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Herbs and leaffy green vegetables in Vietnamese Cuisine September 15, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Fruits & Vegetables, Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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Although I love both Thai and Vietnamese food, I however think that the latter is lighter and more refreshing than the former, using crisp, uncooked vegetables, subtle seasonings, unique flavor combination and a lot of raw herbs. It is textural, with fresh and sharp taste.

Actually, the pervasive use of fresh leaves and herbs sets Vietnamese Cuisine apart from other and seems unique in its kind. While Vietnamese restaurants in other regions of the world rarely manage to offer more than one kind of mint, basil or cilantro, there is in Vietnam a remarkable variety of herbs, used in many ways: wrapped around cooked meat as a guava leaf does in nem chua; chopped, as dill in Cha ca (fish cake) or fingermint does in numerous salads; stirred into the steaming noodle soup as do Thai basil and saw leaf cilantro in Pho; BBQ wrap as betel leaf in Bo la lop; main ingredients in soup or sautee’d as morning glory, spinach, yute leave; as wrappers with lettuce and rice papers; and in drinks as rau ma

Certainly the use of these fresh herbs and leaves is part of the appeal of Vietnamese food, providing fresh flavors, beautiful aromas and many interesting textural variations.

My wife’s conclusion is: “now I understand how Vietnamese women are sveltes without diet or worrying about what they eat.”

I will write a post for each herbs that we grow and use at Bai Sri.

The flesh of Vietnamese Cuisine August 27, 2007

Posted by adrien in Food facts, Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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With more than 1600 miles of unspoiled coastline in addition to countless canals and waterways, which include the Red River, the Perfum River and the Mekong River (the most important river in South East Asia), it is obvious that seafood and aquatic products are such an important part of the Vietnamese alimentation. This ubiquity of water in Vietnamese landscape is reflected in the food by the extensive and systematical use of nuoc mam . In the same way, rice is omnipresent in Vietnamese landscape and Cuisine.

With its well irrigated lowlands and vast green uplands, the dramatic interchangeability of its landscape, Vietnam is a beautiful and fertile country, rich in agricultural ressources. Sixty per cent of its arable land is given over to the production of rice. Lush green rice paddies shinning under the sun dotted with water buffaloes and women’s conical hats is a picture that one can see everywhere in Vietnames countrysides, from the Red River Delta in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South, from the moutains of Sapa near the chinese border to southshore of Phu Quoc Island. Being the third exporter of rice after Thailand and the United States, rice has also an important position in the economy.

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But it is in the Vietnamese kitchen that rice reveals the versatility of its use, the skill of those hands which turn this little white grain into such delicious tastes and forms, and the wisdom of a millenaire culture. As a matter of fact, the application of rice reaches far beyond the simple steaming, occuring in a diverse range of ingredients or dishes and not always recognizable as rice. In addition to being used in the production of wine and vinegar, rice flour is used to make noodles, cakes, dumplings, crepes, raviolis… Rice is also transformed into flat rice paper sheets for wrapping rolls and unumberable dishes; glutinous rice soaked overnight, steamed with beans or corn, then wrapped in an attractive way into a banana leaf with different garnishes such as shredded coconut, toasted sesame seed, sugar, crushed roasted peanuts, fresh coconut milk..it is xoi, the most healthy and delicious breakfirst ever. The same soaked glutinous rice can be also stuffed with mung bean paste, pork, then tightly wrapped with banana and cooked in water, it is called banh chung, a traditional “tamales” eaten during Lunar New Year holiday accompanied with cu kieu: preserved mixed vegetables (thinly slices of carrots, Daikon, green papaya , young shallots cooked in a nuoc mam based sauce).

Travelers often put steamed rice in a cotton cloth, press and compact it into a solid mass, then cut it in thick slices so that they can bring them in their travels. The Hmong, Dzao or Thai minorities in the northern Sapa often have with them a sealed bamboo tube which contains soaked rice with the appropriate amount of water. Just a fire is needed and fresh steamed rice is made with the most convenience everyhwere.

