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On The Town

On The Town

T he 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon is a good excuse to visit Vietnam.

Vietnamese food is another. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh himself worked as a kitchen

assistant in London's Carlton Hotel in 1914, and eventually became a pastry chef

in Paris under the legendary French king of cooks, Escoffier (from whose name

the word "scoff", to eat greedily, is derived). The Vietnamese have an inventive

culinary tradition, influenced by the Chinese and the colonial French. The

abundant vegetables, fruit and fish are healthy and low-fat. In the north food

is less spicy than in the south, and in the center, where Uncle Ho came from,

small dishes are carefully arranged like Oriental nouvelle cuisine. Escoffier

may well have missed his protégé after he decided on a career change.

We

retreated to the historic town of Hoi An in the central region. On the quayside,

amid one of the most colorful markets in southeast Asia, stands Café des Amis.

It's a simple place with bare tables, not a scrap of food in sight and no menu.

As we sat upstairs and talked, wonderful dishes began to appear, as if by

wizardry. The owner, Nguyen Manh Kim, 53, is a talented chef who prepares

surprise meals. They differ each evening, drawing on a repertoire of some 50

dishes. French-speaking Kim, a former high-jump champion and tennis player,

learned to cook when he was in the South Vietnamese army. He had to do more than

just satisfy the palates of his commanding officers. "They also made me eat a

mouthful of every dish to make sure it hadn't been poisoned," he said, rolling

his eyes at the memory. Kim's 15 brothers and sisters left the country after

1975, but he stayed on, as the eldest son, with his children, to perpetuate the

tradition of maintaining the family tombs, "to look after the ancestors".

He brought on our first course, Bans Bao Banh Vac, also called White

Roses, and a specialty of the area. They are like ravioli, little moist, light

parcels made of rice flour, stuffed with a shrimp terrine, and presented on a

thin layer of clear sauce made with Nuoc Mam, fish paste, chilli and vegetable

oil. Each mouthful was delicate and flavorful. Next came Tom Nhung Bot , prawns

fried in crispy batter, with that mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine, spring rolls,

dipped in a sauce of oil, sugar and Nuoc Mam, and chopped tomato sauce. Madame

Kim climbed the stairs and appeared with a bowl of Hoanh Thans, a wanton soup,

and some delicious soft, sautéed cuttle fish mixed with cabbage, onion, tomato,

pineapple and carrot, another local specialty. Spoonfuls of the mixture are

placed on a flat, crisp pancake, like tacos. It is not so elegant as plucking

the little white roses with long chopsticks, but the taste was wonderful. The

pièce de résistance was platters of whole grilled mullet, Ca Nham, tender, moist

fish, with chopped green onion, which the souschef, Che Chinh, expertly

filleted. Our enthusiasm prompted him to bring on an unscheduled sampling of

superb stuffed crabs, with lemon, pepper and soy sauce sprinkled over them. We

finished with creme caramel which we felt even Uncle Ho would have proclaimed as

the best ever. Chilled like icecream, it had a sponge like consistency, tasting

subtly of vanilla with a hint of lemon zest, quivering in its delectable caramel

coating. The price of a set menu is 35,000 dong ($3.50). We drank French

Bordeaux at $12, and digested slowly over strong Vietnamese filter coffee

afterwards.

Back here Vietnamese cuisine has not so much invaded Phnom

Penh as infiltrated. The Bopha Nakry above the Pailin Hotel is run by

Cambodians, and the owner, who has gone to America, employs Vietnamese cooks. In

the large, spacious, clean surroundings, we tried Cha Gio, a spring roll with

pork and soya bean, rolled in rice paper and fried in vegetable oil. We

preferred Bi Cuon , uncooked spring rolls, the soft rice paper filled with

fragrant shrimp, fresh chopped vegetables and mint, and dipped in a sauce of

fish paste, vinegar, pineapple juice, sugar, crushed peanuts, and, regrettably,

MSG. A tasty specialty is Cha Tom, a northern dish of minced shrimp with herbs,

wrapped around a piece of sugarcane, fried and served barbecue style accompanied

by lettuce and mint. Bi Bun is a noodle dish served on lettuce with minced pork

and vegetables on top. But the noodles were unappetizing, too glutinous and

thick and the lettuce not fresh. On the menu are French influenced dishes such

as slices of paté, arranged around ravioli-type noodles. Drinking water is

expensive, and iced coffee turned out to be Nescafe, which is disappointing as

Vietnamese coffee is so good. Dishes range from $2 - $5 each.

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