Monday, August 23, 2010

Cao Lau, How I Miss You

bus thai

Over the past summer I spent 3 weeks travelling through Vietnam, and then a further 3weeks travelling through Thailand. Although neighbours, my experience in the two South-East Asian countries was very different from each other. Not only culturally and environmentally different, but the cuisine from both nations varied drastically.

However, there was one aspect shared by both countries that was very obvious. The culture surrounding eating is the same - the world stops 3 times a day for the Vietnamese and the Thai. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is a daily ritual that is experienced not alone by a desk, or on the train rushing from place to place but with others, sitting around a table, sharing food with each other in a very communal way. One of the best things about my trip was taking an hour of out each day to sit and eat a well prepared and well cooked lunch. It was a time spent not only eating, but reflecting upon the morning and pondering about where the afternoon would take me. The days felt much longer whilst travelling and I think these midday moments had something to do with it.

While I adore Thai food, and it was in fact the cuisine that started my love affair with all things asian, I was quite disappointed with the food I ate while over there, not because it wasn't delicious, but because it wasn't the authentic Thai food I yearned for. I always found myself gazing enviously at the owners of the restaurants that we ate at. We had our food; which, while tasty, was what I have come to believe is the food the Thai people presume Westerners want to eat. And they had theirs; awesome whole steamed fish with rice, a searingly hot curry or an amazing smelling unidentifiable delicacy. And I understand completely why this happened, but I wish it wasn't so.

I only ate a few meals that satisfied this desire for a proper, real Thai experience. Not suprisingly, all of these were off the beaten track. The most memorable was in Bangkok at a street stall near Khao San Road, run by a man with a crazy hairstyle and facial hair to match. It was strictly vegetarian - but you could pick and choose your base sauce. Everytime I ate there I ordered the chilli and basil vegetables with tofu. It was amazing. I dream about this dish. I would go back to Bangkok just for this meal (and the shopping). Next time I go to Thailand I'm going to vow to try my hardest to sample more authentic, street-style, Thai cuisine because I know it's there it's just hiding away in the back of the kitchens of most tourist orientated restaurants.

bangkok street

The Best Vegetable, Chilli, Basil Stir Fry, Bangkok

us girls

Christmas Day: Bridget, Paris, Laura, Steph, Me


Daily Ritual - Mai Tai's + Happy Hour in Koh Phangan

handsome sandwihes

Some of the best food that wasn't Thai... the infamous Handsome Sandwiches Burgers

In Vietnam there were 2 options. Street food, eaten on the street, or street food sold in a hole in the wall restaurant. Whether it was crunchy fried Nem Ran (spring rolls) wrapped in lettuce and mint and dipped in chilli sauce eaten on mini plastic stools in the gutter of a busy Hanoi street, or a bowl of beef pho (soup) eaten at a rural roadside pit stop during a 12 hour bus ride, or a vegetarian stir fry of incredibly silky tofu and tomato cooked by a 70 year old Opium smoking grandpa, every meal I ate in Vietnam was a true reflection of what the Vietnamese themselves eat and drink. Although I did pass on sampling the snake blood vodka, dog and probably about 98% of other meat dishes for my own personal reasons (visions of eating my own pet dog, for example) I feel as though I ate like a true Vietnamese.

Tom and I... and our backpacks

Coffee that could turn even the biggest non believer - condensed milk at the bottom = genius

whole fish hoi an

Whole ginger and lemongrass steamed fish in Hoi An

My most memorable meal was in Hoi An, where the local specialty is a dish called 'Cao Lau' - bascially fat, short noodles with a few spoonfulls of beef broth at the bottom. Topped with generous amounts of fresh herbs and thin slices of tender, just cooked through beef and crunchy croutons. I'm still not sure what the croutons are (crunchy bits of pig skin? or fried rice paper?) but my god they added irresistable texture. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, the recipe for Cao Lau is a much guarded secret and you cannot buy the special noodles anywhere outside of Hoi An; true Cao Lau noodles are made using the water from the well in the centre of the town. You could try to replicate it using different noodles, but they truly are the star of the dish. I only managed to fit this dish in a mere three times during my 4 day stay but I really could eat this dish forever...and ever...
The funny thing is that I don't have one single photo of Cao Lau, because every time it landed on the table infront of me I tucked right in.

tom meat

MEAT! at Ben Thanh Market

banh xeo
Banh Xeo - crispy Vietnamese pancakes in central market in Hoi An


Cleansing Tomato and Tofu Soup -Sapa

food on cruise
One of the best meals on the most entertaining boat cruise ever, prepared out the back of a tiny, rocking boat - Nha Trang

First bowl of Pho, HCMC

bun bo
Bun Bo - Beef and vermicelli noodles in the Sapa Valley

nem ran 2
$1 meal of Nem Ran, Hanoi Spring Rolls - Streetside Hanoi

nem ran
Nem Ran in Hanoi

tofu tomato
One of our favourite meals in Hanoi - tomato, tofu and spinach stir fry prepared by a grumpy grandpa whilst smoking a suspicious looking pipe, and eaten amongst discarded chicken bones, a drunk mother and son and plenty of stray cats

So the night before we left for our trip, Tom's mum gave me an amazing present - Luke Nguyen's cookbook, 'Songs of Sapa'. It could not have been a better gift because it got my tastebuds going in anticipation of the trip ahead. And now, after I've gone to Vietnam and know what I'm missing out on, I can attempt to recreate some of the fresh, balanced flavours at home.
Nine months later and still craving the culinary delights of Vietnam, Tom and I decided to make a nostalgic feast, using the cookbook but also our memory. Thanks to Luke's extensive recipes, we were able to reacreate our own Vietnamese banquet with the true flavours and textures of Vietnamese cooking.

Lemongrass Chilli Chicken
From Luke Nguyen's 'Songs of Sapa' Cookbook
(I like to add ginger to this recipe as well as chilli, lemongrass and ginger are the three flavours that absolutely epitomise vietnamese cooking to me)

*for recipe click here

Hanoi Spring Rolls - Nem Ran
From Luke Nguyen's 'Songs of Sapa' Cookbook
The accompaniments are just as important as the rolls themselves - place each spring roll inside a big iceberg lettuce leaf, with a few sprigs of fresh thai basil and vietnamese mint. Roll up, dip into chilli vinegar and eat!

*for recipe click here


Crisp Silken Tofu in a Tomato and Black Pepper Sauce
From Luke Nguyen's 'Songs of Sapa' Cookbook

500g firm tofu cut into large squares

200ml vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped asian shallots (I used half a spanish onion instead)
1 bird's eye chilli, thinly sliced
4 really ripe tomatos, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths< 2 coriander sprigs, to garnish
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pat dry the tofu cubes with paper towel. Pour the oil into a wok and heat to 180 degrees of until a cute of bread dropped into the oil browns in 15 seconds. Add the tofu in two batches and deep-fry for about 3 minutes, until crisp. remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel to drain off excess oil.

Drain away the oil used for deep frying, keeping only about 1 tablespoon of oil left in the wok. Return the wok to medium heat and add the garlic, shallots (or onion) and chilli. Stir fry for 1 minute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the sugar and fish sauce, then cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring until the tomatoes start to soften and break down.

Add 100ml water to the wok, bring t the boil, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer for 10 minutes. Add the crisp tofu, spring onions, and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, tossing gently to combine and simmer for no longer than 1 minute as you want to keep the crispness of the tofu. Garnish with coriander and extra spring onion.

*I served all of my meals with steamed jasmine rice, and two dipping sauces; fermented bean and chilli vinegar, and alongside of a bowl full of fresh thai basil and vietnamese mint.



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