July in Vietnam: Eating My Way Through Hoi An

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Back in Hoi An, a great deal of colour and eating beckoned. The colourful Chinese lanterns dotting the streets and the relaxed way of life really charmed me. Here, there were few motorcycles and a lot of people got around either on foot or by bicycle.

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I spotted some amusing sights on the way, like this couple trying very hard to relax for their wedding photo shoot…

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… while their costumed wedding party awaited.

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And just before dinner I spotted this restaurateur picking his nose outside his very empty joint. I wonder why no one patronised his cafe.

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I headed on towards the market where lots of yummy sights and smells awaited. The sheer variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs made me yearn for a kitchen to whip up some food inspired by the local produce.

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I settled with having their local snacks instead. First, there were these odd little pancakes, reminiscent of the Indian appom. The tiny cakes were small enough to pop into the mouth whole and were crispy. The greasiness was countered by the shredded vegetables and herbs and the whole ensemble completed with a spamstick and a mystery-meat ball. It was a very satisfying starter.

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A short wander away was this version of bun. The thick rice noodles were bespattered with thick sweet sauce a bit like the stuff at home that’s put on yong tau fu, just quite a bit more savoury. It was much nicer with the hot sauce and the hotter yellow chillis.

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Yet another odd dish was this plate of assorted steamed dumplings. I wasn’t particularly impressed even though the guide book said something about “white rose” which was supposed to be shrimp encased in rice paper of sorts and steamed. It was more like soon kueh with slightly drier skin. Not bad when hot but not much more than not bad.

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Wandering away from the market, I ducked into an alley along the quaint streets…

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… and found myself in a little porch with a bowl of cau lau in front of me. This is a Hoi An specialty that involves flat yellow noodles being smothered with braised pork and topped with lime juice and the usual herbage. It’s finished off with crispy fried rice paper bits and tastes really yummy, though very much reminding of what I do at home with leftover braised pork.

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The best dish I had in Hoi An was the chicken rice, thankfully not featured in the guide but chanced upon on the street. The rice was cooked with chicken stock, just like Hainanese chicken rice at home. Unlike the stuff at home, it was topped with a whole variety of oddities like boiled pork, beansprouts and herbs. Not to mention, the chicken was just the shredded type torn apart with fingers. The flavour was amazing. It was an epiphany to have incredibly aromatic, chickeny rice matched with herbs like coriander and laksa leaves. It was definitely a step up from Hainanese chicken rice.

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I’m sure some of you must be wondering why I hadn’t mentioned Vietnam’s national drink yet. The coffee here is thick, strong and incredibly sweet and milky with added condensed milk. And that’s the only way you should have it. Ask for ca phe sua da and you get a tall glass of ice to cool it all down with. It’s wonderful on a hot day. When you’re done, chase it down with the green tea provided gratis.

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I first noticed this coffee place because of the many men perched on red plastic chairs watching TV in the morning. They disappeared by midday and I only ventured there in the afternoon to get a mobile plan top up card and a glass of coffee. After the first sip, I was hooked. I spent every afternoon there enjoying my ca phe sua da, playing with the very cute puppy called Remain, and chatting with the proprietress about Hoi An, Vietnam and Singapore.

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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]

Another Variation on the Tune of Anchovy

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Inspired by the pasta I had at Big D’s and also by the past due can of anchovies Mum dug out from the cupboard, I had to have a crack of my own version of the salty fishy stuff. As always when it comes to these weekday dinners, I was famished and tired from yet another long day in the office. In less than 20 minutes, I threw this together using stuff in the house and a mixture of herbs including some sad bits of coriander and spring onion Mum left in the fridge and some freshly bought flat-leaf parsley from the supermarket. Use whatever herbs you fancy, or whatever’s left in the fridge.

Anchovies can of course be very salty, but this varies enormously from brand to brand. Just taste as you go along before adding too much. Also, not salting the pasta helps too. I also add some chilli to spice things up a little. Here, I used some aglio olio e peperoncino powder Mum got from Italy (it’s otherwise inedible just on its own with pasta), although simply because it was another past due item begging to be used up. I’d also use fresh chilli or my usual standby of chopped chilli padi.

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Ingredients:

2 tbsp olive oil, preferably from the canned anchovies
6 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
small sheath spaghetti (enough for one)
5 anchovies tinned in oil
chilli, to taste
good handful of chopped herbs

Method:

  1. Start by sweating the shallots and garlic gently in the oil from the anchovies till barely golden brown.
  2. While still watching the shallots and garlic, boil the pasta in plenty of water till just before al dente. Do not salt the water.
  3. Going back to the shallots and garlic, add in the chopped anchovies and stir to break up into a paste. Sprinkle in the chilli and continue to stir.
  4. Toss in the pasta into the anchovy mixture, adding in a few spoonfuls of pasta water. Turn up the heat and stir till the water is absorbed and the mixture coats the pasta well. Add a few more spoonfuls of water if the mixture still doesn’t stick to the noodles.
  5. Slip in the herbs and stir, stir, stir.
  6. Serve immediately and devour.

For 1.

Oriole Part Deux

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We went back to Oriole to have a proper meal and were rewarded with excellent starters and mains. The potted crab was a lovely starter. I liked how the firm crab pieces blended well with the mayonnaise and generous amounts of pepper. The contrast with the crisp toasted bread and crunchy aromatic herbs was lovely.

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I had the beef cheek tagliatelle which was fantastic. It was one of the few dishes involving what’s normally a main course repurposed as pasta sauce that actually worked. The rich beefy sauce was absorbed well by the noodles and the mushrooms provided a burst of soft flavour ever so often. A definite reorder.

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Talking about reorders, the risotto was one as we enjoyed our taster of the last one very much. This time it was as good as ever. I think it was a slightly different version from before with a different fish (plus more too!) and asparagus included in it. Very good stuff.

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The dessert was where a bit of disappointment came in. The Eton Mess had overwhipped cream in it and wasn’t particularly special.

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Last of all was the espresso that we had to send back because it was too sour. Unfortunately the replacement espresso came back sour too, so we gave up. Nonetheless, KK says that coffee made by a certain barista is good, so we’ll have to reorder on a day when he’s there.

Oriole Cafe and Bar
96 Somerset Road
#01-01 Pan Pacific Serviced Suites
Tel: 6238 8348

Foil for a Herb Salad

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I’m going to be horribly lazy today and post a recipe for something that doesn’t quite count as cooking. I’d bought a pack of organic herb salad and wanted a fairly virtuous dressing that would stand up to the herbs but not interfere too much with the already complex flavours. A peek into the fridge and the idea hit: anchovies and mustard. Together, they would make a very assertive yet blunt combination. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar to round off the flavour, a good couple of squeezes of lemon juice to sharpen things up, then emulsify with good extra virgin olive oil and voila, a quick salad dressing that complemented the herb salad incredibly well.

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Ingredients:

2 anchovy fillets
4 tsp mustard
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
juice of half a lemon
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Method:

  1. In a small mortar and pestle, mash the anchovies to a paste, then stir in the mustard and keep grinding gently with the pestle. Add the vinegar and lemon juice and stir to a thick paste.
  2. Add the olive oil in drops at first, stirring vigorously, then gradually add more till you get a running, emulsified dressing. Taste, adding more mustard and vinegar if it’s too salty.
  3. Dress the salad to taste. Serve.
  4. Try not to look too unglam as you lick the bowl clean.

Serves 3-4.