July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

Fried Laksa

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One of Mum’s friends once made a dry version of laksa for a potluck. It made so much sense to do it without the liquid for easy luggability. It was really yummy, so I had to recreate a version so that DC could try it. It was incredibly easy, although it requires quite a bit of effort in chopping everything up. The picture didn’t come out so good partly because I was trying out a new camera and partly because I lost patience with the chopping. Get some help with the cutting if you can. If not, don’t worry, it tastes much better than it looks!

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Ingredients:

2 tbsp dried shrimp, soaked in water
1 piece belachan, about the size of two 50 cent coins, toasted
6 shallots
1 clove garlic
5 stalks laksa leaves
3 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp dried shrimp (keep dry, do not wash)
2 lemongrass stalks, sliced
2 thick slices galangal
1 packet laksa paste (I use Dancing Chef brand)
good squirt of coconut milk, approx 10 tbsp
6 taupok, cut into squares
400g beansprouts (40 cents from my market), picked over and washed
1 kg thick beehoon ($1 from my market)

Sides:
20 poached prawns, shelled
1 big fish cake, shredded
2 chicken breasts, poached and shredded
3 eggs, hard boiled and sliced

Garnish:
1 cucumber, peeled, cored and shredded
large handful laksa leaves, shredded

Method:

  1. Pound the soaked shrimp using a mortar and pestle together with the belachan, shallots, garlic and a handful of laksa leaves.
  2. Fry the dried shrimp in hot oil till crisp, taking care to put them all in at the same time. Remove promptly from the oil as the shrimp burn easily. Set aside on paper towels to absorb the excess oil.
  3. In the same oil, fry the pounded paste of shrimp, belachan, shallots and garlic with the lemongrass and galangal slices till fragrant, about 2 minutes on low. Pour in the laksa paste and fry till fragrant or till you start choking from the pungent chilli smell (whichever comes first). Remember to turn on the fan extractor if you have one. Still, it’s pretty much guaranteed that your whole house will reek of laksa for days.
  4. Remove the lemongrass and galangal, discard.
  5. Add the coconut milk and stir till you get a thick but fairly runny paste.
  6. Stir in the taupok and beansprouts, making sure to incorporate fully before adding in the next ingredient, then finally the noodles.
  7. Check the seasoning, adding fish sauce to taste. Garnish with cucumber shreds, chopped laksa leaves and crispy dried shrimp.
  8. Serve with fish cake, prawns, chicken and boiled egg slices on the side for everyone to help themselves.

Enough for 6.

Chronicles of MPT: Opera

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I’ve been a regular at Bedok South Hawker Cenre’s Opera for a long time. The auntie who took order would take one look at me and tell me my order immediately. It’s too bad she’s not there anymore, but the auntie who makes the noodles is still there.

What I love about this stall is how healthy and clean everything tastes. It’s not your usual fishball noodle nor bak chor mee. It’s invariably full of fresh ingredients like baby romaine lettuce (which other stall uses baby romain?), sprightly beansprouts and incredibly fat free minced pork. Coupled with homemade fried shallots, good chilli sauce and excellent vinegar,  the dry version is heavenly. I could eat here every day. In fact, I see lots of old-timers order their daily fix from this stall. (For the record, it’s not the one with the queue, I personally can’t see why people like the famous fishball stall with the long queue.)

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I also ask for extra vegetables for $0.50 more and they give me a much bigger bowl of soup plus extra fishballs and other ingredients. This is worth my while because it’s the only accompanying soup worth drinking. At other places I invariably leave the soup untouched because it’s just msg and water. Here, things are quite different and I always finish every drop of the soup. It’s fantastic.

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What’s not so great about it? The meatballs are only a notch above run of the mill and the meepok can sometimes be soggy. Go for the meekia or meesua, both the dry version. Both are excellent.

Opera
#01-175
Blk 16 Bedok South Road Hawker Centre

Chronicles of MPT: Balestier Road

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Here’s a place DC and I are divided on. Obviously I like it enough to blog about it. This is a strange sort of bak chor mee/Teochew mee pok tar hybrid. It’s got all pork balls, minced pork and dried sole, plus there’s seaweed in the soup. But it also has prawns and beansprouts, so it’s a bit of a confused dish.

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Here’s why we’re divided: the pork balls are run of the mill and the soup is but a notch above the usual dishwater. The chilli sauce is decent but nothing memorable. What I really liked was that the meepok was very well done. It was done perfectly chewy, neither soggy nor underdone. Perfect. I also liked the mushroom and dried sole always hits the spot for me. Thumbs up in my book!

Noi’s Mushroom Minced Meat Noodle
Teck Seng Coffeeshop
588 Jalan Datoh off Balestier Road

March in Laos: Exciting Eats at a Sleepy Town

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Siamesecat and I certainly weren’t going to stay idle as we cooled our heels in Huay Xai. We immediately set off to eat. The first thing we saw was a little stand selling tam som AKA papaya salad. It’s not commonly known, but Thai papaya salad (som tam) really originated in Laos. It’s made by pounding green papaya shreds into, among other things, cherry tomato, cucumber, dried river prawns and fermented river crab paste. The river crab paste made me slightly worried as I peered into the container full of tiny crab carcasses in gloopy brown goo. My venerable guide book cautioned that food made from such fermented pastes, especially in this area, could give one liver fluke.

