The coast

The coast

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

At daybreak, the fishermen were crouching around a smoky wood fire underneath a pot of boiling water at the back of their boat. One of the men threw a handful of the squid caught during the night into the pot, and waited until the skin turned reddish before handing out one squid each to the other crewmembers with his chopsticks. They ate the tender squid whole with their fingers—head, ink sack and all—and finished breakfast with a shot of rough rice brandy out of the bottle’s screw cap. This marked the end of another night at sea, not as successful this time with a catch worth only US$25.

Another of the wooden boats with their distinct yellow trims and red prows anchoring just off the beach of Mui Ne village near Phan Thiet had better luck. Fishermen dragged eight oversized stingrays to shore in a traditional basket boat, which was almost sinking under the heavy load.

On the beach, where the sand is hidden under a thick layer of old seashells, women in conical hats sort the fish according to size. The fish market here is a no-nonsense affair with the locals going about the business of preparing the fish for sale with swift efficiency. All through the morning, motorbikes with oversized bamboo baskets strapped to pack racks filled to the brim with shrimp and oxcarts full of plastic bags of fresh cuttlefish, leave the market for the restaurants and resorts in the area.

It is mostly the sea that sustains this stretch of dry coastal land between Nha Trang and Phan Thiet, providing food and employment. The only agriculture to speak of is dragon fruit, which grows on prickly succulents thriving in the harsh conditions. In fact, half of all dragon fruit grown in Vietnam comes from the Binh Thuan province near Phan Thiet. The juicy white flesh of the dragon fruit which is hidden under the fire-engine-red leathery skin is a refreshing snack in the hot and dry climate of the coast.

Not so long ago Phan Thiet, Mui Ne and Nha Trang were just quiet fishing towns. A few state-owned guest houses catered mainly to Communist Party cadres and Russian foreign expats, and only a trickle of backpackers were making their way to the pristine beaches of the region. Now the beaches are the main attraction for local and international tourists alike, who come here for swimming and diving, for the excellent fresh seafood and to visit the Cham temples, which dot the landscape with their unique red brick towers.

The ancient kingdom of Champa ruled the centre of Vietnam during the long Chinese occupation of the north. The Chams arrived in Vietnam from Java by sea and the architecture and stone carvings of their temples show the Hindu heritage of the lost empire. The most famous are the Po Nagar temples on a hill overlooking the Cai River in Nha Trang, and the inland temple complex of My Son.

The ethnic Viets were not only busy defending the Red River Delta against the Chinese invaders in the north, but were also keen to expand their country southwards. The Viets and the Chams struggled hard for control over the centre of Vietnam. Although the Viets were battle-hardened after defeating the Chinese and fending off repeated attacks by the feared Mongols, the Chams proved worthy opponents. While most of the kingdom of Champa fell in the fifteenth century, it took until 1832 for the last remaining Cham areas to become part of modern Vietnam.

Fish sauce

It is the pungent aroma of fermenting fish that first greets the visitor entering the outskirts of Phan Thiet. Rivalled only by the island of Phu Quoc in the south, the town is famous for its fish sauce. Businesses ranging from the big state-owned factories to backyard operations are busy turning tonnes of whitebait-type fish into the mainstay of Vietnamese cooking-nuoc mam.

The fishing season from June to August marks the beginning of the annual cycle of fish sauce production. The fish is washed, mixed with coarse sea salt at a ratio of roughly three to one, then put in large barrels or earthenware vats, weighed down with heavy stones, covered with a bamboo lid and left in the sun for eight to twelve months.

The fish sauce is then drawn from a small tap at the bottom of the vat or barrel. The first yield, nuoc mam nhi, is of the highest quality and should be the colour of rich caramel. It is mainly used in dipping sauces and salad dressings. The vats are often topped up with brine to yield I paler and weaker second or third extractions for marinades and cooking. The liquid of both the first and later extractions should be clear without any sediment. The longer fish sauce matures, the darker it becomes. There is even a special brand of sauce, nuoc rnarn lu da biet, which is kept in a vat for three years, until the fish completely dissolves.

Not only does the saltiness of the sauce draw out the flavour of dishes, fish sauce is also a great source of & protein-a nutrient that rice lacks. So the two staples of Vietnamese cuisine-fish sauce and rice-perfectly complement each other. The level of protein in fish sauce depends on its length of maturation-at eight months, fish sauce has 75 grams of protein per litre, while sauces which are matured for longer can reach up to 32 grams of protein , per litre.

Recipes in this Chapter

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