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V gave me some chili plants for my last birthday, which she nurtured from seeds and eventually relocated to my garden. The whole enterprise has caused great hilarity and consternation, as Mr Lemur and I try to keep the damn things alive long enough to fruit. We’ve now brought them in for the winter and have a living room full of giant, unruly bushes which might or might not provide us with chilies one day. However, scarcely remarked in the great chili experiment is V’s rau ram plant which arrived in the same birthday present and is now going great guns. While we tried unsuccessfully to provide sunshine for the chilies, the rau ram was drinking up our wet and disappointing summer. Native to the swampier parts of Southeast Asia, rau ram or Vietnamese coriander is endlessly thirsty and apparently thrives on benign neglect. I only noticed how much it had grown when I brought it indoors. It was time for some soulful Vietnamese braised meat.

The cilantro-y flavour of rau ram is often used in salads, or as one of the fresh herbs topping pho, but I thought it would be nice as part of a more autumnal dish. I bought some shoulder pork from my lovely local butcher and decided to braise it in an aromatic light broth with star anise, cinnamon and cumin.  I once made a Luke Nguyen braise that used Sichuan peppercorns alongside more traditional Vietnamese flavours and I borrowed that idea to give a little kick to this aromatic dish. It came out rather nicely, with a pleasing slurry of spices. You could crush them if you wanted a more refined texture (or do as Nguyen does and isolate them in a muslin bag) but I rather wanted the homeliness of leaving them whole.

Although I wanted to emphasise the flavours of rau ram, you could make the dish with cilantro if you don’t have rau ram available. If you did that, then add some black pepper to the braise. (I’m really curious as to how my friends who hate cilantro respond to rau ram. The flavours are a bit similar but I don’t think they’re botanically connected, so perhaps that soapy sensation wouldn’t occur?)

Braised pork with rau ram

  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns (to taste)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 4 star anise
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • a generous glug of fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp thick soy sauce
  • 4 shoulder or spare rib pork chops
  • 20 rau ram leaves
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 small red chilies, or to taste

Begin by toasting the spices (cumin, fennel, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves) one at a time in a cast-iron skillet until fragrant. Set aside.

Brown the pork chops in a large heavy-bottomed skillet in vegetable oil and then add chopped garlic. When garlic begins to colour, add a decent whack of fish sauce, dark soy and enough water to semi-cover the meat. Add whole spices, cinnamon and sugar and stir. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. After 15 minutes, add thinly-sliced rau ram.

After a half hour or so, the sauce should be reduced somewhat: still thin but nicely brown and beginning to be sticky. Garnish with chopped chilies (or more rau ram if you’d rather it not be too spicy) and serve with quickly wok-tossed vegetables. I made these amazing purple carrots with mange-touts.

Serves 4.

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. Read the rest of this entry »

As I mentioned in my rambutans post, my cooking recently has been led by some unusual ingredients turning up in Asian supermarkets. On a recent trip to London, I stopped into one of the Gerrard St Asian stores in the hope of catching some winged beans. They did have winged beans but they looked nasty and brown at the edges so sadly I had to pass them by. However, what did look nice and fresh was banana flowers, an ingredient I don’t recall seeing before in the UK.

Regular readers might remember my fascination with the ready-shredded banana flowers in the Mekong Delta. At first, I had no idea what the giant piles of curling vegetable were: they looked a lot like Roman puntarelle but clearly weren’t. Eventually, someone told me what they were and the next time I was in a restaurant, I ordered the banana blossom salad. Like most Vietnamese salads, it was light and fresh, but at the same time complexly flavoured with layers of herbs and aromatics. And like Southeast Asian salads in general, it’s not like a Western salad so much as a category of main dish that’s mostly uncooked. A good Asian salad contrasts nicely with a thick curry, a crispy fried dish, a hot stir-fry. You might not come across a banana flower too often, but if you live somewhere with a good Asian market, they make for a tasty crisp side dish that uses all the fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. And if you don’t have any banana flowers, this is still a nice dish with cabbage or endive (or I might even be tempted to try it with jicama).

