Vietnam Holiday

Happy New Year! Here's to a 2015 filled with adventure, love and spice, both on and off the family table. 

We just returned from a family holiday in Vietnam, a magical and beautiful country that pulses with love and spice. Being Indian, I sometimes forget that there are other cultures that also live for spice! Through our culinary journey that began in Saigon and ended on the paradisic, untouched island of Phu Quoc, we were blown away by the promiscuous use of spices in so many delicious, oft-delicate dishes. Here's a snapshot of our adventure with links to recipes for dishes forever etched in our memory. 

CHRISTMAS IN VIETNAM

After some experimentation, our family holiday formula seems to have become City + Beach. Despite having a toddler in tow, we have decided to brave city crowds, chaos, traffic, toddler boredom and crankiness just to be able to fully take in the culture and pulse of a country, which in our opinion can only be really experienced in one of its major metropolises. It's never easy and the iPad (for toddler) and happy hour (for us) end up being life savers but once we've made peace with our crutches, it works. 

And so we began our Christmas holiday in Saigon now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Three words come to mind when one thinks of Saigon - ONE BILLION MOTORCYCLES. Whoa. Talk about the art of street crossing! Once we got past that, the city's energy, dynamism, cuisine and culture won us over entirely. Ho Chi Minh City may not be the formal capital of Vietnam - Hanoi, a lovely, quaint town assumes that mantle - but it is without a doubt its culinary epicenter. With a population of 8 million, 50% of which are under the age of 35, Saigon is innovating its food while also preserving its rich colonial and indigenous history. Here are some of the most memorable dishes we ate over our 3 day stay in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Dinner at Square One at the Park Hyatt Saigon
http://www.saigon.park.hyattrestaurants.com/squareOne/default-en.html

Bo La Lot
Betel Leaf Wrapped Beef

Moist, flavorful, curry powder-spiced ground beef wrapped in slightly bitter, peppery betel leaves (eaten in my home country India as a digestive), this was a comforting, delicious, toddler-pleasing dish that we couldn't get enough of. By the way, which Vietnamese genius came up with the idea of eating herbs as salad?! Basil, mint, saw tooth are the new lettuce, as far as I'm concerned.
Here's a link to a wonderful blog that shares a recipe for bo-la-lot:
http://www.theravenouscouple.com/2009/08/bo-la-lot-betel-leaf-wrapped-beef.html

Chao Tom
Sugarcane Shrimp 

A juicy, delicious, delicate shrimp mousse spiced with garlic and a dash of white pepper on sweet sugarcane skewers with a tangy dipping sauce on the side. Need I say more? Toddler had to skip this version with chillies but I will be making a mild version at home as described in this adorable blog here:
http://www.meatlovessalt.com/2012/05/vietnamese-sugarcane-shrimp-chao-tom/

Banh Mi Takeout Lunch at Banh Mi Sau Min
http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/best-banh-mi-town/ 

Banh Mi
Vietnamese Sandwich 

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You can't go to Vietnam and not try the traditional, French-inspired Banh Mi. Banh Mi stands for a baguette filled with meat, usually pork, in the form of pate and cold cuts together with fresh cucumber, picked carrots and radish, mayo, soy sauce, cilantro and chillies for those so inclined. The baguette in Vietnam is much lighter and airier than its French ancestor leaving one with the sense that one sandwich can't possibly be enough. With a bottle of cold beer, this lunch was really a little taste of heaven. 

To make your own, check out this gorgeous blog (recently winner of Saveur's best food blog)
http://iamafoodblog.com/easy-banh-mi-sandwich-recipe/

BBQ Dinner at Quan Nuong
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d1813651-Reviews-Quan_Nuong-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

Five Spice Beef

Five spice powder is typically a blend of fennel seeds, cinnamon, clove, star anise and peppercorns, most commonly used in Chinese but also other Asian cooking. Quan Nuong came recommended as an ultra local, raucous, energetic roof-top BBQ place that is known for its five spice beef so we had to give it a whirl and were blown away. The toddler on the iPad loved it too but you could most definitely skip the chilli for a milder, family-friendly version. To spice up your BBQ beef next time, a delicious and easy recipe can be found here http://bbq.about.com/od/marinaderecipes/r/bln0413a.htm

Muoi Tieu Chanh
(World's Simplest) Salt, Pepper, Lime BBQ Dipping Sauce

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A piece of lime, juiced. Salt and pepper. That's it. Not kidding. This simple, refreshing sauce is used to dip BBQ meats and seafood for a delicious, lively effect. My favorite accompaniment to this sauce was simple grilled squid. Divinity on a plate. 

Lunch at Ngon 
http://www.rustycompass.com/vietnam-travel-guide-233/ho-chi-minh-city-4/eating-16/ngon-restaurant-quan-an-ngon-saigon-256#.VK-RXGSUcd8

Mi Quang
Turmeric Noodles 

Aside from ice-cream on the beach, toddler's favorite dish was Mi Quang, a turmeric-infused beef and shrimp (sometimes pork or chicken) noodle soup and this spice mama was so proud. I'm not going to lie and say this dish is easy to make. I may never make it. But I will eat it again. The peppery earthiness of the turmeric enlivens the bone broth, the fresh herbs make for a refreshing contrast and the soft, starchy noodles render this perfect comfort food. If you are tempted, a delicious sounding recipe can be found here http://www.theravenouscouple.com/2009/06/mi-quang-vietnamese-tumeric-noodles-from-quang-nam.html

A few other highlights from the trip:

L'Usine
An ultra-cool concept store in the heart of Saigon with a yummy cafe serving mind-blowing Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk coupled with contemporary Vietnamese and international fashion and accessories = what more could a mommy want?! 

One billion motorcycles

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Lunches with Toddler

Christmas on the beach - and yes Santa came in on a boat!