I am the type of person who, once I’ve wiped my face clean after a good hearty lunch, will enquire about what’s for dinner. I’m no Elvis Presley but I do look forward to every meal, especially if someone else is cooking for me. I will eat anything except dog or cat, although friends of mine have been known to eat both, friends of mine from Vietnam, of course.
Vietnamese food cannot be described as mundane. Just take a look at this menu from a restaurant I visited recently. No one could get bored eating roasted squirrel or curried iguana.
The food I’ve written about in my blog so far is not even the tip of the iceberg for what is available to eat in this country. I’ve told you how to eat Vietnam’s most famous export, Pho and confessed about my bit on the side, Hu Tieu, but there are so many more dishes to explore, dishes that I was actually too afraid to try. So, for one week you are going to join me on a quest to explore the mysterious cuisine of Vietnam. Yes, for 7 days I will be eating only Vietnamese food morning, noon and night.
You might be wondering why I don’t do this already. Well, the reason is I really like pizza, and hamburgers, and pasta, and pies (I make my own chicken and mushroom pies) and curry and burritos and I can find all of these here in Saigon. Within 1km from my building there is a Pizza Hut, a Burger King and a Dominoes Pizza. With the click of a button I can order a superb curry, a bulky burrito and a heart-stopping hamburger and they will be delivered to my door within the hour. It’s a lazy and an expensive habit; Gareth and I need to make some drastic changes.
I’ve spent the last few weeks speaking to friends and collating a menu of food ready to be sampled. For a couple of hours, I sat with my German friend Kris Zimmer, the author of the blog ZUPAdream, as she passionately described the countless dishes she eats on a regular basis. My Vietnamese friend Thuy emailed me a huge list of dishes in English and Vietnamese so that I can be confident ordering exactly what I want whenever I eat out. In all honesty, I’m a little overwhelmed by the options. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
Vietnamese food is one of the healthiest world cuisines, as it is known for it’s fresh vegetables, herbs and meats. There is a wide selection of soups and noodles, rice and sandwiches, surprisingly, dishes that are not too far removed from what most people in the West generally eat. Unlike most other cuisines, it is philosophical, and ultimately simple, in its nature, focusing on the five elements and taste sensations; spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water), sweet (earth).
Like the QE2 embarking on her maiden voyage, I set off on this journey with a bang last night with Kris, her boyfriend Murray, their two friends and Gareth, at a local restaurant. Sat on blue plastic children’s chairs and with the ubiquitous ice in our beers we ate grilled prawns marinated in a chilli sauce, fried rice with the right balance of spring onion, garlic and pepper to make it the finest fried rice I have ever hoovered up, grilled squid in a sate sauce, fried chicken wings, shellfish packed with peanuts and spring onions, and the pièce-de-résistance: peppery beef rolls stuffed with crunchy spring onion and oozing cheese. They might look like cat stools but they are molten heaven in my mouth. It was a feast of champions.
I will write every evening this week with an update on my food intake for the day and some recipes to help you to try it at home for yourselves. Sometimes I will cook to show you how simple the food is to prepare, but mostly I will be eating on the street. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take me out of my comfort zone; I’ll be having to speak more Vietnamese than I am used to and I’m already getting withdrawal symptoms just thinking about the lack of pizza in my life. However, it’s something that I have to do and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride. So buckle up, get ready for a voyage of Vietnamese fare and, please, wish me luck!