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In the vanguard of tourists, food writers explore Vietnamese cuisine

Thursday, June 20, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The small, slender Vietnamese like fat people. One woman in our group has been affectionately patted twice on the tummy, once by a grandmother and later by a little girl.

Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette

Second article:Cooking classes on a (spring) roll in tourist's Vietnam

I was riding a rickshaw through the motorbike-choked city center when I felt a hand on my bare upper arm. Startled, I looked up into the grinning face of a gray-haired man on the back of a motorbike, just as the driver gunned the bike and they disappeared into traffic.

Tourists, fat and otherwise, are still a bit of a novelty in Vietnam. The country opened its doors to tourists just six years ago, and from what we've seen, seems to be attracting more Germans and French than Americans. Our group of food writers and friends is here to learn more about Vietnam cuisine, just as we've been doing in countries around the world since 1979. (Does that explain the "fat" part?)

Three of us were on the first food writers' trip to China in 1979, and we have the same reaction here: Vietnam today is like China then.

McDonald's and Starbucks haven't arrived in Ho Chi Minh City yet. I'm glad we got here first.

We started in the north of Vietnam, in Hanoi, where the food is said to be saltier, moved to the center, to Hue and Hoi An City, where it's spicier, and on to the south, here in Ho Chi Minh City, where it's sweeter.

That's generally true. In reality, dishes from different parts of the country will be served at one meal, wherever you are, and none of it is as spicy as we expected. We've been a little disappointed at that, but our guide is partly to blame. We just discovered she's been telling restaurants to hold the spices. You want it hotter? Little sauce dishes on the dining tables hold as much "fire" as you could want on any dish.

The Vietnamese cuisine has other surprises, like crepes and creme caramel for breakfast, and good, crusty French bread. Women carry big burlap bags of baguettes on their heads and sell them on the street. Still warm from the bakery, they're 6 cents a loaf.

Like the crepes and creme caramel, and little children who call us "Madame," the bread is a legacy from the days when the French ruled Vietnam.

Crepes made to order are part of the breakfast buffet at the Century Riverside Inn in Hue, the old Imperial capital city on the Perfume River in central Vietnam. Sliced bananas steeped in orange juice and chocolate sauce are among the choices for fillings. At Hoi An City, the historic port town, ready-made crepes turned up again on the breakfast buffet, along with plastic cartons of smooth, creamy custard with caramel on the bottom.

"Aha," said the food writer from St. Louis. "I think I know how they use the condensed milk from America."

The day before, a restaurant owner in Hoi An had commented that the Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced not only by the Chinese and the French, but by America, which gave them condensed milk. "Especially sweetened condensed milk."

As expected, pho, the Vietnamese beef or chicken and noodle soup, is served everywhere. The least inhibited among us are slurping it at breakfast, lunch and dinner. With all the different toppings offered, such as bean sprouts, mint leaves, chilies, green onions and peanuts, pho can be different at every meal. But we've also been eating morning glory vines, lotus stems, pumpkin leaves and nonstop spring rolls.

A typical restaurant meal would be this lunch at the White Lantern restaurant in Hoi An: wonton soup, spring roll, green jackfruit salad, stuffed squid, grilled red snapper with ginger, steamed rice and sugared green beans. With it comes a choice of beer, soft drink or bottled water.

Dessert, as we Americans expect it, doesn't exist here. The last piece of chocolate cake with fudge frosting was spotted about two weeks ago, before we left the States. Instead, we get superb tropical fruit -- pineapple, mango, papaya, watermelon, star fruit, jackfruit, kiwifruit, finger-size bananas, lychees, mangosteens and dragon fruit, which has white watermelon-like flesh studded with black seeds, a rosy red exterior and not much flavor.

Usually the fruit is fresh and unadorned. At one restaurant, however, we did have "burned pineapple." Just another way to describe a flaming dessert.

Fortunately, the only durian we've encountered was in the market. Durian is the fruit the locals say "smells like hell, but tastes like heaven." I agree on the smell part, and will take their word on how it tastes.

Tropical fruits are on the breakfast buffet tables. For lunch or dinner, the final course is often a plate of sliced fruit, such as pineapple and watermelon, a small piece of each for each diner. Fancier restaurants have tiny metal forks that you jab into the fruit to eat. A toothpick is stuck into each piece of fruit at other restaurants.

At an island in the Mekong Delta known for its good fruit, we were served a selection, along with a small condiment bowl of bits of red chilie pepper and coarse salt. If fruit -- such as pineapple -- is sour, our host said, the local people like to dip it in this mix before eating to bring out the sweetness.

This is a variation on the idea of salt-and-peppering pineapple if it is sour. Either way, it's wise to chew the seasoned fruit before swallowing or you could choke, the host cautioned.

Breweries in each large city produce respectable beer. Heineken is not only popular but sometimes cheap. Weary, hot and dusty from sightseeing, my husband and I sat at a table shaded by old trees in the garden outside the Hoi An Hotel late one afternoon and ordered cans of Heineken. Price: 75 cents each.

Wine is best avoided. Despite their French background, the Vietnamese do not know how to store wine, with sometimes disastrous results.

Vietnam is in the midst of a big push to lure tourists -- and dollars -- to this poor country. "Vietnam -- the Destination for the Millennium" is the slogan we've seen on banners throughout the country.

Tourists who come soon will eat much the same as we have. Some American-style fast-food restaurants, especially Kentucky Fried Chicken, are in the large cities, and more are sure to come.

But we've had the opportunity to eat Vietnamese cuisine nonstop. We've tried some of the best, like the Blue Ginger restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. An average meal of six or more courses there is $10, plus beverage.

We've avoided -- I think -- that old Vietnamese specialty, black dog.

We've been puzzled by some of the specialties, like corn on the cob in Hoi An. The French are supposed to have introduced that American favorite to the Vietnamese. I just wish they had taught them how to prepare it. Ears of roasted corn, still in the husk and looking completely dried out, are sold by street vendors.

We've learned not to be concerned by funny names. "Elephant ear fish" at a roadside restaurant en route to the Mekong Delta was sweet and succulent, some of the best we've had. A big (probably 2 feet in diameter) balloon-like sticky rice ball at the same restaurant was spectacular in appearance but collapsed into a gooey, tasteless wad.

We've had delicious vanilla ice cream served in a fresh coconut shell, topped with strawberries, mango, dragon fruit and chocolate, more than we could eat, for less than $2. But we also learned that if you use the plastic-wrapped wet washcloths they distribute, or sample the pastries delivered, unasked, to your table, that costs more.

We tried the airline food, too, and found it not much better than, but different from, American airline food.

On Siem Reap, the Cambodian airline, we had a touch of home. Accompanying a sad-looking sandwich of dry white bread, something resembling ham in the middle and a slightly melted slice of cheese on top, was the obligatory condiment to spice it up: a plastic packet of Heinz Chilli (sic) Sauce.

Next Thursday, Woody takes a cooking class in Vietnam and remembers studying food all over the world.

Related Recipes:

Vietnamese Rice
Ginger-Lime Dipping Sauce
Hue Chicken Salad

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