By the time Mr Lemur and I hit Saigon on our tour of Southern Vietnam, you might think we’d have been all marketed out, but Ben Thanh market revitalised us. At first it felt a bit unwieldy with lots of stalls selling cheap clothes, fake plastic fruit and assorted tschotschkes, not to mention the Viet ladies who have no problem whatsoever grabbing you and pushing you aside if you are in their way. (Seriously, they make little old Italian ladies seem reticent.) But we soon warmed to the cheery rudeness of the atmosphere and enjoyed a pretty good pork chop bun for breakfast. Since we were nearing the end of our time in Asia, I felt justified in attempting a bit of food shopping. While it was sadly not feasible to carry home any of the pickled fish I enjoyed in Chau Doc, it did seem reasonable to pick up some dried shrimp and spices. Ben Thanh had some lovely looking shrimp stalls where I’m fairly certain I was ripped off, and pushy coffee vendors who clearly dealt with tourists a lot. But the spice stall was not set up for tourism and, as you can see above, its proprietor was just a little daunting.
I wanted some powdered ca ri ga mix, as Vietnamese curries are very specific and it struck me that this would be kind of a good staple to have in the storecupboard. Luckily, one of the customers took pity on me and decided to help out. You can see the Vietnamese phrasebook in my hand there – never has a book been less useful. It’s no insult to the good people at Lonely Planet, as the book is well thought out and does its best, but dear gods, nobody ever understood a single word of Vietnamese that came out of my mouth. This little interaction was a testiment to the magical powers of cross-cultural communication; one of those occasions where you somehow exchange meaning with someone despite sharing absolutely no common language. Shopping for food tends to bring this out in people – maybe it’s the cultural centrality of food, or the practicality of having lots of things to point at – but I love ‘talking’ to people like this in markets. With this nice lady’s help, I came home with a box of curry powder for chicken.
I know someone is going to tell me you can buy the same brand in London and you probably can, but I was happy to have it recommended. I finally tried out the curry powder this week, making a more or less traditional Vietnamese ca ri ga. I omitted the usual potatoes but you can always put them in with the carrots if you like them more than I do! Vietnamese curry is lighter than, say, a southern Thai curry, with less coconut milk and a soupier consistency. Don’t let that put you off – the flavour is hearty and reassuring, good for a late summer evening.
Vietnamese chicken curry
- 8 pieces of chicken (either a whole chicken jointed or a selection of thigh and leg pieces)
- 3 tbsp Vietnamese curry powder
- 1 tsp chili powder (or to taste)
- 3 shallots
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 1 thumb ginger
- 2 cloves garlic
- 6 lime leaves
- 2 fresh red chilies, sliced
- 1/2 can coconut milk
- 1 onion, cut in thin wedges
- 2 carrots, thickly sliced
- cilantro to garnish
Start by rubbing 2 tbsp of curry powder over your chicken with a bit of salt and leaving for at least a half hour.
While you wait, make the curry paste. Chop the garlic, ginger, shallots and lemongrass and either pound in a mortar and pestle or whizz in a mini-prep. Brown the chicken well in a large pan or wok – I use a flat-bottomed Le Creuset – until the aromas of the curry are released.
Next, add the curry paste to the chicken and fry a little till it no longer smells raw. Then add the remainder of the curry powder, chili powder to taste (I don’t like this dish to be too spicy so I go light on the dried chilies), the sliced fresh chilies and lime leaves. Stir briefly and add a cup of water (you might need a bit more depending on your pot). Bring to the boil and then simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
Add the onions, carrots and coconut milk and simmer for another 15 minutes or until the carrots are cooked. Garnish with a bit of chopped cilantro. Serve with rice or bread.