FOOD & DRINK: A FRESH APPROACH

Vietnamese cuisine is healthy, supremely delicious - and here at last. Michael Bateman samples it with sighs of pleasure

THE MEAL my children most enjoyed in France recently was Vietnamese. Staying with friends in Peter Mayle's Provence, they became more and more reluctant diners, put off by pretentious offerings in restaurants geared only to fleecing tourists.

Then suddenly, on a sight-seeing visit to the historic papal city of Avignon, they found their Holy Grail. We'd been directed to Avignon's one and only Vietnamese restaurant (not one of the 25 restaurants listed in the city's Michelin Guide).

So much did they enjoy it, we had to order seconds. There were spicy soups with rice noodles and shredded vegetables, sharpened with lemongrass and tingling with chilli.

There were spring rolls with minced pork and crab, and crunchy bean spouts wrapped in fine rice paper. And pieces of marinated chicken, prettily wrapped in lettuce and smothered with mint, spring onions and crispy, crushed, roasted peanuts. These were served with sweet ginger, galangal and soy dipping sauces, and the fish sauce called nuoc-mam. The visual appeal was enhanced by the promising smells. And the total sensual experience was perfected by keen, very fresh tastes.

Paris has a good share of Vietnamese restaurants. A dozen do make it into that city's Michelin Guide - quite a tribute to their quality, considering MG's francophile prejudices. Their presence is due to a French colonial influence in that part of the world dating from the 16th century.

But Vietnamese food is hardly known in the UK (there's Soho and that's about it). So, short of a trip to Vietnam (which entertains only about half a million tourists a year) or a sortie to Avignon or Paris, the best way to get an insight into this delicious food is by means of a new book, Street Cafe: Vietnam, the first to be published in the UK devoted to Vietnamese cooking (see book offer overleaf).

Its British author, Annabel Jackson, says this is a cuisine whose time has come. "It's the most contemporary of foods, one of the healthiest and the tastiest. It's low in meat and high in fish and raw vegetables. It combines the spicy appeal of the foods of China and Japan, but it's very different."

If Vietnamese food is not on everyone's hit list, there is good reason. The Vietnam War (which is known in Vietnam as the American War) eclipsed all cultural or social aspiration, driving the country into deep hardship and poverty from which it has only just started to recover. Ten years ago, the north of the country was still devastated.

Annabel Jackson is a food writer based in Hong Kong. She first travelled to Vietnam 10 years ago and soon became a regular visitor. Although she rather stumbled on Vietnam by accident, she was an instant convert. "I know this sounds very wet and New Age, but Vietnam appealed to my soul. At once I felt I must have been Vietnamese in another life," she says with humour.

The food scene, she says, has only re-emerged in the last five years, but its roots go deep. Influenced by the French (you even encounter people in Breton berets bearing fresh-baked baguettes home), its best cooking exhibits great sophistication.

Historically, the Vietnamese are a mixture of Chinese and Malay. The use of chopsticks and love of noodles reflects the Chinese side, but the Malaysian influence is marked by their fondness for Indian curry spices, especially in the south. Their passion for fresh herbs, unusual in eastern cuisine, Annabel credits to the influence of the West.

Of all the Eastern cuisines, says Annabel, it is the only one which offers a breakfast experience she enjoys. Japanese breakfast dishes of rice and salty pickle are too confrontational. Chinese congee, glutinous rice, is less than appetising.

But a Vietnamese breakfast bowl of soup with sloppy noodles is a revelation, both delicious and refreshing. This soup, known as pho, is offered in restaurants, bars and street stalls everywhere.

Simmering on a hob is a great pan of meat stock, seasoned with star anise and roast ginger. Each customer gets a bowl with shavings of beef, spring onion, mint and coriander, and the boiling stock is poured on top. At once, the aromas of the herbs are released. You add whatever extra flavours you want; soy sauce, hot red chilli sauce, or nuoc-mam.

Nuoc-mam is the universal, highly seasoned fish sauce. It is a clear brown liquid which is made from draining the fermented juices from small, salted fish similar to anchovies. In large quantities it is unbearably pungent, but just a few drops add a wonderful savoury nuance.

