vegetation, creating a sense of being luxuriously at one with nature.

Dining at Six Senses is also at one with the tummy, offering a choice of 4 spectacular locations in which to enjoy traditional Vietnamese cuisine or an Asian-fusion menu, along with a bamboo bound book dedicated to exotic cocktails. The main restaurant is a large open air Bamboo thatched pavilion on stilts, with high ceilings and offering wonderful views over the bay. The bar features luxurious Vietnamese day beds, comfortable pillow-clad loungers where guests can hang back and enjoy one of Six Senses many blended juices or potent cocktails.

The cuisine at Six Senses is outstanding — from the locally caught seafood to their own organically grown fruits, vegetables and herbs in the resort's sprawling Organic Garden — everything is freshly made using traditional Vietnamese ingredients and local recipes from Southern, Central and Northern Vietnam — inspired dishes such as Pho Ga and handmade rice cakes in the morning, to delightful vermicelli coated calimari and tangy Cham curries and Seafood 'claypots' with delicious Vietnamese brown rice. 

Six Senses is a memorable experience on every level, from the setting, to the cuisine, spa to the wonderfully friendly staff — it truly is a unique hideaway. It'll be hard to leave and head back to the hectic pace of Saigon.