Remember a few months ago when the temperature was around zero, and I was rugged up watching the tennis on TV and only emerging to get food? Well for the last few weeks the temperature has been in the high thirties and the humidity 50-80%, so now I'm ensconced in the bedroom (the only room in the house with air-conditioning) and only emerge twice a day to go to the market and prepare food. I take in the laptop, phone, books, ironing, etc., and only come out when I have to!
The weather forecasting app on my phone keeps predicting thunderstorms and rain but they rarely come, or if they do it's a brief shower and a couple of thunderclaps, which is frustrating. A decent deluge brings such relief.
This time it's all about food, so if that doesn't interest you - sorry you might have to skip it ...
Eating is quite a communal activity in Vietnam. There are always many dishes and accompanying sauces and at get-togethers everyone gathers a few hours before and pitches in with preparation.
Often houses don't have dining tables.
People may sit round a "coffee table" (as we do at our place) or they have special mats which are spread on the floor for the food, then everyone sits in a circle, cross-legged, to eat. This is very embarrassing for me as I can't for the life of me sit cross-legged, so have to sit sideways looking ridiculous.
I go early to the local market and regularly buy pork, chicken and tofu; sometimes prawns for a treat; and occasionally beef (though it's much more expensive). Fruit and vegetables are very much a seasonal thing - something we've forgotten at home, with year round imports - and what's in season is offered in large quantities at many stalls by the roadside. Tuyen Quang province is noted for growing oranges and a while back there were huge piles on sale wherever you looked. In the early days after our arrival there was broccoli and cauliflower, then green beans, mountains of watermelons. At present lots of greens and varieties of squash. I'm also delighted lychees are currently in season so I've been gorging on freshly picked fruit with the juice running down my chin. I miss things when they disappear, but that just makes me appreciate them when they reappear. Some of the sellers get produce from the central market in town, either from elsewhere in Vietnam or imported from China, but I mainly stick to the local produce.
In the case of seasoning, there's always chillies, garlic, ginger, tamarind ... Herbs consist mainly of a variety of mints, dill, lemongrass and some others we don't have at home. Limited dried herbs are available in the supermarket. There are many packets of mixed spices for all sorts of dishes and soups but I generally avoid them due to the western aversion to MSG. So currently I have cinnamon, turmeric, basil, cardamom, five spice and curry powders to work with.
Move Over Luke
I know I've said it before - when it comes to cooking I frequently make it up as I go along. This is quite foreign to the Vietnamese way of cooking, where recipes are specific and accompaniments prescribed. Sometimes when asked what I've cooked, if I rattle off some unusual combinations people will ask what that recipe is called. They're a bit bemused when I say I just made it up
I love it when someone teaches me the traditional recipes, but a lot of the time I'm largely flying blind. I have a rough idea of the ingredients and try to replicate the flavour. On other occasions I try to make up something out of the blue - just to have something different. Sometimes I get it just right and make something we think is really delicious and I then struggle to repeat it another time. Occasionally I've thought of writing down my recipes but always leave it until I've forgotten exactly what I did. However, recently, I bought a notebook and have started recording my successes. Who knows, maybe there's a cookbook in the making - or even a TV show!! Haha.
Dried basil goes well added to stir fried prawn dishes along with fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, honey and chopped dill.
In fact dried basil (of necessity) goes well with many things.
A good stand-by. Diced pork, onion, potatoes, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and add whatever vegetables are to hand.
Tomato sauce, garlic and soy sauce makes a nice non-spicy marinade for a change.
I try to copy the techniques and flavours of the local food. I can manage a reasonable copy of fish soup, caramelised pork ribs and boiled chicken and rice. At least we think they're reasonable copies - I'm sure the locals would spot what's missing in an instant.
Some of our old favourites from further south just don't feature here, but fortunately there are others to replace them. One of my local favourites is banh goi - a kind of deep fried pasty filled with pork mince and herbs and a tiny hard boiled quail egg. They're eaten with garlic pickled green papaya and a sweet/spicy dipping sauce.
Chay la lot
A leaf stuffed with pork mince, chopped small leaves, (I added chopped onion because I forgot to ask about adding it) rolled up like spring rolls and shallow fried.
Of course everyone loves the fried spring rolls - but you can't beat fresh home-made!
Delicious and gooey, sweet and sour. Very popular here.
Not something we have at home. Tends to be on the chewy side but delicious. There's a speciality goat restaurant in town which has a banquet menu of many varied goat dishes - including intestines and a couple made from goat's blood.
