Ho chi minh city

Ho chi minh city

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

It took a long time, but thirty years after the last GI left Saigon, there it was. The huge bar was all decked out in roughly hewn wood with wide verandas, totem poles and swinging saloon doors. If not for the flat-screen televisions, it looks like it is straight out of a John Wayne Western. A Vietnamese mariachi band dressed in ponchos played on a beer-barrel-shaped stage and waitresses dressed in Western shirts and jeans with pistol holsters were taking orders. The neon sign sported a Stetson and the menu promised ‘American Far West Style Food’.

In many ways, places like this really show what Saigon is all about—brash, in your face, even tacky at times, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, less concerned about the past and full of optimism about what the future might hold.

In many countries, geography, climate and history have caused big differences between south and north, and Vietnam is no exception. It is not uncommon to hear Hanoians describing their fellow countrymen from the tropical south as crass, and in return many southerners think their northern compatriots are too uptight. The difference between the two cities also translates into culinary terms. The people in the south are said to be fond of sweet, easy-to-eat foods, while northerners prefer the more challenging salty dishes.

However, sweet is not the first adjective that comes to mind when visiting Saigon—a city which grew from a swampy port into the economic powerhouse of the new Vietnam. Home to over six million people—and at least three million motorbikes—it is the closest Vietnam has to a Bangkokstyle Asian metropolis. A place where the lights are brighter, the motorbikes faster, the skirts shorter and the billboards bigger.

Saigon started out as a little Khmer town named Prey Nokor—60 kilometres away from the South China Sea, it was a convenient stop for goods travelling up and down the Saigon River. Originally part of the greater Cambodian empire, the Cambodian king Chey Chettha made the fatal mistake of allowing Vietnamese to settle in the town in the early seventeenth century. About one hundred and fifty years later, Viet forces pushed into the delta, drove out the Khmers, and Prey Nokor changed names to Gia Dinh before settling on Saigon.

The Vetnamese emperor Gia Long moved the country’s capital from Saigon to Hue, but the French certainly saw the potential in this small provincial town when they sailed up the Saigon River in the middle of the nineteenth century. They immediately got to work, transforming this Vietnamese outpost into the administrative centre of French Indochina, complete with a representative town hall, opera house, cathedral and central post office.

Visitors started to refer to Saigon as the Paris of the East, or Pearl of the Orient, and the centre of town was the Rue Catinat—an elegant boulevard of chic shops and fashionable cafés. Graham Greene wrote his classic The Quiet American close by, staying at the Majestic Hotel around the corner from the town hall, and made the area the stamping ground of his fictional hero, British journalist Pyle. Street vendors are now selling pirated copies on virtually every street corner.

After the French left and the Americans moved in, Rue Catinat changed its name to Tu Do (‘Freedom’), and the elegant boulevard became a seedy entertainment district with a row of girlie bars for GIs stationed in Saigon. More name changes followed after Lieutenant Bui Quang Thanh from the North Vietnam Army crashed his tank through the gates of the presidential palace, marking the end of the American War.

Following the Communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, the city itself was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (often shortened to HCMC) and the name ‘Saigon’ now only refers to the central of the twelve inner districts of the city. The old Rue Catinat finally settled on the name Dong Khoi (‘Uprising’), and after some hard times is now approaching its former glory. Many of the old buildings have been restored and are again home to fashionable shops, restaurants and bars.

Tamarind

Over the last century, Dong Khoi Street has had its ups and downs but one constant remained throughout its fascinating history—rows of tamarind trees lining both sides of the boulevard providing muchneeded shade for the Saigon shopper. Yet the tamarind is more than an ornamental plant. The pods from these large trees with their spreading branches and feathery leaves add a sweet tartness to many dishes of the region.

Native to Africa, the plant spread quickly both to India and Asia, and is used in the cuisines of both continents. Incidentally, the tamarind also made its way to Europe via India and is one of the main ingredients in the very British Worcestershire sauce.

The shape of the pods is quite similar to snow peas, but the shells have a rich brown colour with yellow speckles. The ripe pods are turned into a pulp and then often dried, so it needs to be reconstituted with water to turn it into a paste for cooking. The sweet and sour taste is caused by the fruit’s acids, which are offset by the plant’s natural sugars. The complex taste of tamarind paste is used to give depth to soups and fish dishes.

Recipes in this Chapter

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