My Big Fat Greek Waistline – A culinary odyssey around Greece from A to Z

I love Greek food. One of my fondest childhood memories is smashing plates on the floor at Albury’s only Greek restaurant with my family. And while that restaurant’s existence was unfortunately unable to rival that of the Parthenon, my love for Greek cuisine continues to endure.

The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens
The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens

I recall on my previous visit to Greece sixteen years ago that there was a lot of pastitsio on the daily menu, primarily because it was cheap and ready made. On this trip however I was intent on reacquainting myself with some of Greece’s other well known dishes, and looking forward to trying new ones. The following is not a definitive list of Greek cuisine but just a small foray into the food I enjoyed on my holiday, using the Greek alphabet as my guide:

A is for Anise which is the predominant flavour found in the traditional Greek aperitif of ouzo. Whilst my palate is still yet to appreciate the distinctive taste of anise, in many of the restaurants that I visited during my holiday, legendary Greek hospitality ensured that a shot of ouzo was placed in front of me before I started my meal. It feels somewhat appropriate to begin with an aperitif before I eat my way around Greece. Opa!

B is for Bougatsa. (You probably thought that I would say baklava and yes, I definitely ate plenty of that as well, but I’ve been reliably informed that baklava is not traditionally Greek but rather a legacy from the Ottoman Empire).

Bougatsa is a pastry that can be either sweet or savoury, consisting of warm semolina custard or soft creamy cheese between layers of filo pastry. If I was down to my last Euro, I would probably buy a tray full of this … or a glass of wine. It’s a tough call. Let’s just say that my heart would skip a beat whenever I saw this at the breakfast buffet.

C is for Cheese. Whilst there are many varieties and differing textures of cheese found in Greek cuisine (Feta, Haloumi, Graviera, etc.) my favourite cheese dish would undoubtedly be saganaki. Traditionally served as an appetiser, this dish derives its name from the small frying pan in which Kefalograviera cheese is quickly cooked over a high heat and served with fresh lemon. Have your knives at the ready so you can successfully fight off your friends for a portion while it’s still hot.

D is for Dolmades. Served hot or cold, dolmades are grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs (usually dill, which is my favourite herb) although they can also be filled with minced meat and rice. Deceptively small, dolmades are almost a meal in themselves and are always a hit when they appear on a mezze platter.

Dolmades
Dolmades – stuffed grape leaves

E is for Eggplant which is the main ingredient in one of my favourite Greek dishes, moussaka. Moussaka is a layered pie made with sliced fried potatoes and eggplant, tomato-based sauce, spiced minced meat topped with béchamel and cheese. The more memorable versions of moussaka that I enjoyed had identifiable hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in the meat filling. But not even the best Greek chefs can compete with my sister Nicole’s version because hers is always made with love.

F is for Fava. Fava originates from the island of Santorini and is a warm purée of cooked yellow split peas topped with finely chopped red onion. It can be served as an appetiser, mezze or accompaniment to the main meal and is really quite tasty. Although be aware that it is made with a healthy dose of garlic, so in conjunction with the fresh onion topping, you are guaranteed to repel any vampires and gypsies in your immediate vicinity for at least 48 hours.

Fava - a puree made from yellow split peas
Fava – a puree made from yellow split peas

G is for Gyros. Pronounced with a “Y”, the word “Gyro” means “turn” in Greek referring to the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie (generally pork or chicken) which is then carved from the spit and served wrapped in pita together with cucumber, tomato, onion, tzatziki and chips inside. Gyros are the ultimate Greek version of fast food and I found a couple of great places selling these in Athens for only 2-3 Euros a piece.

H is for Horiatki or what you and I commonly know as a traditional Greek salad. This is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced onion and capsicum, topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil. Sometimes variations of this salad will also include capers. I recently learnt that Greek salad served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on top in order to show the patrons that the cheese used in the salad is freshly cut from the block and not recycled from another dish!

I is for Ithaka, which is a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy. While you can’t physically eat the Ithaka, if you read this poem and digest the words you will find your soul nourished and your perspective renewed, particularly if you are still travelling. I had the privilege to hear the Ithaka at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, beautifully narrated in English by Sean Connery and accompanied to music by Greek composer Vangelis. It was especially poignant being in the final days of my holiday and feeling somewhat fatigued, listening to the Ithaka revived me again.

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National Archaeological Museum in Athens

J is for … The letter “J” in the Greek language doesn’t actually exist as it originates from the Latin or English alphabets. It has a few different sound variations when incorporated into the Greek alphabet but many Europeans pronounce “J” as “Y”. Therefore my “J” equivalent is “Yamas!” which is an abbreviation for the Greek phrase “To your health!” or “Cheers!” which I ended up saying quite often on this trip. Yamas!

K is for Kebabs which is a general term describing skewered food such as souvlaki, a popular Greek fast food consisting of grilled small pieces of meat such as chicken or pork (or vegetables). It can also be served on a full plate with chips or fried potatoes and pita. One of exciting things about ordering souvlaki is that no two dishes are ever the same!