A soup or hotpot cooked at the table, into which goes a variety of meat and seafood and vegetables. Eaten with rice noodles. Again there are speciality restaurants in town serving this.
Pancakes commonly filled with pork and shrimp, rolled in soft rice paper wrappers with fresh herbs and dipped in a sweet and sour chilli dipping sauce.
This was one of our favourites in Quang Ngai, especially Owen. It was common there but is not often seen here - in fact some of the locals haven't ever tried it. I had a recipe for it so decided to have a go. Okay but not brilliant, I'll have to practice. Now, just to sidetrack a bit - one of the teachers at the university has a private class on Sundays, and she brought her students to visit one weekend to practice their spoken English with us. Food and what we think of Vietnamese food inevitably came up in conversation and Owen mentioned banh xeo. Several people hadn't tried it and Owen piped up saying "Mrs Avenel can cook it, it's delicious". Arrangements were then promptly made for another visit and I found myself (having made banh xeo maybe twice!) teaching a bunch of secondary school students and their teacher how to make this Vietnamese dish!!
This is the nearest thing to take-away around here. There are several stalls selling barbecued duck cooked on rotisseries, power for the cookers and lights into the night coming from portable generators (or an extension cord thrown over a nearby wall). The smell is delicious and they come with a luscious syrupy, spicy soy sauce. I usually buy potatoes and make chips to go with it.
We recently also discovered a great duck restaurant in town. We're about to go home for a break during the university holiday and the staff thought we should have a party before we go.
They took us to this restaurant as they know Mr Owen is very fond of duck. It's quite cheap here and they are surprised when we tell them it is expensive at home.
Tofu and Jerky Curry
This is one of my creations - probably not to everyone's taste. We had some dried beef jerky left over from Tet nibbles and I wasn't sure how long it would keep, so thought maybe I should use it up. I made a curry (the jerky had a lot of chilli) by gently cooking diced tofu, jerky and lots of chopped fresh tomatoes. I love tofu done any way - Owen not so much but he'll happily eat it. The dish worked well as the tomato took away some of the sweetness of the jerky. Still a sweetish dish so it was good to have a more sour curry and yogurt to go with it.
Just for a change I sometimes make western food - including fried chicken and chips, potato salad, spaghetti, and because we can get eggs straight from the nest, Spanish omelette (thanks Marj)
Microwave Chocolate Cake
Back at home our daughter had given me a book of recipes for mug cakes to bring here to TQ and I expected to make them for us to have for dessert now and then. When they came out well and I sent her a photo on Facebook it was spotted by the staff at the university who wanted to know what they were and said they were interested to try them. Owen (again) piped up that Mrs Avenel makes a chocolate cake that is very nice.
Now just to sidetrack again. I'd made this in the past. When in Quang Ngai I didn't have an oven so thought a microwave cake might be good for dessert occasionally and perhaps something to make for special occasions. I played around with a recipe to allow for unavailable ingredients and a different strength microwave till I got it right. (Owen valiantly ate up the too sticky/too moist/too dry failures). However I found when I made it for a student meeting a good half of them didn't like it.
So ... I was a bit reluctant to make it here and warned them that some Vietnamese people don't like it, but several insisted they liked anything chocolate. So eventually I got round to making one and sent it along with Owen one morning. I thought the people in the office could try it and what was left go to his evening class to try. I fully expected him to bring half of it home and it to go in the freezer for later consumption by us. To my amazement it all got eaten by the office staff and I had to make another one for the class to try. I've made it on several occasions and with other groups since, and so far I think I've only found one person who doesn't like it.
My made up name for naan bread pizza. A volunteer in Hanoi who had acquired a bread maker gave me some yeast to play around with and I'd ended up making naan bread to eat with curries. It occurred to me that maybe I could use them to make pizzas. By lining up the ingredients I can make the bread then before it cools down too much, a quick splash of tomato sauce, sprinkle of pre-cooked chopped meat, pineapple, etc., a little grated cheese (a Hanoi purchase) and a minute or so in the microwave - enough to heat it up but not enough to make it go soggy. Timing is crucial but it works well. Actually there are a couple of places in town which do pizzas, so it's not really worth the effort of doing it at home, but there's not much choice of toppings in town, and it's fun just to see if I can do it.
It finally happened. I was ambushed and whisked off to a tailors - twice. First time I had some pants and a "wearing out" top; and also a house PJ suit made. Then I was taken to another tailor and had an ao dai made. They all came out out really well.