Trin Diem Vy, or Miss Vy as she is known to everyone, is the third-generation owner and chef de cuisine at what is now called the Mermaid restaurant. It began as a market stall operated by her grandparents when they were young. ‘I still use the same recipes my grandmother and my mother used,’ she says in her Australian-accented English. ‘Mine is the home cooking of the central region of Vietnam.’
‘My kitchen is not a commercial or an industrial restaurant kitchen. It’s a traditional home kitchen. It’s larger than most, but it’s the same as you would find in any traditional home in my country. When you come into my kitchen, you come into my home.’
Besides operating the restaurant, Vy teaches what she cooks. She offers three programs for the English-speaking traveller – each lasting either one hour, four hours or eight hours. It is amazing how much knowledge and skill she can impart in that time.
And so Vy admits us into her home, into her hearth, into the focus of her days and nights. We are reminded that the Latin word for hearth is ‘focus’. At the centre of her kitchen is the ancient source of all Vietnamese cuisine: the earthenware charcoal brazier, with three little nubs that represent the kitchen gods at its rim. Those tell-tale deities report to the creator all the goings-on within a family, because all the goings-on that matter within a family occur within their earshot.
Vy has three braziers, and the walls next to them are blackened with years of cooking. The heat rising vertically from the fires is intense, but that radiating outward towards us is tempered, warm, and reassuring. The few simple implements that such a kitchen requires hang or lie within easy reach: a ladle, tongs, a curved spatula. Some pots, a couple of sauté pans, wire racks for grilling complete the setting.
‘No woks?’ we ask.
‘Some people like to use them. But they aren’t necessary. We don’t fry in quite the same way as the Chinese, and not at the same temperature.’
At a remove from the braziers is a modern gas cooker (no oven), plenty of counter space, and heaps of fresh herbs, vegetables and other foodstuffs. She picks up a handful of greenery and says, ‘This is your first lesson: good food from fresh ingredients. If you forget this, you cannot cook Vietnamese. In this country we don’t keep perishable foods at home. We go to the market every day, sometimes two or three times in a day.’
For some students, it is surprising how satisfying it is to cook without the modern appliances and conveniences many are used to. When we are fortunate enough to have the time to cook in this ‘hands on’ way, there is great pleasure in clutching a bundle of fresh herbs. We find aubergines not only beautiful to look at, but to touch. There is a soothing mantra in the steady slicing of delicate spring onions, and the prayer-like working of mortar and pestle. We feel we have come home.
And so we begin. We learn how to fold rice paper in triangles around a stuffing of carrot, rice vermicelli, and mushrooms, with a tasty pink shrimp on top. We are to let the tail stick out of the little package. It serves as a handle, and provides the name for this little treasure, tom phi tien, flying shrimp spring roll. We have to wrap it tightly and neatly so that it will not fall apart while frying.
We learn the fine points of cabbage leaves stuffed with carrot, manually mixing sugar with grated carrot, macerating it until the sugar has been fully incorporated. Then we add crushed garlic. Dip the cabbage leaves in boiling water for a moment to soften them and remove any bitterness. Roll the leaves into tight little bundles and cut them into colourful slices.
‘We don’t use as much sugar as they do in the south,’ Vy says. ‘And we use less coconut. We use more spice than the north, and we are more concerned than either north or south with the dish’s appearance. We like to say that you must “eat with your eyes” as well as your mouth.’
Vy shows us what seems a simple dish, but is more challenging than most – stuffed squid, one of the most eye-appealing in her culinary canon. We suspect the influence of a confectioner, so pretty is it to look at. With the tentacles removed and set aside for garnish, the squid tubes are stuffed with a mixture of pork that has been ‘ground’ for several minutes with a mortar and pestle so that its texture is silky smooth, and rice vermicelli with a few spices. ‘Always use fresh spices when you can,’ Vy tells us. ‘Dry spices can produce a floury texture.’ The squid tubes and tentacles are braised in their own juices with a little nuoc mam and cut into thin circular slices, and served with the tentacles with other garnishes.
‘In cooking this dish, and in grilling with leaves, you will see the essence of the Vietnamese cooking technique: you have to be there every minute and be in control of the whole process. You can’t put something on the fire and leave it. You have to cut everything to the proper size for the cooking method you’ll be using. You have to know the temperature of the dish at all times so that it cooks quickly enough but not too quickly. You have to know exactly when to put the lid on the pot so that the squid will not get tough. In cooking with leaves, if the fire is too hot it will burn through to the food, so you have to raise it up from the fire. If it’s not hot enough you have to fan it to make it burn hotter. You have to be in control.’
And so Vy has taken us to the heart of the matter. We exercise control of each process for another hour. We slice vegetables with precision. We blanch them with watchful eye. We bring dying fires back to life with lumps of charcoal and brisk fanning. We fry some vegetables in peanut oil infused with garlic rather than use fresh garlic, because we will fry so hot that fresh garlic would burn. Members of Vy’s family run to the market for more supplies. We are intensely aware of what we are doing, and how, and why. And we are intensely satisfied.
We sit down, triumphantly, to dine in traditional Vietnamese family style with Vy and members of her clan. The convivial table reminds us that eating in Vietnam is no lonely task, but a ritual of sharing. It reaffirms our bonds of kinship, friendship, and of ourselves to the natural world. Before us is a large pot of steaming rice, a tureen of corn and crab soup, and a plate of aromatic leaves that we wrap around a spring roll and dip into nuoc cham. We have tuna with fresh turmeric presented in the leaves in which we cooked it. We have the stuffed squid, looking like a Japanese flower arrangement. And we have heaps of delicious fresh vegetables, without which no meal can be called Vietnamese. This meal is a special experience for us. We have worked closely together to produce it. Now we will consume it, closely together.
2 Tran Phu Street
Grilled Tuna with Fresh Turmeric
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh turmeric
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon nuoc mam
1 small chilli
1 spring onion, thinly sliced
a pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar
2 teaspoons peanut oil
7 ounces (200g) tuna, cut into bite-sized cubes
1 wood ear mushroom, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon rice vermicelli, soaked 10 minutes
6 banana leaves about 12 inches long or cut to size
Combine the marinade ingredients and marinate the tuna for 10 minutes. Add the wood ear and vermicelli. Brush one of the leaves with a very thin coating of oil, then place the tuna onto the leaf. Arrange it in an even, compact single layer. Fold the sides of the leaf over like an envelope. Lay it folded side down on another leaf and repeat the procedure. Repeat until all six leaves are used. Secure the outer leaf with a thin wire or safety pin. Lay the leaf package on a wire grill over hot coals and cook for 6 minutes on each side. The outer leaves will scorch. Serves four.