bloganuary · Travel

Bloganuary: “What’s your favorite meal to cook or eat?” + Vietnamese cooking

When it comes to food, I can’t play favorites. I’m a very adventurous eater, and I’m not afraid of the exotic. Food is one way I learn about a culture and people when I travel, and connect with friends and family at home.

I’ve been called a foodie, and I’d agree, except that it sounds a little snobby. I just really like to eat. Yes, I’ve dined at some of the best restaurants in the world, but I also visit questionable street food stalls in Southeast Asia, food trucks and dives in American inner cities, and sup at the gracious homes of some seriously good cooks. I also like to cook, and return the hospitality whenever I can.

Meals and how I eat them depend on my mood, where I am, who I’m with, and even the time of year. There are a few foods that I consume almost daily, though. Three of them are coffee (I limit to two cups a day), citrus fruits, and bread. Those three items in some form make up a typical weekday breakfast for me. For example, before heading to work, I might sit down with half a sectioned grapefruit, a croissant, and a strong coffee with almond milk. On Sundays, an upgrade could be an egg, pancake, or French toast, oatmeal, or a breakfast sandwich. I don’t wolf down my breakfast, either – I linger and enjoy every sip of that coffee.

I know many people aren’t fans of breakfast, but I never skip it. It’s common for me to forego supper, but if I don’t eat breakfast, I feel something is missing.

I live in South Korea, and Korean food makes up a big part of my diet. Almost every weekday lunch during my teaching semesters, I will have a Korean meal in the village next to campus.

PHOTO: My typical Korean lunch in the village. The serveware is humble, and the food is rustic, flavorful, and full of vegetables. The large pot is a spicy kimchi jjigae (김치찌개) with tuna and tofu. Clockwise is sticky, short-grain Korean rice; the banchan (반찬 side dishes) are fish cakes, parboiled bean sprouts, kelp salad, marinated mushrooms, and in the middle – tteokbokki (떡볶이), a tubular rice pasta with a sweet spicy sauce. The sweet ladies in the kitchen ask me, “맛있어요?” Is it delicious?

When I travel, I stick with the local fare as much as possible. I’ve taken several cooking classes in different places, and the knowledge deepens my appreciation of where I’ve been, and is a souvenir I can share with others.

Two days ago I returned from Hanoi, Vietnam, where I took a class with chef Dana and eight other students at Rose Kitchen, a cooking school in quiet suburb of the city. I was picked up at my hotel, and our first stop was to a traditional market, where our chef chose the fresh herbs, vegetables, mushrooms, and meats for the class. Our menu consisted of some wonderful classics – Bún Chả (BBQ pork with rice noodles), Nem Rán (Fried spring rolls), Gỏi Xoài (Green Mango salad), and Nuoc Cham (a versatile dipping sauce for meats and spring rolls), all served with copious fresh greens. For dessert, we had Cà Phê Trứng (Vietnamese egg coffee), a decadent beverage made with whipped condensed milk and egg yolk added to strong coffee.

We arrived at the clean, inviting kitchen in late afternoon, and the nine of us were ready to chop, julienne, grill, and whip our way to a real Vietnamese feast. Dana explained some important techniques and replacements for ingredients we might not readily find in our home countries. For example, green kumquats are common in Vietnam, and are a favorite around the Lunar New Year. Their juice is used as an ingredient in salads and dipping sauces. Lime juice works just as well, though, and gives a fresh and authentic flavor. She also used longan flower honey in the sauce, but any light floral honey, such as acacia, will work.

What I love about Vietnamese food is its freshness, defined flavors, and colorful presentation. It’s easy to identify what one is eating, yet the taste is sophisticated.

Now that I’m back in Korea, I hope to incorporate some of these wonderful dishes into my repertoire. It’s a real challenge to find quality herbs here, though, although mint and coriander can be had in some bigger markets. Only orange kumquats are available in winter, but limes are available year-round. The vegetables and fruits used in Korean cooking are different, and their preparation is also different. Compared to Vietnamese cuisine, there are more pickled and fermented foods in the Korean diet (such as kimchi and doenjang).

If you are keen to try something at home, I found a really good version of the dipping sauce (nuoc cham) online. It’s almost exactly like the one I made in Hanoi, and I recommend including the chilis and garlic, if you make it. There’s also a very tasty-looking vegetarian version, if you want to omit the fish sauce. The sauce is versatile and can go with any salads or grilled meats. Thưởng thức bữa ăn!

2 thoughts on “Bloganuary: “What’s your favorite meal to cook or eat?” + Vietnamese cooking

  1. My wife and I always look for local food to eat when we travel. It is always curious to me when I see others duck into a fast food place. We will spend time asking locals their favorite place and then head out to try the food, for every reason that you have stated above. enjoy

    Liked by 1 person

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