Robert Danhi, American cuisine expert, has lunch with fresh chives on a flooded field in Long An Province, during the making of TV show ‘Taste of Vietnam,’ of which he is a host. Photo courtesy of Dien Quan Media
What is the best Vietnamese dish?
This is a difficult question to answer at any time for any cuisine, but Robert Danhi says it is also tricky one when it comes to Vietnamese food, wherein an important part is the final stage of assembly; which means that for the same dish, like the popular pho (rice noodle soup with chicken or beef), each region has its own way of making it taste different.
The American chef and cuisine professor knows what he is talking about, because he has tasted hundreds of Vietnamese dishes in 12 years of traveling to the country, a journey that continues as he hosts the TV program “Taste of Vietnam.”
He said each Vietnamese dish has a layer of flavors and it allows the diners to customize the food the way they like it, such as how the salad of shaved banana flowers, cabbage, mint and bean sprouts is added into the orange spicy lemongrass broth of bun bo Hue (Hue beef noodle soup), or how pieces of banh xeo (rice pancakes) are filled up in lettuce with herbs before being dunked into sauce.
For that signature combination, he said the best Vietnamese dish would be bun thit nuong, a dry vermicelli dish served with raw vegetables and grilled pork.
It does not only have a charming smell of pork being spiced and then grilled, he said, but is also beautiful with green vegetables, golden pork, white vermicelli, red chili and carrot pickles in the sauce.
It’s a symbol of the Five Elements, and that cultural meaning makes the dish one of the most impressive in the world, he said.
His desire to learn about the customized preparation and serving of foods, or broadly, the culture behind each dish, was what motivated Danhi to visit Vietnam in the first place.
He was teaching at the Culinary Institute of America and was assigned a course that included Vietnamese cuisine, and upon his request, the school sent him to the country to gain first-hand experience.
“When teaching about a specific cuisine I believe that you should first seek to understand the culture, since food is only part of the story we should be sharing with future chefs.
“They will appreciate it more if they know the story behind the recipe, how it’s traditionally served in its place of origin.”
He has been traveling back every year, each time for one to several months, photographing people, places and foods in the streets, in their homes and restaurants.
He hires a guide to take him around and translate his conservations with the people he meets, to learn about who they are, where they come from and why they are cooking what they serve.
Then he goes back to the US and deciphers the recipes, trying them over and over until they taste right to him.
This led to the publishing of “Southeast Asian Flavors” in 2009, the winner of the Gourmand “Best Asian Cookbook.” The book is a deep look inside the pantry of ingredients and culinary practices in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Danhi said Vietnamese food is generally lower in fat and salt compared to other cuisines of Southeast Asia and it uses a much larger variety of herbs, both cooked and raw, which makes it very aromatic and refreshing.
“Our noses can distinguish between thousands of aromas and this is why Vietnamese food is so exciting: Burning the onions and ginger for pho, that adds a special aroma.”
Danhi said Vietnam has impressed him more with those foods outside the popular cities.
In the Mekong Delta’s Dong Thap Province, he has harvested its famous fresh lotus, every part of which is used for food – the root for soups, the stem for salads, and the seeds for wine and sweets.
In the northern highlands town of Dong Van, he has cooked sour bamboo shoots with black chicken in the courtyard of a home hundreds of years old.
In fact, his hosting “Taste of Vietnam” happened because he shared the vision showcasing the underexposed areas of Vietnam with its Malaysian director Chew Han Tah.
The series is produced by Ho Chi Minh City-based Dien Quan Media Company. The first part, hosted by “Yan can cook” star Martin Yan was aired on local channel HTV9 between January and July last year, and Danhi’s episodes are expected to be broadcast this July on Ho Chi Minh City Television channels, national channels as well as foreign cuisine channels like Singapore’s Asian Food Channel and those of the American PBS network.
Each filming session has taken more time than expected as Danhi did not stop at tasting the foods.
To try rats grilled in a clay jar in Dong Thap, he climbed trees in the fields to look for the rodents and chased after them.
In nearby Long An Province, he spent the whole day on a flooded field, rowing a boat with a local couple, jumping down to push it through muddy low waters, to find and taste fresh chives.
He said his job is to tell beautiful stories behind each dish, and the simple rural life of Vietnam is a beautiful story.
He had lunch with the Long An couple right on the boat as it was drizzling, eating rice that had gone cold with fermented fish cooked with pork pieces.
They also dunked the freshly picked chives into the fermented mix.
To introduce Vietnamese cuisine, Danhi said, he needs to know details – where each ingredient comes from, how people catch or pick it, and the right way to serve it.
In Bac Ninh Province outside Hanoi, he was drawn to a loaf of bread grilled on red charcoal on the sidewalk.
It was not stuffed but coated with some fat, chili sauce, honey and oyster sauce, and was turned several times on the coal before done.
It has a little bit of everything, Danhi said.
He said he’s going to bring the recipe back to the US, show people and make them taste what he has tasted.
Danhi said he owes the Vietnamese people, so he is trying to give something back by joining the NGO Global Community Service Foundation to provide life skills to disabled youths in Dong Ha.
He has been teaching them how to run a café, cook and prepare drinks to find jobs or start their own business in the future.
Danhi also plans to give back by writing a book exclusively about Vietnamese foods after he has learned a lot more about it while filming from north to south.
He said he will come back after the TV show, at least once a year, to continue his own adventure.
Danhi said the message he wants to deliver through “Taste of Vietnam,” the first TV show he has hosted, is that people should explore the lesser known provinces in Vietnam besides HCMC, Hue or Hanoi.
“Venture out to meet the people in the smaller villages, they will welcome you with smiles and delicious food.”
And even within the large cities, he recommended unofficial food venues that he finds on the street.
He said enjoying a dish is a total sensory experience and the sidewalk environment enhances that with the sounds of cars and motorbikes, the smell of charcoal burning in the grill, and chatting with locals.
“This is where you get a true taste of Vietnam – meeting the people and discussing daily life.”
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