Tuesday 16 January 2018

Donal's flavour of Vietnam

In a new series for the Food Network, Donal Skehan travelled around northern Vietnam in search of recipe inspiration. Here, he recounts the foodie odyssey that took him from the rice terraces of Sapa, to Hanoi's buzzing street food markets

Good Morning Vietnam: The food markets of Sapa. Photo: Donal Skehan
Good Morning Vietnam: The food markets of Sapa. Photo: Donal Skehan
Street market in Vietnam, photo by Donal Skehan

In the mountains of northern Vietnam, a family from the Red Dhao tribe slowly file into a dark wooden building. In the centre stands a barrel of steaming water infused with mountain herbs. It's dark, but I can still make out their grins as they catch sight of me standing in my underwear and a pair of filthy sandals. My film crew are trying to stifle their laughter but I can hear the locals giggling over the grunts of their watching water buffalo. Quite the audience for my first public bath…

Next to food, travel is one of my true loves, so when I was approached by the Food Network to film a mini-series eating my way around Vietnam, I jumped at the opportunity. Last October, I spent two weeks travelling around the northern parts of this spectacular country. Vietnam's location in South East Asia - neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and China in the north - along with a war-torn history and 30 years of French occupation, provides it with a diverse food culture.

The journey began in the dead of night at Hanoi airport. Straight off a 14-hour flight, our small team - Claudia the director, Johnny the cameraman, Phil the soundman and myself - were bundled into a mini-van. We were accompanied by by our guide TT and Mr. Long, a representative of the Vietnamese government. It felt like we were part of a covert operation! After a short stop at a roadside restaurant for a sweaty feast of chicken feet, noodle soup and braised morning glory - a green similar to a chunky spinach - we began our bumpy eight-hour overnight journey to the Sapa in the North. No visit to Vietnam is complete without a trip to this incredible mountainous region, with its beautiful terraced rice fields carved into the steep terrain. Sapa has become an access point for tourists to experience life in the surrounding tribal villages, home to the uniquely dressed Red Dao and Black- and Flower-Hmong tribes.

Our first day filming began early at Bac Ha Market. It was the most incredible assault on the senses I have ever experienced - a bombardment of sights, sounds and wonderful smells. The market itself is like stepping back in time with locals dressed in traditional garments selling colourful fresh produce, big barrels of rice wine, men and women butchering fresh meat, live fish jumping from basins, tobacco being smoked and tested in large bamboo pipes and so much more.

The most fascinating aspect was the incredible live animal market, which had everything from stoic water buffalo to squealing pigs for sale.

I met Su May there, a local girl who had agreed to give me a glimpse of her family life and she provided a wonderful insight into history of the market and, most importantly, the local dishes. We snacked on sticky rice dipped in ground peanuts and tucked into the most incredible and slightly intimidating stack of meat I have ever seen in my life - this was not an experience for those with a weak stomach. Blood sausage, liver, tongue and heart were poached in a rich broth with noodles, and served with fresh herbs and spicy dipping sauce. Su May confided that the locals drink rice or corn wine to kill any bacteria in the meat. I took her word for it and we downed many cups of 'Happy Water'!

With a belly full of incredible food and my mind buzzing with ideas and inspiration, our next stop was Su May's family home, where she promised me a pork feast.

Su May's family are from the Red Dao, one of the five local tribes who live in the area around Sapa. Each tribe can be easily distinguished from their eye-catching garments which can take up to a year each to hand-make. With the recent influx of tourists, villagers now sell their garments and also offer homestays where visitors can soak up village life.

Su May's family home is a wooden abode built by her father, who was busy preparing bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice when we arrived. The rice is stuffed into the hollow shoot and is sealed with banana leaves. It's then boiled until the rice is tender before the bamboo sticks are placed over an open fire in the middle of the house - it results in a chewy, sweet rice with the most incredible texture. The female members of Su May's family were dressed in traditional outfits and were busy preparing a feast of suckling pig but before we would sit down to eat, there was a small matter of a bath to be had…

A Red Dhao tradition, the herbal bath is said to wash away your aches, pains and worries. Herbs like mint and ginseng were picked from the mountain behind the house and stewed in boiling water for me to bathe in.

I have to admit it would have been relaxing except for the fact that I had the camera crew and entire family crack up laughing as I attempted to deliver a piece to camera from the bath.

The house I had my bath in also had the most amazing attic where they stored corn, rice and pumpkin through the cold winters. The open fire in the kitchen was just beneath and all the heat and smoke dried out the produce so it's ready to sow next season.

After an eye-opening feast of pig dishes, citrus pork, blood pudding with sesame seeds, crispy pig's head, intenstines stir fried with smoked mushrooms, it was time to get back on the road to Hanoi and turn my attention to street food. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is the second-largest city in the country after Ho Chi Minh City. I love the hustle and bustle of the small streets dotted with street-food vendors.

With the help of local guide Duong, I was treated to Hanoi through the eyes of a local. A city of incredible contrasts - modern-day life mixed with strong traditions - the eclectic food and sights we saw gave me a whole new perspective on life in Vietnam's capital.