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Goi Bap Chuoi)

  • 2 banana flowers
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 shallots
  • 5 small red chilies or to taste
  • bunch of Thai basil
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 tbsp Asian fried shallots

for the dressing:

  • 3 tbsp fish sauce*
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 limes

* For a vegetarian version, use 2 tbsp soy sauce and be prepared to add more salt if necessary. A bit less soy sauce is good here as it can be a pushier flavour if you’re not careful – you might also want more lime.

Your first order of business is shredding the banana flower. Take off the outer, purple leaves till you are down to the fresh green ones. Now, I am going to tell you to put the slices directly into a bowl of cold water with lime in it to prevent discolouration, but the thing is you’re going to assume that this is like a pear or an apple. Trust me, it is not. These suckers turn a gross, dirty grey brown within seconds of exposure. It’s a kind of awesome and yet horrible decay in fast-motion. Also, there are flower buds in between the leaves that you don’t want to eat, so you can’t just slice through the whole thing like a cabbage – you need to take off one leaf at a time. These issues are slightly in tension with one another. So to shred the flowers, I ended up taking off one leaf at a time,  slicing it and dumping it in the water. This may not be the best way but it worked decently for me. I’m open to better suggestions…

Once that’s done, you can shred the lettuce at a more relaxed tempo. In Vietnam, they cut the banana flower with the stems of morning glory but crispy small lettuce seemed like a good alternative. Slice the shallots thinly and put in a big serving bowl.

In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds and then peanuts till golden, then cool. Wash and tear the herbs, and mince the chilies.

To make the dressing, mix fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and a glug of warm water till the sugar has dissolved. Taste for balance and add more of anything you think is needed.

Finally, drain the shredded banana flower and mix everything in the bowl. Top with fried shallots.

Serves 4, ideally as part of a meal with other components.

When we were in Vietnam, there were rambutans everywhere. The Mekong delta is bursting with fruit and we were there during high rambutan season. As we cycled through the villages around Vinh Long, rambutan trees hung over the road and in each driveway there was a woman selling baskets of the fruit. At the floating market in Cai Be, a little motorboat stacked high with rambutans zipped past us, spraying water in a hurry to sell the latest harvest. And the fruit themselves were juicy and sweet, with more filling and less pit than I’m used to at home. Plus, the skin came away easily from the flesh, making them much nicer to eat. Knowing my interest in food, our guide Anh took us to an orchard where the trees are grafted and grown. Although fruit trees grow like weeds in the Mekong, the orchards develop the best varieties.

Back home, I was excited to see a pack of rambutans in an Asian supermarket in London’s Chinatown. They were relatively big fruit and they made me happy just to see them piled up in a bowl in the dining room. I’m a sucker for foods that remind me of Vietnam. I ended up taking them around to Lemur friends JD and M as a gift, and while they were sweet and tasty, the skin stuck a bit too much to the flesh for ideal snacking. This is probably the inevitable difference between fruit that are local and plentiful and import varieties that have come halfway across the world. Regardless, rambutans are so vibrant and evocative, I’ll no doubt buy them again when I come across them…


Remember when I wrote about how nice and welcoming Vietnamese people are? Well, this is another one of those instances. When we were on our Mekong homestay, the breakfast provided was a perfectly lovely spread of omelettes and French baguettes with jam. But as we sat on the verandah waiting for our Vietnamese coffees to drip through, our guide Anh arrived on her bike from the village with a whole other set of breakfast goodies. She’d heard me say that I didn’t eat eggs and knew that I loved eating little snacks at morning markets, so she’d picked up an array of local treats at the market for me. How sweet is that?

The ones pictured above are bánh chuôí (the little rhizomes made with rice flour and banana, which were really delicious and kind of reminiscent of the steamed banana cake we had in Saigon) and bánh bò (the flat white discs, which look very plain but were actually really good, flavoured subtly with coconut milk).

Around the outside of this plate are bánh bèo, made with rice and beans, and in the middle are bánh lá, which are also made with coconut milk and look a bit like papardelle. These are probably the least photogenic of the lot but they tasted amazing dipped in coconut milk. And of course there was still a vast pile of French bread to get through with lovely runny fruit preserves.

