Vietnam is an essential stop for gap-years, with its bright, clean food flavours


One night back in 1967, when I was five, I couldn’t sleep because I was having nightmares. My father came into my room to find out what was wrong and I told him I was scared that the war I had just seen on the news would spread to England. The war was far away, somewhere called Vietnam, but the gory details could be seen every night on TV.

My father patiently explained how Vietnam was on the other side of the world and that the conflict there was unlikely to get as far as Kent, and I suppose I went back to sleep again.

Almost 20 years later, I was in Paris with a friend of mine to watch the French Open tennis tournament at Roland-Garros, their equivalent of Wimbledon – albeit, I must say, much more civilised, with less queuing and more space. I remember watching a young Steffi Graf on a quiet, outside court, with Chris Evert Lloyd, as I think she still was, sitting a few seats away from me.

We were staying with a friend in the Vietnamese quarter of Paris and, after the tennis one night, we went out to a Vietnamese restaurant. I realised how little I knew about the country that had fuelled my childhood fears of conflict. I knew that several Vietnamese refugees had made their home in the UK, for example, but in Paris I realised that many more fleeing the conflict had headed to the country of the old colonialists, namely France.

This was also the first time I’d tasted Vietnamese food, and it left an indelible impression: it was quite unlike anything I had eaten before. I was already trying to cook Chinese food back in the mid-1980s, armed with my Ken Hom book, but there was something brighter and cleaner about the flavours of Vietnam.

One dish that really stood out was the steamed rice-paper parcels that I have tried to recreate below. I was struck by the transparency of the rice paper and how it carried the ingredients without getting in the way of the flavours. I had eaten deep-fried, Chinese-style spring rolls and, while I liked the crunch that frying brought, I sometimes found the process masked the taste of the roll’s contents.

The Vietnamese rolls, on the other hand, were steamed and stuffed with pork that hadn’t been browned. The dipping sauce brought heat and umami to the party, thanks to chillies and fish sauce. The minced pork had plumped up in the steam but retained a delicate flavour. I felt better at the end of the meal than I had at the start, which is quite a rare feeling.

As the years went by, Vietnam became more open to foreign visitors and it is now an essential stop on many western backpackers’ “grand tour”. Just as my generation would travel to Europe and learn about the food of Italy or Spain, so now young Westerners travel to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, and learn the differences between the food cultures of south-east Asia.

It is casually stated that the French had an influence on the food of ­Vietnam, and maybe there is some truth in that; but from where I am sitting, the food of this region has had a huge impact on the rest of the world. It is one of the most popular cuisines in big cities – we have many places in London and elsewhere in the UK which are run by Vietnamese migrants and their children; and Vietnamese dishes such as pho and banh mi have gone mainstream.

London also has a number of celebrated restaurants set up by chefs who don’t have Asian heritage but make food inspired by their travels around south-east Asia, often using British ingredients. It’s all a far cry from the anxious dreams of my childhood. I like to think that the power of food culture has played a part in the changes we have seen since 1967: at least we are trying to learn from one another.



Source link Food & Drink

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