L is for Lamb. One of my favourite movie quotes comes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “What do you mean he don’t eat meat? That’s okay. I make lamb”. While there are many variations on how lamb is cooked in Greek cuisine, I found it very hard to pass by the oven-baked lamb (kleftiko) with potatoes whenever I saw it on the menu.

M is for Mezze or a Mixed Grill platter. Why settle for just one dish when you can try new things and enjoy smaller samples of all your favourites? Better still, food always tastes better when shared and enjoyed with friends.

N is for Nutella … or is it? The Greeks have their own version of chocolate hazelnut spread called Merenda and many of the hotels in Greece have large bowls of this available on the breakfast buffet. My friend Julie was accustomed to mixing spoonfuls of hazelnut spread into her yoghurt each morning while I just ate a spoonful of it every now and again because it’s awesome.

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Greek hazelnut and cocoa spread

O is for Octopus. The Hellenic Republic, which is another name for Greece, is surrounded by four different bodies of water (the Aegean, Ionian, Cretan and Mediterranean seas) so it’s little wonder that fish and seafood play a prominent role in Greek cuisine. Octopus is usually served grilled or marinated and features as part of a mezze or main meal. Squid (or calamari) is also a favourite often arriving on your plate battered and fried, but there is also plenty of fresh fish, mussels and shrimp readily available at most restaurants. It’s not unusual to see a multitude of sardines and anchovies as well as whole bream, snapper and mullet trying to avoid eye contact as you pass by the display case.

P is for Pita. There is something unique and special about Greek pita – a little smaller and softer in texture than its foreign counterparts – it tastes more like bread and is usually my downfall when brought out to the table, especially accompanied by eggplant dip or an olive tapenade. Some Greek restaurants in Australia also lightly fry the pita in a pan with olive oil before serving … extremely dangerous for the waistline.

Q is for … actually there is no such letter in the Greek alphabet! There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet as opposed to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. A big thank-you to my friend Kiri for being my online Wiki expert for all things Greek!

R is for Rizogalo or rice pudding. When I first saw small bowls of this at the breakfast buffet, I thought “Seriously?” and avoided it like the plague. Then one particular morning I decided to try some and didn’t look back. Commonly sprinkled with cinnamon, the version I bought at a local bakery in Athens tasted like a cross between a warm baked custard and cream brûlée. Yummy!

S is for Spanakopita. My Mum makes spanakopita regularly at home in Australia, which essentially is a savoury pastry or pie, very similar to a borek, with spinach and feta cheese filling. The handmade filo pastry often used in Greece is a little thicker than the commercial version bought from my local supermarket back home in Melbourne, but no matter where you eat spanakopita, it’s delicious especially when eaten with a salad.

T is for Tzatziki which is a mixture of yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic that often accompanies grilled meat dishes or is served by itself as a dip. It’s cool, creamy with a bit of a tangy, sharp finish from the added vinegar or lemon juice but like most things, a little bit goes a long way.

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Tzatziki with zucchini ball

U is for Ubiquitous and what could be more prevalent in Greek cuisine than olives and olive oil. Travelling around Greece, you will see olives on the breakfast buffet; olives and olive oil in your salad; olive groves as far as the eye can see; your food swimming in a sea of olive oil; souvenirs made from every conceivable part of an olive tree; olive motifs on every menu, napkin and tablecloth in addition to the cans of olive oil and vacuum-sealed bags of olives in gift shops just begging to be taken home. Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is the largest consumer of olive oil in the world. So embrace your inner Greek and immerse yourself in the olive universe!

V is for Vegetables. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of meat and seafood dishes in Greek cuisine as there are a number of excellent vegetable dishes on every menu. Tomatoes and capsicum (peppers) stuffed with rice is known as Yemista and is not only delicious but also filling. Another one of my favourites is stuffed cabbage rolls which is called Lahanodolmades, although it does contain minced meat so not strictly vegetarian. Typically there is also okra, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes served as a side to every meal.

W is for Wine (not Windex!). Greece is known for producing some excellent wines and the house wines served in most tavernas and restaurants is not only drinkable but also extremely cheap. Wandering around Athens over the weekend, I happened to discover some very chic and beautifully designed wine bars hidden in the backstreets near my hotel, serving amazing wines by the glass. Make sure you try assyrtiko which is a white grape varietal indigenous to the island of Santorini. The 2011 Karipidis Syrah from the Thessaly region was also a standout favourite of mine. Yamas!

X is for Xynotyri. Erin, our tour director, ordered this for us to try in a lovely little taverna on the island of Rhodes. Xynotyri, which literally means “sour cheese” is an unpasteurised whey cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. The fresh goat’s milk cheese which we enjoyed had a creamy, thick yoghurt consistency and was used as a spread although as this cheese matures, it becomes hard and flaky but supposedly has great health benefits.

