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Calvin dispenses equal treatment to Malaysian roti and gumbo from the Big Easy

The gumbo at Bistro Des Amis is a good way to forget where you are for a meal. Photos by Calvin Godfrey

The sky above Saigon didn't look like it knew whether to pour rain or burst into flames as my plane bumped down toward Tan Son Nhat last Monday.

After a week on the beach, my turbulent descent begged the tired expatriate existential query: what the hell am I doing here?

The slow-motion stampede along Nguyen Van Troi Street didn't offer any good answers. Neither did the frantic phone calls I began receiving from my office.

My stomach, which hadn't worked for a week, repeated the question with a groan.

My driver"”who hadn't made a single dong all day and couldn't earn an inch for all his honking"”didn't get the question at all.

When I got home, I decided I needed some comfort food. Something heavy and not very good for me. Something that tasted like somewhere else. 

The roti smith

 
The bamboo hut in front of the Banana Leaf on Vo Van Tan Street was empty when I sat down on a stool and ordered a chicken roti.

The Malaysian breakfast bread is essentially a mutant kerala paratha made fluffier and fattier by Tamil rubber plantation workers with a penchant for ghee"”exactly the kind of thing I needed to jolt me from my long funk.

On this particular evening, something felt decidedly Kafkaesque about the Banana Leaf.

Two waitresses did their best to juggle the crowd of impatient Malaysians sitting indoors as more and more curious Vietnamese teenagers pulled up to the vacant stall out front.

To pass the time, I ordered a mug of hot milk tea"”a frothy, brown liquid sweet and rich enough to sustain me until the main event.

After about a half hour of nothing, a massive roti smith burst out onto the street in a white apron and began dispersing a crowd.

"No parking," he shouted in answer to every question.

With half the customers gone and the others confused, the maestro began whipping and twisting ingots of fresh dough into flaky spiraling orbits of chewy dough.

The roti and milk tea at Banana Leaf
I could have eaten twenty orders of roti dunked in the Banana Leaf's hot red-yellow coconut curry. But I only needed one.
Taken together, the sweet tea, the croissant-like roti folds and the sultry curry felt like something God (or your mother) should prohibit on the grounds of being too pleasurable.

Shockingly, the whole thing is Halal.

A good gumbo

Shortly after a southern yellow pine smashed his house and Katrina's floodwaters swallowed his office, Marc Ellis left New Orleans for Saigon.

He'd been here during the war and didn't find that much had changed. Ellis settled back into the rhythms of life as a southern gentleman. But he found something was missing: gumbo"” the Creole bastard stew.

No one knows exactly who is responsible for gumbo, but its believed to have been created in the 17th century by African slaves in Louisiana who were forced to adapt French colonial ingredients.

Ellis had ordered it from a thousand bars, cafeterias, and restaurants all over New Orleans, but he'd never cooked it.

So he had to teach it to himself from taste memory.

For those who don't know, gumbo can be an elaborate and fancy thing: a soupy kitchen sink full of expensive crab and oysters or an economical sausage-addled prelude to a long night of beer drinking.

Ellis began with the latter.

He experimented with various roux and settled on a mixture of oil and flour whipped over an open flame until it achieved the consistency of engine grease. He added some local sausage and plenty of okra to yield a soup at once smoky and rich. 

A few months ago, Ellis and his wife opened a bistro in the lusty chaos of Do Quang Dau.

You can usually find him in the evenings, hovering over a hotpot, directing the slow, painful work of making good gumbo.

Bistro Des Amis
28 Do Quang Dau Street, Dist. 1
Tel: (08) 3 920 3724
Price per bowl: VND50,000 (small) VND100,000 (large)

Banana Leaf
57 Vo Van Tan Street, Dist. 3
Tel: (08) 3 930 3040
Price per order of Chicken Roti: VND30,000

"Every batch is different," he says. "Every batch is good."

It's true. On my most recent visit, the menu unofficially included vegetarian, sausage, and an experimental seafood version of the dish"”all served with a side of white rice.

Blasted with a few shots from the restaurant's well-worn jumbo bottle of Louisiana Gold hot sauce and stirred together, Ellis' gumbo smacks of homey nostalgia. It's the kind of meal that makes you want to curl up and go to sleep next to the person you love.

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