Essences from Vietnam

Posted at 09/17/2010 11:14 AM | Updated as of 09/19/2010 1:09 AM

Vietnam recently celebrated its 65th anniversary as a nation. From August 25 to September 5, Sofitel's acclaimed group of interactive kitchens featured Vietnamese cuisine to mark the occasion.

Culinary creations included Súp so diep tom tuoi (scallop and prawn soup), Cua lôt chiên dòn (deep fried crispy battered soft shell crabs), Tôm sú háp nu'ó'c dù'a (steamed fresh prawns in coconut juice), Ga nuong la chanh (roasted chicken with lemon leaf), and Su'on non nu'ong xa (pork spare ribs with lemongrass).

Dessert specialties such as Che khoai mon (taro sweet soup) and Che chuoi (banana sweet soup) provided a sweet close to the meal, accompanied by special Vietnamese beverages like Vietnamese iced tea and Vietnamese rice wine.

For this week's Tastebuds feature on Mornings@ANC, Executive Chef Somnuk Attawon from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam took us on a tour through Vietnamese dishes according to the country's regions.

The island country is elongated. In the north where the weather is cold, Chef Attawon says, the food is slightly on the salty side, while in the south, where it rains a lot, much like the Philippines, the food is a bit sweet. It's the same for Vietnam's pho or beef noodle soups, which has become synonymous to its cuisine.

Southern Vietnamese cuisine was largely influenced by Chinese immigrants and French colonizers. Dishes in Central Vietnam are a bit more spicy, while those of the North, which is the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, are more traditional and less diverse.

"The Vietnamese don't cook so much," Chef Attawon says. "They want fresh ingredients from nature, special herbs."

Despite the seeming simplicity of its cooking, traditional Vetnamese cuisine is a culture all its own.

"In Vietnamese cuisine we have the fresh roll made from rice paper with roast pork shrimp. Vietnamese people like to eat rolls. They like the smell of lemon grass, galangga (a Vietnamese variety of ginger), shrimp paste and fish sauce." Chef Attawon says. All their dishes have these ingredients. "In the New Year, they have pork stew and sticky rice fill with mung beans and pork," he adds.

For Spiral's Food Festival promotion, it laid out a deep fried fish dish, rice noodle rolls with shrimp, stir fried rice noodles and stir fried chicken with ginger.

Chef Attawon showed us how to prepare the Cha Ca Hanoi or Deep Fried Fish Hanoi Style, from northern Vietnam, using the Basa fish from Vietnam. He says sea bass or the local milkfish would work just as well.

It begins with marinating the fish in a mixture made of lime, fish sauce, chili before frying it in oil. Chef Attaworn also adds a special ingredient, rice water which was fermented for two days, which gives this dish a certain sourness characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine.

A pomelo salad made with shrimp and agar-- a gelatinous rice and simple sweet and sour dressing-- provide a nice contrast and a great accompaniment to the fried fish. Those who may find it a bit mild for the tastebuds, may very well get a boost from having it with a bit more shrimp paste, the way the Vietnamese like it.

Fried Fish Hanoi Style

Ingredients:

For the dipping sauce:

Mash 1 Tbsp chopped garlic
Add 2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp chili-garlic sauce (or finely chopped hot red chili peppers or 1 teaspoon dried chili pepper flakes)
3 tsp fish sauce
3 tsp water
2 Tbsp lime juice

For the fish:

Combine: 2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp finely minced galangal/ ginger root
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
Use mix to coat:
1 pound fish fillets (tilapia, monkfish or catfish) cut into 2- to 3-inch chunks

For Pomelo Salad:

In a bowl, mix fresh pomelo segments, sliced onions, ground peanuts, dried shrimps and chopped cilantro in vietnamese dressing (lime juice + fish sauce + sugar/honey).

For noodles:

Boil water
Place 8 ounces thin, dried rice noodles in warm water for 15 minutes, drain
In a large skillet:
Heat 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
Add coarsely chopped dill
Add fish.
Toss 5 scallions (cut into 2-inch lengths)
Serve individually with fried fish:
Add shredded lettuce, mint or cilantro leaves
Sprinkle with chopped, roasted, salted peanuts