Vietnam has many unique dishes; a thin pancake steamed on a muslin cloth is one such. The batter, made from finely-ground rice, is scraped off the cloth when cooked, to be wrapped around minced pork and dried black mushrooms, served with crisp-fried shallots and a sauce of nuoc- mam, chilli, vinegar and sugar. It's called bahn cuon.

The most popular vegetables include long, thin, purple Asian aubergines, as well as numerous sorts of greenery. Cucumbers, bean sprouts and under- ripe bananas are also much used. Shallots, spring onions and dried mushrooms are very important seasonings. And the list of herbs is long: many kinds of mint and basil, coriander and dill are used; and flavourings such as star anise, cinnamon, ginger, limes, tamarind pulp, lemongrass and of course, very hot red and green chillies.

The important base ingredient is the noodle. Egg noodles made from wheat flour and egg are similar to Chinese noodles; rice noodles, almost transparent, are made from white rice flour and come in all shapes and sizes, bought fresh in the markets each morning. And the very fine bean-thread vermicelli, made from mung bean flour .

So here's a start-up kit for the healthiest new cuisine on the block; a taster of Vietnamese dishes, including some of Annabel Jackson's favourites and adapted for the British kitchen. The ingredients can be bought in Asian stores everywhere.

HOT AND SOUR FISH SOUP

The Vietnamese use a whole fish in the stock for the soup, particularly the head which has such sweet flesh, but use fillets if you prefer. Fish such as perch, pike, sea bass and grouper are suitable.

Serves 4-6 as a starter

280g/10oz whole fish or fish fillets

1 teaspoon sea salt

115g/4oz okra, sliced diagonally

225g/8oz tomatoes, each cut into eight wedges

55g/2oz beansprouts

1 fresh red chilli, thinly sliced

1 dessertspoon tamarind pulp

1 tablespoon nuoc-mam

85g/3oz peeled fresh pineapple, cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rau om (if available)

If using a whole fish, cut into three. Place the fish in 850ml (11/2 pints) of water, add the salt and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is soft. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon. Add the okra, tomatoes, beansprouts and chilli to the stock. Simmer for 10 minutes, or till the vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, soften the tamarind pulp in a few tablespoons of the fish stock in a small pan over low heat. Remove the seeds, then add the resulting paste to the soup. Add the nuoc-mam and the fish and simmer for a further five minutes. Add the pineapple and rau om, if using, and simmer for another five minutes, then season and serve.

PRAWN AND PORK ROLLS

One of the most delightful and popular dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, these rolls are deliciously light and healthy. Left-over roast pork can be used.

Makes 8 rolls

8 dried rice papers (20cm/8in diameter)

1 lettuce

55g/2oz beansprouts, ends removed

a selection of fresh basil, mint and coriander leaves

115g/4oz rice vermicelli, boiled quickly in water

115g/4oz boneless pork, boiled and thinly sliced

16 medium-sized prawns, steamed and peeled

For the nuoc-cham dipping sauce:

1 tablespoon nuoc-mam

3 tablespoons lime juice

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon caster sugar

Soften the rice papers by lightly brushing each one with warm water. After 20 seconds, fold in about 2.5cm (1in) on the two opposite sides and the top.

For each roll, place a lettuce leaf on a paper and pile on a few beansprouts, herb leaves and vermicelli. Add some pork and two prawns, and roll up.

Combine all the ingredients for the dipping sauce with two tablespoons of water. Serve the rolls immediately, with nuoc-cham for dipping.

SOUTHERN VIETNAMESE CHICKEN CURRY

Vietnamese chicken curry is neither Thai, Indian nor Chinese in style. This is a rather heady, aromatic dish. Throw a handful of freshly torn Thai basil on top and some freshly ground black pepper to bring out the fragrance. Serve with rice vermicelli rather than rice for added interest.

Serves 4

2 medium-sized potatoes, cut into chunks

vegetable oil for frying

8 shallots, finely chopped

4 stalks fresh lemongrass, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 fresh red chillies, finely chopped

2 tablespoons mild Indian curry powder

450g/1lb skinless, boneless chicken breast in bite-sized pieces

1 teaspoon sea salt

300ml/1/2 pint coconut milk

600ml/1 pint chicken stock

fresh Thai basil leaves (optional)

Shallow-fry the potato pieces in hot oil until lightly browned. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.