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Xynotyri from Oionos Greek Taverna, Rhodes

Y is for Yoghurt. All thoughts of going on a diet are dismissed when you see very large bowls of Greek yoghurt containing at least 10 per cent fat content every morning for breakfast. Usually the yoghurt is so thick and creamy that you need some serious muscle power to shake just a dollop into your own bowl. Greek yoghurt is apparently good for the digestion particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods. Often served as a dessert with preserved fruit or whipped together with cream, good Greek yoghurt is one of those universal substances that seems to appear at every meal.

Z is for Zucchini. Whether it be deep-fried zucchini balls (kolokythokeftedes), pan-fried slices of zucchini or stuffed zucchini, the Greeks know how it make this vegetable taste just that little bit better.

And so now I have come to the end of my own culinary odyssey and time in Greece. Although I’m looking forward to going home and practising some of the recipes I learnt at a cooking class in Athens, a recent visit to the historic site of Olympia and hearing about the ancient gymnasium and athletic rituals has inspired me to start training for the 2020 games!

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 9, Hoi An – Ho Chi Minh City

Sunday 7th December, 2014

Although we are staying at a beautiful resort in Hoi An, breakfast is an extremely light affair as we are starting the day early with a tour of the local street vendors as well as meandering around the local markets. All through our time in Central Vietnam, it has been constantly raining but today we are greeted with some sunshine and blue skies which immediately lifts my spirits.

Our guide Huy takes us to an area just outside the Old Quarter where lots of families are gathered together to enjoy their own breakfast before starting the day. The stall is rather busy so we walk in and find the next available seat, watching everyone eating and enjoying the fare. Eventually a few spots start to free up and Kylie and I are able to sit together and start eating the dishes that Huy has ordered for us. Accompanied by large, fresh baguettes and sliced cucumber and onion, we grab a spoon and dig in. The first dish is a wet curry consisting of braised beef, fresh herbs and vegetables, not unlike a massaman curry although extremely delicious and even better with fresh bread to mop up the liquid. Unfortunately it was introduced as a curry and not its local name so I can’t add any more information, although I will say that I could have kept eating this if the second dish hadn’t arrived at the table.

The second dish, which I think might be Dong Opla which is essentially an egg dish, with fresh pork meat, cured pork and chilli as it’s main components. Served hot, the egg yolk cooks in the curry although again, the baguette comes in handy. A wonderful start to our morning tour, but we still had a few hours of eating ahead of us.

Only a few metres further down the same street, we duck into a small alley to try a dish that reflects Hoi An’s Japanese influence, with thick tumeric-coloured Udon noodles, crispy rice crackers, eggs, shrimp, crushed peanuts and grilled meat called Mì Quảng. The thick noodles add quite a lot of substance to the dish, making it dangerous to eat more than a couple of spoonful’s despite its wonderful, fresh flavour.

Mì Quảng - Street food tour, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Mì Quảng – Street food tour, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Directly across the road, we arrive at a very special cart to meet Hoi An street food royalty, Madam Khanh, the Banh Mi Queen looking resplendent and regal in her high chair (or throne?) and pearls.

I’m slightly concerned about the quality of the pate in the cart window – it kind of looks like it has been there since 1972 – but nevertheless Kylie and I head into the restaurant area behind the cart and eagerly wait for Madam Khanh to prepare our Banh Mi.

Slightly unique to our previous Banh Mi tasting experiences, Madam Khanh uses kimchi and generous portions of sweet chilli sauce in her sandwiches making it crunchy, spicy and sour all at the same time. Extremely tasty and delicious, the sweet chilli does linger on the palate, making it impossible to taste the aged pate.

Still at Madam Khanh’s, we order a Vietnamese iced coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da) and Huy has arranged for two servings of coconut rice and mung bean to be brought to our table for Kylie and I to enjoy. It was tempting to sit for a while and continue to enjoy the warm sunshine but it was time to resume our tour.

Coconut rice and mung bean, Street food tour, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Coconut rice and mung bean, Street food tour, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d4308916-Reviews-Madam_Khanh_The_Banh_Mi_Queen-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

Passing by a vendor grilling pork over hot coals, Huy purchases a small container to taste on our way to the next destination.

A few minutes later we arrive at a busy road with a street vendor selling a Black sesame soup. Although this dish has a soup-like consistency, it is actually a popular Asian dessert made with white rice, toasted black sesame seeds, sugar and water. Looking somewhat like tar, the soup was quite sweet and delicious and very easy to digest. I could have gone back for another bowl as it was that tasty, despite the interesting appearance.

Huy then leads us to a local neighbourhood market, Cho Hoi An to look at the fresh produce on sale for the morning, stopping every now and then to either buy new kitchen utensils cheaply (my current obsession), take photos or try another food sample. Even the skinned frogs are starting to look familiar as we wander through the meat and poultry stalls.

