Sunday, July 03, 2011

Vietnam: Eating Artichokes In Dalat

It's good fun being out on the road, roving about, living a nomadic life of cheap hotels and expensive Scotch, but I can feel the tropical tonto coming. The heat is stifling and the air smells of rancid gutters, and news travels slowly in a place where they steam the stamps off letters.

As I sat in a bar in Nha Trang a few nights ago, drinking a bucket of vodka limon with a Saigon Green chaser, I knew I needed to get away for a bit – somewhere cooler with a breeze, where you might even have to wear long trousers in the evening. And about the only place you can get that in Vietnam is Dalat - a mountain resort famous for its flowers, fruit, vegetables, coffee and endangered wild meat.

And I’m glad I did, because eating artichokes in the central market there was a major highlight of my trip so far through Vietnam. It immediately took me back to long summers in France, ripping off artichoke leaves and dipping them in vinaigrette, and watching the world go by from a cafe pew overlooking a dusty street.

I made do with one of those ubiquitous, ridiculously-low plastic chairs that surround every food stall in SE Asia, and leave anyone over 5ft 5in tall with their knees bent up around their chin like a flying yogic hopper who’s just fallen off a bed. But I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.

Although there were thousands of beautiful artichokes in the market, lined up next to the massive avocadoes, bulging beetroot, cabbage, peas and strawberries, there were none for sale in any of the restaurants.

My only cooking equipment is a small kettle which I use to boil an egg for breakfast some afternoons, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cram one of those beauties in there, so I tried to persuade a stall owner to cook a couple for me and my Vietnamese translator Qua.

I bought two fat specimens for 60,000 dong (£2) from a one-eyed woman, who'd stabbed her eye on an artichoke spear leaving a bluey-white smear in its place, and handed them to the cook. We ordered a bottle of the awful local wine, and a plate of garlic prawns (tom xao toi) and fried pork and rice to sweeten the transaction.

I had no idea what to expect. The stall specialised in “ancient hotpots” (lau thap cam) that combine everything from prawn to squid to beef to pork to vegetables in a simmering pot of spicy, herby goodness, so I imagined it would be something like that. But after five minutes I still wasn’t sure if the cook knew what I'd meant, or whether she thought I was just giving them to her as part of some bizarre, foreign good luck custom to ward off food poisoning.

Then a huge metal hot pot appeared with artichoke quarters sticking out. The cook put the dish between us and lit a paraffin burner underneath to get the water bubbling. It broke every cooking convention putting those beautiful artichokes in cold water, meaning they go through the 65C to 85C temperature band where vegetables lose their colour and bite (which is why you plunge them into boiling water).

But the taste was incredible. Out of this world. I delved around in the pot with my chopsticks – it was just water, salt, sliced onion, fresh coriander, and a few chopped up artichoke stalks to flavour the broth. And the preparation was as rustic as the delivery. They hadn’t bothered removing the fibrous choke – this was a stall in one of the best fruit and veg markets you’ll find anywhere in the world, and it seemed fitting somehow that every part of the thistle should be cherished, or at least acknowledged. Every thorn has its rose, as it were.

As with all Vietnamese hotpots you get an intense boil for a couple of minutes, and then some sort of amalgamation of colours and flavours, and then the dish just putters away for a bit, and then the burner runs out. Not that I waited that long - the veg was so fresh it took barely 10 minutes to cook. And soon we were pulling off leaves and scraping the mushy, vitamin-packed goodness against our bottom teeth.

Somehow the haphazardness of the dish made it all the more appealing. By chance, there was the perfect amount of seasoning in the stock to give the artichokes a delicious, intense taste, while making a wonderful pea-green soup to drink afterwards.

The hearts were mouth-wateringly divine, and I soon got fed up with fishing out the fibres, and just bit into them to devour their succulence, and I’ve still got a fibre stuck in my throat as I write this two days later. They had a moreish, bitter aftertaste that massaged the roof of your mouth and screamed of Provence – from where they’d been introduced 100 years before.

The French turned Dalat into a tiny corner of France to escape the heat of Saigon, and revel in the produce of its incredible microclimate as only the French can do.

Tropical fruit and vegetables were grown in the foothills, while further up, where the air was thinner, the soil lusher, and the temperature more reminiscent of the Med, it was the perfect growing spot for European produce.

As well as being the world’s artichoke tea-producing hub, Dalat also has wonderful milk and it would have been churlish to say the dish needed butter – as how it would have been served in France. But I haven’t eaten butter in the five months I’ve been in Asia, and I didn’t miss it and nor did the dish.

There was something in its simplicity that summed up Vietnam’s watery, pot-based cooking. It was the understanding of food, the respect for ingredients, and the knowledge that smothering the natural goodness is a crime.

When the bill came, Qua kicked up a fuss when they tried to charge us 50,000 dong (less than £2) for "cooking" the artichokes. She got quite upset about it. I was more than happy to pay, and pointed out how much a similar meal would have cost in the UK, and how if she hadn’t been there they would have charged me double, and that I was happy to pay for the theatre and the occasion, and I did have some sympathy with the cook. But to her it was an appalling rip-off.

“Fifty thousand dong for water, onions and a few bits of cilantro!” she kept saying. “FIFTY THOUSAND!”

“And they probably got the water from the lake,” I added, trying to make light of it.

But she just glared at me and back at the stony-faced cook when she returned with my change, and the atmosphere quickly turned as spiky as those violet, thorny inner leaves that had taken that woman’s eye out on the stall next door.


View Larger Map


Lau hai san Thai (hot and spicy Thai-style seafood hotpot):

Lau nam thit ga (Vietnamese chicken and mushroom hotpot):


The road to Dalat:

Welcome to Dalat:

Advocado shake (once a decade is more than enough):

Bun rieu (a very sweet soup):

Donut and coffee stalls line the streets round the market:

Deer at half the price:

The region is famous for its flowers:

Street hawkers selling their wares:

Strange landing craft in the highland resort's Xuan Huong Lake:

The gardeners' paradise is known for its strawberries and jams:

Trimming coconuts for tourists:

Massive guavas add to the quality of life in the former colony:


Dominic said...

Still fuming that had to cull artichokes to make say for floweryness. Dont think the surfing cardoom thistles will be the same . Like the hat... Beautiful days ...

Lennie Nash said...

You can't eat flowers! Hope you didn't have to pull up the cardooms as well.

Yes, Beautiful Days! Lost the hat five times now, but it keeps coming back. Just have to get it back from the translator now.

Anonymous said...

"Massive guavas add to the quality of life in the former colony"

I just eat 5 guavas.

tori said...

SUCH a beautifully written piece.

@notroyshay said...

Another beautiful post.

@lotteduncan said...

Lovely blog on artichokes. I have 40 of them in my pottager! Real beasties... Grew them 8Yrs ago from seed and they are huge!

Here they are! too many for one bird to eat! So will let a few go to flower- a stunning purple!

@brockhallfarm said...

(Via Twitter)

Enthralling, fascinating post! The first para is literary genius. PLEASE READ IT!

@Mcmoop said...

(Via Twitter)

Really enjoyed that. Never been there but could feel, see and taste it. Great stuff.