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Ho Chi Minh City - Paris of the Orient

Chủ đề trong 'Mỹ (United States)' bởi longtoo, 29/08/2003.

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    At Ease in Vietnam, Asia''''''''s New Culinary Star
    By R. W. APPLE Jr.

    O CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam
    IT is enough to daunt all but the most gluttonous of gastronomes.

    Right by the door stand piles of rice from several different provinces, some with large grains, some with small grains, some darker, some lighter, each with a wholly different aroma. Down the aisle are banks of vividly green herbs and vegetables, with their hyperintense Asian scents and tastes, stunningly fresh despite the lack of refrigeration because they arrive direct from their growers in the middle of the night.

    Many of the vegetables are Asian natives ?" bumpy bitter melons, lotus stems, long beans, banana flowers, luffa squashes and pungent Chinese celery. But others are European transplants ?" delicacies like baby cress, escarole, miniature artichokes and exquisite asparagus (which the Vietnamese called "French bamboo" when French colonial officials first imported it).

    A PLACE RENEWED Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, bustles with many new restaurants.

    Over there is a cauliflower the size of a basketball. Over here are mounds of delectable, unfamiliar fruit ?" enormous knobby durians, which smell like rotting cheese but taste like rich custard, and spiny little soursops, which yield a sweet-and-tart juice that makes an unforgettable sorbet, and horrid lipstick-pink dragon fruit. Breadfruit. Jackfruit. Custard apples. Tamarind pods.

    On the other side of a partition are caged chickens and other fowl, squawking noisily, and all kinds of sea creatures ?" iced squid, crabs tied with red ropes, clams the size of silver dollars with ridged shells, carp swimming in basins and tiger prawns that look as ferocious as their namesakes, all overseen by a raucous corps of vendors in rubber boots.

    This is the tumultuous Ben Thanh market, which faces Quach Thi Trang Square in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. A shedlike building with four entrances, it attests to this country''''''''s peacetime bounty. Visit it, look around, join the chattering, jostling crowd, listen to the noodle vendor''''''''s spiel, grab a snack. That will put you in the right frame of mind for the splendid meals that await you in a galaxy of attractively designed, mostly new restaurants near the big hotels here.

    BROTH ON THE SIDE At Hoi An restaurant, pork and shrimp are layered atop broad noodles. ​

    Restaurant cooking of real excellence has evolved in the last 10 years, and particularly in the last three, with bright young chefs innovating and adapting like their brethren in other major Asian capitals. French and Chinese and Indian influences remain, of course, the legacy of a long and clamorous history, but something new and manifestly Vietnamese is emerging.

    Spring rolls and salad rolls on white tablecloths, you ask? Absolutely, and in Ho Chi Minh City''''''''s better places they might be filled with squid or grilled fish or chicken instead of crab or shrimp and pork. Chefs have no qualms about serving the tra***ional alongside the inventive: a plate of fat rosy shrimp with satisfyingly sour tamarind pulp, for instance, together with a plate of tiny quail glazed with star anise and grilled with garlic and paprika.

    My wife, Betsey, and I ate those two dishes, among others, at Nam Phan, a luxurious villa decorated with antique ceramics and scrolls. On our table, a single orchid floated in a silver and black lacquer box.

    TRA***IONAL MEETS INVENTIVE In Ho Chi Minh City, the Temple Club is famous for its red martini. ​

    Nothing so deluxe could ever have been found in Ho Chi Minh City''''''''s former incarnation, wartime Saigon, where I was based for almost three years as a correspondent. It would have been easier to unearth a truffle. The ingredients weren''''''''t available (too many roadblocks), nor were the cooks (in the army). So we hung out in a series of joints that flourished in a world of low expectations and minimal competition.

    On my return this year, I couldn''''''''t find any of them. Every one has been swallowed up by the 35 years that have passed since I left, but I remember them ?" a street-corner Basque place called Aterbea, with a jai alai mural, where I ate boudin noir, sautéed apples and mashed potatoes for lunch, because it was good and because the wizened waiters assured me it was what the Foreign Legionnaires had ordered, and Amiral, where the resourceful Morley Safer gave a jolly dinner party the same night that Truman Capote gave his storied Black and White Ball in New York.

    Được longtoo sửa chữa / chuyển vào 06:17 ngày 29/08/2003

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