VIETNAMESE RIVER FOOD
We’ve found exactly what floats Chef Jean-Pierre’s boat – Vietnamese river food. So, come and join us on a foodie river cruise through the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s water wonder land …
As soon as I close my ideas and take myself back to the Mekong delta, Vietnam’s water wonder land, with its calming rivers, emerald forest, colourful boats, happy smiley people and, of course, those unforgettable floating foot markets, especially the world renowned Cai Rang market, I am back in the world of fresh produce. Fruit and veg, rice, river fish, crab and shrimp are the order of the day.
Because I have spent a huge amount of time on land at street markets, floating food took on a whole new meeting and provided a unique introspective on the humble daily lives of one of the happiest nations on the globe. There is no theft, the best produce and friendly faces all year long. I haven’t been on the river cruise that visits this market personally, but sourced my info from friends that have been there. I even found an old Kodachrome slide from my aunt dating back to the late seventies, taken on the border of Thailand!
For those who are not in the know, the Mekong delta floating market evolved at a time when streets and vehicles were still the stuff of sci-fi. To meet the growing demand for opportunities to trade and exchange good, locals gathered on the river which was their main thoroughfare using canoes, boats, or sampans.
Mid-morning, people of all ages came together (and still do) for a really happy family meal on the river banks. The source of all the wonderful fresh produce is the fertile soil alongside this waterway. This explains why the Vietnamese have healthy diets that are filled with fruit, vegetables nuts, shellfish and river fish, all year round.
The country stretches[A1] out from the 10 degree longitude to 30 degrees latitude with its neighbours, Cambodia and Laos, and the whole peninsula rich with colour, aromatics, spices and herbs. That’s right up my alley which is why the next trip on my bucket list is not to Thailand, but a personal river cruise in Vietnam.
In the meanwhile, I have mocked up a photo shoot at home using my small garden pond. This has been a natural well for 50 years and is still flowing strong. I added a few bamboo boats filled with the bounty that we are going to enjoy this week – from staple rice, to exotic fruit and a traditional pickled and caramelized fish dish, true to native Vietnam.
I have created three tasty Vietnamese river inspired snacks and three plated meals from South East Asia. But, for now, let’s go and pickle some fish, named after a river town called Chau Doc.
Rice is not only a healthy option to cap your gluten intake, but a preserver of food, especially fish. The abundance of fresh river fish is what nourishes the river people and is pickled for ongoing consumption.
Vietnam is synonymous for its rice patties and this staple has fed the whole of South East Asia and surrounding counties for eons.
Some of the most common freshwater fish are tilapia, cat fish and black carp. For my dish I choose tilapia, which is available at your local fish monger. It is a very sweet and fragrant fish and I must admit that I am surprised that we don’t get more of that on our tables here.
Pushing thoughts of the state of our rivers in South Africa to one side, I head for the kitchen. Don’t cry me a river. Instead, smile and start your own fish pickling.
FROM YOUR FISH PANTRY:
700 grams cubed tilapia
150 grams shaved palm sugar off the ball
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
2 onions, skinned and chopped into bite size chunks
2 medium chopped chilli
250 ml coconut water, not cream or milk
20 ml apple vinegar cider
Just to interrupt your reading, and to make sure that we are on the same page, here are some nutritious facts about palm sugar – 0 % fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, just 4 % natural palm sugar, how’s that for a ball!
Traditionally, this meal is meant to be shared amongst family and friends, mostly with rice. However, I have decided to serve mine with homemade naan bread.
Sweat your onions with the palm sugar to caramelize the natural sugar contents of this dish.
Sear your fish cubes, add the fish sauce, chillis, the coconut water and the cider and bring down the heat of your pan to a light simmer for 10 minutes. Let the mix cool down completely and then let it rest, covered with cling rap, for two days.
After 48 hours, you can feed your family with this dish, garnished with some cilantro and spring onions. Just before plating, mix in some pepper, a teaspoon of turmeric and some chai seeds to add a bit of a crunch.
THE RIVER DRAGON
For something around the river bend to snack on, we are going to stay true to basic Vietnamese food with chilli rice cakes and vegan rice paper rolls.
When it comes to colour in Vietnamese food, there are no missing hues…
Floating away with shallow wok fried rice balls, coated in tapioca flour (similar to rice flour) and lightly seasoned and served in a red cabbage cup, this is hands on with no knives out, a snack accompanied by slices of dragon fruit, and fresh herbs.
Our neighbouring river boat is filled with fresh crunchy vegetables, rolled in rice paper, seasonal fresh veggies.
Soak your rice paper in lukewarm water for 1 minute and stretch out on a non-stick surface. Place your raw crisp veggies, all prepped Julienne style, in the centre of your round rice paper sheet and gently roll it towards you. My ingredients for this dish include carrots, spring onion, red cabbage, cucumber and red onion. You can drizzle on some soy sauce for the saltiness and pair his with some picked daikon/red radish for a perfect midday snack.
CHEF JP’S TASTY PAK THAI
Bearing slightly off course for a short while, we are going to make a South East Asian dish with a bit of panache. I mean, one can’t eat river food all day now, can we?
So, here’s to a quick revisit to Thailand with a good old school Pak Thai complete with tamarind, palm sugar and pak thai rice noodles.
As I have shown my dear friend Sam and her staff at Surf Riders Café, making Pak Thai means there can be no grey areas. It’s either perfect or a **** up! The ingredients are key.
FROM YOUR THAI PANTRY:
200grams original Pak Thai rice noodles
½ teaspoon egg yolk powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
50 grams tamarind
2 well-cleaned bok choi fleurettes
6 cleaned and deveined queen prawns – 3 head on, 3 shelled
1 Tablespoon fish oil
30 grams palm sugar, grated
20 ml cotton seed oil for cooking
1 sheet nori
1 red chilli, chopped and pipped
20 grams soft tofu, cubed
Take it from me, it is whilst preparing the rice noodles where the **** up can happen. This dish is all about the perfect noodle, so soak them in lukewarm water for two minutes. Don’t cook them at all.
Strain and let them rest while you doing your mise en place to use French chef jargon… (even though we are virtually in Vietnam!)
Soak your tamarind in some hot water for 10 mutes and strain the jus from the pips. This will add to the sour part of the sauce. Shave your palm sugar and add your garlic, fish oil, and egg yolk powder. Heat up the noodles, stirring vigorously for 2 minutes on a medium pan heat.
Steam your bok choi for 10 minutes, prepping it to be flash fried in some oil and chai seeds.
Grill your prawns with a dollop of butter and some cotton seed oil until you have perfection. Simultaneously, grill your tofu or deep fry it with some panko bread crumbs for 2 to 3 minutes.
You are now ready to construct your dish. Plate your noodles with the tofu, flash fried bok choi and prawns. Add some zest with some fresh lime, garnish with a drizzle of soy sauce, fresh bean sprouts and some dried nori flakes. That’s a perfect Pak Thai!
PIGGIE IN THE HULL
I think it’s time to rediscover our river legs and head back to the river’s edge for a bit of teriyaki pork belly and some fresh fruit. It’s time to take out the hibachi and cook and grill some succulent pork belly to be served with pomegranate.
My last dish is based on the crops of the fertile river banks, in flavor and favour of the river dwellers.
Because we are always being bamboozled by fake smiles on packaging, maybe we can learn from the humble river people and head out in a whole new direction thanks to this virtual river experience, moving back to the humble rice cake, good fruit and veg and a beautiful a dietary balance.
Using cotton seed oil has changed my perception of cooking. It is, by far, the healthiest oil, but not as expensive as you might think – R100 for 2 litres.
This vegetarian/vegan dish is such a colourful approach to making veggies shine again. Either use tapioca flour or rice flour, which are completely vegan and gluten free.
I chose some vegetables that I like and kept the balance with flavours and colour dimensions. then it was on to lightly battering them in the flour and a quick, wok-style deep fry so as not to make the veg soggy and oily.
FROM THE VEGETABLE RACK:
I do believe that we can learn from river life in South East Asia which can probably be “westernized” for the good of our health. As I noted at the beginning of this piece, the Vietnamese people are happy with no fake smiles – probably because they are as far away from a western mac Donald’s Happy Meal as can be imagined.
I’m not being overly sagacious (or maybe I am showing the good judgement and shrewdness that is called for in this age of modern, processed meals) but I think that, when we honesty look at our lifestyles and eating habits, we really do need a wake-up call.
We live and work in a world filled with young kids with obesity problems, adults with cholesterol problems or worse – and we strive to emulate happy gluten packed mascots for fast food chains. Our world is packed with technology and what, we think, is fast facts. We think we know everything – or do we?
I think that it is time to return to the basics that the boat people in Vietnam have known and lived for centuries. A healthy lifestyle starts at home. I’m hoping that my proverbial virtual boat ride in Vietnam will take us all in the right direction.
Finally, all of this brings me back to that (somewhat clichéd) song … Don’t worry, be HAPPY (and healthy). I hope that you have enjoyed my insight s during my imaginary foodie trip around the so-called river bend. Wherever you are, love the food, live the moment and may your foodie feet seldom be dry again!