Saigon, Saigon

DSC_0940I promised a friend and member of the Sunday Night Curry Club to tell about our trying out of Saigon, Saigon, a Vietnamese Restaurant in Hammersmith’s King Street, so here goes:

We loved it.

We arrived at 7pm on a Saturday evening to a pre-booked table for four, and it quickly turned out that pre-booking seems essential: the place was packed, and the downside was that we had a slot from 7 to 9pm.

Staff was friendly and efficient though, and overall noise levels were pleasantly low, inspite of the many diners in the room.

For starters, we enjoyed fresh salad rolls with sliced shrimp & pork in soft rice paper, char-grilled quails marinated with honey, minced garlic & five spices and a sliced beef steak salad (medium-rare) with mixed herbs in fresh lime juice. All three dishes were so nice that none of us could pick a favourite.

For the mains, we had stir-fried spicy beef with morning glory, stir-fried chicken in a fruity tamarind sauce, shredded pork with lemon grass and black mushrooms, served in a clay pot, and seafood “on fire,” all accompanied by fried rice, sparkling water and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Maybe one of quieter nights will allow for more time. While we didn’t feel rushed through the meal and our 2 hour slot, in the end we were declined a coffee and asked to vacate the table for the 9pm batch. I think this is just acceptable given the overall quality to price ratio; they’d probably have to raise prices across a magical threshold in order to run the place at a single seating per table. Maybe 2 1/2 hour slots would be clever compromise move though.

The food was great. Prices are very reasonable for the area; we paid approximately £30 per person, which included a bottle of wine shared between four. The only downside is the two hour table slot business.  We’ll be back for sure, but maybe not on a Saturday night.

 

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The Rice Story

riceI find “the rice story” fascinating. It is, I am sure, not much different from the wheat story or the potato story, or any other tales of mass-produced foods, but rice may be closer to the low-tech end of the scale than many others. And, after just been to Vietnam, rice was on our table every day, so here goes:

You’d start by finding a water buffalo and ploughing the rice field. In the South, you may seed the rice directly into the field. In the North, you’ll pre-grow the rice plants from seed, and then re-plant every single one of them.

Control water flow, flooding and draining the rice field as necessary, while hoping that the new upstream hydro-electric power plant doesn’t cut off all the silt that you used to rely upon as fertilizer for centuries.

Eventually, when spared from the typhoon or other misfortune, you’d cut the rice and bundle it up, then carry the bundles to the nearest road (I tried, and found they are pretty heavy, and not at all comfortable to carry on a bamboo stick across the shoulders).

You’ll probably have to drive it somewhere, often using a man-drawn cart. Then you need to thrash it to separate grains from straw, then dry the grain alongside the road (also dry the straw for fodder and mushroom farming).

Now you sell it to a mill, where the skins are removed, while you prepare the field for the next crop. Someone else will now package the rice and ship it somewhere. Finally, someone somewhere in the western world drives to the supermarket and finds £1 per kilo of regular white long grain rice expensive.

Pretty amazing.

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This Week, I’ve Been Mostly Eating…

DSC_1039Let me tell you a little about the food we ate in Vietnam. In my opinion, Vietnamese food is among the best in South-east Asia. Unlike Thai food, the use of coconut and coconut milk is sparse, and there is little oyster sauce from Chinese influences, thanks goodness. On the other hand, a lot of fresh herbs, salads and fruit is used, making Vietnamese food generally refreshing and bursting with flavours.

Some visitors experience Vietnamese food as bland, but I think this is just a result of tourist-safe cooking. Vietnamese food always seems to appear in two varieties; one for tourists, one for Vietnamese people. The former can be bland, but I believe the latter won’t ever be.

One of my personal favourites are fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. This is an uncooked rice paper affair, filled with a variety of raw and cooked, hot or cold ingredients. I find it is best when delivered as a do-it-yourself kit. Rice noodles, salad and fresh herbs (including Thai basil, cilantro, mint, sorrel) are almost always included. Other ingredients vary and can include fish, prawns, fruit, cucumber, crispy fried spring rolls, grilled pork, beef or chicken, bean sprouts, or just about anything. Chilly sauce, satay-like sauces or soy sauce is typically used for dipping.

