Saturday, November 24, 2007

Go-ooo-od Mornin' Vietnam!

Cà Phê Sữa (Cafe Sua Da)
Traditional Vietnamese Coffee & Drip

A week after London I make my way to the warmer climate of Saigon i.e. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. I was excited about the the unfamiliar tastes Vietnam has to offer, and promptly got started with the airport cafe.

Bún Thịt Nướng

Similiar to the chee chong fan of Singapore, Bún thịt nướng is a DIY dish: thin and delicate vermicelli sheets served alongside Vietnamese ham and an assortment of herbs and bean sprouts for you to wrap, roll and dip into Nước Mấm before devouring.

Light and refreshing, it whetted my appetite and prepped my palette for the adventure I was soon to embark on.

Wrap 'n' Roll

Lunch at the Hotel

I decided to check out the hotel grubs, lazy and unconventional, I know. But coming from a 4am flight, I thought I'd take it easy for the rest of the morning, rest up and fuel up before I proceed to cover more ground.

Phở Set In the Works

Phở Set With the Works

Staying true to my course, I had the traditional phở set. To match its hotel setting, the noodles were served with sides of spring rolls, minced pork and shrimp, and the usual trimmings of fragrant herbs and grilled meat served separately to be tipped into the noodles. The verdict? Controlled tastes in a controlled environment.

Roasted Caramelized Beetroot Salad
With Greens & Feta

Apart from traditional Vietnam feed, the restaurant also offers international dishes, and the beetroot salad caught my attention. Now, I had a horrid encounter with beetroot some years back, finding the then simply steamed root so sickeningly sweet it became repulsively bitter. Needless to say I've been strongly turned off by the root ever since, until I read about it in one of Gordon Ramsay's books.

In it, he described the "correct" way to prepare beetroot, by roasting it ever so slowly in a low temperature to bring out the natural sweetness, so that in place of a coying aftertaste is an aromatic caramel flavor.

So, fresh off from my gratifying experience with GR's creations last week, I was ready to take his word for it and place my fate in his hands once again.

For my faith I was rewarded with bursts of delicate sweetness that melted in my mouth, flawlessly paired with salty feta and crunchy walnuts, it was one of the most simple yet satisfying salads I have ever had. Who knew, my best beetroot salad would be had in Vietnam?

Ice Kachang with Lotus Seeds

Offerings at Ben Thanh Market

Come day 2 I made my way to the renowned Ben Thanh Market and was greeted with a kaleidoscope of colors and vast array of shops selling produce, souvenirs and food. I wasn't there for groceries or tourist trinkets, so went straight to business in the food section of the market, where the crowd hung out.

Three quarters
of the stalls sold the similiar dishes in various guises, so I simply picked the one nearest to me, sat down along the narrow table and pointed to the display.

Phở with Gỏi Cuốn

My first taste of authentic pho and spring rolls and I note the subtle differences between this and what we get back home:
  1. Noodles barely fill a quarter of the bowl: back home, it's the main ingredient
  2. An equally big bowl of RAW herbs (basil, mint) and vegs (sprouts and some river plant) served for you to add to the noodles: we don't get any of this at home, probably coz the taste of raw veg and such strong tasting herbs aren't suited to the local tastes. And oh ya, you have to pay for extra veg.
  3. Meat (ham, fresh slices etc) sparsely added: again, back home, there's more of this
  4. Soup is clear but richly flavored with meat bones: back home, it's almost always tom yam. Which seems so wrong now...
I take to the authentic version immediately. I love the crunch and flavor the herbs and sprouts bring to the party, together with the clear soup, the entire bowl was light and refreshing. No wonder the locals snack can on this up to 5 times a day.

The spring roll resembles our home version, comforting to know we got something right.

Curious Crowd

Bánh Bèo

Exploring the rest of the market, I spot a large crowd around a stall selling what I deciphered with my superb Vietnamese, Bánh bèo. I obviously had to try it.

Bánh bèo is a Central Vietnam dessert made of tiny rice flour pancakes or dumplings in
Nước chấm. It was sweet (from the Nước chấm), salty (minced shrimp), savory (lardons), aromatic (parsley and green onions) and bland (dumplings). It was also weird, and great fun to eat.

