Vietnamese at home

I didn’t blog about it but I spent a fabulous 3 weeks travelling round Vietnam a few months ago. I ate astonishingly well and managed to find a multitude of vegetarian restaurants almost everywhere I went. I’ve done some reviews on Happy Cow or if you are going to Vietnam leave a comment and I can give you some recommendations.

I hadn’t eaten much Vietnamese food before I went there. There are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in London but outside the capital it’s a cuisine that isn’t really widespread here yet. My first introduction to the wonderful light, fragrant spicy dishes came in Seattle and I fell in love with it, but apart from home made fresh spring rolls I definitely wasn’t an expert.

I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to recreate Vietnamese food at home by ingredient availability. The dishes rely so heavily on fresh herbs which I just can’t get here. I was in Manchester at the weekend and had a flash of inspiration to do an internet search and discovered this shop which was fortuitously right round the corner from my hotel. It’s only small but full of interesting products with lovely helpful staff. Apparently they often have fresh homemade rice noodles but disappointingly not when I was there. I did manage to pick up a selection of fresh herbs and a few other goodies though. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in or near Manchester.

The first dish I made was banana flower salad. We ate this several times, and I was lucky enough to buy the banana flower freshly shredded so all the hard work was done for me. I used this recipe

Vietnamese salads are a delight – always fresh, zingy and spicy and this was no exception. Jackfruit and banana flower were very common, but I also loved the knotweed salads, and probably my favourite was the green fig. If I ever see a green fig here I’ll be all over it! I’ll use the rest of the shredded banana flower on top of noodle soup, but you can also stir fry it.

Next on the list was Banh Xeo. Banh Xeo are a naturally vegan pancake but the filling often contains prawn or pork. I have tried to make them before and not been able to get them to stick together, so I cheated this time and brought back a bag of Banh Xeo mix out of curiousity. All I needed to do was add coconut milk and turmeric, but it’s really only rice flour, so next time I’ll try to make my own. The filling was taken from Asian Vegan Kitchen, and was basically daikon, carrot and beansprouts, then the pancakes are served with a mound of fresh herbs and a dipping sauce.

Dish 3 was mushroom in lalot leaf. In Vietnam it’s normally pork or beef, but we ate it in Hanoi with beefy seitan. This was one dish I thought I’d never be able to make because of the availability of lalot leaf, so I jumped for joy when I saw them in the shop. I stuffed them with a mushroom paste directly from a recipe in Vietnamese Fusion and grilled them on my electric grill. This was probably my favourite of all the dishes. The lalot leaf adds a fragrant note to the lemongrass chilli mushroom filling.

I picked up some fresh tofu too so it was a no brainer to try and recreate my single favourite dish in Vietnam – the lemongrass chilli tofu from Tib Chay in Saigon. Again I used the recipe from Chat Mingkwan’s book which called for deep frying cubes of tofu and tossing them with lots of finely minced lemongrass, chilli and garlic. This was a great dish but I’ll never achieve a texture like the version in Saigon!

The final dish was something I made up based on a rice dish I had in Hoi An. I precooked some fragrant rice and let it cool. I fried some chunks of seitan in garlic and onion, then added the cold rice, chopped spring onion, red chilli, soy sauce, lime juice, sesame seeds and lots of chopped herbs (in this case, Vietnamese mint, basil and perilla).

I enjoyed this whole meal as much as anything I’ve ever cooked. The flavours of the spicy chili, the salty soy sauce, the sour lime and the perfumed fresh herbs work together so well. I love making meals like this where the dishes are all served together at the same time – no formality, just dig in to whatever you fancy. And with Vietnamese food you can keep on eating and although you get full you never get uncomfortable because the food is so light and fresh tasting.

I loved my first real venture into Vietnamese cooking and I’ll definitely be doing it more often.