Sunday, May 9, 2010

Delicious Vietnam #1 - "Vietnam on a Plate"

Recently, I was lucky enough to meet Anh of A Food Lover's Journey.  Along with Hong and Kim of Ravenous Couple, she is presenting a new food blogging event - Delicious Vietnam - which aims "to promote and explore the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine." 

It's no stretch to say that I'm in love with Vietnamese food.  Our romance began years ago as a heartfelt yet somewhat clueless crush, with spring rolls and Mongolian beef on a sizzling plate.  Occasional dalliances with pho and bun noodle salads led to a full-blown love affair.  We are now happily wedded, Vietnamese food and I.  Yet despite the near-daily ritual of banh mi and com tam, we still find ways to surprise each other.

Today was a wonderful example of how an old lover can still take your breath away.  I attended a tour by Mei Ling Perry of "Vietnam on a Plate", through Maribyrnong City Council.  A little background - I am lucky enough to live in Footscray, an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, which is a hub for the Vietnamese community.  Mei Ling shepherded us through the maze of markets and shops that make up our wonderful suburb, demystifying and deciphering many wonderful Vietnamese ingredients, and stuffing our bellies along the way with complimentary taste after taste of Vietnamese delights.  To detail the entire 5-hour tour here would be impossible and a disservice to Mei Ling's passion and knowledge, but in the spirit of Delicious Vietnam, I want to share with you some of the fabulous Asian vegetables I discovered today.

From L-R: common mint, purple perilla or shiso, Vietnamese mint/laksa leaf; Thai basil, sawtooth coriander, rice paddy herb

At Footscray Market, we rifled through piles of greenery to discover the many varieties of herbs enjoyed in Vietnam.  I loved the mixed bunches of mint, which, along with "fish mint", are apparently the centrepiece of many a Vietnamese home-cooked meal.  In Melbourne pho restaurants, Thai basil is offered along with bean shoots as a garnish.  Mei Ling explained that traditionally sawtooth coriander should accompany them.  Finally, rice paddy herb, used in sour soups.

From L-R: Bitter gai choy (mustard greens); pak choy

From L-R: Choy sum ("sweet cabbage"); water spinach/rau muong

Asian vegetables can be bewildering, but it is worth getting to know what's what, lest you be restricted to buying the anemic bok choy from the supermarket.  Speaking of which, what we in Australia know as bok choy is actually more strictly Shanghai bok choy.  The initial word "bok" actually means "white", so the white-stemmed pak choy above is actually the more authentic vegetable.  The tiny inner leaves are sometimes seen in trendy Mesclun salad mix!  All of these can be used either in stir-frying or soups.  Note, the slightly bitter gai choy has a serrated leaf, while sweet choy sum does not.

From L-R: Bitter melon; bitter melon stuffed with pork

Bitter melon is a favourite Vietnamese vegetable.  I have heard of older Vietnamese people effectively controlling their diabetes by drinking its juice.  It can be served in many ways, including stuffed and in soups.  Its young shoots, tendrils, and leaves are also edible!  Likewise, we even saw chilli leaves for sale, complete with baby chillies, for use in soups.  So many things that would be thrown away in the West are put to delectable use in Vietnam, and Asia generally.

From L-R: Taro; taro stem
We saw taro in all shapes and sizes on our tour, from small, squat, hairy ones to these larger ones, which were sliced in two to reveal white flesh shot through with brown squiggles.  These roots are cooked and used to make many varieties of Vietnamese dessert, as well as yum cha items such as taro cake.  For sale separately are the amazingly long taro stems, shaped like elephant's tusks.  These are sliced and used in Vietnamese soups. 

From L-R: Purple sweet potato, purple sweet potato swiss roll
This variety of sweet potato have a white exterior but, when cooked, become a brilliant shade of purple.  They have a crumbly texture and very sweet flavour, perfect for making desserts.  I don't know a kid in the world who wouldn't fall over themselves to eat a purple vegetable!

From L-R: Pandan leaves; pandan cake
Pandan leaves are the vanilla bean of Asia.  They are tied in a knot and thrown in to various desserts and savoury dishes alike, to impart a fragrant, almost musty, yet exceedingly pleasant flavour.  Pandan also imparts a faint green tinge.  These little pandan cakes were like fat-bellied pancakes, their edges tucked under, concealing a juicy, wet interior.  Yum!

I aim to include more Asian vegetables in our diet.  I cook a lot of food with Vietnamese flavours, but tend to use Western vegetables such as broccoli or silverbeet, purely out of being in a rush at the market, or not knowing my pak choy from my gai choy.  I have gleaned most of what I know about Vietnamese food from food blogs.  I look forward to learning more through future editions of Delicious Vietnam.

Disclaimer: Footscray Food Blog was not paid to attend the Vietnam on a Plate tour, which is offered to all interested people free of charge, thanks to Maribyrnong City Council.  Mei Ling Perry, Vietnam on a Plate, and Maribyrnong City Council did not know that I was a blogger, although I did inform Mei Ling at the end of the tour and ask consent to post.


  1. This is really cool, and quite timely actually as I've been wanting to learn how to cook Vietnamese food recently - checked out the website but nothing updated yet unfortunately :/

  2. What a fantastic tour - that is my idea of a good day.

  3. Sounds like a great tour.

    If you've got some pandan leaves at home now, try adding one to the pot next time you have a pot of jasmine tea! It's also great if you add ice water in Summer - pretty standard drink in Thailand and Viet Nam.

  4. Lauren, thanks for sharing this with us! :)

    I think we are really lucky in Australia to have access to so many kinds of Asian vegs!

  5. Mei Ling is a friend of mine and I was lucky enough to get in on one of the tours last year. Isn't it fabulous that the council pays for it? And isn't it amazing how FULL you are at the end! Delicious stuff :-)

  6. Vee - it's up on A Food Lover's Journey! Do check it out. Such wonderful contributions!

    Agnes - it was brilliant! And it was my idea of a perfect day too. Now I just need to get to the CNY festival next year, still jealous of your pics.

    cloudcontrol - I love that idea!

    Anh - we are so lucky, aren't we. Spoiled for choice!

    Kurichan - oh, you are lucky! I bet you've had some wonderful meals together. It is fabulous. Mei Ling just kept buying tastes for us, purely out of passion. Others on the tour were saying "no, I'll wait for lunch", while Bianca, Liz and I just said, "OK, we'll eat your share!"


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