STRANGERS WITH COCONUT CANDY
Vietnam cuisine is simple, yet complex, and always exquisite
Go on, say it: Vietnamese cuisine. Just thinking of it makes you feel good. Fresh herbs, spices, fragrant aromatics and the ubiquitous fish sauce – nuoc cham – can end up in a pot of pho or wrapped into a cha gio (spring roll). Ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass; everything from garlic chive leaves to the complexity of a perilla leaf with its green top and purplish underside and hints of lemon, licorice and mint.
Regardless of the region or province, you’ll find something that they do better there than anywhere else. In the south, in the sprawling Mekong Delta, a labyrinth of irrigation canals and floating markets, it’s coconut candy. Known as keo dua, it’s made from mixing malt and coconut milk which, when thickened, is put over a wooden mould then covered with coconut oil before being cut into mouth-watering, bite-sized pieces.
Coconuts are best picked when they’re turning dry, guaranteeing a greasy, sweet milk. And you’re never far away from one of the delta’s coconut candy workshops where you can eat it while it’s still warm! Exotic variations include candies flavoured with chocolate, pandanus leaves, or even the much-maligned durian.
The riverside market in the ancient trading port of Hoi An, along the banks of Thu Bon river on the central Vietnam coastline, is a heady mix of visitors and merchants where you can be as conservative or adventurous as your tastebuds can handle.
Here you can munch on 21-day-old duck embryos – balut – either boiled or steamed and eaten directly from the shell; or the more aesthetically pleasing banh bao vac, the exquisite and almost weightless white rose, a paper-thin dumpling made from two
small mounds of rice paper with a tiny spoonful of either shrimp or meat and topped with a sprinkling of crispy shallots. When steamed, the edges of the rice paper begin to warp and take on a delicate flower-like appearance. You’ll want to eat them by the dozen.
The white rose is the city’s signature treat, and at the Hoi An market you can take cooking classes in how to make them.
Also in this town known for its profusion of tailors and its French colonial architecture you need to try wontons, whether fried with shrimp, pork, herbs and onions or served as a soup with noodles. Forget that the wonton actually originated in China (as indeed did steaming, stir-frying,
Take your tastebuds on a journey of discovery exploring the delights of Vietnamese food.