Eating is one of the simplest and most enjoyable gateways to experiencing and understanding a new culture. After more than a month of living and traveling around Cambodia, our group had become familiar with amok (a coconut curry with fish), lok lak (stir-fried marinated beef), and bo ba (breakfast rice porridge), but upon crossing the border into Vietnam we were confronted with the delights and challenges of a whole new food culture.
At our first lunch in Vietnam, we cast away the Cambodian fork and spoon for a set of chopsticks. For many of us this made for a stressful and clumsy first meal as we nervously glanced at one another attempting to mimic each other’s chopsticking technique. Then there was the hot pot, which prompted a host of confounding questions: How long do you let the vegetables cook before you can eat them? How much food can you politely take from the communal pot? How do you eat piping hot soup in 90-degree weather without melting into a puddle of sweat?
Vietnamese food might have induced culture shock in a few of us, but fortunately our fearless and energetic translator Nhan was there to guide us through this brave new world. During the following days, Nhan introduced us to numerous Vietnamese culinary delights including phở (Vietnamese noodle soup), bánh xèo (savory fried pancakes eaten wrapped in lettuce), and cà phê sữa đá (hopelessly addictive iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk).
During our time in Can Tho, Nhan generously invited us to learn how to make Vietnamese food and have dinner with her family. Our large group squeezed into Nhan’s house and, after receiving a warm welcome, her family set us to work making lime juice, iced coffee, and fried spring rolls (see recipes below!). Despite a few language barriers, we were spring roll wrapping experts in no time!
Then, it was time to eat. We began by making our own fresh spring rolls with tofu, shrimp, herbs, and veggies, most of which came from the family’s garden. After that, Nhan’s family brought out a remarkable series of scrumptious Vietnamese dishes, from fried tofu with lemongrass to lotus and shrimp salad. We quickly realized that we had failed to pace ourselves, but we couldn’t refuse the family’s hospitality and the most delicious home-cooked food of our entire trip.
By the end of the night we were helplessly stuffed and happy. After nearly a month on the road, some of us were beginning to long for our adopted home back in Siem Reap. But this jolly evening of cooking, singing, and eating in the company of new friends gave us a much-needed taste of home and reminded us of the importance of savoring our short time in Vietnam.
A few recipes from Nhan, our Vietnamese translator:
Iced Coffee with Milk (cà phê sữa đá)
Sweetened condensed milk
Brew half a cup of coffee of your choice. Add the coffee to a glass along with 2-3 teaspoons of milk, depending on the size of your sweet tooth. Stir. Pour coffee and milk mixture over a glass full of ice.
Fried Spring Rolls
Note: this recipe can be made vegetarian by replacing the shrimp and pork with mashed mung bean and minced mushrooms.
20 rice papers
14 oz raw shrimp
7 oz ground pork
7 oz green beans
1 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
Clean and peel the taro and slice into small thin slices. Peel the shrimp and chop very small. Peel and finely chop the onions. Boil the green beans and then mash them. Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl with the egg. Add the sugar and salt.
For one rice paper, spoon one tablespoon of filling into the center of the paper. Fold one third of the paper over the filling and then fold in from both sides. Continue to roll the rest of the paper and then put the spring roll on a plate with the crease downward.
Put a frying pan with a couple inches of vegetable oil on the bottom. Put the burner on high heat and wait until the oil is very hot (you can tell by putting a drop of water on the oil and seeing if it sizzles). Put the burner on low heat and then put a few spring rolls in the pan. Fry until light brown, turning the rolls so that they are fried on all sides. Put the rolls on a plate with paper towels.
Dipping Sauce for Fried Spring Rolls
¼ cup fish sauce
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
1 clove garlic
1 small hot pepper
¼ cup water
Mince the garlic and pepper. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve.