Sunday, August 31, 2008


I love coffee.

A lot.

Iced coffee is something I came to much later in life. In Vietnam, you need it to get through the day. The heat saps the energy right out of you. The only way to deal with it is with long naps and the rocket fuel locals call coffee.

Vietnamese coffee tastes as if the dark layer of an Oreo cookie has been ground up and turned into a drink. Served straight or with heavy lashings of condensed milk, it's the perfect way to get an energy boost when it's 38 degrees plus, and the sun is beating down. Traditionally roasted with butter and cocoa powder, when brewed with a small amount of water it turns into black gold.

Want to try some? Your local Asian grocery may stock Trung Nguyen brand coffee - if they do, pick up a can. If not, find a dark roast coffee like an espresso or French roast. Brew the coffee double strength, so when you add ice, it doesn't get too diluted. I keep some cold in the fridge in a plastic bottle for morning pick-me-ups. Pour the chilled coffee over ice and add a tablespoon or two of condensed milk, if you like.

Toss it back in a few gulps, and be prepared to knock several items off your to-do list.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Best Spring Rolls Ever

It's a bold claim, I know.

But anyone who has travelled as extensively in Vietnam as I have has eaten a lot of spring rolls, so I feel like I have the credentials to judge this.

Now, when you think of spring rolls, your mind might cast to your local Asian food restaurant, where they're ordered by the giant frozen case, and chipped out to be fried as needed as a part of a combo plate for the daily lunch special. The spring roll you're thinking of is probably long and cigar-shaped, with a crispy golden brown wrapper that's almost impossible to negotiate with chopsticks.

You probably like to pour plum sauce on these spring rolls. (So do I.)

The spring rolls you know are filled with a motley assortment of odds and ends - anything from rice noodles to green peas. If it's a cheap "vegetable" spring roll, it probably only contains shredded cabbage, msg, and tiny flakes of carrot to maintain the illusion of vegetable diversity.

I am not talking about these spring rolls.

In Hanoi, an incredible array of things are wrapped and rolled in rice paper. They can be fried or fresh, filled with vegetables, herbs, fish, shrimp, pork, beef - pretty much anything that doesn't move fast enough to avoid being rolled. They're dipped in hoisin sauce or nuoc cham - a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, and other seasonings. And they're eaten anytime, as a part of a family meal, or as a convenient snack with a tall glass of draft beer, while looking out over one of Hanoi's many lakes. Any self-respecting Com restaurant will have a large tray of them for patrons to add to their take-away lunches. And I can well imagine, every family has their favourite version, and every housewife has her own recipe.

When I was in Hanoi this month, I had planned to travel to Sapa, in the northwest mountains of Vietnam, and to take a few days touring Halong Bay as well. The weather put a wrench into my plans, however, as a typhoon blew through cutting off a lot of the roads out of Hanoi. I found myself at loose ends for a day or two while I arranged alternate plans. A friend (and travel agent extraordinaire) hooked myself and Wendy up with an afternoon cooking class with Yen at Yen Cook House. This turned out to be divine luck, as it was here that I learned several killer Vietnamese dishes that I'll be writing about over the next few weeks. At Yen Cook House, I sampled some of the finest dishes I've ever tried in Hanoi - Yen's passion for cooking and Vietnamese food shone through the language barrier, and it was clear to see that his years spent working as a chef had given him a sense for how to season his dishes expertly. What impressed me the most, however, were his Hanoi-style nem - fried spring rolls. If you only ever cook spring rolls once in your life, (and you might only make them once; after all, it's a messy and tedious business, although the results are worth it) please make these.

If you've eaten a Hanoi-style nem before, you'll know that they differ from Saigon-style most obviously in their wrapper. I'm not quite sure what the difference is, but in the south, the wrapper is similar to those I often ate in Canada - I suspect it is somehow wheat-based. In the north, they use a pliable rice paper which fries up into light ethereally crispy layers that shatter into salty-sweet fragments when you bite into them. The nem are about an inch in length, to make them easy to eat in one or two bites using chopsticks. They're dipped in nuoc cham, a potent mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilis, and garlic, which nicely cuts the richness of the pork fat and frying oil.

Step 1: The filling

Now, I'm going to give approximates here. Close is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and hand rolls. Above, you see pictured Yen's filling. I will attempt to list the items.

  • 4 or 5 dried chinese mushrooms, reconstituted and thinly sliced. (You want huong, or perfume mushrooms, if you have a Vietnamese grocery nearby)
  • 1/2 a carrot, peeled and julienned.
  • 50 g of bean sprouts, rinsed, drained, and cut into smallish pieces for mixing.
  • 50 g of rice noodles, cut into smallish lengths.
  • 200g of ground pork.
  • 4 or 5 green onions, finely chopped.
  • 2 tablespoon of fried shallots (available in pouches or jars in most asian food stores).
  • 1 tablespoon of chicken stock granules (Knorr or Maggi).
  • 1 teaspoon of ground pepper.
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic.
Mix it all together. And let it sit for 10 minutes or so to let the flavours mingle.

Step 2: The Rolling

If you can find rice papers that are bendy like these, they're ideal, since they won't need to be dampened for rolling. Odds are you won't be able to, so regular stiff round rice papers are fine too. Keep a bowl of hot water in your prep space, and soak each paper until it becomes pliable enough for wrapping. Set it down on a cutting board or plate, ready to roll.

Now this is one of the tricks I learned from yen to help create the beautiful, brown crispy coating of a Hanoi nem. Mix up a bit of water, cornstarch and sugar in a bowl. When you put the wrapper down, before adding any filling, take a swipe of this mix and pass it over the rice paper lightly, enough to barely coat it. Then, in the bottom third of the wrapper, place a tablespoon or so of mix. Roll the paper over once, and pat eat side of the filling lump to firm up the filling into a solid style log. Fold the right side of the wrapper back over the filling log; then do one complete roll of the log. Fold the left side over so that you now have a completely wrapped log of filling. Continue to roll the log until all the wrapper is wound around the filling. You should end up with a plate of these:
They should be roughly the length of your thumb.

Step 3: The Frying

Fill a deep frypan with cooking oil, and heat it so that the tip of a wooden chopstick sizzles when inserted.

Pop the rolls into the oil all together, and fry for 5 or 6 minutes, turning them once or twice, until they look golden, like this:

The second trick I learned was to pull them out of the oil at this stage to let them rest. If you're making these for a party, you could make them up until this point and hold them for later; or freeze them for use at another time - maybe for a bento? Then, just before you're ready to eat them, put them back into the hot oil, and fry again until they reach a burnished brown colour. Of course, I know that double-frying yields a perfect french fry; but I had never extended this logic to frying other things.

The final product:

The tomato rose is optional, of course. These are usually served with a light dipping sauce called nuoc cham:

This nuoc cham has been garnished with seeded cucumber and thinly sliced carrot. Yen's recipe is:

3 tbsps of vinegar
4 tbsps of water
1-2 tbsps of fish sauce
2 tbsps sugar
1 tbsp of lemon or lime juice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small red chili, chopped (optional)
Fresh ground pepper

Mix everything together until the sugar dissolves. It will keep for a day or so in the fridge. You can buy bottles of this in most asian groceries, although I think that fresh happens to taste better.

Alternatively, you could serve them with bottled sweet chili sauce, sriracha, or even plum sauce.

If you put a platter of these out at a party, expect them to disappear immediately, and expect people to say it's the best spring roll they've ever eaten. You can smile and tell them it's a Hanoi thing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Yakitori Izakaya

A final post before I take off to Hanoi for a couple of weeks for some sightseeing and serious eating.

Peter's parents arrived this week to join us for our holiday this year, so our first trip was to Tokyo, of course! Our first dinner, however, had to be in Fujisawa, at our favourite yakitori restaurant, Sui Sui.

Yakitori, simply, is chicken on a stick. Traditional yakitori places are easily found near train stations everywhere by looking for their trademark haze of chicken grease smoke. They serve up all parts of the chicken, from wings, to hearts, to bits of chicken cartilege, and cold draft beer to weary salarymen on their way home. The chicken sticks are grilled over hot charcoal, which gives them a smoky, fatty taste that goes perfect with beer.

