When I was a teenager, I spent some afternoon during Religious Education classes with Sister Teresa daydreaming about how I hoped my parents took the wrong baby (me) and that I had actually been conceived by French parents. Anything, so long as I didn’t have to be Vietnamese, a foreigner, an outsider with a mother who would constantly give her braised pork belly in coconut and fish sauce instead of cheese and ham sandwiches for lunch.
Well those are no longer the days and I am proud and obsessed as ever about where I come from, what my roots are about and the people and food of my origin. I’ve roped my mum (whom I love to bits) into giving Vietnamese cooking classes with me when she is free and to help show others how great our food is and how well and healthy it makes us all.
Even though we have never been very well off and most of our people in Vietnam are poor, we have always been very happy and peaceful people because we eat so well. We love our food but we know how to balance it with our bodies and help to maintain a fit state of health and mind.
Last Saturday, I hosted a Vietnamese Cookery Class. I wanted to show my “students” the favourites such as summer rolls and beef pho but also traditional and “every day” type dishes so it could be made easily from day to day, after work from scratch and taking hardly any time at all. Here was what we made and ate:
Sweet Basil Drink With Sugar
Tapioca Prawn Dumplings
Summer Rolls With Pork Belly & Prawns In Peanut Hoi Sin Sauce
Green Papaya Salad with Carrot, Prawns and Chicken
Bo La Lot
Sweet & Sour Catfish “Canh Chua” With Tomatoes, Pineapple, Beansprouts
Pan Fried Mackeral With Mango, Sweet & Hot Sauce
Stir Fried Tofu, Oyster Mushrooms & Asparagus In Oyster Sauce
Sweet & Sour Spare Ribs With Vegetable Stir Fry
Rehydrated Logans, Seaweed Jelly, Wakame, Lotus Seed In Pandan Infusion
As we had tea to start with and then moved onto Prosecco, I ran through the main philosophy of Vietnamese food: being a well balance of “hot” and “cold” food and how they react to your body. For example, eating ginger (a hot food) when you have a cold to heat up your body or salads to “cool” down your body when you are tense and anxious. And we went on to talk about the importance of getting your right balance od sweet, sour, salty and hot in all the dishes. A great example was the fish sauce for the tapioca prawn dumplings: a lovely dish that comes from my mother’s home town of Phan Thiet.
Ingredients for Nuoc Cham
4 Fish Sauce
A splash of White Wine Vinegar
Finely sliced Chilli and Spring Onions
This mouth watering sauce is what many people crave from Phan Thiet. My cousins always travel with a portion of these dumplings and the sauce to give to neighbours and loved ones. I am not sure if this is true for all Vietnamese people but my family, their neighbours and friends are constantly travelling with food to give away. Its one of the hottest places I have ever been to. As well as their own belongs, they are carrying gifts of food. Where ever they go, if they find something delicious and knowing if they can pick a favourite up for anyone, they would go out of their way and carry food across the country (in my mum’s case across the continent) just to see the delight on a loved one’s face when they eat something good.
We then went to the Vietnamese supermarket around the corner. Its all good talking about ingredients but everyone had to know what it looked like and where to get it from in the Vietnamese supermarket. Different types of sugars to herbs, condiments, to secret powders and spices, which brands to by and what to look out for. Questions were flying in and out everywhere. It was very exciting to be able to introduce people to things that my mother and I picked up over the years.
Back at the flat, we started a rolling session of summer rolls, dessert, and bo la lot.
After we had the pho, summer rolls, bo la lot and the crunchy green papaya salad, everyone was stuffed. The enthusiastics where scribbling like mad came to a halt and I suggested they all go off for a walk to the pub, for a digestif and come back a little hungrier.
For when the would come back, the main dinner would commence. We could cook the rest of the dishes and eat it all together.
Eating together with your family, collegues and friends every day, lunch and/ or dinner is a convention that everybody embraces. There is usually a fish dish, a soup, steamed rice and perhaps a stir fried vegetable dish and everybody shares this.
I told everyone how it is seen as unpolite and rude to load your plate with everything from the centre, that you must only pick what you are about to eat. That everybody shares food, passing bits around to each other and serving rice. Soups are usually eaten towards at the end of your first bowl – the soup would gather all the rice together and you would slur it up before passing your bowl to the person nearest to the rice cooker. (This is usually the woman, the cook, the mother, the eldest sister).
We ate a lot of food, and of course we would be full but the main point of Vietnamese cuisine is that although you can get full, you do not feel weighed down.
We had plenty of green tea which is good for digestion after dessert. For once, everybody really liked the Rehydrated Logan, Lotus, Wakame In Pandan Dessert which is a refreshing, healthy street snack in Vietnam. There is no room for chocolate bars or crisps in such a culture and the climate. Although there are fast food chains opening up everywhere on the streets of Saigon – nothing beats a good “che” as a snack or as dessert. Western fast food is only eaten as a novelty, just to see what the rest of the world is on about then its back to bowls of noodles and fried fish with rice.
Now that Vietnamese food is more sought after, understood and loved by so many people, its time to let everyone know how they can eat very well and deliciously as well as preparing it and to incorporate it in our daily lives for a well balanced diet that makes all minds very pleased.
My mother was right – there was no need to eat cheese and ham sandwiches after all.