Eating in Hiroshima

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It was lunchtime and the okonomiyaki shop was bustling but I got a seat at the counter. Everyone wants to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki, literally ‘what you want, grilled,’ originated in Osaka and is sold all over Japan nowadays; but Hiroshima has a version of its own, known to some as hiroshimayaki.

The chef smeared a circle of batter on the plancha grill in front of me, sprinkled on katsuobushi (flakes of dried tuna), then added several handfuls of chiffonaded* cabbage. To that, he added bean sprouts, sliced squid and a couple of thin slices of belly pork, followed by another drizzle of batter.

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He arranged yakisoba noodles on the plancha into the size and shape of the hiroshimayaki, then deftly flipped it onto them with a pair of spatulas. The towering pile of cabbage cooked down to something more manageable and he pressed it down some more with his spatula.

He cracked an egg onto the plancha, smeared it into a circle as he had the batter then flipped the hiroshimayaki again onto the cooking egg.  He flipped it a third time when the egg was cooked, drizzled mayonnaise and an unctuous, Worcestershire-sauce-based dressing over the top, buried it in sliced spring onions and sat an egg yolk on the top.

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It was very good, if very bad for me. I was thankful that I had mostly eaten fish, rice and lightly-cooked vegetables the rest of the time I had been in Japan. I paid, waddled out and caught the tram, where an old lady stood with a big cardboard box roped to her back and walloped the same three people with it every time she turned round to look out the window, but they were too polite to say anything.

Somewhere around 70% of Japanese oysters are produced in Hiroshima and they appear on menus all over the city. I had them twice in one day, five for lunch deep-fried in panko crumbs and served with a miso soup, a bowl of rice and a delicate salad made with sliced cucumber and leaves, then another five in the evening braised in a broth with udon noodles and sliced spring onions.

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I never got to try Hiroshima-style tsukemen, made with cold ramen noodles and served with a dipping sauce made with soy, red chillies and sesame seeds, but I had the same sauce with gyoza dumplings.

I ate in a traditional restaurant, where each diner, or group, had a room of their own and a sliding door portioned them off from the other diners. There was a low table and cushions to kneel on and a button to press when you were ready to order, which presumably sounded a buzzer at the bar and, at any rate, had the waitress knocking on the sliding door within seconds.

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I ate well in Hiroshima, but then I ate well all over Japan and only had one disappointing meal – in an izakaya in suburban Osaka – in the month I was there.

© Richard Senior 2016

*thinly sliced

Dinner in Vientiane

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It was around 9pm and, at that time in London, the restaurants are bustling, and in Madrid they are just starting to open. But in Vientiane they were already closing.

The lights were off in the first two I passed and, in the third, the waiters were stacking chairs on tables. There were still a few customers in the fourth, and I went in but was told that the kitchen was closed. After a couple of blocks, I started to wonder if I might have to go hungry that night.

But all over Southeast Asia – even, it turned out, in Vientiane – there are pop-up restaurants on patches of waste ground with grubby old picnic tables and grills made from half an oil drum. They have the look of a roadside cafe aimed at truckers and people with hangovers, but the worse they look, the better the food tends to be. It was very good at this one.

I had laap – the national dish – made with finely-chopped Mekong River fish ‘cooked’ with lime juice, as in ceviche, and tossed with sliced chilli, lemongrass, cucumber and an abundance of herbs: coriander, mint and Thai basil. It came with a bowl of sticky rice, as almost everything does in Laos.

I sat out until late in the warm night air with a couple of Beerlaos until a storm passed through and sent everyone scurrying under canopies.

The next night’s restaurant came recommended. Some reckoned it was the best in Vientiane, one of the best in Laos. It was French, but neither a relic of empire, nor made to look like it might be with a menu of cumbersome heritage dishes in a room a little too French to be real.

Tinay Inthavong learned his cheffing in France, at the Lycée Hotelier in Nice and the two-Michelin-starred Michel Sarran in Toulouse. His restaurant, L’Adresse de Tinay, would have worked well enough in either city, but instead he opened in Vientiane, reportedly after visiting on his honeymoon and deciding to settle there.

It is a bistro moderne, stylish without being snobbish, minimalist without looking corporate: white walls, big mirrors, designer chairs and a glass-fronted wine store. Front of house staff are friendly and efficient; there is no embarrassing fawning and they don’t give a damn what you wear.  The menu is a reassuringly short list of Modern French dishes cooked and presented as well as you would expect from a chef with Tinay’s CV.

An amuse bouche came with the aperitif: a tiny bowl of gazpacho with baguette croutons. Starter was a tuna tartare, main was « cassoulet ». As the quote marks implied, it was not the Languedoc classic but something much lighter and cheffier, complete with a fashionable foam, made with the same key ingredients: confit duck, a Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Much as I enjoyed discovering the local food of the region, the noodle soups, the chilli-spiked salads, the fish cooked in banana leaves, it was good to have a change, for one night, from street food carts and ramshackle restaurants, and while dinner at L’Adresse cost a lot more, it was still a bargain by European benchmarks.

© Richard Senior 2016

Laap image: By Basil Strahm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

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The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

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Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

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My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

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A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

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Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

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Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

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Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

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What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

Eating up Vietnam #5: Hanoi

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I felt self-conscious as I sat on the plastic stool on the pavement at the side of a busy intersection in the Old Town of Hanoi. I was the only Westerner and, although I am nobody’s idea of tall, seemed an ungainly mess of knees and elbows on that tiny stool, like an embarrassing father squeezing himself into a pedal car. The other customers, hunched over their bowls, took no notice.

I had watched the vendor set up. She humped everything across town on a yoke on her shoulder, the big pot with the broth and the meatballs, the containers with rice vermicelli, spring onions and coriander, the bowls and the stools, which she laid out in a semi-circle, and a hand-drawn sign to tell passing customers that she was selling bún mọc.

She spoke no English and my Vietnamese had still not got beyond xin chào (hello), so I just pointed and she raised an index finger to confirm that I wanted one bowl. I nodded and she scooped a handful of noodles into the bowl, chopped a few stalks of coriander and sprinkled them over the noodles, then ladled in the pork broth and meatballs fashioned from minced pork and chopped shi-take mushrooms. She took up the cleaver again and clicked off a few slices of spring onion tops, scattered them over the top and handed the bowl to me.

Wherever I walked in the old town, I smelled pork grilling over charcoal at the little shops selling bún chả, Hanoi’s most iconic dish. The vendors marinate pork mince and belly pork overnight with fish sauce, soy sauce, honey, garlic, shallots and spring onion, then form the mince into patties like miniature burgers and cut the belly into strips and char-grill both. They blend fish sauce, sugar and vinegar with pork broth, heat it up and add the meat, then serve it to you with rice noodles and an abundance of greens. As often in Vietnam, you assemble it yourself at the table.

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Hanoi’s food vendors tend to do one thing and do it well. The restaurants along Chả Cá Street only do chả cá, nothing else. Chả Cá La Vong is the best known; so well-known that restaurants all over Hanoi have appropriated its name. It has been there for generations, making the same dish dozens of times every day.

I was expecting a menu, but I am not sure why when it was chả cá or eat somewhere else. Instead the waiter came with a sauté pan, sizzling with chunks of turmeric-coated fish, which he balanced on a fondue burner, then brought a bowl of rice noodles, a generous plate of herbs, and a ramekin of dipping sauce made with lime juice and chilli.

I was supposed to take over the cooking myself at that point but was not sure what to do, so the waiter, spotting my confusion, took a handful of herbs and dropped them in with the fish, and then when they had wilted, switched off the burner and left me to work out that the fish and the herbs went in the bowl with the noodles.

The chả cá was great, but then everything I had eaten in Vietnam had been great, from south to north, from Saigon to Hanoi and everywhere I had stopped in between; from smart restaurants to street food carts, from summer rolls wrapped in bus station cafes to lobster grilled on the beach. It seemed impossible to eat badly in Vietnam.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

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Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

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I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating Up Vietnam #3: Hội An

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We went first to the market to pick up ingredients. Women in silk trousers and conical hats sat surrounded by baskets piled high with limes, spring onions, garlic bulbs, leafy herbs and turmeric roots. Shoppers weaved between stalls on their scooters.

Back at the cooking school, Hanh gave us each a booklet of recipes and a job to do. I started shredding the unripe papaya, Scott did the same with the carrots and Melissa assembled a dressing sauce with the familiar blend of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli.

Every country in Indochina has a take on green papaya salad. The Thai version, som tam, is well-known in the West: the others, not. Vietnam’s món gòi đu đu, is similar but simpler and lacks the conflagration of chillies. Just coat shrimps with paprika and pan-fry fleetingly, then toss with shredded papaya and carrot, mint and sesame seeds in the dressing and garnish with peanuts and onion flakes.

Once the salad was prepped, we started on gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls. It was just an assembly job after we had shredded a cucumber and carrot and squeezed the liquid from each. Soften the rice papers briefly in water, dry them off, and roll them up with the shredded vegetables, shrimps, chopped mint and onion flakes, then serve with a dipping sauce.

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Richard, did you say goodbye water,” said Hanh, “because the rice paper still look wet”. I stopped, patted it dry some more, and continued.

We cooked aubergines, then, with a technique more commonly used for fish. Peel, quarter and briefly deep-fry the aubergines, then roast them in a clay pot with spring onions, paprika, sugar and soy sauce until it caramelises. Garnish it with chopped coriander and serve with rice on the side.

