Vietnam has a very rich culinary history with many influences from Chinese, Cambodian and French cuisines. The result of the French colonization in the late 19th century is that there are many foods found in Vietnam that are uncommon in neighboring Asian countries. One of the most notable is the abundance of amazing coffee.
Iced Vietnamese Coffee
Ca Phe Sua Da, which translates to “coffee milk ice,” is a common drink any time of the day in Vietnam. Made from dark roasted, coarsely ground coffee, it is strong in aroma and intense in flavor. It is sometimes infused with chicory that slowly drips from a small aluminum single-portion pot into a small glass.
Once the coffee is brewed, you stir it while adding condensed milk to form a tan-colored, velvety textured beverage that is then poured over a tall glass of ice. Drink it one gulp… at least that’s how we did it. This stuff is too delicious to sip.
Bahn Mi Baguette Sandwiches
You’ll find lots of stalls on the side of the street selling Bahn Mi sandwiches, which are cheap and delicious. There are more incarnations of Bahn Mi than the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
The most common ingredients though are pork pâté, fresh cucumber, shredded carrot lightly pickled in rice wine vinegar, fresh cilantro sprigs, sliced green onion, and the option of a fried egg. It's all stuffed in a fresh baguette and wrapped up in newspaper. It’s a quick and easy meal any time of the day, but most delicious when consumed late night after several Tiger beers.
Pho Noodle Soup
Vietnam is known for the noodle soup called Pho (pronounced “fuh”). It’s made with piping hot broth, noodles, thinly-shaved beef, and an assortment of vegetable and herb garnishes. Beef Pho (Pho Bo) is most common, but Chicken Pho (Pho Ga) is often available. Most restaurants will only serve either beef or chicken, especially in rural regions. The idea is to do one thing and do it very well.
Seafood in Abundance
Perhaps most impressive around Vietnam is the abundance and freshness of the seafood. Along its more than 2000 miles of coastline, Vietnam is studded with villages, towns and cities making it one of the largest seafood producers and exporters in the world, along with Thailand and Indonesia.
Ha Long Bay
My brother Lucas and I rented a couple of 150cc motorcycles and headed to Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site on the northwest corner of the Gulf of Tonkin, in the South China Sea.
We wanted to eat something local and fresh. We passed restaurant after restaurant, all illuminated with neon lights, and massive fish tanks piled on top of each other, stacked to the ceiling. Each one offered fresh, live seafood of an almost incomprehensible amount. Even after a decade of cooking in professional kitchens, there were so many fish, crustaceans, mollusks, bivalves and cephalopods I’d never seen. Needless to say, I was enthralled.
We ultimately picked a small restaurant (and I use the term restaurant very loosely) with a few Rubbermaid buckets outside, each with a fish tank aerator, and a large table of unrefrigerated shellfish, complete with buzzing flies. It looked like a dive. The light bulbs dangled from extension chords pinned to a makeshift ceiling covered in blue and green tarps. Miniature plastic chairs were parked at miniature plastic tables. This was exactly our type of place.
There was no menu. We picked live seafood from one of the buckets, which was then weighed on a scale and prepared in a wok in the middle of the restaurant. We chose a handful of small shrimp and a couple of blue swimmer crabs. We sat on plastic chairs so small I could lick my own knee caps. They brought us two large Tiger beers with skin-on salted peanuts to snack on. A steady stream of accompaniments and sauces arrived at the table: massive plates of fresh basil, cilantro and mint; small dishes of chili sauce; containers of fish sauce; a salt and pepper mixture; miniature limes; and diced chilies. You mix these up to create a dipping paste for the seafood.
Our first plate of shrimp arrived fresh off the grill and served plain with little seasoning and no frills. They were small, sweet, delicious, and didn’t last long. Next up were the crabs. The cook fired up the burner with flames rocketing up the sides of the iron wok. He added a few tablespoons of oil and tossed in the crabs to toast them. The sweet aroma of roasted crustacean shells filled the air as he tossed in lemongrass, fresh chili peppers, chopped garlic, diced shallots, and a slab of tamarind paste. He tasted for seasoning, like a true master who knows the flavor profile of his sauce every step of the way, and added some sugar, chili paste, fish sauce and salt, allowing it to simmer a minute, then tasting again. Once satisfied with the flavor, he added the toasted crab back in and tossed them until well-coated.
The flavor at first is sweet and tangy, typical of tamarind, but with a deeper sweetness than usual from the caramelization of the natural sugars in the wok. The salinity of the crabmeat creates the perfect balance. After about three or four bites, we felt the heat creeping in. It balanced out the sweetness and acidity, and rounded out the four pillars of Asian cuisine: hot, sour, salty, and sweet.
This was Luc’s first time trying tamarind. A few days later we were in another costal town called Quy Nhon and I purchased some fresh tamarind in the pod from a street vendor, showing Luc how it’s grown, cleaned and eaten. We sat on the street popping the tender flesh out of the brittle shell and started talking about that epic meal in Hanoi. It had solidified our steadfast dining rule for the rest of the trip -- only eat in restaurants with small plastic chairs.
Benoit is the chef overseeing the restaurants for the Market Street Group in Grand Cayman, which includes Craft Food & Beverage, Mizu Asian Bistro, Waterfront Urban Diner, Duke's Seafood and Rib Shack, Fidel Murphy's Public House and Lone Star Bar and Grill. Originally from Toronto, he trained with some of the top chefs in Canada, like Mark McEwan, before moving to Halifax for a few years. He took a short hiatus and travelled to Central & South America and eventually made his way the Cayman Islands.
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