Returning to Viet-Nam is always full of both wonderful and bittersweet moments. Wonderful, because re-uniting my grandmother and the rest of my clan of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews (and more extensions beyond that!) is tremendously joyful. Bittersweet, because the departure from all that I love and cherish is agonizing. The separation and long expanse of time to re-connect with my family again is, and will always be, the hardest to bear. Distance is pain.
But while I’m there, the exhilaration of being surrounded by the elder loved ones and the new additions to the family brings me more happiness than I can ever ask for. It’s a continuous celebration of food, family, relationships, culture and more food!
I often rationalize the separation of myself from Viet-Nam and all it’s glorious cuisine with this thought: The longer I stay, the more I indulge in the amazing food, the more weight I gain. For every day that I’m in Viet-Nam, I gain one pound of weight. Therefore, taking a break from it all is the healthier choice. Sigh, I think I feel better now.
Viet-Nam is a bountiful country, bearing a plethora of food from both the sea and land. The narrow strip of “S” shaped land that Viet-Nam occupies is gifted with fresh seafood from the East and South, and is surrounded by culinary rich countries, with China to the North, and Cambodia, Thailand and Laos to the West.
With family scattered throughout the long North-South stretches of Viet-Nam, I’ve traveled these expansive distances and tasted many regional specialties that make each province, city and town unique. All are different, delicious and reflect the diversity of each regions unique geography, landscape and natural resources.
While the hot, humid and tropical climate bears the most wonderful produce and fruits, I’m continually connected to the sea and all the bountiful seafood that I’m surrounded by in my hometown of Da-Nang, in Central Viet-Nam. My family is fortunate to be living right next to the East Sea ( China Sea) where fresh seafood means anything that was caught that morning. Anything left over to the next day is considered “old”.
With only about a 10-minute walk or a 4-minute scooter ride (depending on who is driving), I can reach the beautiful collapsing waves and groves of coconut trees of gorgeous My-Khe beach. During more ambitious mornings, if I can wake up my food-coma stricken body at 3 am, I can find the local fisherman further along that stretch of beach, pulling in the seafood from the cool ocean waters.
Plucked straight from the ocean, all the multiple varieties of fish, squid, crab, cuttle fish and snails are then immediately carried, walked or scootered up to the bustling market. At the morning’s fish market in Da-Nang, anxious shoppers rub elbow to elbow, market bag to market bag along the narrow isles of seafood laden baskets: catfish, tilapia, snapper, gropers, perchlets, barbs, belt fish, squid, anchovies and croakers, to just name a few. I’m continuously in awe of each days new catch that introduces me to new and exotic species that I’ve never seen before.
The whole market smells of the wonderful sea and filled to the brim with the ocean’s colorful bounty.
The scene at the fish markets in Viet-Nam are breathtaking, especially from a seafood-lover and foodie perspective. The sights of shoppers abound, carrying their baskets of newly purchased goods, with fish heads and fish tales peeping out of the bags and the sounds of the shoppers high pitched voices bartering for the best price is an adrenaline rush. I often found myself yelling above the clamor of all the noise to barter down the price for fish that I never intended on buying. Having so much beautiful seafood around and made me wish I could stay longer in order to cook it all.
While in Viet-Nam, there’s never a day that I don’t go without eating some sort of ocean harvest. From grilled smelt rolled in fresh spring rolls, to braised snapper in chilies, to catfish stewed in an aromatic soup, I am continually reminded why I love Viet-Namese home cooking so much.
Seafood is a staple in Vietnamese cuisine and makes a showing on almost every menu and at every dinner meal. With fresh fish and other ocean varieties abound, it’s a comfort food that brings joy, satisfaction and connection to the Vietnamese people’s simple and humble homecooking.
Both my families in Viet-Nam and America have a special love affair with red snapper. Mom, Dad and Grandma have always loved red snapper for it’s firm and sweet meat. When really fresh, the nutty notes of red snapper go so well with my mom’s spicy hot chili braises, Dad’s herb laced fish soup and Grandma’s grilled recipe with fresh lemongrass.
My mother grew up eating Grandma’s grilled red snapper as a child and has now passed this family recipe on to me. Wrapped in banana leaves (when we can get it in America), the infusion of the lemongrass’s fresh, bright and grassy flavors on the delicate meat of the snapper, over the heat of slowly, fire charring coals is phenomenal.
I’ve prepared this dish at my dinner parties and they are always a hit. My guests strip the fish down to the bare bones, leaving only the ocean’s skeleton on the plate. This is when I know that a hometown recipe all the way from Da-Nang, Viet-Nam is fully appreciated and embraced by my American friends on the other side of the world. I hope you enjoy this dish as much as we do.
It’s the essence of things, simple and fresh, yielding straight from the land and sea from my experiences in Viet-nam that influence the way that I cook, eat and perceive food. Traveling outside my comforts and relishing in different surroundings make coming back home to America more exciting, because I always have something new to share from another part of the world. It’s my way of connecting my birthplace in Viet-Nam to my home in America.
Diane Cu was born in Da-Nang, Vietnam, and its culinary rich heritage has fueled her passion for all things global, delectable and exquisitely uncommon. An avid gardener, backpacker and outdoors lover, Diane continues to scour the world in search of local culture, history and cooking traditions. She also loves a good laugh, a great cocktail and her two dogs.
Diane is a Los Angeles-based photographer, cooking instructor and food and travel writer. She shares her offbeat culinary musings on her blog that she co-writes with her partner, Todd, at WhiteOnRiceCouple.com
All photos courtesy of Diane