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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.

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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 »

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 »

We spent our first night in the Mekong Delta in a rural home stay near Vinh Long. These are a popular part of the more adventure oriented tourist experience and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, it can feel a bit anthropological, with our hosts as exhibits of native ways. Tours tend to bust out the folk dancing or traditional music, and it’s kind of uncomfortable to feel forced into the position of white observer of primitive spectacle. On the other hand, home stays are more or less small B&Bs, which put one’s tourist dollars back into the local economy. And, after all, I did come here to learn about and engage local cultures, especially culinary ones. Going to markets is one way to achieve this goal but staying in someone’s house and cooking with them must surely be another. Yes, it is brokered by a travel company, but sadly I don’t have any friends in Vietnam who would invite me to stay, so this is my next best thing. This home stay was a lot more low key than the one in Northern Thailand, and we spent most of our time cooking taro spring rolls.
Read the rest of this entry »

As we’ve travelled around the Mekong Delta over the last few days, there has been a constant refrain in our ears: Hello! Hello! It’s a cliche to say that people here are really friendly, but it is actually astonishing how eager to engage everyone is. The Mekong seems to be chock full of adorable moppets, all of whom yelled hello in English with great verve as we passed by. Now, there are lots of cynical reasons that one can think up to explain the situation. Maybe the moppets find white people inherently hilarious, especially when, like us, they are lumbering through their villages on bikes. This one is actually quite likely. Perhaps Vietnamese people are highly conscious of the burgeoning tourist economy and want to do their part. Again, quite probably, but I don’t think that’s all it is. People in Thailand were friendly and helpful but this exuberant enthusiasm, this desire to talk to the strange people – even in tiny children – is a whole other atmosphere. It reminds me a little of Cuba, where everyone I met wanted to talk, and even suffered my terrible Spanish gladly to chat about politics. I haven’t quite got to comparing political systems with the moppets yet (though seriously, I need some explanations) but I have been utterly charmed by the welcome we’ve received here.  Read the rest of this entry »

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