Sui Sui, however, is a more of an izakaya-style bar which serves not only chicken on a stick, but a wide array of other snacks as well. When we arrived, we ordered a range of things for John and Wendy to enjoy.

When we sat down, the first thing up was an unordered dish - the house serves one automatically, as a kind of table charge, in case you weren't planning on eating much. This is annoying to a lot of foreigners, but at Sui Sui, it's always tasty, and since we don't have to tip, I don't mind it at all. This was some soy braised chicken tossed with onions, peppers, and mizuna leaf. I've got to figure out how to make this one at home.

Next, a traditional summer snack - edamame, or soy bean pods, boiled in salt water. Just the thing with cold beer! We also tried some pork belly with kimchi - I'm on the record as say that pork and kimchi are one of the world's finest flavour combinations, along with tomato and basil, and peanut butter and chocolate.

A more traditional take is chicken thigh and negi - a kind of Japanese leek, grilled simply with salt. Fantastic!

Not-so-traditional potato wedges - fried and then drenched in garlic butter. Don't knock it, 'til you've tried it! It's a good thing we spent the whole day walking, though.

A little more crazy - mochi (pounded sticky rice balls) wrapped in bacon, brushed with soy and mirin, topped with cheese and black pepper, and grilled. Un-%^&*ing-believably good.

Finally, a favourite of many foreigners in Japan - tsukune - chicken and green onion meatballs, grilled with more soy and mirin. They also do a ponzu citron sauce as well, which we always forget to order.

This is one of my favourite places to go and have a quick drink and a bite to eat. They also have a selection of awamori - Okinawan rice spirits, which John swore tasted like the potato moonshine he used to make in P.E.I. Wendy was happy with her ponzu and ume wine, and as for me, two cold Ebisu drafts were all I needed to rehydrate. A perfect night!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pork and Myoga Salad

Like a lot of people living in the greater Kanto area, I face an hour commute on the train most days. When my train pulls in at my station each night at 10 pm, rather than walking alone down a quiet platform, I join hordes of shuffling suited salarymen and women on their way home. It sometimes takes as long as five minutes to get off the platform and out through the gates, especially if the throng, heads bent over mobile phones as they resignedly send their ETA to family members, gets thwarted by the odd Tokyo-bound passenger locking up a gate coming onto the platform. It's Japan, so no one grumbles - we just pull our bags to the side and pause our shuffle long enough for the straggler to crowd-surf his way to the train.

After being spit out of the gate, I follow the crowd past the bicycle lot and down the road. I can't bear to take a left turn into the 7/11 like so many others, because the thought of konbini egg-salad sandwich or floppy chicken karaage leaves me cold. When I finally get in the door, I'm hungry, but a heavy meal is out of the question. That's when a recipe like this saves the day - it's light; it's healthy; and it keeps well in the fridge to make up the next day's lunch. If I'm feeling like something more substantial, I have it with a bowl of steamed rice.

I found this recipe in the Japan forum at, which has been an invaluable resource to me as I've learned how to cook Japanese food. First, you need about 200 g of lean pork - I take thinly sliced Japanese pork and boil it quickly, which cooks it without any added fat. Really, though, any cooked pork would do - leftover grilled pork loin or chops would be fine, I think. Then, I thinly slice three Japanese cucumbers, which is about the equivalent of one English cucumber. To this, I add three shredded myoga bulbs, which are a sort of edible bulb of a ginger plant. It doesn't actually taste like ginger, though - more like a shallot or sweet red onion, either of which would make a lovely substitution. Three largeish shallots or half a smallish red onion would do. Then, for a dressing, mix 100 ml each of good quality soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar. The final touch is to add wasabi paste, which adds a lovely sharpness to the salad - add it to taste. There isn't any oil in this recipe, but I don't miss it in the dressing, because the salty soy, the sweet mirin, and the sharp wasabi all work together to make it well-balanced and satisfying.

This time of year, having a cool bowl of tangy salad - along with a cold Kirin beer - is just the way to relax after a sweaty and stressful commute.