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Be it ever so humble, there's no taste like home

Update: September, 26/2012 - 15:23

 

Restful decor: A corner of Dieu's Cuisine in Ha Noi. — Photos courtersy of Xuan Dieu's Cuisine
Unadorned: Chicken with oyster sauce is prepared simply but the flavours are complex.
Delicate serving: A refreshing pomelo salad is a cool option for a warm summer night.

Dieu's Cuisine

Add: 25 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Ha Noi, and 29 Do Quang Dau, District 1, HCM City

Tel: 0987 346 843; 0908099504

Price Range: VND30,000 – 100,000

Comment: Dieu's serves up unpretentious fare in a modern setting. Dishes to try: stir-fried chicken with lemongrass and garlic (ga xao xa ot), tofu in sweet fish sauce (dau phu ran tam hanh).

 
Meals served up in a Vietnamese home are often memorable for a foreigner, the result of generations of experience. For those not lucky enough to be invited, there's a restaurant in Ha Noi that fits the bill. Elisabeth Rosen reports.Travellers to Viet Nam often fall in love with the street food. And understandably so: for a price that could barely buy a soda in the West, you can get a generous dinner, beautifully garnished and loaded with flavour.

But to limit yourself to street food would be to miss out on some of the country's greatest culinary accomplishments. Inside Vietnamese homes, cooks rely on a handful of ingredients to produce a startling variety of meat and vegetable dishes that you'll never see on the street.

Home cooking is plainer, with more emphasis on flavour than appearance. Plates are laid out on the floor – meat, vegetables, tofu, spring rolls, pickled fruit – and each diner uses his or her chopsticks to scoop out morsels and place them atop a bowl of steamed white rice.

For those who can't inveigle their way into dining with a Vietnamese family, there is Dieu's. Nestled in a quiet corner of Ha Noi's West Lake, with tables looking out over the water, the restaurant delivers unpretentious home-style fare dressed up just enough to fit its surroundings. The dishes are prepared as any Vietnamese mother might make them, if she lived in Tay Ho and owned stacks of minimalist white plates.

On a summer night, fresh spring rolls (nem cuon tuoi, VND40,000) offer a welcome refresher. Mounds of rice vermicelli and pungent herbs are bundled into rice paper wrappers along with shrimp, pork, egg, and crisp green fruit and dunked head-first into a vinegary sauce. The result is both simple and gratifying: a portable version of bun cha [grilled pork with rice vermicelli].

Like home cooks, the chef relies on simplicity rather than showmanship, using a handful of recognisable flavourings to craft a variety of intricate dishes. Ginger and garlic turn up repeatedly, cut into rough, aromatic hunks. Fish sauce introduces a delicate complexity, while minced red chilli and black pepper – more piquant than Western varieties, with warm, fruity undertones – turn up the heat.

The latter two amplify a straightforward dish of simmered pork loin (thit than rim tieu), VND75,000). Slivers of pork, seared to a juicy flush, come steeped in a simple fish sauce infused with sharp flecks of black pepper. The flavours aren't complicated, but try making this at home and you'll appreciate the delicate balance between acidity and sweetness, mildness and heat.

Other meat dishes derive success from the same general formula. In a similar stir-fry made with chicken (ga xao xa ot, VND75,000), diced red chili pepper replaces black pepper, and fish sauce is traded in for lemongrass and garlic. The result is lighter but just as flavourful, loaded with morsels of lean chicken and quick bursts of aromatics.

At home, the portions might be more generous. But the delicate servings, which satisfy without oversatiating, are in keeping with the restaurant's careful balance between homey and modern. Rice comes on a large square plate, rather than in a bowl with a ladle. Infused with fragrant grated coconut, it's pre-divided into individual portions you can scoop neatly into your bowl.

While some dishes, like the rice, are dressed up to fit the surroundings, others maintain a likable homeliness. Tofu in sweet fish sauce (dau phu ran tam hanh, VND40,000) looks like nothing more than deep-fried cubes of bean curd, floating in an amber broth flecked with green onion. Yet the flavour is a sensational mashup of main course and dessert. Smooth, without a trace of grease, the tofu adeptly soaks up the sweet broth.

Stir-fried water spinach (rau muong xao toi, VND30,000) looks just as humble, if not more so. Somewhere between common spinach and broccoli rabe, water spinach occupies a ubiquitous place in Vietnamese cuisine. Even bia hoi serve it, alongside tiny dishes of peanuts and freshly brewed beer. At Dieu's, the spinach comes out much the same as it would anywhere else: a heap of curled greens with generous handfuls of coarsely chopped garlic that is dangerously easy to devour.

These dishes have no need for adornment. The family-style meal has a simple beauty all its own. There is something about fighting other diners off for the last morsel of pork, chopstick brushing against chopstick, that brings you closer together. — VNS

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