Across from the market, Huy purchases Banh It La Gai, a small cake with jelly-like outer casing and a distinctive black colour which comes from the boiled leaves of a thorn leaf plant that is commonly found in the central part of Vietnam. Inside the gelatinous cake is sticky rice, sugar and banana leaf.

Our car arrives at the market to take us to the nearby Tra Que village, to visit a working farming community and walk around the herbs and vegetables being cultivated there. The market gardens are not too dissimilar to the one that we had visited in the North with the same ordered and manicured landscape of coriander, lemongrass, mint and basil. Huy leads us to a small museum displaying artefacts depicting how a family in the community used to live and work their allotment.

The museum also has a small restaurant called Waterwheel where we are given a refreshing drink of ginger and basil seeds to try along with intricate parcels of shrimp and mint tied together with chives as a snack. The shrimp parcels are amazing and look elaborate despite there only being three ingredients. Given the food we had already consumed during the morning, it was inconceivable that Kylie and I could eat more than one or two parcels, yet a whole tray appeared at our table.

Only a couple of people were working in the fields given that it is a Sunday morning, however one small woman came to a pool of water, walked into the well and filled two large watering cans of water placed as a yoke on her back, and proceeded to water her garden. I’ve done some serious Body Pump classes in my time, however my thighs and shoulders hurt from just looking at her carrying the heavy weight on her shoulders as she made repeat trips!

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g298082-d2068091-Reviews-Tra_Que_Vegetable_Village-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

We leave the village and head back to Hoi An for one last restaurant visit and tasting at Bong Hong Trang Restaurant to see where the best White Rose dumplings are made (according to our guide). The restaurant is fairly simple in décor and as we grab a table inside, I can see a large communal table at the back where several young girls are sitting down making dumplings. I stood and watched for a while, thinking that it looked to be somewhat easy, so I grabbed a chair and some dough and attempted to make the rose shape myself but I found out the hard way that there is a lot of skill involved in making those things.

With my career in dumpling making now in tatters, I went back to our table and ate a few White Rose dumplings with a new found appreciation for the skill involved in preparing them. The dumplings are delicious and beautifully presented but at this point, I can’t eat any more food.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d1994933-Reviews-Bong_Hong_Trang_Restaurant-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

It’s time to pack up and leave Hoi An, make our way to the airport in Danang for the next leg of our tour, however we were unable to previously visit the Marble Mountains as scheduled due to the incessant rain, so Huy has revised our schedule to fit in a tour and some much needed exercise before our late afternoon flight.

Just as we arrive it starts to drizzle but it’s dry enough to make the walk safely. The caves within the Marble Mountains were used by the Viet Cong as a makeshift hospital, which are now home to shrines and small chapels. Incredulously, the US also used the summit for helicopter landings during the war. There are many well-preserved pagodas and Buddhist temples throughout the park with amazing architecture amongst the rainforest. It felt great just to walk and climb over the mountains to see the incredible views of the city below.

At this point in our trip, we were also meant to visit China Beach but Kylie and I opt for an early arrival at the airport and say goodbye to our Central Vietnam guide, Huy.

A short flight later and we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and meet our new guide, Binh, who will be looking after us during our stay in southern Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, HCMC or Saigon, call it what you will, the city feels vastly different from Central Vietnam – for one thing, it’s not raining, it’s warm and it has a distinct Western or modern feel about the city. As our car heads downtown towards the hotel, Binh help us find our bearings and where there are suitable places to eat for dinner.

Much later in the evening, Kylie and I take the opportunity to explore our new surrounds and enjoy the warmth of the evening air. After our experiences in Hoi An, the ability to choose our own restaurant for dinner is almost exhilarating. During our wanderings we found a popular restaurant called Hoa Tuc with a wonderful ambience and a lovely outdoor dining area. Hoa Tuc is a restaurant specialising in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, and also runs the “Saigon Cooking Class” that Kylie and I will be participating in on Tuesday, so it’s almost like a mini-stakeout.

We are wanting something light but the menu is extensive with lots of delectable food. On the specials board, we choose the Pan fried fillet of Vietnamese snapper with sautéed pineapple and coriander in an effort to acquaint ourselves with the local fish and the Spicy char-grilled beef with kumquat, mustard sprout, lemongrass and white eggplant salad because it sounds like an authentic contemporary dish.

The cocktails on offer, as ever, are great. The salad was the first dish to arrive at our table and exceeded all expectations. The flavours were excellent and we made a mental note to ask for the recipe when we were scheduled to return in a couple of days. I’ve tried Thai eggplant but this is my first experience with white eggplant and it’s very similar to the apple or Thai variety.

The fish dish on the other hand wasn’t so wonderful but we came to the conclusion that it was also partly our mistake. The fact that it was on the specials board, coupled with the fact that it was Sunday, should have rung alarm bells but we were probably too tired to think strategically. The mass of sautéed pineapple was used to mask the flavour of fish no longer in its prime, so we took that experience as a lesson learned. Nevertheless, it was a great restaurant in a beautiful setting with good service.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d1569216-Reviews-Hoa_Tuc-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

Fed and watered, we went to bed looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure to the Mekong Delta.

Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 8, Hoi An

Saturday 6th December, 2014

A week has almost passed since our first cooking class in Hanoi, and this morning Kylie and I are excited to be able to experience our second class at the famed Ms Vy’s cooking school in Hoi An.

Our “Holiday Masterclass” is scheduled to start at 8.30am so we arrive early at the Market Restaurant and Cooking School and are treated to a special welcome drink before our class begins. I’ve been on culinary tours where you get a shopping list or bag to take to the market, however things got a little serious when we were each given a Vietnamese-style straw conical hat to wear as part of the market tour. On the short walk to the dock, a few local residents and fellow tourists were having a few laughs at our expense. When in Hoi An, I guess …

The tour starts with a short boat trip along the Thu Bon River to the Hoi An’s Central Market near the Old Quarter. Once at the market, our guide leads us to a small stall situated on the outskirts of the main building. Here our guide starts to teach us about the key elements of Vietnamese cuisine, as samples of differing spices and herbs are passed around the group for tasting. I’ve always been intrigued as to how chives and spring onions are expertly shredded and used as decoration for a number of Asian dishes, and within a matter of seconds the stall holder “splits” the morning glory herb using a kitchen tool called a “splitter”. She then used a stainless steel conical tool to demonstrate how to peel a carrot which is then fashioned into a decorative flower. As soon as I saw these utensils, I knew I just had to have them for my own kitchen, all for the bargain price of 90,000 VND ($5 AUD).

After the demonstration, we then head into the meat section of the market to look at the fresh produce, then past the noodles, towards the fish market and through more fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. The market was relatively quiet for a Saturday as it is a full moon day, which requires practising Buddhists to fast and make particular food offerings. On the way back towards the boat, our last stop is at a fruit stall to try fresh rambutan and other tropical fruit native to the area.

We arrive back to the Market Restaurant via the same route, return our conical hats and freshen up with a another cold drink. At this point, I thought we would be heading upstairs to commence our cooking lesson however our hostess asks us to follow her towards a stall inside the restaurant hall where we commence a special informative food tour which takes us on a unique tasting journey right around the entire perimeter of the ground floor, coupled with live cooking demonstrations. The Market Restaurant is quite a unique dining experience where popular street food and traditional Vietnamese cuisine is offered at different stations under one roof, resembling an upscale hawker style market or something akin to Sizzler, Hoi An style. The first stop is to watch rice paper being transformed into large crackers, where we take a sample and try some chilli paste that has just been prepared.

The next stage of our tasting journey takes us to the dumpling station where the group is shown how rice paper is made on a drum before someone is asked to volunteer and have a go themselves. Throughout the demonstration, a team of chefs are busily preparing a variety of different dumplings for the day’s trade and our group is invited to try the famous White Rose dumpling with a special fish sauce and other freshly cooked varieties of dumplings.

We continue onto the next station where chefs are making thick noodles from wet sheets of rice flour, effortlessly cutting the sticky dough into perfectly formed pieces. From the next stall, beef and betel leaves are being grilled over hot coals with the smoky aroma wafting towards us. Thankfully there are hot samples waiting for us to try when we arrive at the station. The next station is cooking baby crispy pancakes (Bánh căn) in hot oil where we are offered another sample in small dishes for tasting.

Continuing around the market we learn about how rice was traditionally ground in a stone mill to create rice flour before watching rice vermicelli being created through an industrial looking machine. At the next station, a woman is finely shredding green mango on a homemade wooden mandoline slicer before progressing across the stall to use a special kitchen tool to slice banana flower into edible pieces. With two-thirds of the market covered, we arrive at the dessert station to try candied coconut and ginger pieces as well as a delicious sample of steamed coconut pudding.

But wait … there’s more. We then sampled cooked pieces of root vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking before moving towards the next station, which resembled both a small delicatessen and bakery, housing baskets of fresh baguettes which could only mean that we were about to learn about Banh Mi. With slices of cured pork meat, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables shown around the group, the attendant at the stall made fresh Banh Mi for everyone to sample and enjoy.

Food tasting tour - Spicy Lemongrass Frog, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Food tasting tour – Spicy Lemongrass Frog, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The last station of the food tour was a selection of traditional fare or Vietnamese worker’s cuisine. From steamed pots of pig’s brain to stir fried frogs, we were all encouraged to taste samples but unfortunately I seemed to be quite full from all the other tastings.

Now it was time to head upstairs, freshen up and prepare ourselves for the day’s cooking class. Kylie and I found a seat towards the front of the room and met our instructor, Lulu, who would be teaching us four Vietnamese dishes over the next couple of hours. Our individual cooking stations were rather unique with a large banana leaf doubling as a chopping board and all the condiments and utensils prepared and ready for our first dish which was a soup, Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth.