Our first stop was one of Hanoi's oldest and most famous restaurants, Cha Ca La Vong where they've served the same one dish for over 100 years - tumeric fish that has been marinated for 12 hours with galangal and fish sauce, then threaded onto bamboo skewers and chargrilled over hot coals. The fish pieces are then fried in shallot oil and served to the table on a hot plate where diners mix in dill and spring onions and serve over rice vermicelli noodles with peanuts, coriander, chilli and shrimp paste.

Perhaps the strangest thing I encountered in Hanoi, was egg coffee. The name conjures up scrambled eggs doused in coffee but this unique combination of egg yolks, condensed milk, sugar, butter and Laughing Cow cheese is whisked until fluffy and thick and served with hot coffee. It creates an incredible rich taste - like a liquid tiramisu.

On one of my last days in the city, I had an extremely early start. At 3.30am we found ourselves in a huge field outside the city to learn about harvesting young green sticky rice - a delicacy in Hanoi in the autumn. An incredible amount of work goes into preparing this popular ingredient which is enjoyed just as it is with some fresh fruit. The process is extremely long and detailed and begins in the paddy field where ladies of the local village, using large machetes, harvest the vibrant green rice plant before transporting it back to the village where they work in teams using a large, ominous-looking threshing machine to separate the grains.

The grain is then washed and bagged before being sent to a large wooden outdoor oven which heats it and changes its texture. The rice is then cooled and placed in a huge, rather old-fashioned, loud wooden pounding machine where the rice is separated from the husk.

The result is a vibrant green grain, which is wrapped up in a banana leaf to be sold at market.

I have yet to meet a film crew who trust me behind the wheel, so while in Hanoi I was shown around the city on the back of a vespa by our guide TT. Anyone who has travelled to Vietnam will understand the terrifying yet amazing experience it is just to cross the road as a pedestrian, with motorbikes swerving all around you. So to strap myself to the back of a bike and zoom off was always going to be slightly terrifying! Fear aside, it was one of the best ways to see the city. For any tourists who might be nervous, like most things in Vietnam you just have to embrace it and throw yourself in at the deep end.

After filming each day, myself and TT - a fellow food lover - would set out on mini food explorations, trawling the city for some of the best street food we could find. From snails braised in ginger and lime leaf, dried squid with beer, tender strips of pig's ear wrapped up with herbs in rice paper wrappers to sweet and spicy beef and papaya salad - eaten on little plastic chairs right beside Hanoi's iconic Sword lake - it was a truly memorable experience.

My last lunch in Hanoi before heading back to Dublin was Bun Cha, a feast of chargrilled pork, rice vermicelli noodles, lots of fresh herbs with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce; the perfect dish to remember on the long journey back home…

To give you a taste of Vietnam, included here is an exclusive selection of the dishes I was inspired to make from my trip. I've simplified them so they are easy to make but still deliver great vibrant flavor. Enjoy my caramel salmon dish with a nod to those sweet, salty and spicy flavours, that Vietnamese street food classic Banh Mi - a baguette filled with pork and pickled vegetables - and crispy skinned chicken salad with all the crunch and freshness from the food I tried in the north.

'Follow Donal' premieres on the Food Network from April 20. Visit Donal's YouTube channel for behind-the-scenes videos from his trip to north Vietnam

This is my version of possibly one of the most delicious sandwiches I've ever eaten. I've added a sprinkling of Maggi sauce, which I saw the street vendors do in Vietnam; it adds a base note of umami, which harmonises beautifully with the other flavours. It is readily available in any Asian supermarket so try and pick up a bottle next time you're at one.

Ban Mhi sandwiches

Serves 6

You will need

For the pork:

3 garlic cloves, peeled

2.5cm piece root ginger, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon white peppercorns

2 large handfuls of fresh coriander leaves and stalks

4 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

2 tablespoons fish sauce (preferably Vietnamese)

1 tablespoon honey

500g pork fillet, well trimmed and cut on the diagonal into long, thin slices

groundnut oil, for brushing (if necessary)

For the pickled vegetables:

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon caster sugar

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 carrots, peeled and pared into ribbons (preferably with a swivel vegetable peeler)

1 cucumber, pared into ribbons (preferably with a swivel vegetable peeler)

For the chilli & coriander mayonnaise:

1 mild green chilli, halved and seeded

1 small handful of fresh coriander leaves

120g mayonnaise

squeeze of lime juice

For the sandwiches:

6 small crusty baguettes (petit pains)

few dashes Maggi sauce (optional)

3-4 iceberg lettuce leaves, shredded

1 mild red chilli, thinly sliced (optional)

(Spring onions sliced diagonally to serve)


To prepare the pork, bash together the garlic, ginger, peppercorns, coriander leaves and stalks and spring onions in a pestle and mortar until you have a smooth paste. Add in the fish sauce and honey and mix through. Place the pork in a bowl and add three quarters of the paste, reserving the rest.

To make the pickled vegetables, dissolve the salt and sugar in the rice vinegar and then fold in the carrot and cucumber ribbons. Set aside for at least 20 minutes at room temperature.

