A Viet Gem

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We dropped by Viet Lang for a dinner with friends one weekday evening and were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. Every dish we ordered was good, quite a change from most restaurants were there were invariably some items that were pretty run of the mill.

We started off with the imperial spring rolls, which had a filling of chicken and prawn encased in a net wrapper and seaweed of some sort, then deep fried to perfection. Wrapped with lettuce and aromatic basil leaves, then accompanied by a fish sauce based dipping sauce, the rolls tasted really fresh and had wonderfully contrasting flavours and textures.

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Next up came a dish that was awful to look at, especially in the badly taken photo below, it looked like something the dog brought home perhaps. But oh the flavour! The smokey eggplant really was smokey, which added an extra dimension to the dish, a bit like a very lovely Vietnamese take on babaganoush.

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The next dish, prawns steamed in young coconut, came masquerading as a drink. We wondered why the waiter was serving us a drink halfway through the meal but soon realised that the prawns were cooked in the coconut shell. It was very unusual because of the light touch to the flavouring. It was just delicate coconut juice, prawn and coriander that shone through, and was very, very good.

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Then there was the Hue-style grilled chicken with fried glutinous rice. The chicken was decent and quite tender, which I liked. Here, the unusual part was the fried glutinous rice. It was a bit like a cross between fried polenta and plain tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). DC loved it but I found it a bit stodgy after so much food so far.

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Then there was the Hanoi style hot pot with beef and seafood. The hot pot came with accompanying raw meat, seafood and vegetables and it was up to us to cook it ourselves.

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The ingredients were fresh and of very good quality, particularly the beef and seafood. The broth at the end was full of flavour and the glass noodles soaked it all up, showcasing the fresh flavours nicely.

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Last but not least was the pho bo. I was a bit sceptical when one of our friends specially requested for it but was amazed by how good this traditional beef noodle dish was. It beat any other version I’ve tried hands down with its lightly spiced broth and very good quality beef that melted in the mouth. A definite re-order for next time.

We didn’t have any space for dessert, but are definitely planning our return!

Viet Lang @ The Arts House
1 Old Parliament Lane #01-03
Annex Building, Old Parliament House
Tel: 6337 3379
E-mail: vietlang@wellborn.com.sg

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June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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Quick Eats: Temple Street Desserts

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Mei Heong Yuen is famous for its excellent desserts. The standards are still high despite its popularity and the sheer volume of people and corresponding desserts passing through. I went for the tang yuan in ginger soup. The glutinous rice balls were soft and chewy and came in black sesame and peanut flavours. I liked the peanut one more as the filling had bits of crunch while being just the right sweetness. It contrasted nicely with the spicy ginger soup. Such traditional comfort food for me.

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Slightly less traditional was the shaved ice that was new to the menu. I like how they took a new-fangled idea and made it their own with the almond snow ice. It’s basically a block of their signature almond cream frozen and shaved into delicate layers. Same familiar flavour, quite a different and incredibly novel texture. I liked how the very slightly grainy almond layers melted in the mouth.

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I’ll definitely be there again soon, sooner if it’s a hot day!


Mei Heong Yuen Dessert
65-67 Temple Street
Tel: 6221 1156

Seoul Eats: YongSuSan

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Another day, we had lunch at YongSuSan, famous for its classy traditional Korean fare. Being on a budget, we limited ourselves to the lower end of the set lunches, but it was enough to wow. There seemed to be endless courses of appetisers. First up were the “translucent mung bean noodles, crunchy pickled cucumber, threads of sweet marinated beef and julienne mushroom and julienne mushroom, sprinkled with black-green seaweed” and the “Kaesung style mixed vegetable salad of crunch bean-sprouts radish spinach and slices of dried persimmon.” Both were spooned directly onto our plates and after a bit of prodding and sniffing, we wolfed it all down. Which was just as well because the next appetiser was soon spooned onto our plates: “gold strands of jelly-fish with crisp pears and cucumber in a mustard dressing.” It was so redolent of wasabe that I couldn’t finish it (no picture, it looks just like below except pale wasabe green).

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A soft creamy pottage served with water kimchi came next. It tasted just as it looked – bland.

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It wasn’t too bad considering my tongue needed a respite from the early wasabe starter.

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For many of us, the highlight of the meal was “a plate of steamed tender pork belly chunks, served with cabbage and radish marinated in a red chili pepper.” The pork belly tasted very familiar. It also helped that fatty pork with kimchi is one of those heavenly combinations, a match made in heaven. Soon after I took this photo, the plate was wiped clean.

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The next dish was more of a palate cleanser: “seasonal fresh vegetable and lettus salad in a Korean dressing.” A pity that the Korean dressing seemed more like Thousand Island Dressing to me!

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I missed out taking a picture of the “soup with snowball shape rice pasta” as it was simply salty soup with a glutinous rice ball in it. Nothing much.

I quite liked the “traditional pancake dish a la Yongsusan” though, it was chewy like nian gao and deep fried. Not much to dislike her. The “seasonal brochette marinated in a Korean sauce” was a skewer of grilled vegetables, nothing much really.

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And we finally finished the starters and got to the astonishingly simple main dish. Koreans seem to have a rather strange concept of main course. Anyway, mine was “five grains of rice cooked in a bamboo bowl” with “soybean vegetable soup with various kinds of side dishes.” The wrapping was so pretty.

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The rice really seemed to be only five grains of grain on unpolished rice. It was an incredibly elegant wholegrain dish with rather forgettable miso  cabbage soup.

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Desserts were “Korean rice cake and cookie” with fresh seasonal fruits. I can’t remember what the brown thing was like except sweet. The cherry tomato encased it what seemed like the stuff from snowskin mooncakes was rather original I felt. Quite yummy.

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And last of all, to round off every Korean meal is the very yummy “seasonal fruits punch of variant style.” I really digged how cute the little flower shaped pear punch-out was!

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YongSuSan Taepyungno
Seoul Finance Center