We sat and watched Lulu demonstrate the preparation of the shrimp mousse, all the while listening to her funny insights on cooking for her in-laws and anecdotes from married life. It seems like most soups in Vietnamese cuisine are used as some sort of marriage-suitability test.

Once the shrimp mousse was prepared for the class, we started to prepare our soup broth by first gently poaching a couple of quenelles of prawn mixture. Once cooked, it was time to prepare the parcels using the steamed cabbage leaves at our station and the blanched spring onion to tie it all together. The parcels and vegetables simmered on the gas stove for a few more minutes and very shortly, we had created a very elegant and tasty dish worthy of any future mother-in-law’s palate. We were able to enjoy the soup immediately as our station was being cleaned and prepared for the next dish by our kitchen fairies.

Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth - Cooking class, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth – Cooking class, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The next order of business was to prepare the ingredients to create a marinade for our BBQ chicken and lime leaves dish.

It all seemed to be as relatively simple as throwing in the required quantity of ingredients into the bowl, mixing it all together with the plastic gloves provided, threading the chicken onto wooden skewers and watching it being whisked away and cooked for our enjoyment later.

The next dish, the classic Banh xeo, was a little more complicated to prepare with Lulu demonstrating how to prepare the batter mixture at the front of the class room before we lit up the gas burners again to create our crepes and fillings. It was fun to dispense with the traditional kitchen utensils and cook only with a set of wooden chopsticks. The tricky bit was turning the crepe over in the hot oil in order to create the half-moon shape, and then having to roll up the Banh xeo on a sheet of soft rice paper, but somehow all the effort paid off. Like most food, Banh xeo is best consumed when hot so as soon as we finished cooking and taking our obligatory photos, it was time to eat again.

Banh xeo - Cooking class, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Banh xeo – Cooking class, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The last dish of the day was to make a Mango and prawn salad, to accompany our BBQ chicken for lunch. Lulu demonstrated how to use the Vietnamese vegetable peeler to first peel the green mango, and then using a knife to make lots of deep cuts into the mango, the peeler was then used again to create the thin julienned shards of mango to be used in the salad. It took a little bit of getting used to actually holding the mango in one hand and being familiar with the odd shaped peeler, but eventually I got there and was quite pleased with the mound of chopped fruit I had created for my salad.

Two hours seemed to fly by and suddenly our class was finished and it was time to head back down stairs to the market dining area and eat our BBQ chicken and salad. But before we left, Lulu gave everyone an envelope containing the recipe sheets and our very own Vietnamese peeler to take home as a gift.

We enjoyed our lunch immensely, accompanied by hot green tea, ice-cream and candied ginger and coconut to finish.

http://msvy-tastevietnam.com/the-market/

Young tailor preparing for full moon,  Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Young tailor preparing for full moon, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Feeling extremely full, we had to head back to our tailor for our second fitting for the items that we had ordered the previous day. I think I was a little thankful that I was trying on a couple tops and not pants! While my tops were starting to take shape, there was still some more work to be done and another fitting was scheduled later in the evening.

The rest of the day was free for Kylie and I to do some shopping and enjoy the walking around the Old Quarter without our guide, and even to put our feet up and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee break. Ms Vy seems to have a monopoly of culinary enterprises in Hoi An, including a contemporary European-style café and patisserie called the “Cargo Club” which we decided to stop at and watch the world go by.

Old Quarter, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Old Quarter, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Much later that evening we regroup with our local guide and have our final fitting before heading out for happy hour and dinner. There are some fabulous restaurants in Hoi An with many of my friends recommending their favourite places to eat. I was hoping to try “Mango Rooms”, however Huy was quite insistent that we should try Mango Room’s sister restaurant, “Mango Mango”. Having experienced many facets of cuisine during our trip, I was looking forward to trying Vietnamese fusion cuisine.

Just as we arrived, owner and chef Duc Tram was just leaving to head towards his Mango Rooms restaurant across the river in the Old Quarter. Kylie and I were hoping that we would get the opportunity to watch Duc in the kitchen and ask about the inspiration for the Vietnam-Latin American-Japanese inspired menu, however he didn’t return to Mango Rooms for the evening.

Instead we went upstairs onto the balcony and were entertained by a few boys street performing outside in the rain over a few cocktails. The restaurant has a distinctive ambience contributed by the dim lighting and red accessories and accents within the main dining areas. After a while we moved inside to order dinner, deciding to share the following: Glorious Morning (morning glory, basil and tomato topped wth marinated anchovy in olive oils and herbs with balsamic dressing); A Geisha Fish (tempura pieces of red snapper in Japanese-Vietnamese style and tossed with green pepper, garlic and sesame seeds); Buddha Boogies (seasonal vegetables sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs, served with grilled eggplant, feta cheese and tamarind sauce) and Daisy’s Farm (mixed green, watermelon, orange wedges and apples topped with grilled duck tenders in balsamic orange dressing).