The phở was just about ready by the time the aubergines were on the heat. We made a simplified version of this well-known noodle soup with the stock extracted from beef bones furiously boiled for twenty minutes – it is better simmered for an hour or more – with sugar, ginger, coriander, star anise and shallots. We coated a beef fillet with chilli paste and sugar and left it to marinate while the stock was cooking, then sliced it and served it with beansprouts, mint and peanuts and the stock poured over the top.

Hội An has a noodle dish of its own which I like even better than phở. Cao lầu is made with pork shoulder marinated and roasted in the Cantonese way, flat noodles, a generous handful of leafy herbs and pillows of deep fried pork rind. They will tell you in Hội An that it can only be made with water from an ancient well in the town, which is obviously not true, but I never saw it on menus elsewhere.

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There is a story, too, about bánh bao vac, or white rose as it is called on English menus. They say that the recipe is a secret, known only to one family which has handed it down the generations and supplies every restaurant in Hội An. It sounds to me like something they have made up for tourists. Surely any good chef could work out what was in it and try different quantities until it was right. But, again, I never saw it anywhere else but Hội An.

White rose is half a dozen rice flour dumplings, stuffed with shrimps, onions and seasoning, topped with deep-fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. They are much lighter than the Chinese-style dumplings you find all over Asia, and made me think more of tortellini. They are not exactly white and they look nothing like roses.

Cá kho tộ (fish in clay pot) is not a local dish. It is on menus throughout Vietnam. There are any number of variations but the basic idea is to roast snakehead fish, or similar, in a clay pot with a counter-intuitive caramel sauce. I ate it throughout Vietnam, but it was never quite as good as it was in the courtyard of a lovely restaurant overlooking the river in Hội An.

© Richard Senior 2015                     

Cao lầu image: By Dragfyre (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

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In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

They Do Things Differently in Helsinki

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Whole sides of salmon sizzle on the grill at a stall in the marketplace down by the harbour. There are stalls with baskets of lingonberries, bilberries, cloudberries and cranberries under brightly-coloured awnings. There is reindeer meat and handicrafts from Lapland and fur hats for epic winters.

The sun sparkles on the waves in the harbour where a woman sells freshly-caught fish from her boat and a full-rigged sailing ship rocks at its moorings and a deckhand monkeys up the mast and guffawing young men putter off in a motorboat and the Soumenlinna ferry backs out of its berth and a yacht glides in with its staysail pregnant with wind.

Old Detroit cars throb down the North Esplanade past the rattling trams. It is rare to see them in Europe, at least in any number, but they do things differently in Helsinki.

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Senate Square, a block from the harbour, was supposedly modelled on St Petersburg, by a German architect, in the familiar neo-classical style. Yet its confident simplicity seems quintessentially Finnish.

Helsinki’s architects have drawn from established international schools, but interpreted them in their own way. Bold statements are rare. Helsinki is not Riga, nor Barcelona. But clean lines, smooth curves and clever details are commonplace. Everything, moreover, seems harmonious, as if the city had been planned all at once instead of evolving over two centuries.

The ethos extends beyond architecture. Design is to Helsinki what fashion is to Milan. The design district, spread over twenty-five streets north and west of the harbour, has something like 200 shops selling deceptively simple, often revolutionary, furniture, homeware, lighting and glass.

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On almost any street, you can find a store selling chairs so radical and yet so practical, it is as if centuries of chair designers have been going about it all wrong. You can find gastropubs selling craft beers and salmon and harissa burgers with pimientón-dusted fries, and restaurants with cool white walls and blonde wood tables and sautéed reindeer with lingonberries on the menu. Yet you can walk several blocks before you find an ATM. They do things differently in Helsinki.

Wherever you are in the city, you are never more than a few blocks from a park. They are not so much ring-fenced from urban development as blended seamlessly into it. You can cycle round the headland, stroll along the water’s edge watching the paddle-boarders, use the outdoor gyms, or sit with a picnic and gaze at whimsical sculptures. There are public saunas dotted about the centre and even the cheapest hotels, even backpacker hostels, have their own; many Finns have them at home.

Across the bridge from the city centre, past the iconic Hakaniemi Market Hall, the traditionally working-class Kallio district is now full of character cafes, organic food shops and hipsters. The boys wear Breton jerseys and Romanov beards, the girls vintage dresses and brogues; everyone wears hats and tatts. There was a guy swanking round in jackboots and an officer’s cap worn at an unmilitary angle, and another in the trousers and waistcoat of a three-piece suit and nothing underneath but tattoos.

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They do things differently in Helsinki, the capital of the nation which gave us the jollity of Sibelius and the irritating Nokia Tune, and Angry Birds and the Egg chair, a historically progressive state which had universal suffrage before anyone else but New Zealand, and which – in the Nordic social democratic tradition – built a comprehensive welfare state in parallel with a robust economy and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Some say that it is the most liveable city in the world. I saw no reason to disagree with them.

© Richard Senior 2015

Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

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There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015