Things I Learned in Vietnam
My stepson married a Vietnamese woman in a traditional ceremony in her village. We spent a memorable two weeks eating our way up to the wedding day, taking delight in the compelling culinary differences. The syrupy, decadent egg coffee of Hanoi and the challenging trứng vịt lộn (incubated duck egg) come to mind. I brought back some of my observations and practice the do-able ones at my table as often as I can.
FISH SAUCE MAKES IT BETTER
If it’s already good, fish sauce turns up the dial to 11. A great fish sauce is just about the perfect food. It’s salty but balanced, practically defines umami, and introduces some magical funk. When I don’t ferment my own in an oak barrel as detailed in Project 258, my go-to choice is the Three Crabs brand from Viet Huong.
HERBS WITH EVERYTHING
There’s hardly a dish in Vietnam that isn’tvserved with a plate of leaves and herbs, often still attached to the stem. You can bring home the practice for any foodstuff. Why not serve a plate (or vase) of mint and oregano stems along with a Greek salad? Or giant basil leaves to wrap roast chicken?
Mint. Mint on its stem is a natural to bring to the table. A plate of spearmint complements savory and sweet. Chocolate mint is ideal for desserts and tea.
Lettuce. Lettuce wraps up anything and eating with your fingers makes a meal more fun. Go for looser exterior leaves. Serve in a pile in the middle of the table.
Basil and Shiso. Oversized lettuce-leaf basil and Korean shiso make perfect wraps with more zing than romaine. The smaller varieties are great on a plate. Serve with everything.
Rau Ram. Check out an Asian market or grow your own gorgeous Vietnamese coriander. Let everyone pluck from the stem. Use anywhere you would cilantro.
SOUP FOR BREAKFAST
A big bowl of sugary processed cereal grains with skim milk is surely an American concept. I prefer hot, savory, spicy, and brothy anytime. My daughter-in-law’s belly-warming pho is a food group unto itself. Spend a year and learn how to make the perfect pho for yourself, or cheat your breakfast soup with ramen noodles, bone broth, fish sauce, and a plate with all the fixings.
Snapshots from Vietnam
I eat like a local wherever I go, eager to experience the place food-first. I rarely choose fancy spots. Instead I favor street food, brightly lit holes-in-the-wall, and places with few Americans.