Contributing Editor Matt Rodbard was traveling around Vietnam with four American chefs. The trip has been organized by our friends at Red Boat Fish Sauce.
The specialty of Hoi An
The ultimate challenge for a chef is to cook in somebody else’s kitchen. “This is different,” San Francisco chef Stuart Brioza tells me, smiling while banging away at toasted coriander and cloves with the bottom of a bowl. His first-choice implement, the mortar and pestle, was nowhere to be found. But so it goes when cooking halfway around the world, which is where I found Brioza and Bryan Caswell (from Reef in Houston) as we close out our time in Vietnam. We were camped out in a kitchen at the Hyatt Regency Danang, where we’ve been spending some time exploring Vietnam’s third largest city, located on the country’s rapidly developing Central Coast.
Earlier that morning we drove down the road Hoi An, a well-persevered UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back the early spice trades. In the 18th Century, Chinese and Japanese merchants would travel to the harbor town from throughout Southeast Asia, with some arriving from as far as Africa. The culture mash has played a role in the city’s culinary landscape, looking at two noodle dishes served in particular — turmeric-laced mi quang and the slightly smoked flat noodles called cau lau, which are made daily at dawn by only a handful of families. (We visited one such factory at six in the morning, greeted by a three-generation assembly line grinding, boiling and cutting away.) The chewy cau lau noodles are very similar to udon and come served in a broth of coriander and Chinese five-spice. Slow-simmering pork is sliced thin and placed atop the bowl of steaming noodles. A garnish of Thai basil and mint is added, as well as a powerful chili jam that can haunt you one seed at a time. You can read more about cau lau here.
Moving on from our breakfast bowl, we hit the wet market to poke around and shop for the night’s meal. Although the Hyatt’s Corporate Chef, Frederik Farina, had the chefs pretty well covered, we did score a trumpet fish for later. Back in the kitchen, the clock struck 4 p.m. and the chefs scrambled to lock the dishes they would be cooking for a group of about 20. Caswell, an avid fisherman and a master of seafood, took the grouper-like trumpet and quickly seared each side for seconds, before coating it with a sauce of reduced Red Boat fish sauce, lime, brown sugar, chili and garlic. He also wok-fried flat noodles with grilled shrimp in a broth of poached garlic and Vietnamese lemon balm.
Brioza called his menu “herb dictated” and I found him asking the Hyatt cooks for everything they could find. He settled on fried chicken chunks cut karaage-style (“you gotta do a state bird”) tossed with fish sauce, herbs, chilies and ginger. He then coated the chunks with a half-rice, half-wheat flour and basket fried them — finishing with the powerful 50°N “reserve” fish sauce. The man is a fried chicken BOSS. His second dish was an Australian wagyu marinated in sugar, fish sauce, lime and toasted spices (mostly clove with a little cardamom and star anise). He grilled the cut rare and sliced it thin, serving it atop a bed of wok-fried bean sprouts, chilies and peanuts. Inspired stuff from the road warrior chefs who had been traveling through three cities in nine days.
As Caswell said his goodbyes and caught his flight back to the States, plans were made to cook again, Vietnam style. (You listening City Grit?) Because like a bottle of fish sauce exploding in your luggage (this happened), it’s hard to get these flavors out of your system, which is most certainly not a bad thing.