Camilla Gibb shares the recipes and stories behind the foods featured in The Beauty of Humanity Movement
In Hanoi, I befriended a young man and his wife over a shared love of food. In Vietnam, urbanites eat, on average, three meals and three snacks a day, and they are passionate and ritualistic about what gets eaten when, with whom and how. Food is acknowledged as far more than a source of sustenance. It is an expression of culture, a repository of history, an embodiment of identity and a means of unifying family and community.
Vietnamese food bursts with freshness, contrasting flavours and colour. There wasn't a thing I didn't devour and adore. Until the day I went to Phuong's house for dinner where I found myself confronted with a grey salad of par-boiled, diced pigs' ears. The cartilage crunched between my teeth in exactly the way you might imagine an ear might crunch between your teeth. I feigned pleasure, proclaimed it sublime, but my imagination could not serve me here.
The main event, fortunately, was a bowl of pho. Normally a breakfast food, Phuong nevertheless served this beef noodle soup because he was thinking of opening a pho restaurant, and he wanted to get my opinion.
Although pho was born in the north, the recipe was carried to the south with the partition of Vietnam in the mid-1950s. In a relatively wealthier south, the soup changed with the addition of Chinese flavours and the greater availability of imported produce. Most of the pho we eat in the West is southern (pho nam), but northerners consider their version (pho bac) to be the authentic one.
As the pho seller in my novel reflects: "The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that pho was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation, and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bistek and pot-au-feu."
Southern pho is sweeter and comes with the garnishes we are used to seeing in the West - Thai basil leaves, sawtooth leaf, lime, hoisin and chilli sauce. You don't generally find many of these garnishes accompanying a bowl of pho in the north and the result, though more authentic, is a little blander and more austere.
Although my friend Phuong would not reveal his secrets, good standard recipes are widely available. This recipe looks very, very straightforward and would be a good place to start.
Canh Chua Ca
Tu finds his father squatting in front of the brazier in their courtyard, pouring the tart juice he has extracted from tamarind pulp into the broth for a canh chua ca. Binh prefers cooking his hot and sour fish soup out here on the open fire; he bought the stove in the kitchen fire years ago, but after using it once, declared he didnt like electric heat. It changes the taste of things.
Tu squats down beside his father and passes him a series of small white bowls. Binh tips diced pineapple, bamboo shoots, sliced red chillies, sugar, fish sauce, tomato wedges and fat cubes of white fish in turn into his rolling broth. They are engulfed in its aroma: the sourness bites the back of Tus tongue.
There is a lot of scope for variation with this recipe. You really cant go wrong. I took a wonderful cooking class in Hanoi, run by an amazing young woman named Anh who runs a company called Hidden Hanoi, where we made the following version. We extracted the tamarind pulp ourselves, but I have skipped that step here since you can easily buy tamarind pulp in a jar.
- 1 whole catfish, striped bass, sea bass or red snapper (1 kg)
- 1 chopped spring onion
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- 3 lemongrass stalks, cut into 5 cm lengths and crushed
- 60g chopped tamarind pulp
- 1 cup boiling water (or chicken stock)
- 1 cup diced pineapple
- ½ cup drained, canned sliced bamboo shoots
- 2 small red chillies, seeded and thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce
- 2 small, firm tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 1 cup beansprouts
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Fresh coriander and mint leaves
Fillet the fish and cut into cubes. Marinate at room temperature with fish sauce, pepper and spring onions. Leave aside while you make the broth.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Gently sauté the shallots and lemongrass, along with the fish head, bones and scraps for 3-5 minutes. Add the water or chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the stock, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Bring the stock to a boil. Stir in the tamarind, pineapple, bamboo shoots, chillies, sugar and fish sauce. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and fish cubes and continue to simmer until the fish turns opaque and feels firm to the touch (about 3-5 minutes). Add the beansprouts and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with coriander and mint. Serve with lime wedges.
Cha Ca La Vong
The waitress leans in over Tus shoulder, lights a burner and slams a pan of oil down upon it. Tu orders beer for both of them and the woman promptly drops two bottles onto the table over Tus head before thwacking down plastic plates of cubes of fish and various herbs.
The oil begins to bubble and Tu throws the cubes of fish into the pan. He tosses in the dill and stirs it with his chopsticks until it wilts, then lifts the fish onto a bed of vermicelli and dresses it with peanuts and coriander.
Taste, he says, presenting it to her.
The fish is soft and buttery with oil, earthy with turmeric, and collapses perfectly in the mouth.
There is a street in Hanoi called cha ca, after the venerable fish restaurant there that has been operating continuously for over a century. Unfortunately, dining there is an overpriced tourist experience, thanks in part to the restaurants inclusion in A Thousand Things to Do Before You Die. I have had excellent, cheaper versions of this at North Vietnamese restaurants in the west, though they admittedly lack the general chaos of the Hanoi experience.
Theres a great recipe here, complete with photos.