Nevertheless, the tam som was made by such friendly people Siamesecat and I just had to pull up a chair at the stall. It was reassuring how locals in mopeds kept pulling up for their tam som fix but not so when they took over the mortar and pestle and tasted the salad as they made it (double-dipping as usual). Of course the mortar and pestle wasn’t washed in between salads. We resolutely ignored hygiene concerns and plucked up the courage for our own order. Like most Lao food, it looked awful but tasted really awesome. We slurped it up in double-quick time as more people DIY-ed their salads, then tried to pay the man who made our salad. He gave us a puzzled look and then it dawned on us that he was another customer and was doing us a favour to make the tam som! He called out and a young girl appeared from nowhere. She accepted money from us but put it down somewhere behind the containers of ingredients, then scuttled off somewhere else. The funny thing was that we never found out who the owner really was. In case you’re wondering, we never got sick eating Lao food. Having said that, I haven’t specifically checked if I’ve got liver fluke!

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Salad obviously wasn’t going to fill us up for long. A stroll to the edge of town (not very far away) took us to a rickety makeshift stand with quite a few people having their share of some kind of spicy noodle. We did our usual mime of sitting down, looking pointedly at the other noodle bowls on the table, then grinning expectantly at the proprietress. She smiled back, pointed at the same noodle bowls and then starting scooping out broth of some sort for us. Contentedly, we sat back, expecting something like this to appear in front of us:

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We were shocked to find that all she placed in front of us was tomato pulp in plain water. First I sniffed at it, then took a little taste (it was slightly sweet and tomato-y), looked up in horror at Siamesecat and then arched a quizzical eyebrow at the proprietress. She apologetically pointed out a large container full of a sambal chilli paste on the table and gestured at the toppings. It was the usual DIY till you get the perfect personalised taste approach so common in Laos. We added some of the incredibly lethal chilli paste, probably about a tenth of what the locals added, some shredded coriander and spring onion, then salt, sugar and msg. The proprietress kept signalling to us that we needed to add more of the msg and was rather puzzled when we demurred. “Crazy tourists,” she must have thought.

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Only after we’d mix-mix-mixed to our (her?) satisfaction did the proprietress retrieve our bowls from us and add in the noodles. The result was cold and a very refreshing burst of hot, spicy and salty with hints of sweet and ferment. The noodles were probably made by shaving a block of steamed rice flour (think something along the lines of Singaporean chwee kuey). They were so good that Siamesecat and I decided to try another bowl of a variation: not shaved noodles but the same cut into cubes. The best part? It cost us next to nothing for each bowl (about SGD0.10, I kid you not).

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We were so pleased with our good cheap eat that we asked for a photo with the proprietress and here we are below. She wrote down her address in Lao for me to send her a copy. I hope she got it.

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As we wandered back into town, Siamesecat spied this lady making egg omelettes on a bamboo fire. Despite Siamesecat’s egg allergy, we went ahead and had one each (bad girl!).

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This omelette was filled with kang kong (some kind of water spinach) and bean sprouts, and eaten with a dipping sauce of fish sauce and garlic. Simple but gratifying.

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We didn’t spend all day eating. My intermezzo was heading to the local Red Cross where for about SGD5, I had a massage and a session in a traditional steam room. The wooden stilt house was built such that a massive wood fire under the house heated a vat of water steeped with local herbs. I don’t know how they managed not to burn the house down. The herbal steam was shunted into a steam room. In a provided sarong, I sat there for as long as I could, apeing the locals by rubbing the condensed steam (and sweat??) onto my arms and legs. Then I sat outside for a while, sipping hot herbal tea, before going in again. Repeat three times and I was relaxed, zenned out and ready for dinner.

With such a name, we couldn’t resist going to Nutpop for dinner. The English menu was a nice change from our usual order-by-gesticulation routine.

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We celebrated making the 15-hour journey in one piece with some local ginger whisky.  I don’t know how it was made, neither do I want to find out. It didn’t taste as good as it looked in the swanky wine glass. We both had difficulty finishing it!

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Thankfully, the food was far better. In our usual greed, we ordered enough for a family. The food was really good as was standard in Laos. What stood out was the pork larp, a meat salad of minced pork, fish sauce and green beans finished off with lime juice; and the steamed river fish. The fish was a lovely departure from the norm of saltwater fish and was done “Thai-style” (whatever that meant). It helped that the lime and lemongrass made it refreshing and thus easier for us to eat more than we should have!

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Southeast Asian-Style Coca Cola Chicken Noodle Soup

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This is a rather odd-sounding recipe. It’s inspired to some point by the famous Kai Tun Coke in Chiang Mai (even though I haven’t tried the McCoy yet) and from eating my way around Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. I know that most people don’t have a leftover Coke problem when they have guests over, but I do. This recipe used up my leftovers beautifully.

First, simmer the chicken in an infusion of coke, fish sauce and whatever herbs and spices you like. My recipe is a broad indication, use as many or as few of them as you like. Similarly for my soup toppings: I adore the Viet idea of having a whole herb garden to accompany each meal. Diners would then pick and choose from the basket whatever they liked and added the herbs and vegetables according to preference. I tried to replicate some of it here, so please don’t feel like you have to run out to buy every single topping/garnish. If you just want it in its most bare bones form,  try it with just mint, onion and lime.

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Ingredients:
500 ml coke
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 star anise
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 chicken

kway teow noodles
romaine lettuce
onion, sliced thinly
mint leaves
lime wedges

Optional:

cucumber, cored and cut into matchsticks
long bean, cut into short lengths
beansprouts
red chilli, sliced

coriander leaves
thai holy basil
spring onion

Method:

  1. Combine the coke, fish sauce and herbs in a pot and lower in the chicken, breast-side up. The breast should just about be covered by the liquid.
  2. On low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool in its own liquid.
  4. Lift out the chicken carefully and divide into portions ready for serving. Reserve the cooking liquid.

To serve:

  1. Dilute the cooking liquid in an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil and season with fish sauce to taste.
  2. Add the noodles and lettuce. Bring back to the boil.
  3. Divide into bowls, top with the chicken and serve. Diners will add their own garnish according to taste.