Mystery Dish

I do not know what this dish is called, or what to make of it. It consists of short noodles (known as mice's tail back home) on a base of fresh veg and topped with a white, sticky cream sauce and dried cuttlefish strips. I have never seen this sold in Singapore, and apart from Ben Thanh, I will not be seeing it sold anywhere else in Ho Chi Minh. Anyone who has any idea please enlighten me.

Breakfast at the Hotel


This dessert I know, the Vietnamese version of Singapore's chendol, a mixture of mung and kidney beans, green and red jelly and tropical fruits in coconut milk and syrup. The main difference between the two cousins? This had lots, and I mean lots of the sweet stuff Vietnamese are so fond of.

Bánh Mì Kẹp Thịt

I leave you with my fav pic of a Bánh mì kẹp thịt, aka Vietnamese baguette, stall. Found in abundance along every street and alley, these stalls provide a quick snack and convenient meal on the go. I was excited every time I saw one, for they are a Lonely Planet trademark of Vietnam, a must see and must try.

Each tiny mobile stall holds a massive selection from Vietnamese pantry, from the filling (various ham and sausages, grilled meat and meatballs, cheese, fried egg, sardine), veg (pickles, carrot, sprout, cucumber, tomatoes, onions) and sauces (pate, mayo, chilli, soy sauce), garnished with coriander and pepper, and packed into a buttered baguette.

Someone once commented that Vietnam baguettes tastes better than their French ancestors. Ludicrous! I hear you cry. Having been to France and tried their baguette, I can hereby vouch for this shocking the-Earth-is-not-flat proclamation. The baguettes here are out of this world!

The simple bread here is fit for the heavens, freshly made throughout the day and kept warm in a portable oven. The shell is thin and crisp to the bite, and the bread soft, light and airy. Paired with the fresh ingredients and soaking the delish marinates, the
Bánh mì is the definitive Vietnamese food item every visitor to Vietnam must have a go at, no two ways about it.

The Best Damn Plane Food E-Vah!

A close up on the bottom of the menu please, if you would kindly indulge me for a moment. There, simply, priceless words: Exclusively created by Gordon Ramsay, London.

Holy cow! Was my London bound meal also touched by his great hand? Was I too distracted by the cheese boards to have missed it? It's time to atone for my folly.

Chilled Malossol Caviar
With Melba Toast & Condiments

This is my first go at caviar, one of the many, many foods I have wanted to try, not for the sake of luxury but simply coz it exists and I gotta know. We all live to eat and learn.

It wasn't pungent, tasting simply of...salty fish eggs. I would gang it right up there with foie gras and sea urchin, the exotic tasting organs you either love at first bite, can learn to enjoy, or simply feel repulsed from the get go.

Oven Roasted Butter Squash Soup
Garnished with Cheese Ravioli & Brown Butter Sage Crouton

Fine Field Greens Salad

Braised Beef Short Ribs with Boulangere Potatoes,
Chanterelle Mushrooms & Caramelized Shallots

The dish of Gordon Ramsay. Up till this point I have admired him for his ways about the kitchen and could only conjure images of his legendary palette, and today I learn my humble impressions do no justice to his gift.

I am no die hard fan of meat, but this hunk of beef ribs, what can I say? The ribs held firmly but barely, giving way to a meltingly tender texture that can only be achieved with a long, slow, braising process. The sauce was light and gave body to the ribs, but ribs held were perfectly moist on its own. I have never enjoyed meat like I did today.

Next up, the sides. Supporting roles but achieving no lesser accomplishments. I usually avoid onions due to their pungency, but the harmony of the sweet shallots and woodsy chanterelles was joyfully achieved and I will have it as a main vegetarian course anytime.

Last but not least, the boulangere potatoes. This held the greatest surprise for me, for the usually blend tatoes were raised to new heights in this preparation, seasoned to precision and baked to crisp and moist perfection.

If you can make everyday staples taste unexpectedly out of this world, from the testy beefs ribs to the humble potatoes, you deserve every culinary accolade laid upon your crown. GR is indeed, da man.

