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Posted at: Jul 7, 2019, 12:05 AM; last updated: Jul 7, 2019, 12:05 AM (IST)FOOD TALK

Flavours of Mekong Delta

Flavours of Mekong Delta

Pushpesh Pant

More than 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, intrepid Indian traders had braved the sea to reach distant shores in Southeast Asia. There were ‘colonies’ of Indians that influenced local rulers at times converting them to Hinduism or Buddhism. Indianised kingdoms like Funan and Champa (in present-day Vietnam) flourished for centuries and marked important destinations on the historic Spice Route. While Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia are familiar to many of us, few can readily recall the cultural affinities with what later fell under French sway and was labelled Indo-China. The long-drawn liberation war also distracted from ‘non-strategic’ matters.

At long last, this is being remedied. An entrepreneur with exceptional zeal has inspired Vaibhav Bhargav — arguably the most creative young Indian chef specialising in pan-Asian cuisine — and put him in charge of a new Vietnamese restaurant at Cyber Hub in Gurgaon. 

Don’t confuse Vietnamese cuisine with a tributary or contributory stream of Thai, far less an off shoot of Southern Chinese. Different regions in Vietnam have imbibed diverse influences from their adjacent neighbours but the core remains deeply rooted in the soil of Mekong Delta. The ingredients are handled delicately to ensure that they retain natural colour, texture and flavours. Minimally spiced, the dishes are subtly aromatised with fresh and dried herbs. At times you may get a seductive whiff of lemongrass but this is never overpowering. Nor is the sweetness of coconut milk cloying. Tamarind and turmeric register their presence in meaty preparations often steamed in betel leaves. Sweet water fish and seafood are greatly relished. What is intriguing is the absence of milk and dairy. The French failed to enthuse the locals about butter, cheese or wine. Nor do the Vietnamese have a sweet tooth. Fresh fruit is available in abundance and tops off any meal. Vietnam is famous for its coffee that is locally enjoyed with a large measure of condensed milk making the purist coffee snobs frown but who cares?

The repertoire at this new eatery is rich, including spring rolls, dim sums and soups with noodles. What shouldn’t be missed are the crunchy vegetarian and seafood salads and accompaniments like home-made peanut sauce, very different from what is served with Malaysian/ Indonesian satay. What delighted us most is that Vaibhav has exerted as much to win over the vegetarians as he has to please the carnivores. Vietnamese prefer to eat beef and pork and do not recognise the existence of kid/goat/lamb. Chicken mince does find its way into dumplings, but, fear not; the range of delicacies will find approval of the fussiest guest. 

What we enjoyed most was the crispy fried tofu glazed with a sweet and sour sauce and drizzled with crushed nuts to provide a crunch. You may try out this recipe at home breaking out of the bondage of karahi paneer. Or, settle for the one pot meal Pho (pronounced Fa), that literally translates as ‘Fire in a Bowl’. 

We know the monsoon is sluggish this year but we are looking forward to treating ourselves and family and friends to this one when it starts pouring. Just ensure that the stock is freshly prepared and resist the temptation to flavour it with bottled sauces — soya, chile or oyster/fish, etc. It is not difficult to assemble the accompaniment — fried onions, garlic, chillies, peanuts, fresh coriander and mint leaves. Add a few wedges of lime and finely diced green chillies. Settle down to enjoy bliss.

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