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Floating Market, Mekong Delta, Vietnam
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Best Curry on the Planet
Dining in the Mekong Delta
by Mary Tutwiler
Chicken with Curry and Coconut Sauce
(Ca-ri Ga Voi Mien)
foodies will go to any lengths to find the ultimate bowl of gumbo.
Quintessential smothered duck. Killer crab cakes. Drive two hours out of the
way on a barbeque hunch? Hop a plane on a rumor that the Bellon oysters
especially fine this season? You betcha.
So I expect no skepticism whatsoever when I tell you that the finest dish of
curry obtainable on the planet involves a two-day boat trip into the Mekong
Delta. In fact, I expect to run into you at lunch.
I've eaten a bit of curry in my travels. Curries come in three gradients:
mild (hot), medium (so hot it makes your nose run), and hot (so incendiary
it ruins your vacation).
The curry of curries on the Mekong is made of chicken, flavored with
grass, Vietnamese fish sauce, and ginger, tempered with condensed milk.
is of the need-a-hankie variety, and the restaurant kindly provides a
package of Kleenex, which serves as napkin (one), and nose blow
I have been an accidental tourist three times in the past two years. Neither
China, Vietnam, nor Senegal was at the top of my have-to-go list. I do admit
to erupting off to Iceland to see an active volcano and will tell culinary
of creamed kayla (that's a fish), roast guillemot, and geyser bread,
Last April I was shanghaied by a group of uppity business women on a
cultural exchange trip to meet the oh-so-independent female entrepreneurs in
the new Chinese economy. Being the hungry person I am, I agreed to go, not
I care about business, but because I adore Chinese food. We ate
dumplings in Xian, a delicious dish of jellyfish, which is a
Shanghai, and of course Beijing (of late, Peking) Duck. The
food was great
in China, but a fellow traveler kept telling me that if I
liked oriental cooking
I should turn my taste buds south, to Vietnam.
The world is full of fateful events that only a fool would call mere
An old friend got in touch with me, courtesy of the new form
of communication. Would I accompany her to Vietnam where she was going to
visit her daughter,
an exchange student in Saigon? I thought about it for a
tapping out an enthusiastic e-mail acquiescence.
It so happened that my daughter was finishing her exams the day before the
flight left and, having inherited my gypsy shoes, she signed on for the tour
well. We converged in Los Angeles, took leave of the continent, and
for 15 hours, catching up before touching down in Hanoi.
Many astonishing days later, I found myself truly at home, in a pirogue,
putting through narrow waterways bordered by flittering palm and banana
mile-wide Mekong has nine mouths, the nine mouths of the
and we were exploring some tiny canals that diverged from
the main waterway.
Friendly children raced along, pacing the bateau, often leaping into the
in their excitement. We were a pretty odd sight; four western women, a
us blue-eyed and blonde, at that point scandalously sunburnt,
shelter from the tropic sun under our very Vietnamese conical
We had bought a hatful of lychees and dragon fruit (this looks like a hot
pink football with a rubbery green topknot) at the floating market earlier
and assumed, our stomachs growling from the hours-ago tiny cups of strong
and sweet Vietnamese coffee, that out here in the delta, two days deep from
any city, we would be picnicking.
South Louisiana has a lot of things in common with Vietnam. There are rice
paddies levee to levee in both places. Each population speaks French. The
humidity is 100 percent. And we both love to eat.
So I shouldn't have been so surprised when the pirogue pulled up to a little
wooden dock with a mud path cut through a stand of lacy palm fronds. At
end of the path was a restaurant. We were the only customers.
There was stir-fried squid on the menu, but I'd had that the day before, so
opted for the curry. I have to admit that I was so curious about this
in the back of beyond, that I begged to go into the kitchen to
meet the cook.
He was round and cheerful, making one dish after another in a
wok over what at home I'd call a crawfish-boiling rig.
A plethora of peppers and spices filled a shelf. The cook scooped and
with a flick of his long chopstick, and our dishes came - one, two,
three, four -
flying out of the kitchen. Although I witnessed my lunch being
cooked, I had
no idea what was in it.
That was until the first mouthful. Does strong emotion make you weep? I
blinked back tears and took a second bite. And a third. And blew my nose.
Then I did it all over again.
After a few more mouthfuls, I realized my daughter was looking at me
antly; I usually share tastes. I have to admit I had a wave of pure
wash over me; I wanted to take my bowl and run out into the jungle
I had scraped the last grain of rice into my maw. But my mom brought
up to be polite, so I passed my bowl round the table.
Eyes widened. Chopsticks clicked. It didn't come back very full. "Smile," I
told myself. "Generosity is a virtue." But I didn't offer any more tastes to
We invited the cook to sit with us over coffee, most of us to thank him for
a lunch, me to beg for the recipe. He brought his bottles and jars
to the table to
show me what went into the curry and insisted we have a sip
of the powerful
homemade rice wine that is part of the ingredient list. I
wrote it all down. My
much sweated-on Vietnamese journal calls for things
like a "big chopstick full
of chili sauce (the kind with onion, garlic, and
tomato—very brown looking)"
and a "dollop of Vinamilk" - a Vietnamese
condensed milk. I pretty much
despaired of duplicating this magnificent
curry until I found Nicole
Routhier's wonderful authoritative cookbook:
The Foods of Vietnam (1999, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc)
Routhier's recipe takes a lot longer than the lighting quick curry of
jungle, it's just as good. When you set the table, remember to set a small
of Kleenex next to every guest's pair of chopsticks. I've heard it's
polite to belch
in appreciation after a good meal in China. The Vietnamese
equivalent must be
a nice honking nose blow.”
2 stalks fresh lemongrass
2 fresh Thai or serrano chile peppers,
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
(about 6 medium cloves)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs,
trimmed of fat and
cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon noc mam or nam pla
(Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce)
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon finely grated, fresh peeled ginger
(about 1/3-inch piece)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon peanut oil
1 teaspoon curry paste
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
(about 2 medium onions)
1 cup canned chicken broth
1/3 cup fresh or canned unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon noc mam or nam pla
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 ounces dried cellophane noodles (bean threads),
soaked in warm water
for 20 minutes,
drained and cut into 2-inch lengths
(or leave out the
noodles and serve over jasmine rice)
1/3 cup dried tiny tree ear mushrooms, soaked
in hot water for 20 minutes,
2 scallions (both green and white parts),
trimmed and thinly sliced
Peel and discard the outer leaves of the lemongrass. With a
cut off and discard the upper half of the stalks at the point
leaves branch out. Thinly slice the remaining stalks.
Process the lemongrass, chile peppers, and garlic in a food
until finely ground. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Add
chicken and the remaining marinade ingredients, mixing together until
thoroughly blended. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
When ready to stir-fry, heat a wok or large skillet over high
the 1 tablespoon of peanut oil and heat until smoking-hot. Add
and stir-fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Add the marinated chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is
the outside and just cooked through on the inside, about 5
Add the broth, coconut milk, fish sauce, and sugar and bring to a
Stir in the cellophane noodles and mushrooms. Continue to cook for a
minute longer, then remove from the heat and stir in the scallions.
Transfer the stir-fry to a warm platter and serve immediately.
(From The Best of Nicole Routhier, 1996 published by
Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, Inc.)
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