I am an awful traveler. And by that I mean specifically the geographical re-location part. So it was no surprise that my last night in China was spent being driven by a Shanghai bar owner at 3 am for some much-needed fried sustenance in a last ditched attempt to make me “fit to fly” (not that he cared much earlier that evening when forcing “Chairman Mao” cocktails down my throat). On this occasion I made my flight. Just. But the heavy session and lack of sleep left me more than a little worse for wear on my arrival to Ho Chi Minh.
Stumbling around the city’s backpacker district trying to find my hostel, an old woman stopped me in my path and looked deep into my eyes. She could feel my pain. With a beaming smile she ushered me towards her tiny street stand and before I knew it a steaming bowl of Pho arrived. She demonstrated how to complete the dish with a squeeze of lime, a dab of chili and a hand full of aromatic herbs and bean sprouts. Who was this guardian angel with her magic tonic? With every spoon my mood lifted and by the end of the bowl I felt revitalized. All around me the city was waking up, market stalls lay out their fresh produce and gradually the roads crescendo with the sound of bikes whizzing by. I was already in love. How could I only spend a week in this amazing country?
Having had a brief nap and ironed my chef whites (I would be working in an open kitchen after all), I hopped on a moped taxi to May restaurant to start my week cooking traditional Southern Vietnamese cuisine in a stunning former French colonial house nestled in a backstreet off the Saigon river. Vietnamese with French sensibilities? Perhaps fitting given Ho Chi Minh himself, among many other things, was a chef for the godfather of haute cuisine, Auguste Escoffier.
I began familiarizing myself with Vietnamese ingredients by assisting with the mis en place and shadowing the chef on the ‘cold station’. Based on the dishes that flew out of here, Vietnam’s reputation for some of the freshest and healthiest food around is truly justified: lotus sprout salad with pork and prawn; banana flower salad and chicken, and of course the classic green papaya salad. Each plate was a mound of revitalizing goodness, coated in homemade chili sauce with crisp garlic and peanuts for added texture.
With the language barrier the May staff preferred a hands on approach to helping me understand their cuisine and it wasn’t long until I was entrusted with the task of running the spring roll station for dinner service. A difficult task when the orders fly in thick and fast and you’re not up to the pace. But aside from the various ‘fresh’ spring rolls that dominate Vietnamese food in the west, it was the more unusual Bo La Lot, that really caught my eye – a spiced beef mince, wrapped in betel leaf (a peppery and bitter leaf) and beef intestines and grilled to perfection (the intestines render down like fat on the grill to give a glaze around the betel leaves).
My education continued over the comings days with a lesson in Tofu making. May restaurant makes an egg based tofu which gives it a light texture perfect for crisping up in the deep fat fryer with some shredded lemongrass. Next came clay-pot cooking with Thịt kho trứng, a slow cooked caramelized pork and egg stew traditionally enjoyed in the South normally around the New Year. And finally wok work with dishes such as stir fried garlic morning glory. And before you ask…yes, I experienced yet another Asian kitchen in hysterics over my wok skills (just when I was starting to think I was picking things up nicely).
By far the most illuminating experience was my time spent with the house saucier to improve my understanding of how Vietnamese cooking is based on five key tastes: spice, sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. There is no better way to learn this than observing spoon in hand tasting sauces at every stage. Not salty enough? Add a dash of fish sauce. Too sweet? Add a splash of tamarind. It was like circuit training for the tongue. I was given a taste test with each spoon full and gestured to point to what I thought would complete the dish, or if I was happy with the flavor balance to give it the thumbs up.
Before I arrived in Vietnam I had read about May restaurant boasting a unique family atmosphere. The reviews weren’t wrong and the kindness and hospitality of the chefs made this one of my most pleasant kitchen experiences to date. They really did everything to make me feel part of the team which goes someway to explain how I found myself in Saigon’s outer suburbs at 1am, changing into a football kit for a late night game of 5 a side against a competing restaurant. Their star English signing lasted all of 15 minutes before being subbed off after successfully being out classed, out run and out muscled by a 14-year-old (look, he was really strong for 14, ok)!
Although May restaurant offered traditional Vietnamese cuisine, there were some compromises for Western tastes and in particular the use of quality cuts of meats, less bones and nothing too risky. With that in mind the chefs wanted to treat me to a farewell meal on my last evening. I soon found myself perched by the river on a plastic stool as dish after dish appeared on our table; Beef gelatin with pepper and chives, giant snails poached in lemongrass, fish stomach with pickled cabbage, crisp chili chicken feet. This was foodie heaven. We only paused from eating to scream MOT, HAI, BA, YO (3, 2, 1, down) before sinking a glass of tiger to quench our MSG induced thirsts. Stomach full, I slumped into a taxi bike in the midnight heat back to my hostel. In a few hours the 4am bus would take me to Cambodia in a similar state to when I arrived in this extraordinary country. Goodnight Vietnam. I promise to return some day.