To my mind, Mango Mango was extremely expensive and some of the dishes presented didn’t quite make the grade. The salad dish looked like it belonged at a family barbeque rather than at a restaurant table. The eggplant on the “Buddha Boogies” was not grilled but heavily smoked and burnt over a gas flame and the resulting flavour overwhelmed the rest of ingredients on the dish. The duck dish hit the mark on taste but failed on temperature and the fish wasn’t that memorable. In hindsight, it probably was a good thing that the chef had left the building.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d1218436-Reviews-Mango_Mango-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

Ignoring the rain, we walked back home for a good night’s sleep to prepare for our final culinary adventure in Hoi An.

Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 5, Hanoi – Hue

Wednesday 3rd December, 2014

Hanoi is home to some phenomenal street food and our last day in the city concludes with a morning walking food tour, sampling some of the best places to eat and drink. Giang, our local guide is apologetic and says that there is no obligation to try the food at the places that she is taking us to given that some of her previous clients have been reluctant to partake, but Kylie and I acknowledge that we are on a culinary tour and are happy to try anything … at least once.

We start with a short taxi ride across the city and arrive at a small street with a stall where many residents are sitting down enjoying their breakfast of Bun Ca, a soup made with crispy fish cakes, prawns, noodles, morning glory and other fresh herbs. Giang shows us a large pot and explains how the soup broth is made from fish bones and tomatoes as the dish is prepared for each customer.

I’m not generally a fan of noodle soups, especially for breakfast, but this dish may have swayed me. Yum! The broth had so much flavour and all the ingredients were fresh and crisp to taste, especially the morning glory and the fish cakes. It was tempting to drain the bowl but this was the first stop of the day and there are another three hours or so to our food tour and besides, for all my slurping the contents of my bowl didn’t seem to be diminishing.

Bun Ca, Hanoi Street Food Tour - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Bun Ca, Hanoi Street Food Tour – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Not far from the first station, we arrive at another small restaurant and watch with fascination as one girl ladles a mixture of rice flour and water onto a drum which steams and creates sheets of thin delicate crepes for Banh Cuon Thanh Tri (rice crepes). This is another breakfast specialty from Hanoi where the steamed crepes are then filled and rolled with minced pork and mushrooms, topped with fried shallots and served with Vietnamese pork sausage (Cha Lua), fresh herbs and a sweet fish sauce. It’s also delicious although mushrooms are not on list of favourite things to eat.

A few streets over, we come to a very small stall where a lady is selling Banh Mi which is one of my favourite dishes. The stall is extremely tiny with a small plastic table with a chopping board and microwave. I’m watching the baguette being prepared and feeling a little sheepish as I think about the small kitchen I used to have in my previous apartment and how I hated cooking there – in hindsight that kitchen seemed enormous compared to the space that this lady was working with. Wrapped in newspaper, Kylie and I received half a warm Banh Mi each. If I liked Banh Mi before, I absolutely love it now. This sandwich was simply made with only a few ingredients – pate, sliced pork belly, fresh coriander, sliced pork sausage and the flavour is amazing with the crispy baguette served warm from being heated in the microwave for thirty seconds, making the bread soft in texture and bringing out the moisture in the meat.

We keep walking until Giang stops by a woman selling young green sticky rice (Banh com) and invites us to taste before purchasing a bag that is then wrapped in dried lotus leaves.

Walking further along the same street, Giang pointed out that we were in an area that specialises in selling wedding cakes and other supplies. Banh Phu The, commonly known as conjugal cake, has a thick jelly-like texture encasing a yellow cake mixture made from tapioca flour, pandanus, green bean, coconut and other ingredients. The stickiness of the cake symbolises a solid and eternal marriage, and just like the texture of the cake, the promises made by the bride and groom will also hold fast.

Around the corner, a woman is selling a mixture of rice, dried bean curd and crispy shallots which we sample. It’s not bad but probably pales in comparison against all the other delicious things that we have been trying so far.

We then come to a market where on the outskirts kitchen equipment is sold to wholesale customers. I really wanted to stop and look but we keep walking and as the market continues, we walk past dried fish and all manner of different ingredients being sold, occasionally looking at food stalls and watching families sitting together for breakfast. As we exited the market, a lady with a large pot on the back of her bicycle is selling tapioca root so Giang obliged us with buying a couple of pieces for Kylie and I to taste. It’s actually really delicious, just like boiled potato pieces but a little bit sweeter.

Walking through the Old Quarter through alleys and streets, Giang leads us to a stall selling Banh Oc which is a tomato and snail based noodle soup topped with spring onions (scallions). As I watched the vendor prepare the soup with a dash of shrimp paste, beef, chilli and cook the snails in the tomato broth, I didn’t have any apprehension whatsoever. Our soup looked elegant and inviting as we grabbed a spoon and chopsticks from the communal stand and started eating, although I will say that the broth had somewhat of an earthy flavour and the snails were hard and rubbery, but tasty just the same.

