Conquering the tastebuds of South Africans

October, 11/2022 - 08:28
Since moving to work in South Africa, I’ve been desperate to introduce Vietnamese culture to my new neighbours, and what better way to do it, than through food!
Have a bite: International guests enjoy Vietnamese nem rán at Vietnamese Independence Day reception in Pretoria, South Africa in September, 2, 2022.

By Hồng Minh

Since moving to work in South Africa, I’ve been desperate to introduce Vietnamese culture to my new neighbours, and what better way to do it, than through food!

Back home in Việt Nam, it's common knowledge how amazing our food is and the opportunity to tantalise the tastebuds of my South African friends presented itself to me a few months ago.

It was my daughter’s Spring Fair at her school, and as the Asian booth was not taken, I suggested this would be the perfect way to show off all things good about Việt Nam by preparing some of the best signature dishes I could rustle up.

Cue, nem rán (deep-fried spring rolls).

Many people back home, myself included, believe that Vietnamese dishes are already firmly embedded in the psyche of foodies around the world.

But honestly? Not quite so much in South Africa.

Tasting Vietnamese food: Visitors queue for nem rán at the Vietnamese food stall.

It’s not uncommon for locals here to assume I’m Chinese, or even Korean, or Japanese. And I recall one occasion at a charity dinner for the homeless, one man asked me if people in Việt Nam ate sushi?

He was quickly given a friendly lesson of the delights of phở (beef rice noodles), nem (spring rolls and summer rolls) and bún chả (grilled pork and rice noodles).

So when the Parents’ Association at the Pretoria High School for Girls asked for volunteers to work on stalls at the fair, I signed up in a heartbeat.

Alongside the outlets raising funds by selling Indian, Italian, Portuguese and Greek food, I myself and some Vietnamese friends dusted down our aprons and decided to bring a taste of home to the Spring Fair.

Positively overwhelmed with what we could serve up because let’s face facts, there are SO many tasty meals to choose from, we ended up opting to sell nem rán (deep-fired spring rolls) and chè thập cẩm (mixed sweet soups).

Spring rolls would be ideal for a spring fair, and sweet soup is one of the most-loved street foods of all time back in my home city of Hà Nội .

Making nem in South Africa: Ingredients include finely-chopped pork/chicken, onions, carrots, eggs, vermicelli, dried black fungus. Shiitake mushrooms were skipped so that the spring rolls appealed to more people.

The added bonus of cooking nem rán is that it was our chance to prove that Vietnamese spring rolls are much different to those you might find in China, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

I’ve served this particular dish many times before to people here from all walks of life. Dignitaries at receptions to the homeless when helping out at shelters, and all gave it a big thumbs up.

So with dishes prepared we set out for the High School hoping our ‘home cooking’ would be well received.

And we had nothing to worry about.

In just three hours we’d ran out. Hundreds of spring rolls sold to raise money for the school.

Maybe the reason for our busy sales boom was the fact that this was the first time ever in its 102-year history of the school’s spring fair, a Vietnamese food stall was present.

Visitors came, read the introduction in English about the dish and enjoyed a small sample offered at the stall, a very clever way marketing ploy to hook the customers!

Many said they just could not afford to miss tasting the full golden, crispy cylinder-shaped bars with delicious stuffing together with the mysterious dipping sauce. Some people were interested in the way of eating nem rán with the combination of the roll, the dipping sauce, the pickles and the aromatic herbs that help balance all the tastes. But above all, I believe it was the savoury smell of nem being fried that dragged many visitors from other stalls to ours.

A man with his wife and three children, had visited Việt Nam and tasted Vietnamese food before. He came to us and cheerfully said: “I thought it must have been Vietnamese spring rolls when I got the smell from afar. And there you are. You guys make us miss Việt Nam so much.”

The irresistible smell and taste of nem rán even made some visitors come back to the stall again and ask for the recipe and ingredients even though they had read the introduction.

For the nem rán, we had to order the thin, hand-made rice paper from Việt Nam which, we knew for sure, made a perfectly crispy wrapper. We refused to use the thick rice paper, normally and ideally used to make gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls/summer rolls) or the spring roll pastry which can be found at local supermarket or Asian shops.

Amazing food: Golden, crispy cylinder-shaped bars with promisingly delicious stuffing.

We made two types of spring rolls with pork and chicken to better serve different dietary needs. Among typical ingredients of finely-chopped pork/chicken, onions, carrots, eggs, vermicelli, dried black fungus, we decided to skip the shiitake mushroom so that the spring rolls can be served to more people.

As the day went on more and more came to visit our stall, words had clearly gotten around.

But sadly due to the popularity of our cooking, we soon had to put up our ‘SOLD OUT’ sign, much to the disappointment of the crowd.

We’ve already been invited back for the next event at the school, but then we will be sure to prepare more.

Success achieved, stomachs filled, and more importantly, we’ve helped to spread good vibes among South African friends about the country we call home.

It’s official, Vietnamese nem rán has conquered the tastebuds of friends who live almost 10,000 kilometres from Việt Nam’s capital city! VNS

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