Sometimes I should remain silent. Last week I dared myself into writing a diary based entirely on my remembering the cuisine served in a Vietnamese eatery I frequented during the late seventies in Sydney: a culinary remembrance of sorts, and a challenge to having to rely on my sputtering cerebellum and the questionably fuzzy area of the gray matter surrounding it.
Surely, I thought to myself, if I can remember pilfering my father's cache of goat cheese at age three, this ought to be a snack....and in a sense, it is, thanks to the Vietnamese clean, tasty and healthy cuisine, with its abundance of fresh herbs, pungent broths, and their use of vegetables as meat gets relegated to a condiment rather than the main act.
Conjuring up those memories and the wonderful smells in my writing room, currently in the rural west of Eire, my mind wanders to 1977 and in no time (pun intended) I am sitting in the tiny upstairs dining room of this now long gone but not forgotten eatery. The room is sparsely furnished, twelve to fourteen disparate chairs, crisp, floral linen carefully stretched out onto each of the four tables, a small window overlooking a busy Oxford Street, three small Oriental wooden etchings displayed in an ascending angle towards the ceiling, and a lonely palm tree standing guard by the stairs. Calm, unassuming and a perfect setting for eating on a quiet Sunday night with family and friends.
There is a story worth telling behind this reminiscence: the owner of that restaurant was a South Vietnamese gentleman who turned out to be an ex ambassador, spoke a faultless French and always dressed impeccably. His lovely wife did all the cooking and their two charming daughters were on hand to help with the service. As we became Sundays regulars we were told how they had to flee their war-torn country with just the clothes on their backs, and were lucky enough to connect with relatives who lent them the money to fly to Australia. The four of them worked at a multitude of cleaning jobs for two years and saved enough money to acquire the seven-year lease of a minuscule but intimate restaurant.
First, an observation: fish sauce (or nuoc mam in Vietnamese) is a staple ingredient of numerous dishes, and is derived from fish that is allowed to ferment. It is in essence, very much like Garum, first used by the Greeks (in the 5th Century BC) then by the Romans who pretty much copied then refined it into Liquamen.
As distinct and clean tasting as Vietnamese cuisine is, it has been influenced by many, mostly surrounding countries and to a lesser extent, France (and USA, as the introduction of ice-cream in the Sixties is well noted). What I loved about that restaurant was the fact that we didn't have to order: a slew of steaming dishes and pots of green tea arrived at the table, all of our favorites and a new one would debut and we'd try to figure out the new concoction. Dipping sauce pic below. I know how to prepare this one and this will be the only recipe given today, see at the end of this piece.
Memory is a funny thing, it can trick you into thinking of events that have not actually occurred, but now armed with my third layer, here is the - incomplete - list of the dishes served (I did get in touch with my ex wife to corroborate our recollections, and except for one dish that I had forgotten, we both came up trumps, with a similar list):
Salt and pepper quails: though none of us were fond of little birds, the first time we were given this dish, we finished it in record time. The quails were, well, salty, and cooked in a such a way that one ate the bones as well. Served with pickled eggplant and a mixture of shredded turnip and carrot steeped in spicy vinegar.
Prawn and chicken pancakes: these were also gobbled as soon as they landed on the table. Made with rice flour mixed with a generous pinch of turmeric, they were filled with tiny fried prawns, slivers of chicken meat, bean shoots, coriander (cilantro), minced spring onions and I think, doused with lemon grass dressing. Imagine a Vietnamese taco and you have the picture.
Rice "balls" (for a better word, I can't remember what they were called but I can assure you that they were delicious), served with shredded green cabbage, papaya slices, cucumber relish, roasted peanuts and slices of a particularly hot chili. The kids always stayed away from the accompaniments but managed to pick the rice clean.
Pho soups: there are countless pho soups in Vietnam, like hot green tea which has its particular fragrance, pho also has its special taste and smell. The one we liked most was made with chicken broth, vermicelli (rice noodle), leafy greens, bean sprouts and flavored with Thai basil and crushed black pepper from India, a truly pan-Asian soup! Occasionally it came with thin slices of marinated beef or roasted duck, depending on availability.
Vietnamese vermicelli is a luxurious as well as a popular dish. There are different varieties of vermicelli depending on their shape: bun roi or stirred vermicelli, bun mam or twisted vermicelli, bun la or vermicelli paper, and bun dem tram or shredded vermicelli.
Grilled tuna: for a better name, which escapes me, it is the closest thing to heaven on a stick! As tuna is low in fat with an exquisite flavor, they managed to separate and cook the bones to make a broth which was served at the end. The meat was put into a bowl of saffron water to be later used in a sauce. They marinated the tuna in salt overnight before being grilled and was served with a myriad of condiments. Alas, these days the tuna is over-fished and is in great danger of disappearing from our oceans, so stay away from it. Instead, here's a pic of fresh, farmed clams.
Bang chung: this is an easy one to remember as the kids would "fight" for it. Made of glutinous rice, pork meat, and green beans paste wrapped in a square of bamboo leaves, it gives the rice a green color after boiling in some sort of sugared broth.
According to the legend, under the reign of the Hung Kings, Prince Lang Lieu created sticky rice cakes and presented them to his father. Bang chung won high acclaims from the King who awarded the prince his throne.
And now for the recipe: Nuoc Cham (Fishy dipping sauce)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon distilled white vinegar
½ cup nuoc mam (fish sauce), available in most Asian markets
½ cup fresh lime juice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup brown sugar
In a small bowl, soak the red pepper flakes in the vinegar for 10–15 minutes. In a second bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sugar then stir in 1½ cups boiling water and the pepper-vinegar mixture. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature. This dip can be stored for 3 or 4 weeks in the refrigerator.
If you have enjoyed this piece about this Vietnamese family travails in Australia, there is, strangely enough, a book (and a restaurant) circulating in Sydney that narrates a similar story:
Pauline Nguyen tells the honest, difficult story of her family, following the journey of her parents from their homeland in Vietnam on their escape to Thailand as refugees, and then on to their eventual resettlement in Australia. They moved to Sydney’s most vibrant and notorious Vietnamese enclave where Pauline and her brothers grew up
And one more thing: the pics in this diary are from Things Asian.
Next Thursday, smack on time (March 17th), is Patrick's Day. Three great recipes, including the fabled Irish Stew, with an updated version that should kick some ass!
If I have the time I'll post it a day earlier, but no promises as I'm busy as a bee.