Country #38 – Vietnam

038 Vietnam

Challenge Log:

#38        Date selected:    16/7/16 Date completed:  23/7/16

Country selected:  Vietnam

Dining Selection:   cooked own

What was on the menu/recipe addresses:

  • Lotus Seed Soup Recipe (Súp Hạt Sen)

  • Char Siew Dumplings Recipe (Bánh Bao Xá Xíu)

  • Roasted Crispy Pork Belly Recipe (Heo Quay)

Let me begin this challenge by saying I love Vietnamese food.  I have for years.  There’s an area of Melbourne unofficially known as “Little Vietnam” (Victoria Street, Richmond for those who are local and want to check it out) and it’s one of my favourite places to go if I’m dining out.  My boyfriend, Shane, has also become a convert and we will happily drive the 40-60 odd minutes it takes to drive in just to have dinner and one of the many Vietnamese restaurants along the strip.  It’s always fresh, inexpensive and incredibly delicious.

I did toy with the idea of using the challenge as an excuse to go have another meal there. But in the end I realised that I really wanted to learn how to cook some of the food myself (though we did end up going for another meal there this week as well!).

Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia with Malaysia to the southeast, across the South China Sea.   For over a millennium, Vietnam was part of Imperial China before forming an independent Vietnamese state in 939.  It was later colonized by the French in the mid-19th century and occupied by the Japanese in the 1940s.  Vietnam divided politically into two rival states, North and South Vietnam which eventually intensified into what is known as the Vietnam War.

The cuisine is based around a combination of five fundamental taste ‘elements:’ spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth).  It’s considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world with its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil and reliance on herbs and vegetables.  Common ingredients include soy sauce, shrimp paste, fish sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables with plenty of lemongrass, ginger, mint (Vietnamese mint and traditional), long coriander, Saigon cinnamon, bird’s eye chilli, lime and basil.  Freshwater fish, crustaceans and molluscs are widely used, mostly due to the fact that meats such as pork, beef and chicken were relatively limited in the past.

The plan going into this challenge was to try a number of dishes.  I had settled on four different dishes, a couple that were familiar but which I had never made before, and a couple that were completely foreign to me.  I did end up making three of these dishes and made a start on another, however a series of unfortunate events means that I’m only really going to go into two of the dishes in any real detail here.  Here’s why:

The first dish I’m skipping is the one I did actually complete.  It’s Heo Quay (or Roasted Crispy Pork Belly).  It was delicious, albeit not quite as crispy as I would have liked it to have been.  It unfortunately fell victim to the same issue with the camera that I had in my previous challenge and no photos exist to prove that I completed the dish.  Seeing as I already have two other successful dishes that I’ll write about here, I’ve decided not to write about it here but I have included the recipe link above if you wanted to try it yourself.

The second dish I started, but didn’t finish but in telling you what happened you need a bit of back story.  I have a cat.  His name is Kilima and he’s Siamese.  He’s cute to look at but he’s actually a bit of a bastard.  He’s constantly in your face and completely obsessed with food.  Like really obsessed.  He also has a weird thing for carrots.  He won’t eat them, but seems to have some kind of weird auto-erotic fixation with them.  Whenever he encounters them, he’ll purr and lick the carrots and smooches up against them.  It’s bizarre.  I don’t understand why he does it.

Cat vs Carrots

Now that you have the background information, I can now tell you that the second dish that I attempted to make was a radish and carrot pickle.  You’re starting to see where this is heading now can’t you….?

The process involved slicing the radishes and carrots very thinly then drying them in the sun for several days before continuing with the pickling process.  I prepared the vegetables on night after work, put them on racks, put them on the window sill next to the kitchen bench and left them to dry.  All was going well and it was only on the third night after work, when I was planning to continue onto the next step, that I realised that the carrots were strewn all over the bench.

What I think has happened is that as the carrots have dried, they’ve given off a particular scent that’s attracted the cat.  He’s jumped onto the kitchen bench (which he is not allowed to do!) and proceeded to smooch and lick the slices of partially-dried carrot.

I realised pretty quickly that this dish wasn’t going to happen.  The radishes had also been knocked around and I had to put the lot in the bin.  They had been a bit difficult to find in the first place and, now that the cat knew that there were carrots around, I was never going to be able to successfully sun-dry the vegetables with him in the house.  I had to admit defeat.

Instead, I concentrated my energy on my next two dishes; Lotus Seed Soup and Char Siew Dumplings.  I had tried the dumplings before but never knew how they were made.  As for the soup, I had never even heard of lotus seed before, let alone knew what they would taste like.  I was intrigued by the idea and was able to find some online so the rest is history.

It’s actually quite an easy dish to make.  You clean the lotus seeds (which are about the size of a small grape, a light yellowish colour and quite hard when dried – almost like a peanut in texture), weeding out the core of the seeds. They are then boiled until soft.  You smash up some shrimps/prawns, marinating them in some salt and pepper before frying them off with some purple onion.

Soaked shitake mushrooms are added to the boiling lotus seeds and the mixture is cooked for a while longer.  The recipe didn’t actually state when you put the onion/shrimp mixture in so I added it at this stage.

Next some tofu is added and later some tapioca flour (I actually used cornflour) is used to thicken the broth.  Lastly you stir in the white of an egg, breaking it up into long fibres as you do.

The soup is served topped with coriander, sesame oil and pepper on top.

It’s delicious.

038 Lotus Seed Soup Recipe (Súp Hạt Sen)
Lotus Seed Soup Recipe (Súp Hạt Sen)

The lotus seeds themselves don’t have a whole lot of flavour to them.  When cooked they have a texture similar to a legume and I guess the taste somewhat resembles a butter bean.  It’s lighter though with a very slight floral taste to it.  It goes wonderfully with the shrimp and shitake and the soup is such a fresh mixture of flavours and textures.  I could happily eat this time and time again.

The char siew dumplings were a little more complex to make with several different steps to manoeuvre through.

First was prepping the pork by marinating it in a variety of spices/sauces.  A quick note with this one.  When the recipe calls for red food colouring, try and use the Chinese variety.  I have some powdered magenta type home and it leaves the western style of food dye for dead.  A tiny bit of this stuff gives the richest colour – well worth the effort finding it.

After being marinated, the pork is fried, before water is added and the pan is sealed with a lid.

You then turn your attention to making the dough.  It’s similar to making a usual yeast-based dough so not particularly difficult.  The idea is to make a little pocket by rolling little balls of the dough out lengthwise, then folding it in half over a chopstick.  Try not to roll it out too long – I found I got a much better result keeping it reasonably thick.

The dumplings are steamed.  To serve, slice the dumplings in half, filling them with slices of the pork and cucumber.

038 Char Siew Dumplings Recipe (Bánh Bao Xá Xíu)
Char Siew Dumplings Recipe (Bánh Bao Xá Xíu)

Beware, these dumplings are filling!  Despite the dough being light as a feather, you’ll probably only get through one or two of them before feeling stuffed.  They’re incredibly tasty though.  The fluffiness of the dumpling combines beautifully with the thick flavours of the pork.  The cucumber gives it a kick of freshness and a crunch as you bite into it.  So yummy!

So in summary, despite a few hiccups along the way, I think this challenge ended up quite a success.  I’ve given myself a passing grade and it’s onto the next challenge….

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