The capital hanoi

The capital hanoi

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

Every morning a group of elderly women dressed in loose blue and yellow gowns slowly raise their wooden swords above their heads in tune to the traditional music from a tape player. They regularly come to Hoan Kiem Lake to perform their special brand of tai chi next to the badminton players and joggers who populate the footpaths and the road around the lake before the start of rush hour. Hoan Kiem Lake is, of course, a very suitable setting for a bit of swordplay. Legend has it that it is the home of the magic sword that King Le Thai used to defeat the Chinese invaders. He then returned it to its rightful owner-a giant golden turtle living in the lake.

Hanoi literally means 'city on the river bend', but it is really the more intimate Hoan Kiem Lake in the city centre, not the Red River, which shows the true spirit of this city. From sunrise until well into the night, Hoan Kiem Lake serves as Hanoi's backyard-as an outdoor gym, as a meeting place for catch-ups over games of Chinese chequers, as a pit stop for a quick snack of pineapple slices with chilli powder or as a romantic backdrop for rendezvous between lovers.

Hoan Kiem Lake also serves as a living history lesson and a stroll around the lake illustrates Vietnam's eventful past. The north end is dominated by the Den Ngoc Son Temple built in the traditional Chinese style; the west side is lined by a row of well-preserved French colonial buildings; and the stark Soviet-designed People's Committee Building overlooks the eastern bank of the lake. A short walk away is the famous Old Quarter, the medieval central business district-a rabbit warren of thirty-six narrow streets and even narrower lanes. All the streets are named after what's selling in the shops-so here you'll find, for example, Silk, Toy and Bamboo streets.

The country that is now known as Vietnam was born in the Red River Delta, when the Viets became the main ethnic group in the region and established the Nam Viet Kingdom more than two thousand years ago. The kingdom's capital was almost exactly where Hanoi now stands.

This first Vietnamese state was under constant threat from its powerful northern neighbour, China, which finally invaded Nam Viet in 11 1 BC. The Chinese occupation lasted for almost one thousand years, interrupted only by a brief but successful uprising led by the Trung sisters, who for a short time threw out the Chinese occupiers. Three years later, however, they were defeated-and rather than suffering occupation again, the sisters committed suicide by drowning themselves. Today, one of Hanoi's main thoroughfares, Hai Ba Trung, is named in honour of these unlikely military commanders.

China's main contribution to Vietnam's culture is Confucianism, and Van Mieu, the one-thousand year-old Temple of Literature, is testament to that legacy. A short motorbike ride from Hoan Kiem Lake, it is an oasis oi Confucian calm, of ponds and shady courtyards with the noise of Hanoi': traffic barely a hum. Van Mieu was built as a training college for mandarins, who had to complete a three-year course in philosophy and literature. The names of the students who passed the final exams are inscribed' on a row of stone slabs resting on giant turtles.

Confucianism is about harmony and balance and Van Mieu's five courtyards represent the five elements thought to be the origin of all things -water, fire, metal, earth and wood. From the idea of the five elements flows one of the most important principles of Vietnamese cooking-the concept of the five flavours. To be truly complete, every meal needs to have a balance of bitter, sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes. It is the great variety of dipping sauces in Vietnamese cuisine that plays a central role here, as they not only complement the flavours of the main dishes, but make up any missing tastes I . - to round off the meal.

Banana flower

It might look like a tree, but in strict botanical terms the banana plant is a giant herb-and a colourful one at that. The trunk and the large dark green leaves are offset by the almost unnaturally rich purple of the banana flower. The outer petals are too tough and bitter to eat, but are often kept for decoration, for an added splash of colour. Hidden beneath the outer layer are tender petals suitable for cooking, which add a delicately bitter taste to &shes like salads and curries. These inner petals are almost white at the stem and turn into a light purple towards the tip of the flower.

Banana flowers &scolour easily so the preparation needs to be fast and close to serving time. To avoid blemishes, only stainless-steel knives should be used and the petals need to be soaked in water with lemon juice. The water wdl soften the petals and the acid from the lemon prevents the petals from turning brown.

Other parts of the banana plant are also used in everyday cooking. Apart from the banana fruit itself, the waxen, thick leaves are natural alternative to foil when it comes to wrapping food for cooking and preserving.

Recipes in this Chapter

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