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Food

Vietnamese Cuisine: Without Dog Stew or Snake Restaurants at the C.I.A.

By Iris Brooks
Published March 20, 2007

Vietnamese restaurants and cookbooks are turning up in North American urban centers today, and tourists now flock to the exotic destination.

In the staggeringly beautiful Halong Bay, the soft craggy mountaintops disappear into the sky like wispy clouds painted in the distant horizon. Tiny islands emerge from calm, jade waters. Visiting Vietnam a decade ago, I approached Ho Chi Minh City by ship, passing assorted fishing boats, many of which were decorated with a large pair of eyes painted on the vessel for protection against sea monsters. Nearing the city, the landscape changed to billboards advertising European beer, American coffee, and Japanese electronics.

The streets of what was formerly Saigon were overrun with kids aggressively peddling postcards, chewing gum, and copies of Graham Green's The Quiet American. Neon lights flashed. Chic restaurants like the Lemongrass served mouth-watering steamed fish dishes with peanut sauces while pizza and Perrier were available at nearby cafes. Other restaurants specialized in snake dishes. (Snake ribs, anyone?)

I hardly noticed the food as I watched spectacular water puppet swans swimming figure eights in a mua roi nuoc performance with actors waist high in water, demonstrating an art dating from the 10th century. I listened to concerts where teacups were played like castanets and collected lacquered flutes to bring home. The word Vietnam is so charged with childhood memories of a war that this voyage was an emotional one, where I marveled at the ability of these gentle people to forgive and move on.

Vietnam, a country about the size of New Mexico, lies south of China and is also bordered by Cambodia, and Laos. It has an ancient history filled with war and foreign domination. The Vietnamese lived under Chinese rule for a thousand years, ending in the 1400s. After a succession of Vietnamese dynasties, French colonial rule took over for almost a hundred years (1858-1954). This was followed by about three decades of civil war.

Both the Chinese and French influenced Vietnamese cuisine, which is delicate and sophisticated. Although regional specialties exist, stir-fries, stews, and spring rolls are found throughout the land. Chopsticks are still used (a rarity in other parts of Southeast Asia). And in small villages baguettes are available, as well as other dishes such as stewed dog.

Vietnamese restaurants and cookbooks are turning up in North American urban centers today, and tourists now flock to the exotic destination. For those “food enthusiasts” who would like to learn to cook their own Vietnamese dishes, there is a one-day class offered at the Culinary Institute Of America—popularly known as the C.I.A.—in Hyde Park, New York.

The C.I.A. is housed in a former Jesuit seminary on lovely landscaped grounds in the Hudson Valley region. It seemed an unlikely location to learn about Vietnamese delicacies, especially when I discovered the chef is from Germany. But I was pleasantly surprised at this informative and fun, hands-on cooking workshop, which I recently joined. Each participant was assigned to a team of three. After some general principals of cooking, we were led to the professional kitchens, where each team was handed different recipes to cook, before sharing the delicious results at lunch.

Most of the time was spent in prep with many take-home techniques. This meant learning to julienne vegetables so they “don’t look like 2 x 4’s.” Mincing lemongrass into fine pieces requires first partially slitting it lengthwise in quarters. This technique transforms it into a user-friendly ingredient. An assistant chef demonstrates how to effectively squeeze limes in between tongs. And Chef Hinnerk von Bargen reminds the group of the importance of lime juice: It is a fresh acid that grows on trees.

Von Bargen’s class, organized but peppered with jokes, is not just about recipes, but understanding concepts and identifying ingredients so you are more comfortable in an Asian grocery store. He teaches the layering of flavors by acknowledging textures wi