Friday, May 29, 2009

Wondrous Seasons of Vietnam

HANOI — There is an old Vietnamese proverb: “Anywhere you find two women and a duck, you have a market.”
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From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An to Dalat, my husband and I swept through the country’s colorful markets, snacking on freshly and exquisitely fried spring rolls stuffed with minced pork, sweet turnips and young papaya, then dipped in the omnipresent sauce of lime, garlic, chiles, fish sauce, rice vinegar and sugar.

We stopped for a feast of the popular and populist pho, a bowl of spicy, beefy broth designed as a make-it-yourself meal — we added to taste and whim fresh bean sprouts, minced hot red peppers, rice noodles, tiny fried onions, bits of salty preserved cabbage, and the essential, colorful and crisp tangle of herbs.

In snacks, as in meals, bite after bite, one can only smile in amazement at how the Vietnamese eke complex flavor combination's out of deceptively simple techniques with utterly basic cooking equipment. From modest market stall to upscale dining rooms, flavors were vibrant, refreshing, wholesome.

Vietnam offers an omnivore’s cuisine of varied soups, the freshest of fish and shellfish, an avalanche of fresh vegetables, and a bit of fried fare to soothe our cravings for crunch and fat.

There were welcome discoveries and new flavors. Having grown pumpkins in my garden for years, little did I know that one could blanch the tender young green pumpkin tendrils and sizzle them over high heat with a healthy dose of fish sauce and crushed garlic.

The Vietnamese grow delicious avocados, but consider them a dessert: In Dalat we snacked on surprisingly creamy and sweet avocado ice cream churned with condensed milk. And after sampling the mild, tangy and crunchy water-spinach sprouts, I wanted my own rice paddy just to enjoy the omnipresent green — often called morning glory sprouts — that grows joyously in the paddies.

Our palates were rewarded each day with a perfect-pitch balance of salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy and soft, whether with an expertly seasoned fish paste wrapped around a stick of lemon grass; a cool, refreshing drink of green onions, basil, ginger, mint, lemon, salt, fish sauce and fresh coriander; or a restorative mousse of avocado and artichoke.

Over a period of 10 days, markets and meals filled the hours, and three in particular stand out.

La Vertical Our last meal in the country was with Didier Corlou, a Frenchman who runs the amazing restaurant La Verticale, housed in a tall, narrow 1930s villa in Hanoi. A colorfully decorated space, the restaurant features five colors — green, yellow, black, white and orange — symbols of the five seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter and “the transition season,” a 21-day period between each of the other four.

It is a happy, vibrant, personal space, where Mr. Corlou offers a superb cuisine that fuses the best of French and Vietnamese culinary culture with utmost respect for the seasons, quality and locality of ingredients. His food is straightforward, totally spontaneous and unselfconscious.

While so many of his combination's are brand new — a cold tomato soup served with a scoop of black peppercorn sorbet; lamb chops coated with a golden crunch of bee pollen; a vibrant escabèche of sea bass and sea greens; crab and mushroom wrapped in rice paper and deep fried — everything on the plate or bowl is identifiable.

So much of the pleasure of food is in memory, and though we may not have memories of Mr. Corlou’s creative combinations, we know a mushroom from a tomato and can relish the pleasure of each ingredient.

Mr. Corlou, a longtime chef at the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, is now on his own as chef and chief alchemist with a ground-floor spice shop that is unique. He searches out the best cinnamon, turmeric, red chiles, ginger, and black and white sesame from all over Vietnam and creates his own curries, salt mixes and myriad other blends for his boutique.

Cha Ca La Vong Whether one is a dedicated gastronome or a first-time visitor to Hanoi, chances are one has had the Cha Ca La Vong experience. Unique in the world, and a delight that can equal the high of that first croissant in Paris, a perfect risotto in Milan, pork barbecue in the Carolinas or amazing tapas in Spain, the turmeric-laced white fish meal in a bowl is an event.

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