Phó is the popular noodle soup. Ingredients and quality varies widely, but Phó normally provides a reliable quick fix for breakfast or lunch, for a dollar or two. Just find a nice eatery, order a bowl of Phó Bo, then add herbs, lime juice an chilly to taste. I like the fact that Phó is usually served with a large side plate of herbs, lime and chilly so that these are really fresh, not steamed to death in the hot broth, and added to taste.

The list of fish, seafood, poultry and meat dishes is endless. We never ate anything which we didn’t like, but some were of course better than others. A table-top charcoal BBQ event was pretty good fun. Almost anything is served with steamed rice and vegetables. Among the vegetables, morning glory, sautéed with garlic, was especially popular with everybody.

And finally, there’s Vietnamese black coffee. Thick as crude oil and letting any Espresso look pale in comparison, yet delicious thanks to the absence of any bitter oils.

Did I say I love it? No? OK: I love it.

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Oi Choi Oi Vietnam

DSC_1412

Hello there!

We’re back home after a 26 hour door to door return journey from Hanoi, via Kuala Lumpur, to London.

In short: we had a brilliant time. We travelled in a group of 18 cyclists, cycling 470km in mostly decent weather and without major accidents, managed by a brilliant support team (the tour leader, the coach driver, the truck driver and the mechanic). We travelled by bicycle and coach from Saigon to Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon, My Lai, Hoi An, and Hue, then took the overnight sleeper train to Ha Noi (the Reunification Express, racing across the 600km distance in just under 13 hours), where we explored Ha Noi City and Ha Long bay.

(Click here for the detailed tour itinerary.)

Even though we experienced some heavy rain, we were completely unaffected by flooding. Hoi An had been 6ft (180cm) under water just a few days prior to our arrival, but all had been cleared when we came. I can only guess that the clean-up involved a large number of busy Vietnamese people, starting much before sunrise and working until much after sunset, with inferior equipment and under dreadful conditions, but with a laugh on the lips.

More details upon request.

I recommend strongly that you do not travel to Vietnam. It’s just too lovely to be spoilt by mass tourism.

The pictures are now online. Click here for the very small subset for the impatient, or click here to enjoy all images. (Tip: try the slideshow feature, located at the bottom of the thumbnail images.)

 

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Take-Away

2010-11-26 Vietnam and Cambodia 2010 967I am fascinated by the fact that, allegedly, gastronomy in our home area of Pfalz is chiefly run by cooks of Vietnamese origin (or probably more correctly of South-East Asian origin); no wonder you see so few in the streets. We ate in a typical local restaurant and learned that the local fare, cooked to perfection, is prepared by a Vietnamese cook who’s been cooking for them for 15 years. We know of other restaurants whose typical local menu is prepared by Vietnamese staff, and we heard of more.

I am wondering if any of the Vietnamese people save up and return to Vietnam at the end of a German working life. If so, will he or she then build a nice house and open a Pfälzischer Take-away? Not very likely, but surely the serving of Leberknödel, Bratwurst or Saumagen on the banks of the Mekong river would be as exotic as servings of Vietnamese food were to Germany 20 or 30 years ago. South-east Asian cuisine already includes sour pickled mustard and cabbages, making Sauerkraut not too alien altogether, and Bratkartoffel as well as  Leberknödel can be prepared in a Wok, so that all seems perfectly do-able and reasonable to me.

 

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Partly Cloudy Patriot

PartlycloudypatriotExcellent stuff: Sarah Vowell’s Partly Cloudy Patriot. I listened to it for a while yesterday as an audiobook, while I was working on the new painting. Insightful, biting and amusing shorts on anything from family life to U.S. presidency and Vietnam. Sarah reads the audiobook herself and hwe nasal voice might not be to everyone’s liking, but then there’s always the printed version…

I am so glad it rained all day. A rainy Sunday frees anyone from having to go out and do something nice. Instead, one can simply stay in and do something just as nice.

Painting a little, preparing this post, and listening to Sarah reading her book certainly made for a good Sunday for me. I think I will buy this book as a present; all I need is figure out for whom it’ll be. The Giraffe painting is finished; photo coming soon.