Good Morning Vietnam (part 4) by Shane Brierly

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th April 2011

Shane Brierly is a New Zealand born Executive Chef who spent most of his culinary career in Australia from the tender age of 18 which is many moons ago. Now old and grizzled, he loves the expat life and so far has worked in Dubai UAE, Kazakhstan, Thailand and Vietnam.

His website is chef-a-gogo.com which has photos, food & recipes from both his day to day cheffing  and also the more exotic side of his travels. Or follow him on twitter @chefshane.

Part 4 - Happiness is seasonal? to read Part 3 click here

The next instalment of this sorry tale comes as we slide back into summer in Da Nang. It's somewhat of a shock moving to a tropical paradise with a postcard-perfect beach only to find there is a winter and wet season that rivals the UK for moist grey misery and funereal mood swings. The optimistic look at the foaming white breakers and think about surfing. The heat lovers like me wait for the end of February when normalcy returns. And then March. And then April. Bloody Hell! This has been an eventful year in more ways than one, and SouthEast Asia has had a bad run in 2011 when it comes to weather. Thailand was shivering at 18 degrees in Bangkok - the city whose three distinct seasons are wryly referred to by locals as 'Hot" "Hotter" and "Hottest". Hanoi had the hardiest of locals complaining, with icy streets and cutting winds running two months later than usual. Just out of Hanoi, it actually snowed! Da Nang's summer arrived bang on Tet New Year at the start of February only to vanish 10 days later and be replaced with Arctic winds and bruised skies, the seas rising again to thrash the coast back into numb acceptance. See, it's not only the English that complain about the weather. My purpose for doing so is twofold. Firstly, I'm a serial complainer and it's fun to write about. Those jealous of my expat lifestyle can point and snigger, happy that I'm copping a little bit of London style precipitation and chill. I'm always happy to entertain. Secondly the seafood is fresh and local, much of it caught by fishermen bobbing around in coracles, or 'basket boats' These are actually baskets woven out of cane. They're totally round, and the outside gets painted with a greasy wax which waterproofs them. They're surprisingly nimble, and skip across the water at a cracking pace, propelled by a guy wielding a single paddle which acts as a rudder and engine combined into one. They waggle it like a happy puppy's tail and it has the effect of jetting the boat forward at a decent speed. The shape of the things doesn't allow for much resistance from the water. On the negative side, they're not exactly designed for wet weather or whale hunting, so the onset of heavy seas means the variety and quality of fresh seafood plummets and we're stuck with whatever is available. Now a trip to the markets is a pleasure again, with shellfish, fish, squid, jellyfish, lobsters and a good variety of sea prawns glistening or thrashing around waiting for a good seeing-to. Da Nang is famous for it's seafood and a trip to any local restaurant will demonstrate why. Many of the hotels use frozen seafood out of convenience and laziness but the local street side restaurants and barbecue joints go to the market every morning and buy enough for the day's trade. The usual offering is hai san lau (seafood hot pot) or Nuong (barbecue/grill). The savvy tucker-hunter will find a hell of a lot more on offer, but these two items make up the bulk of street places. Oh - and salads. I carry on sometimes about Vietnamese food having less depth and character than Thai. That doesn't apply to the salads. There is an abundance of colour, texture, taste and vitality in almost all of the Vietnamese salads that I've tasted. This is a constant across all classes of dining venue from the plastic baby chairs on the footpath through to the fine dining establishments. Green mango, ginger, mint, nuts, pomelo, carrot, papaya, lemongrass, crispy fried shallots, galangal, chilli, lime - these are just a few of the flavours that elevate seafood to a gastronomic supernova on the palate. Deep fried whole baby shrimps with chilli mayonnaise make a surprisingly sweet and crunchy starter with no inner-mouth jabs from the prawn heads as you may imagine. Squid is tender and sweet, straight from the sea and the fish is often served direct from a pre-death swimming lesson in a nearby bucket or tank. The shellfish is startling in it's abundance - with some unique offerings endemic to the region. The shellfish is well worth a look into if travelling this way. Otter snout clams, giant 'scallops', sea snails and surf clams top the list and the more you look, the more you find. Yes, I sound like a wanker, but a few 25p / 50 cent beer La Rue's in a glass with a chunky ice cube, surrounded by smiling, chattering, vibrant, friendly people are the perfect accompaniment to dinner in Vietnam. In fact, it's the standard. You don't get served a bottle and then end up waving your hand for more. They plonk down a carton of beer next to you and an ice bucket with tongs. The foriegners learn to ask for another bucket and bury the beers in ice and water. the long term expats and locals drink it with ice in. It's all good. Then two of you go on to eat exceptional seafood straight from the sea, cooked to perfection in a 'kitchen' that is barely equipped. What is there is rudimentary but manages to crack out 50-100 meals, and all are of a standard that puts the foreign owned places and 'classy' restaurants to shame. The bill comes after you raise the white flag, the cheap plastic chair groaning under your weight and it averages around $15 to $20 for the lot. Beer, 4 or 5 courses of seafood and a fun, memorable night. There is something about the way that local venues are 'keeping it real' that we as chefs can learn from. In our ivory towers, insulated from what the 'real people' eat, it's easy to create menus and concepts that pander to past experience and culinary ego. The secret is in capturing that secret essence of simplicity. Good food, fast. Unadulterated. Kept simple and served fresh. Is the secret in turning off the freezer, shutting off the fridges, and serving only whatever lasts the day in an ice box? Far from practical, but as chefs we are taught about mis en place, use by dates, FIFO and stock control. The local places don't have chefs and aren't 'taught'. They just 'do'. We have an edge when it comes to presentation, training, sophistication and 'wow' factor. I think the challenge is in looking at 'the competition' and learning from them. I always teach my staff that we not only have to offer a classier product than the street side vendors - we have to keep their standard of freshness and simplicity. Have a great month. Keep it real.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th April 2011

Good Morning Vietnam (part 4) by Shane Brierly