Homestyle Vietnamese Cooking
A personal approach to experiencing the essence of Vietnamese cooking

 

 

 

 

Vietnamese Homestyle Cooking

A soft rain falls as dusk approaches, as so often happens in Vietnam. The suburban streets, lined with houses and gardens, are quiet but for a few workers on their way home. Moving away from the main streets into a maze of alleys designed for motorbikes rather than cars, past the vendor selling baguettes door-to-door from a cart, we reach Tuyen’s house. In the large but sparsely decorated living room, Tuyen Vs husband is watching television with their delighttul four-year-old daughter, already in her paja- mas, and their brother-in-law from the countryside. He is here visiting his eight-year-old daughter who lives with Tuyen’s tamily in the town of Hue because he, a widower, does not earn enough money to support her. This is not unusual in Vietnam—those with higher incomes take care of those who earn less. It is a happy tamily scene, and they are all beginning to enjoy the smell of cooking coming from the next room.

Tuyen, slim and elegant, is chopping mushrooms and carrots into tiny cubes on a large wooden board. A talent- ed dressmaker, by day she cuts tabric on the sturdy wood- en table which takes up almost the entire room. However, tonight the table is laden with truit, vegetables, meat and fish fresh from Hue’s Central market aiong the side of the gle bulb, but she does not think that would be appropriate on this occasion.

Tonight she has promised to teach me how to cook Vietnamese food, an arrangement made by my marvelous guide Mai, who is her best friend. I arrive on the back of Mai’s 50cc motorbike—a common mode of transporta- tion—followed behind by her niece, a 19-year-old learning English at evening school, in the hope of one day becom- ing a tour guide. She has been commandeered to help wỉth preparation of a very special dinner, which few would undertake during the week. Tuyen is, I am assured by Mai, the most accomplished home cook in Hue, and even then it takes her a full morning, with two heỉpers, to prepare a traditionally Hue Sunday lunch.

So what do I learn? I learn that betore stutting a cab- bage leaf, it is dipped into boiling water to soften it and remove any bitterness. To sotten grated carrot, it is mixed vigorously with salt and then rinsed. To extract the maxi- mum juice from a tiny Vietnamese lime, it is rolled like a piece of dough across a hard surtace betore squeezing. When boiling king beans, continually remove the foam that forms at the edges of the pan. These are the types of detail Tuyen tells me everyone in Vietnam knows, but it is difficult to believe that there are many people who can carry out these tasks with the dexterity of her slim, strong, and highly competent tingers.

Mai’s niece is in charge of preparing the purple banana flower, but through lack of experience cuts it the wrong way. But Tuyen does not panic; she selects some pieces for deep-frying in a wheat tlour batter, while the remainder is mixed with just a squeeze of lime and some crushed, roasted peanuts for a wonderfulỉy nutty-tasting salad. I also learn that tapioca dough is nice to touch, easy to work with, and however much you knead it, it never loses its pertect smoothness—it also takes a long time to pre- pare. Mai, adamant that she cannot cook, spends almost the entire evening rolling the dough into little balls and stuffing tlattened disks (barely larger than a coin) with steamed mung beans seasoned with salt and pepper, or coating roasted peanuts and tiny pieces of coconut in the same dough. The secret is to work with such a thin piece of dough that when each banh bot loc (tapioca starch cake) is cooked—about fỉve minutes in boiling water until

the pieces float to the top—you achieve a translucence that means you can almost see what is inside. Once cooked, they are immediately plunged into cold water to prevent them from sticking together. We stuff other banh bot loc with a single shrimp, a little pork fat and black pep- per, this time torming the creations into crescent shapes, then trying them in oil with salt and a little nuoc mam. Tuyen is not only a good cook, she is a good teacher as well. Her four-year-old daughter already knows how to stuff banh bot loc, but to play with the peanuts, rather than wrap them, is as much a temptation for this little girl as it would be for a child anywhere.

 

I learn how to fold rice paper in triangles around a stuffing of carrot, vermicelli noodles, and wood ear mush- rooms, with a single shrimp on the top—the tail of which I am to leave sticking out at the top to give this variation on the spring roll the reason for its narne, tom phi tien, which translates literally as tlying shrimp spring roll. Untortunately, it turns out that I am unable to wrap the rolls to Tuyen’s high standards; she is concerned that if she does not re- wrap my efforts, there is a chance that the roll will disinte- grate while trying.

Then Tuyan shows me how to make cabbage stuffed with carrot. I mix sugar into the sottened, grated carrot, until the sugar has all disappeared, tinally adding some crushed garlic. The rolling process using cabbage is mar- ginally easier than using rice paper, but it has to be rolled tight enough so that the rolls can be cut into coloríul slices. I find the carrot slỉghtly too sweet for my taste, but am amazed at the firm texture achieved by rolling each leaf so painstakingly tight.

Finally, I have learned how challenging and time-con- suming preparing the food can be, the importance of the subtỉe details, and what a rewarding experience cooking genuine Vietnamese food can be. As we sit down to dine in true Vietnamese family-style and enjoy the rewards of Tuyen’s masteríul cooking, I discover that eating in Vietnam is a shared experience, an intormal ritual. On the small table that the íamily has gathered around is a large bowl of steaming rice, a cauldron of aromatic soup, and a gener- ous plate of leaves that each of us wrap around a delicious hand roll and dip into the nuoc mam cham. Yet, as unique as this experience is to me, I realize that it is simply a typi- cal meal for many Vietnamese families.



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