Warm Walnut Financier with Poached Pear,
Vanilla Ice cream , Raspberry Coulis

The financier was okay, nothing to write home about. Desserts usually make or break a meal for me, but fortunately I just had the perfect dish to concluded my London trip, the ribs and totoes perfect conclusion to this leg of my culinary quest around the world.

Gourmet Cheese


Interlude & Breakfast

Chicken & Mushroom Ragout Crepes
With Roasted Tomatoes & Sauteed Roesti with Parsley

With this plate of very good crepes (which I am a big fan of as well, but that's another post) and a good cuppa, my London trip concludes. What a whirlwind trip to the other end of the Earth and back, eh?

London...Day 3 In the Big Smoke & Still Soaking It All In

Last day in London, and though I am all for trying new things, sometimes revisiting the good ol' familiar does it for me too, so it's back to my friendly neighborhood pub. (It's more of a franchise than an organic pub, I reckon, but hey, if the local crowd keeps going back then so will I.)

Steak & Ale Pie

Solid chunks of meat I love that I could taste the Guniness strong and sound.

Apple & Rhuburb Cobbler, with Cinnamon Ice Cream

...but of coz...

Every road trip starts and ends with a good cuppa, and by now I figured London to be a tea drinking city. So where's the one place I can find salvation furthest away from the city but still within? The airport, of coz. I'll take it anyway, anywhere. Ah, good one.

London...Day 2 & Munching

Innocent in Winter Hats...I couldn't resist

Vegetarian Brekkie

I am in London to attend a seminar, and had a good breakfast jump start my system. Vegetarian English breakfast, with soy sausage and bacon. The sausage was good, the bacon, like the real bacon I disagree with, reminded me of tree bark, not that I ever had to try one, till this morning anyway. But hey, all else was...alright.

It would've been cool if they had vegetarian "eggs" as well.

Onto the seminar, a 3 day, all day event.

Dessert Plate

Cheese Platter

Gosh! I absolutely love this about the English way of dining, they finish every meal with cheese, and for the first time, I am happy to choose this over desserts.

Chips & Chilli

I was eager to try the local cuisine, and pub food is the way to go. Found a charming one packed to the doors, always a good sign, and ventured in.

Chips and Chilli was...alright, like a Mexican version of chips. Not English.

Toad in a Hole

Oh this is a gem of a find, Toad in a Hole, now this name I recognize. The serving was huge, sausage flavorful, veggies cooked with care, (unlike the usual boil and toss in treatment most sides are given), and the yokeshire pudding holding them all in, light, moist on the inside, crisp on the out. I am pleased with what I've seen and tried so far.

London in 3 Days & Back...Blimy!

I took a quick trip to London recently, another great first for me. & flying in Business, we mean Business, baby! Forget the extended leg room, enhanced personal space & leading edge technology, I'm in it for the in flight food, & Why? Pray tell! you ask. Coz the menu was created by none other than the Great Man Himself, The Big Kahuuna, my ManGod, Gordon Ramsay.

A quick low down on my lunch...

Salad of Scallops & Baby Leaves

Main Course
Panfried Seabass on warm poached Asparagus

Cheese Course, of coz

Biscuits & Tea (Or A Frothy Cappuccino for me)

Ever been served so many scrumptious Truffles on a plate?!?

For dinner, I went with the Japanese Keiseki meal, which evoked a knowing smile of approval from the steward. I have never tried Keiseki before & he was very pleased with my choice. I soon learned why.

A kaleidoscope of colors, spring on a plate. Every portion was distinct in flavor & texture. Designed to satisfy without over stuffing I could not find a dish I wasn't pleased with. Who knew, one of the best Japanese meal I have ever had, was on a Plane. To London. God bless globalization.

Another cheese course, before the landing.

And dinner later that evening...

Gnocchi Gratin.

This dish was well made on all counts: I love gnocchi, when done right, they are chewy without being too dense and heavy; I love cheese (if you haven't gathered by now) and the gnocchi was blanketed amply in the thick, creamy cheesy sauce for the gnocchi to soak up; I love anything prepped in baking dish (similar to claypot) which keeps the dish warm and adds that homely, wholesome dimension to the dining experience.

After Meal Chocs & Palmiers