Heat a little oil in a pan and saute the shallots with the lemongrass, garlic and chillies until soft. Add the curry powder and stir for two minutes. Add the chicken and cook, stirring until it is opaque.

Add the potatoes, salt, coconut mild and chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Garnish and serve.

STUFFED SQUID

Stuffing small squid is fiddly, but worth the effort. If your squid have tentacles attached, finely chop these and add to the filling. This is quite a dry dish so is best served with other, sauced dishes.

Serves 4-6

450g/1lb young squid, cleaned and patted dry

vegatable oil for frying

For the filling:

3 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes, then finely chopped

25g/1oz bean-thread vermicelli, broken into pieces and soaked in warm water for 30 minutes

175g/6oz boneless pork, minced

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 dessertspoon nuoc-mam

pinch each of caster sugar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the filling ingredients, mixing well. Stuff each squid with the filling, packing it in firmly. Secure the opening with a wooden cocktail stick or sew up with a trussing needle and fine cotton.

Fry in a little hot oil over a moderate heat for about 15 minutes or until nicely browned on all sides. After the first few minutes of cooking, pierce the squid with a sharp pointed knife to release any water.

Leave the stuffed squid to cool for a few minutes, then cut each one across into 1cm (1/2in) slices and serve immediately.

CHICKEN AND LEMON LEAF SALAD

Vietnamese salads must be served extremely fresh or they lose their texture and become soggy. The Vietnamese use rau ram in this classic dish; mint is the best alternative. Lemon leaf adds texture as much as flavour but can be omitted.

Serves 4-6 as a side-dish

225g/8oz boneless chicken, shredded

1/2 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cucumber, seeded and thinly sliced

115g/4oz beansprouts

6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

4 fresh lemon leaves (if available), shredded

For the dressing:

juice of 3 limes

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon caster sugar

Combine the ingredients for the dressing, stirring well, and set aside. Mix together the chicken, cucumber, onion, beansprouts, fresh mint and lemon leaves. Toss with the dressing, serve immediately.

GRILLED AUBERGINES WITH SOY SAUCE

The Vietnamese often top grilled aubergine with crab meat or minced beef. This is almost a vegetarian version, given a sprinkling of nuoc-mam.

Serves 2-4 as a side-dish

2 Asian aubergines

4 spring onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 dessertspoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon nuoc-mam

Prick the aubergines in several places with a fork, then grill (preferably over a charcoal fire) for about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is soft but before the skin burns. When cool enough to handle, peel the aubergines and cut them in half lengthways.

Put the spring onions into a bowl. Heat the oil in a pan until very hot, then pour over the onions. Drain immediately. Sprinkle the onions over the aubergine, then gently pour the soy sauce and nuoc-mam on top. Serve.

BANANA FRITTERS

This delicious little snack is frequently prepared along village streets, where women set up stalls in front of their houses. In Vietnam, cooks use the small, broad Thai cooking bananas.

Serves 4-6

55g/2oz plain flour

25g/1oz caster sugar

1 egg, beaten

60ml/2fl oz milk

675g/1lb 8oz bananas

vegetable oil for frying

Mix together the flour, sugar, egg and milk to make a smooth batter- like paste. Leave to rest for one hour. Slice each banana in half lengthways, then across into chunks about 7.5cm (3in) long. Dip the banana pieces into the batter and shallow fry in hot oil for a few minutes, or until golden brown all over. Drain on a wire tray and serve warm. !

BOOK OFFER

Street Cafe: Vietnam by Annabel Jackson is available to readers of the Independent on Sunday at the special price of pounds 11 (including postage and packaging) instead of the RRP of pounds 12.99. To order your copy of Street Cafe: Vietnam by phone please call Conran Octopus on 01933 443 863 with your credit card details, or to order by post send a cheque, made payable to Octopus Publishing Group, to Conran Octopus Books Direct, 27 Sanders Road, Wellingborough, Nothants NN8 4NL. When ordering please quote reference H407.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific