In Vietnam, an adventure in eating

April 13, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I'd just finished lunch at a dockside cafe in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, where nothing on the menu - grilled fish, crispy spring rolls or litchi nuts for dessert - prepared me for a startling suggestion of an after-dinner drink.

Would I care for some snake liqueur?

The smiling waitress, undeterred by what must have been my look of dismay, brought forth a glass jug of rice wine, at the bottom of which was coiled a dead cobra. Hmmm. Was I a man or a mouse?

When she assured me this elixir strengthens one's vitality, I meekly sipped a liquid that was viscous, peppery and almost disappointingly sweet. The rest is hisssss-tory.

If you yearn for recipes from The Fear Factor Cookbook, Vietnam is a smorgasbord. Traveling there a few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to dine on the flesh of cats and dogs, as well as to savor ca cuong, a fluid harvested from the scent gland of a giant water bug. These peculiarities, or at least what might seem peculiar to the Western palate, however, are only a hair-raising fraction of what's on Vietnam's table.

Overall, the diet is remarkably light, brothy, loaded with vegetables, and sparing with meat. Having nearly a mania for freshness, Vietnamese housewives go to the market daily and will turn up their noses at anything but just-picked produce.

Rather than rely on flavor boosters like butter, cream and cheese, they have a free hand with intense herbs and spices. A quartet of cinnamon, star anise, pepper and black cardamom are the most popular, with turmeric and ginger close behind.

Their cuisine combines elements of Chinese rule, French colonization and Southeast Asian influence. What seems uniquely Vietnamese, however, are the frequent reminders that eating is, of course, a health remedy. So many superstitions swirl in the sauce, though, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between stockpot and crackpot.

Much of this I learned from several days spent in the company of Didier Corlou, executive chef at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. When he's not giving master classes around the world, Corlou teaches a cooking course for guests staying at this venerable but sleekly maintained spot that over the past century has played host to everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene to Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda.

A Frenchman who moved to Hanoi in the early 1990s, he's the author of Didier Corlou's Vietnamese Cuisine, which was deemed a "masterpiece" in February at the World Cookbook Awards in Sweden.

Corlou, 49, also has received a National Order of Merit by French President Jacques Chirac for his culinary contributions to both French and Vietnamese cultures, and has cooked for visiting heads of state such as Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin.

I met Corlou when it was my great good fortune to dine at Le Beaulieu, his restaurant, which is generally considered to be the finest not only in Hanoi but all of Vietnam.

Dishes such as a clove-studded onion, baked in its own skin with a marinade of cinnamon and star anise; tuna cooked with passion fruit; or cinnamon ice cream coated with bee pollen show an artful blend of high French technique with humble Asian ingredients.

"Here, food, la gastronomie, is not so important, so chefs don't get a big head. Vietnamese are lovely people. They are not aggressive, but simple. So is their food," he says.

Some of the country's most beloved recipes came about during the war, he says, when no food could be imported because of embargoes. People had to eat what was already there and created dishes from previously discarded items such as pumpkin stems or morning glory vine.

"They also eat six times a day, little portions," Corlou said, smacking his own ample belly. "You never see a fat Vietnamese!"

A short, stocky man, Corlou has a zestful demeanor. When he describes a recipe, he hunches over and brings his hands up close to his nose, as if he can already smell the flavors on his fingertips.

"What is the main difference between Chinese and Vietnamese food?" he asks rhetorically, when discussing Vietnam's northern neighbor. "Chinese is mostly sauteed in oil. Vietnamese dishes are poached in fragrant broth. And, above all, it's the herbs. In many cases, it's one herb for one dish."

Corlou is an enthusiastic fan of nuoc nam, which he calls "the soy sauce of Vietnam," because it is put on nearly everything. Nuoc nam is made by salting freshly caught fish (1 portion of salt to 7 of seafood) and letting the mixture set in earthenware casks for up to 12 months, after which the resulting liquid is pressed free. A simple way to enjoy nuoc nam is to mix it with olive oil and drizzle it on tomatoes.

What's most endearing about Corlou is that, while justifiably proud of his menu at Le Beaulieu, he insists that Hanoi's finest food is what you find being cooked on the street.

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