It was incredibly relaxing to sit on the verandah, looking out at the jackfruit trees and eating our way through all these beautiful looking breakfast snacks. I mean, really, not only did Anh go out and buy these for me, our homestay hosts presented them so beautifully. They could have been annoyed that the picky guest didn’t want to eat their eggs but instead they created this elegant Vietnamese spread. Tourist with a personal touch is one thing but the Vietnamese welcome was a whole other level. (Let me give you another example. I had mentioned to Anh at one point that this trip was for a ‘special’ birthday. When we were in our hotel in Chau Doc, she arrived at our door with a package: a birthday cake with my name and age iced onto it, candles, lighter, vase and a single rose. When we were checking into the hotel, she’d had a sly look at my passport to find out how old I was and my exact birthday, and had gone out and had a cake iced for me! I was so touched. There I was, thousands of miles from home, and someone had brought me a personalised birthday cake.) So, this was a simple breakfast but a really lovely gesture. Fortified, we went out to explore the Mekong around Co Co, where the fruit trees are abundant and the fruit sellers also super friendly.

I should offer a prize for guessing correctly what exactly is in this picture. When we first arrived in Chau Doc, in the northern Mekong, we were perplexed and utterly transfixed by these obscenely glistening mountains that were to be found in stalls all over the night market. Context and smell told us there was a fish component but what else was going on? We remained in the dark until the next morning, when all became clear at the morning market. Before I get there, though, a little about Chau Doc. It’s one of the bigger cities on the Mekong and the last major stopping point before the Cambodian border. As a result, it has the slightly rakish demeanour of the border town (although it’s a ways to the actual border) as well as a substantial Khmer influence in its food and culture. Although there is a tourist market on the waterfront, I didn’t see any actual tourists there, and most of the town had a real provincial feel – urban but not especially concerned to be cosmopolitan. We felt nicely far from home. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was really sick, I wasn’t cooking at all and dinners were whatever I could persuade poor Mr Lemur to put together for us. (This may explain my substantial weight loss, although I really do not recommend the influenza diet.) Now I’m feeling a lot better and well enough to cook, but I’m still fairly weak and in need of simple and nutritious fare. I was craving poached chicken – not the Woody Allen joke of boiled chicken that’s been put through the de-flavourising machine but properly poached chicken that’s juicy, soft and infused with delicate flavours. To go with the tenderness of the chicken, I decided on a mix of peashoots and sunflower shoots – equally tender young vegetables without the indigestibility of winter greens. But you need something to bring all this delicacy into focus, or else it really would be an invalid meal rather than a energising one. Ginger is good for the stomach and ideal with chicken, so I added a zingy Vietnamese-inspired dressing of ginger, chili and lemongrass to wake the whole dish up. Cooking this dish made me feel a whole lot less like a sick girl, but the dish itself isn’t just for the delicate of constitution. Anyone feeling a bit worn down by post-holiday blues could enjoy its revitalising qualities.

Aromatic poached chicken

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 3 lemongrass stalks
  • 2 large chunks of ginger
  • 20 peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup or more fish sauce
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 3-6 long Thai red chilies, to taste
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • a bag of pea shoots, sunflower shoots or whatever mixed shoots and young leaves you have available
  • a handful of mint
  • a small handful of cilantro

Your first order of business is to poach the chicken. Put the breasts in a heavy pot (Le Creuset of similar, anything that holds heat well) and just cover with cold water. Take one knob of ginger, peel and bash with the back of a knife, then add to the water. Cut off the parts of the lemongrass that are too hard to eat, slice in half and add these to the water. Add the peppercorns and a generous glug of fish sauce. Now bring the water up not to a boil but to the gentlest of simmers. You just want little bubbles forming, no more. Turn the heat down to keep it this way for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and put a lid on the pot. Leave it for 30 minutes. You will have beautifully moist and perfect chicken without any further effort on your part. Hurrah!

While the chicken is cooking merrily under its own steam, make the dressing. Finely chop the chilies, the other big chunk of ginger, and the good bits of the lemongrass. Add 3 tbsp each of fish sauce, sugar and warm water, plus the juice of the lemon. You might want to add the lemon juice gradually and taste as you go. I found with the level of ginger and sugar, the dressing could take quite a lot of acid. Remember the heat will be greatly dissipated in the final dish so be bold with the ginger and chilies.

Next, wash the sprouts well and cut the cucumber into matchsticks. Tear or chop up the mint and cilantro leaves and mix all together in a bowl. When the chicken is cooked, let it cool and then tear into shreds and mix into the greens. Toss well with the dressing.