The blood of Vietnamese Cuisine July 4, 2007

Posted by adrien in Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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Even though used throughout Southeast Asia (nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, ngan byar yay in Myanmar or Tuc Trei in Kampuchea (Cambodia), it is in Vietnamese Cuisine that fish sauce is omnipresent.
I remember after spending a year studying in Notre Dame de Garaison (a beautiful 16th century monastery in the Pyrenees) without none Vietnamese food, the first night I got back to Paris, what I was fancied for was just a bowl of plain rice with some nuoc mam. The taste and flavor of nuoc mam reflect so well the soul of Vietnam: the saltiness of tears (caused by centuries of wars, civil wars and those against invaders); of the sweat of slavery under a thousand years of Chinese domination and a century of French colonization; of the South Chinese Sea water that drunk thousands of boat peoples in their thirst of liberty, the fishy smell of the 3500 km of coastline, of infinite numbers of fishing ports and the gigantic Mekong Delta, and finally the sweetness bitter tainted of hope and nostalgia.

But let’s get back to the main purpose of fish sauce as a cooking ingredient: it is made with salt and anchovy, fermented and aged in wooden barrels. In my opinion, the Vietnamese nuoc mam is better elaborated and therefore has a subtler flavor than its Southeast Asian alter egos. The Thai nam pla (the most used in US Thai Restaurants is Tiparos but the Squid brand or Trang cha are far better) is saltier, less sweet and less strong in taste but the flavor is also less complex, meanwhile the Filipino patis (the most famous is Rufina Patis) is even saltier and heavier.
While Vietnamese constitutes the first Southeast Asian population in the United States, Thai fish sauce is the most sold. This might be explained by the American trade embargo on Vietnam (1978 –1994), which allowed Thai fish sauce exporters to position comfortably on the northern american market and even European market (Vietnam was the only exporter of nuoc mam to Europe since the 19th century but has stopped its exportation with the arrival of the communists in 1975 and let the door opened to Thai fish sauce). However, it was harder for them to reach the quality of Vietnamese nuoc mam. (Actually, to respond to the quality expectations of the market – most of fish sauce buyers are Vietnamese- tons of Vietnamese nuoc mam was imported in Thailand, mixed with Thai fish sauce and re-export to the US under Thai Brands as a Thai product). Even though today, lots of vietnamese fish sauces are thought Thai products. The best example is from importfoods.com, a commercial site hailed by the New York times and Martha Stewart Living, which said about Viet Huong (means in vietnamese Flavor of Vietnam) Three Crabs: “is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong”…
Without any chauvinism, I strongly recommend you Vietnamese fish sauce, especially the ones which come from Phu Quoc (the largest island of Vietnam which houses more than a hundreds nuoc mam producers, where high rate of protein anchovy can be found in abundance in the southwestern water of the island in their season from August to December) or Phan Thiet, and it is primordial that you can read the mention of nhi and Thuong hang on the label. “Nhi” means first extraction and “Thuong hang “ highest quality. Nhi is for Nuoc mam what extra virgin is for olive oil: first extraction, better quality and more expensive. I remember a visit of a fish sauce factory in Rach Gia when I was a kid. We assisted to the first attraction and I was amazed and disgusted how the first extraction was pungent and thick. Actually, the fish sauce we found in the bottles is already diluted at 80%.
Most nuoc mam is made with anchovy (some are made with mackerels and are more expensive), but some producers in Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc combine different type of fish just a wine producer combines cepages to get better flavors. Since 2002, Phu Quoc’s nuoc mam is regconized as “Apellation d’Origine Controle” products in France and Europe (just as wines, Champagne and Cognac).
In Bai Sri, we use mainly Viet Huong’s The Three Crabs brand which is for me the best. It has a good consistency in quality: subtle flavors, delicate aroma and translucid amber color. We only use Tiparos nam pla for Pad Thai.

More than the blood of Vietnamese Cuisine, nuoc mam truly connects his lost sons to their homeland, and Vietnam to the world.