Vietnam’s fresh, hot, divine flavors

by Geraldine Rullan-Borromeo
(Manila City, Philippines)

Published in Daily Tribune Life
July 7, 2011

What better way to celebrate July 12, 2011, the 35th anniversary of the bilateral relations between the Philippines and Vietnam, than by enjoying InterContinental Manila’s showcase of the best of Vietnamese food and fashion until July 14?

Café Jeepney hosts the Vietnamese food festival with lunch and dinner buffets, which include dishes prepared by chef Somnuk Attaworn of Charm Cham Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. The celebration is in collaboration with the Embassy of Vietnam in the Philippines headed by ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu.

Guest chef Somnuck Attaworn, a Thai national immersed in Vietnamese cuisine by profession and by affinity with his Vietnamese wife, claims that for him Vietnamese food is “one of the healthiest and most divine in the world.”

Hotel InterCon’s buffet of Vietnamese dishes represents each of the country’s regions, which are very diverse and distinct in flavor and taste. Fresh herbs, chilies and small bowls of condiments accompany most of the Vietnamese dishes. Hotel InterCon’s study of Vietnamese cuisine shows that in the North there is a preference for using more beef and black pepper to create heat, and for the central region, most dishes are spicy and colorful served in small quantities. In the southern region, the dishes incorporate fruits and hot chilies.

A different cycle of soups, hot and cold appetizers, seafood, poultry, beef and pork main dishes and desserts will be served each day of the festival. Before eating them, enjoy looking at the bright greens and oranges of the transparent rolls filled with pork and shrimp. The rice paper is chewy yet soft enough to the bite. The shrimp and pork combination is savory and fresh with the basil and mint leaves, the lettuce and chives tucked into the roll and cooked vermicelli noodles adding substance.

At the festival opening, Tran Thi Lan Hinh, spouse of ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu, regaled us with the delicacy of the flavors of Vietnamese food. Vietnamese cuisine is not too spicy, not too sweet, not too salty nor too sour. Balance, she says, is what every Vietnamese dish aims to achieve in the palate and the other senses.

The fresh rolls are, indeed, delicate, made of freshly made thin rice pancakes, which are filled with sweet shrimps, then rolled. I had one too many as I vote this my favorite cold appetizer of Vietnam — not a surprise to the Vietnamese in our table as fresh rolls were originally served only to royals in Vietnam.

Prior to this festival, my only favorite hot Vietnamese appetizer was the deep fried ground shrimp wrapped around a sugarcane stick. To my delight and surprise, I found a similar appetizer, the beef roll wrapped around a lemongrass stick. Beef tenderloin was spiced with Sriracha Vietnamese chili and oyster sauce, some sunflower and sesame oil and lemongrass, which made this appetizer hearty and filling. I had to resist eating more since there was still an array of salads I had my eye on.

The beef and raw banana salad reminded me of the heart of banana salads of Cebu, but with a twist of lemongrass and the staple of Vietnamese fresh herbs, basil and mint. The banana heart was cut crosswise across the grain instead of the shred of the Visayan version, and it came out crunchier
than usual.

Before I tried the mains, I tasted the Three-Taste Soup, with the three tastes of crab meat,pork and shrimp. This soup is very similar to the Chinese egg flower soup and a little more delicate as it is less salty.

Among the mains, the deep fried fish marinated with galangal was excellent. It was not too pungent nor overpowering, the young ginger was unmistakable yet flavoring the fish delicately. My other favorite, the stir-fried prawns with tamarind sauce, was tangy and sweetish, the sauce coating the plump shrimps generously.

Another familiar main was the deep-fried chicken wing with fish sauce. I grew up on fried chicken marinated with patis (fish sauce) and calamansi and the Vietnamese version was slightly saltier as I did not detect any citrus in the marinade.

Fruits were aplenty at the buffet and I was happy to end the meal with a refreshing round of honeydew, cantaloupe and mangoes. Café Jeepney’s lunch buffet is available Monday to Sunday, from 12 to 2:30 p.m., while its dinner buffet is available Monday to Saturday, from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Other international and local food favorites will be offered in addition to Vietnamese food.

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