Banh Oc, Hanoi Street Food Tour - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Banh Oc, Hanoi Street Food Tour – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

After finishing our sample of soup, we continued walking back towards the hotel. Some of the street vendors were selling different types of tropical fruit which were vastly different to anything that we had seen before. Giang bought a piece of caramel coloured sapodilla fruit for Kylie and I to try. Sapodilla usually has a soft melting texture and a sweet dessert-like flavour, however our piece hadn’t fully ripened but it was a great tasting experience nonetheless. One of my favourite fruits that I like to devour when I have the opportunity to travel in Asia is fresh jackfruit, so as we walked past another fruit vendor Giang obliged by purchasing a container of jackfruit to enjoy. Deliciously sweet to taste, it was just like how I remembered it and a great palate cleanser.

A quick stop at the hotel to freshen up and enjoy a cup of lemongrass and honey tea before continuing the final leg of our food tour. Only walking ten metres from the hotel lobby, we stop at a small restaurant selling Chè and take a seat at the counter. Chè is a traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage or dessert soup. Kylie and I watch with fascination as the vendor starts to fill two large glass mugs with a mixture of lotus seeds, green beans, black beans, big black beans, black jelly, coconut jelly, jasmine tea, coconut milk and shredded coconut. As I’m handed my dessert to try, my mind is telling me that this concoction of beans and milk isn’t going to taste very nice but I grabbed a spoon and dived in anyway.

It was surprisingly sweet and quite delicious – the combination of flavours and textures in the glass was quite enjoyable and a wonderful refreshment. Soups, crepes, rice, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and dessert all sampled in the space of a couple of hours, it was now time to find a coffee.

Giang led us through the streets of the Old Quarter to an obscure shop front where we walked down an alley and upstairs to a popular café selling Cà Phê Trứng (Vietnamese Egg Coffee), ironically called “Giang Café”. I love my coffee and I have been enjoying all manner of Vietnamese iced coffees since I arrived in Hanoi, but egg yolk in coffee is another specialty that I need to harden my stomach for. Served in small, elegantly decorated cups this coffee is made with Vietnamese coffee powder, egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk.

Vietnamese Egg Coffee at Giang Cafe, Hanoi Street Food Tour - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Vietnamese Egg Coffee at Giang Cafe, Hanoi Street Food Tour – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The thick-textured, rich, creamy and sweet coffee tasted exactly like a Vienna coffee but without the whipped cream. The taste was fantastic and probably one of the most enjoyable coffee experiences I have ever had. It was fun sitting on the small chairs with the local crowd, sipping the hot sweet coffee. Giang had also bought some bananas to dip into the young green sticky rice that we had purchased earlier to enjoy as a snack with the coffee.

http://www.giangcafehanoi.com/

Although we were enjoying our time at the café, our departure time to Hue was drawing nearer and we still had one last Hanoi speciality to enjoy – beer or Bia Hoi. The beer café that our local guide had in mind wasn’t quite ready to serve us at that time in the morning, so we went back to the hotel to collect our luggage and make use of the tour car.

En route to the airport, we made a detour to another popular beer café, Trung Tao Ngộ Quán III – Bia Hơi Hà Nội, for a farewell drink. Some of the locals were enjoying a brew together, so we didn’t feel so conspicuous sitting down and ordering a few glasses for ourselves although the clock hadn’t quite reached 11am!

I prefer wine to beer but this was actually quite nice. The café had a great outdoor setting with a tropical atmosphere, so I didn’t mind kicking back and sipping a cold beer mid-morning. With every good drink, you naturally need bar snacks so a plate of peanuts and parcels of banana leaves materialised on our table. Giang unwrapped the strange looking parcel to reveal a long thin, pink, cured pork sausage that is typically enjoyed with the local beer. Not unlike salami twigs, the sausages were quite tasty with hints of spice to counteract the beer flavour. In true beer hall style, I whipped out a pack of cards and we played a few rounds as we enjoyed our drinks and snacks. Before long, we attracted a small audience of café staff and clients who were a little intrigued by our card game. Unfortunately our unique street food tour, as well as our time in Hanoi, had come to an end.

Kylie and I bid a fond farewell to Giang and thanked her for our wonderful Hanoi experience. Next stop: Hue!

A short flight to Hue and we were welcomed by Huy, our local Travel Indochina guide for Central Vietnam and taken to our hotel located on the Perfume River. We spent the afternoon at our leisure and met our new guide later that evening to enjoy dinner at a local family restaurant located near the hotel.

At the appointed time, Huy took us to a simply furnished restaurant across the street called “Banana Mango” to enjoy a set menu of Hue specialties, including crispy rice pancake. Our meal was quite good although I think given our food-filled morning, eating was starting to become hard work!

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293926-d1422380-Reviews-Banana_Mango-Hue_Thua_Thien_Hue_Province.html

Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.