This week I am challenging myself to eat only Vietnamese food for every meal. I am posting daily, detailing my food intake and also occasionally providing you with recipes so you can have a go at some of these simple dishes yourselves. It’s not going to be easy for me; it’s taking me out of my comfort zone as I’ve become used to mainly eating western style food but I’m ready to take this journey over the next 7 days and hopefully inspire some of you to try one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, along the way.
One thing Vietnam is the dogs bollocks for is its home delivery service. Quite recently Gareth and I were acutely hungover after having a party in our apartment the night before. We were so done in that we made three online orders for delivery; coffees for breakfast, burgers for lunch and a curry for dinner. You may have just done a double take. Yes, we are able to have coffee, bloody good coffee too, delivered straight to our 10th floor apartment. It’s so decedent but isn’t it secretly what everyone wants? Can you now see why we had such a problem with eating western food all the time?
While anything can be delivered, absolutely everything is available for takeaway. Today’s lunch, Pho Bo, was purchased from around the corner and eaten in the comfort of my AC cooled apartment.
There was a time when I was obsessed with Pho Bo, but now I’m aware that I just didn’t know any better. Throughout the western world, but unusually not really in the UK, Pho Bo is seen as the king of Vietnamese cuisine. With its thin translucent white noodles, dark beefy broth and fresh herbs, it is a delight. However, since trying the different noodle soups on offer this past week I can officially declare that it’s no longer my favourite!
I wrote a blog post last July called How to Eat Pho, which was, remarkably, chosen by the online version of the top British travel magazine Wanderlust as Blog of The Week. It’s a short story about eating Pho Bo and how it developed my understanding of the Vietnamese culture. Here’s a little bit of what I wrote then:
Within minutes a steaming bowl of Pho is placed before me. The raw beef and the fresh spring onions are now cooked in the hot broth, the noodles are infused with the chopped up spring onion and the broth is dark and enticing me to add the multitude of flavoursome condiments. I dismiss the ho sin sauce, it makes the Pho too sweet, and add a heaped spoonful of dried chillies, a good squeeze of the chilli sauce, a dash of the salty fish sauce and a clove’s worth of garlic. With the bowl of Pho came a plate of limes, fresh chillies and herbs of basil and mint. Adding practically a whole tree worth of herbs, a squeeze or two of lime and even more chillies is the final part of this preparation ritual.
Please take a few minutes to read the rest and picture yourself there, in that little eatery surrounded by red, pink and green plastic chairs and metal foldaway tables awaiting your hot steaming Pho Bo.
Along with my Pho I bought a cup of Nuoc Mia, which is Sugarcane Juice. The juice is extracted from a pressed sugarcane and is sweet and slightly citrusy, and so thirst-quenching.
Well, if you thought last night’s dinner was creepy then tonight you’re in for a treat. I have proper pushed the boat out because I wanted to try something that absolutely repulses me; eel.
‘Hi! If you’re not busy later, can you help me to cook eel, please?’ I asked my friend, Thuy in a text. ‘Do you know any ways to cook it?’
‘I know many way to cook it,’ she replied, ‘I will help you’.
So that was that. I had set forth a course that would ultimately lead me towards putting eel inside my mouth and reluctantly swallowing it.
We purchased all the ingredients for the eel banquet (detailed below) in the small supermarket in my building and then worked tirelessly for an hour in my kitchen preparing and cooking the meal. We made two dishes; one was fried eel in garlic and lemongrass and the other was boiled eel in a sweet and sour soup.
Eel tastes like a snakey fish. I’ve eaten snake and it tastes a little bit like chicken. I was surprised at how edible it was and I actually, shock horror, liked it. And now, I am going to go all Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on yo ass and tell you to try eel. It is so misunderstood. I mean, just look how adorable it is in this photo:
If you need me to figuratively hold your hand and help you in making this giant leap of eely goodness then here are tonight’s recipes with some helpful photographs to prove that it’s not as nightmarish as you’d think.
Recipe for eel marinade
A chopped eel
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp five spice powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
Request for the eel to be chopped up by the fishmonger into inch long pieces, because as sure as night follows day, you will not want to do this yourself.
Clean the blood off the eel and remove all innards.
Add the curry powder, five spice powder, salt and sugar and mix. Leave to marinade for 15 minutes.
Recipe for Fried Eel in Garlic and Lemon Grass
half a marinated eel
5 stalks of chopped lemongrass (if you can’t get your hands on lemongrass then use lemon zest and/or lemon leaf instead)
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp of Knorr fish stock
On a medium heat, add a large table spoon of cooking oil and fry the garlic until lightly browned. Add the lemongrass and fry until lightly browned. Add the eel and cover it in the garlic and lemongrass. Add the fish sauce and Knorr fish stock and mix. Leave on a low heat until the eel is cooked – it should easily peel away from the spine.
Recipe for Boiled Eel in a Sweet and Sour Soup
half a marinated eel
3 tomatoes, sliced into quarters
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
two-finger pinch of salt
1 tblsp sugar
1 soup bowl of water
3 big tbsp of thick sweet and sour sauce
Using a small pan, on a medium to low heat, fry the chopped garlic in a tbsp of oil. Add the tomatoes. Add the salt and sugar. Simmer and stir for a minute. Add the bowl of water. Add the sweet and sour sauce. Add the eel and bring to the boil. Leave to boil until the eel is cooked. To serve, dress with roughly chopped cilantro or spring onion if desired.
Both dishes are great with boiled rice.