Soulful Art

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I didn’t expect to find the perfect artwork on my last day in Vietnam after my morning run around Hoi Kiem lake. I dreaded the day when the two pieces from Theaster Gates which have hung on my restaurant walls for two years will be returned to its owner. So I have been on the lookout for their replacements at art shows and galleries wherever I went. I am glad that my search ended up in Hanoi with local artist Ngo Van Sac at Thang Long Gallery. This is how I came to own these two beautiful multimedia artworks. I saw an article on Vietnam Air magazine about an art show at Chula (fashion and art space) in Hanoi. The picture in the article was a self portrait of the artist imposed on wood using a fire burning technique called pyrography (the third frame picture above). So I went to Chula to check it out and just loved the place and the vibe. Except Ngo Van Sac exhibition is a week later and I won’t get to see it. Luckily, Diego the owner and fashion designer of Chula invited me to his office and connected me with the artist via email and facebook! That evening I got a fb message from Ngo Van Sac telling me to check out his work at a local gallery near the lake. The next day,I walked into the gallery with my pink running shirt and shorts not looking like an art buyer by all means. So there they were in front of me, the two pieces that I have been looking for all this time. I do love his newer pieces with his soulful self portrait on wood, but these two street scene works will fit the walls of Saigon Sisters perfectly. It was meant to be and I just have to buy them on my last day in Vietnam.

Taste of Vietnam – Coffee culture

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The weasel makes expensive coffee and I couldn’t fathom the idea of spending 10 times more for a cup of Java that I drink everyday. My good friend Natalie flew in from Singapore to meet up with me and she loves Vietnamese coffee because they are harder to find and much more costly in Singapore. So we went to Ben Thanh market and tasted so many that I was pretty wired after the the fourth or fifth ones. I was overhelmed with so many vendors to choose from that are selling the exact same thing. It came down to this one merchant who was very friendly and gave us the price that we haggled for. The best coffee experience I had was in Hanoi at this hard to find coffee shop that makes egg coffee known as Cafe Hen. It was a coffee shop that is between two shops where you have to go through an alley, put in your order, then climb up to the top floor to sit in a small deck and enjoy the great view of Hoi Kiem Lake while waiting for the coffee to be brought up to you. Below is a short video of what this coffee looks like, wish you could taste it. It is creamy, sweet and strong almost like tiramisu but in liquid foam.

Taste of Vietnam – Awesome Street Food

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I need to spend months or even a year to try the variety of dishes from Vietnam. It’s so diverse and so many different preparations that I just have to come back again 😉 A great place to sample and see everything in one roof is an open concept restaurant called Quan An Ngon which has one in Hanoi and HCM. All the stalls are spread about the restaurant and you can watch them cook and know what the ingredients are. It is a great place to go if you don’t have the time to get to all the street food vendors but want a good sample of food that you haven’t tried yet. Of course street foods are mostly better if you know who the best vendors are for a particular dish. See video below of a street vendor making banh cuon with egg for breakfast.

Taste of Vietnam – Iconic dishes from Hanoi

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The first picture above is Cha Ca which is a turmeric dill fish dish originated in Hanoi that is so popular that there are restaurants that only serve that dish on the menu. It’s served hot pot style with tons of dills and vegetables to cook with the white delicate fish marinated in turmeric. You can have two sauces with it, nuoc cham and shrimp paste with roasted peanuts. The flavors combination is delicious but that white vermicelli is so fluffy and light that I can’t find in the States. It’s so light that it doesn’t fill you up like rice or noodles. It’s a perfect side for Cha Ca and Bun Cha, another iconic dish of Hanoi. The charred and grilled pork is the star of this dish. You get a side of ground pork patties and pork belly soaking in a savory and sweet broth serve simply with herbs and that fluffy white vermicelli. Eating bun cha with crispy crab egg rolls sitting on a tiny stool on the streets of Vietnam is how it’s done here. It is addictively good that all you want to do is continuously shove it in your mouth with chopsticks until all the food is gone. Come to think of it, that’s what Vietnamese food does to you. You can’t stop eating or get full quickly because the flavors are bold, well balanced, and so delicious that your taste buds want more and more of it.

Taste of Vietnam – Tools of the Trade

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We learned how to make Banana Blossom salad in Hoi An to stay crunchy, fresh and delicious. Imagine my excitement when I found a real banana blossom hanging off a long branch with budding bananas in the middle of Binh Dinh province north of Hanoi. It’s the first time I see it in this form and was overjoyed to take this picture while everyone around me thought what’s the big deal?! This is going to make it to our dinner menu at Saigon Sisters. I even bought the tools (slicer and do-it-all peeler) for all the cooks to use for this dish. The peeler was even featured in December issue of Saveur magazine.

Taste of Vietnam – Food Arts at the market

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The beautiful fresh produce, live seafood, dried shrimps, beans, and never ending rows of carefully displayed products were overhelming. Their abundance and visual beauty will make any cooks want to create a masterpiece dish in their kitchen. I couldn’t bring a lot of food back with me, but managed to get that one thing that Mama Suu asked for which was jumbo red dried shrimps. They made it through customs and can’t wait to taste what she will make of them.

Taste of Vietnam – Organic life

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There are no big grocery stores or even a Bodega around the corner. But there are plenty of open markets selling produce, meats, and prepared foods all around us. So in Hoi An, we took up a cooking class which includes a bike ride to organic farms where herbs, papayas, and taro are beautifully grown in rows and rows behind the farmers’ house. It is a beautiful and peaceful moment watching workers tending the land the old fashion way. We were fortunate to have an animated and talented cook My Linh to be our guide for the day. We learned how to make Mi Quang (rice noodle soup with pork, tomato,and crispy chips), Banana blossom salad, and poached fish in banana leaf. She was a lot of fun and wish she could come work with us!

Taste of Vietnam – Best Banh mi For $1

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You can eat like a queen or king in Vietnam. Banh mis eaten at midnight or in the middle of the afternoon would satisfy my craving until breakfast or dinner. When I watched this woman assembled the sandwich with a dozen ingredients,it reminded me of the composition and layers of flavors that are typical in Vietnamese cuisine. The best banh mis we had were in Hoi An and we love Madame Khan the Banh Mi Queen Stand and Phuong that Anthony Bourdain featured in one of his trips to Vietnam. It’s interesting to note that the breads are the same at all the stands so they must be a baker in town who supplies them all. The other surprising thing is that the daikon and carrots are not pickled! Nevertheless the Banh mis are as delicious as I would imagine it.

Taste of Vietnam – Best travel companions

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Meet my travel mates: Saigon Sisters Executive Chef Matt Riordan, Chef John McLean of Burger Bar and my good friend Felicia Yonter. It was their first visit to Vietnam and is not going to be their last. I was impressed and grateful that they trusted me to plan the whole trip and just do whatever come our way without a guide or planned itinerary. All they want was to eat great food and experience as much as they can. And did we ever?! We unloaded and packed for 5 cities and 9 flights in 10 days and ate about every 2 hours. I am glad that Chef Matt is inspired and learned a few techniques. We can’t wait to showcase our favorite dishes on Saigon Sisters menu during Restaurant Week back in Chicago.