Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
A recent trip to Vietnam was marked by a delicious coincidence.
I had decided to head there only a day in advance and was left without an eating agenda. In a fit of desperation, I emailed a friend for advice. He had recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, and he lives to eat. His response: "You should go eat at Tib, a Hue-style place with fancy imperial food that gets presidential visits. Food and service were flawless..."
After that I called my friend Thai, who lives in Saigon, and asked if I could have dinner with him and his new wife (whom I hadn't met yet). "Of course! We'll meet at my wife's restaurant!" he said. Thai's wife happened to be called Tib, and the restaurant recommended above, by chance, happened to be her own.
The thing that makes great Vietnamese cooking stand apart is its clarity.
We met on a rainy Friday, under a recent photograph of George W. Bush, who wore his characteristic look of bemusement. What followed was a meal of subtle elegance and sure-footed flavors, which I ate with my back to the Bush, lest his smirk spoil my appetite. It didn't. In fact, I found myself turning around to search his face, wondering what he might have eaten at Tib.
The thing that makes great Vietnamese cooking stand apart, particularly in this part of the world, is its clarity. Most Southeast Asian cooks tend to weave spices and aromatics in an intricate web, but in Vietnam cooks tend to push one flavor--three or four at the most--to the fore.
This clarity is enhanced by many variations on fish sauce that range from a fruity, diluted dip to something forcefully pungent or spicy. The kitchen at Tib finessed pure flavors from herbs, pork, prawns and sprouts by paring each dish with different expressions of fish sauce.
"This is Hue food, in Central Vietnam where my mother is from, but it has been altered to accommodate Southern tastes, which favor a little sweetness," explained Tib, who graciously walked me through the meal.
Hue is now a humble place, but there are echoes of grandeur, like the crumbling remains of Vietnam's own Imperial City, loosely modeled after the one in Beijing (this Purple Forbidden City, as it's called in Vietnam, was largely decimated in the Tet Offensive of 1968). Another indicator of Hue's former status is its rarified Imperial Cuisine, where skillful presentation is as important as the vibrant produce that props it up. Vietnam's ties to China hold true here, too--the food is different in execution but similar in spirit to Beijing's artful Imperial dishes.
At Tib, we ate our way through tiny plates. It was essentially a degustation menu of her mother's classics, like the delicate rolls of barbecued pork wrapped in mustard leaf. "Hue is a poor place, and so there cooks often wrap with leaves instead of rice paper. My mother replaced the lettuce with a more pungent mustard leaf."
After three variations on the spring roll, fried, fresh and wrapped in mustard, we were served steamed rice flour pancakes (banh beo) topped with chopped shrimp and scallion oil. We plucked the crepes from porcelain cups with small spoons, and dipped them into a light fish sauce with chopped coriander and peanuts. A warm salad of young jackfruit followed. The immature fruit was sweet and grassy--not unlike baby artichokes--and once again enhanced with fish sauce and sautéed with pork and prawn. We ate it atop crunchy rice crackers, like Vietnamese pinchos. Each course was so light and precise I felt like I could continue eating for hours. But that sentiment ended with two dishes that struck up almost every flavor in the Vietnamese repertoire. One, a slab of fatty catfish caramelized in fish sauce, seasoned with sharp black pepper, coconut, sugar and chili. That, and delicately fried soft shell crabs, greaseless and crisp. They were served with a classic dip of squeezed lime, salt, and black pepper.
You can probably guess my expression at the end.
187 Haiba Trung
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Below is a recipe from Tib, which she kindly sent to me, with a little story...
Recipe: Com Am Phu (Hell's Rice)
"This dish, which translates roughly as "Hell's Rice", comes from a legend in Hue that tells of an Emperor's minister. He used to stop at a restaurant late in the evening and would stubbornly request to be fed. Having stopped preparing food at this late hour, the chef would gather an assortment of the day's leftovers around a serving of rice. Thus, Com Am Phu was born."
• 1 bowl of white rice (any type of steamed rice: jasmine rice or basmati rice are best)
• 100g sauteed shrimp, finely minced
• 100g fried pressed tofu, shredded (and seasoned to taste)
• 1 handful chopped fresh mint leaves
• 100g of shredded, thin omelet (seasoned to taste with salt and pepper)
• 100g cucumber, finely sliced and marinated in a vinegar solution with some sugar
• 100g sauteed nam beo ngu (white mushrooms)
• 100g barbecued pork (Lean pork belly, cut into thin slices and marinated with sugar, ground black pepper, soy sauce, fresh lemongrass finely chopped and a touch of cooking oil)
Jarrett's tip--marinate a pork chop just the same, and fry it in a saucepan, for a shortcut.
Prepare all the ingredients. Simply place the rice in the center of the plate and arrange the individual servings around it. The dish is best enjoyed when all the components are mixed up and tossed together, and served with nuoc mam (fish sauce diluted with water and sugar to taste).