And that’s really all there is to it. Not only do you end up with a vibrant and healthy dinner, the poaching liquid is now light Asian-flavoured chicken stock you can store and use for something else. I feel immensely better for having cooked an actual meal and even more improved for eating it. Now, if I could please maybe get my voice back (almost three weeks of laryngitis!), 2012 would start to seem like a less miserable place…

Serves 2-3, over rice

In among all the street food, I wanted to go to one fancy-ish restaurant while in Saigon and a couple of people had recommended Ngon. To get us in the mood, we went for a pre-dinner cocktail at the 23rd floor bar in the (very upscale) Sheraton Hotel, which has a fine view over the city and rather nice 2-for-1 cocktails during happy hour. Unfortunately, we remembered once we got there that we hadn’t written down the address of Ngon, so we asked the hotel concierge. He showed us on a map but we also got a taste of high-end hotel living, because he was really concerned to put us in a taxi. You mustn’t walk, he insisted, it’s not safe. He almost had us believing we were going to some sketchy part of town, but of course, looking at the map it was clear the restaurant was right in the centre, more or less where we’d been wandering all week. If the Sheraton advises against walking to Ngon, its guests must see almost nothing of Saigon except out the windows of a taxi. When we got there (unmolested), I almost didn’t want to go in because it looked too fancy. Ngon is in an old colonial building, beautifully restored, and the garden section is full of fairy lights hung from the many trees that fill the space. It’s really quite magical. I was afraid the food would be Anglicised and overpriced, but we’d shlepped all the way there so we went in. I’m so glad we did…it was one of the best meals we ate in Vietnam and cost less than our Christmas barbeque. Read the rest of this entry »

Well, after a fairly horrible two weeks of illness, I’m finally feeling well enough to resume blogging. I’m by no means better yet – after a proper flu with secondary bronchitis and laryngitis I’m still weak as a kitten and sleeping almost as much as my cat – but I’m itching to write more about Vietnam and Thailand. I’m hoping in the coming weeks to intersperse travel posts on Southeast Asia with what I’m cooking now. But since I’m still on a sick-girl diet of plain rice and chicken, cooked by the wonderful Mr Lemur, it might be a few days before I’m back at the stove. For now, I’m starting a short series of market posts. Like any foodie, one of my favourite things to do in any new destination is to check out the food market, and throughout our trip we spent mornings and often evenings wandering around stalls, tasting new foods and just looking longingly at produce. I’ve been saving these posts up to enliven a dull January with vibrant images. First up, the Mekong delta town of Vinh Long. Read the rest of this entry »

Every single thing I’ve eaten in Saigon has been delicious. Seriously, there have been no average meals, not even any quite nice meals. They’ve all been transporting and wonderful and I want to blog all of them. I’ve a pile-up of notes and photos that I can’t possibly post quickly enough. So I am going to skip to the end, to our last meal in Vietnam, which was a fitting end to a truly wonderful trip. And never fear, at home I’m going to catch up on all those other memorable meals, and gradually post about the restaurants, the markets and the mysterious purchases…but for now, I can’t wait any longer to tell you about the unexpected pleasures of Vietnamese snail soup!

I had had Bún Ôc Thanh Hai on my “Things To Do: Urgent” list for Saigon, but for some strange reason, I could never persuade Mr Lemur that now was the moment for snails. I kept telling him that several trustworthy sources had written great things about it, but weirdly he was unpersuaded. We postponed it day after day until we only had our final day in town left. And then something wonderful happened: I saw on Facebook that a good friend from Iowa was at the airport in Cedar Rapids, leaving for Ho Chi Minh City. ZOMG! I replied quickly, letting her know that we were in Saigon, but worried that she wouldn’t get the message if she had no internet when she arrived. Several hours of modern communication hilarity ensued, with email, Facebook, this blog, cell phones and Skype all being called into use to establish contact. Finally we got in touch and arranged to have lunch on her first day, our last one. But…I still really wanted to go to the snail restaurant. Could Awesome Photographer M be persuaded to leap into Vietnamese food hardcore on her first day? Mr Lemur sagely recommended that I not lead with the snails. It’s a highly recommended local cafe, I said. They’re known for this one dish but it’s a full-service restaurant, I’m sure you can have something else if you don’t fancy it. Happily, she was in. Read the rest of this entry »

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