To make the chilli and coriander mayonnaise, blitz the mayonnaise with the chilli and coriander. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the lime juice, then chill until needed.

When the pork has marinated (overnight if possible), thread the slices onto skewers and set aside on a plate.

Cook the pork over a high heat on a barbecue or a lightly oiled griddle pan for 2 minutes on each side until cooked through and sizzling. Baste with the reserved marinade to create a sticky coating.

To assemble the sandwiches, split open the rolls and slather one side of each one with the chilli and coriander mayonnaise and sprinkle the other with a few drops of Maggi sauce, if liked. Add the shredded lettuce followed by the drained pickled vegetables. Top with a warm pork skewer and scatter over the slices of red chilli, if using. Eat soon, while the pork is still warm and the lettuce and pickled carrot are still nice and cold.

Caramel salmon with sticky rice

This is a brilliantly simple South East Asian recipe, which is traditionally cooked in a clay pot and served, still sizzling, straight to the table. It is often made with catfish in Vietnam but is quite delicious made with fillets of salmon. The sticky and sweet caramel sauce is infused with wonderful aromas from ginger and chilli. Make sure that you use a super clean pan and preferably one that is not non-stick. However if your sugar does begin to crystallise simply add a few tablespoons of water and you should be able to rescue it. Serve the salmon with warm rice and a generous spoonful of the aromatic caramel sauce.

Serves 4

You will need

150g caster sugar

100ml water (add more water if it crystallises)

3 large garlic cloves, finely sliced

1 red chilli, finely sliced

1 thumb-sized piece root ginger, peeled and julienned

3 tbsp fish sauce (preferably Vietnamese)

4 salmon fillets, skinned

2 bok choy, sliced in half

1 small bunch fresh coriander, leaves stripped

1 small bunch spring onions, finely sliced and placed in cold water

sticky rice, to serve


Place a large high-sided frying pan or wok over a medium high heat. Add in the sugar and water and cook for 5 minutes, swirling the pan occasionally until you are left with a dark caramel. Do not be tempted to stir the mixture.

Add the garlic, chilli and ginger and mix through. Pour in 50ml of water and the fish sauce and bring to a steady boil. Add in the salmon fillets and bok choy, turning to coat completely in the mixture.

Reduce the heat and cook for another 6 minutes or until the salmon is cooked all the way through. Remove from the heat and garnish with the coriander leaves and drained spring onion curls.

Serve straight away in warmed bowls with the warm sticky rice.

Crispy chicken salad

The garlic and ginger for this salad are charred under a hot grill to give the chicken a subtle caramelised sweetness. Coriander seeds and star anise are toasted in a hot pan until they excitingly jump and pop and becoming wonderfully aromatic. These two important steps ultimately result in a Vietnamese Crispy Chicken which tastes sweet, spicy, salty and with the addition of torn mint and fresh coriander leaves, truly refreshing.

Serves 4

You will need

For the chicken:

4 large garlic cloves, not peeled

1 thumb-sized piece root ginger, not peeled

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 star anise

1 green chilli, roughly chopped

grated zest and juice of 1 lime

good handful of fresh coriander leaves and stalks

1 tablespoon fish sauce (preferably Vietnamese)

8 boneless chicken thighs, well trimmed (skin on)

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

For the dressing:

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime

3 tablespoons fish sauce (preferably Vietnamese)

2 tbsp caster sugar

1 small red Thai chilli, very finely chopped (remove the seeds if you don't like the heat)

For the salad:

50g fresh beansprouts

good handful fresh mint leaves

good handful fresh coriander leaves

200g Chinese cabbage leaves, trimmed and finely shredded

2 large carrots, cut into fine julienne (on a mandolin is best)

good handful of salted peanuts, roughly chopped


To prepare the chicken, place the garlic and ginger on a grill rack and place under a hot grill to char on all sides. Leave to cool, then peel and roughly chop before putting into a pestle and mortar. Toast the coriander seeds and star anise in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until they become aromatic. Tip into the pestle and mortar and add the chilli, lime zest and coriander. Bash to a paste, then mix in the lime juice and fish sauce.

Smear the paste all over the flesh side of the chicken thighs, then arrange on a plate and cover with cling film. Chill for at least 4 hours (or preferably overnight).

To cook the chicken, heat a large heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sunflower oil to the pan, then place the chicken thighs in it skin-side down. Reduce the heat to very low and cook for 20-30 minutes until the skin is nice and crispy. Don't touch them while they are cooking or shake the pan, just leave them alone and you will produce the most fantastic crisp skin and succulent flesh.

When you see the chicken thighs are nicely browned and that the flesh is almost but not quite cooked through, turn them over and cook for another 5-6 minutes until completely cooked and tender. Leave to rest for at least 5 and up to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix all the dressing ingredients together and put to one side until needed. Put all the ingredients for the salad into a large bowl except the peanuts and toss lightly to combine, then toss to coat in the dressing. Divide the dressed salad onto plates and quickly carve the chicken and pile on top. Scatter over the peanuts.

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