In Vietnam, an adventure in eating

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I'd just finished lunch at a dockside cafe in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, where nothing on the menu - grilled fish, crispy spring rolls or litchi nuts for dessert - prepared me for a startling suggestion of an after-dinner drink.

Would I care for some snake liqueur?

The smiling waitress, undeterred by what must have been my look of dismay, brought forth a glass jug of rice wine, at the bottom of which was coiled a dead cobra. Hmmm. Was I a man or a mouse?

When she assured me this elixir strengthens one's vitality, I meekly sipped a liquid that was viscous, peppery and almost disappointingly sweet. The rest is hisssss-tory.

If you yearn for recipes from The Fear Factor Cookbook, Vietnam is a smorgasbord. Traveling there a few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to dine on the flesh of cats and dogs, as well as to savor ca cuong, a fluid harvested from the scent gland of a giant water bug. These peculiarities, or at least what might seem peculiar to the Western palate, however, are only a hair-raising fraction of what's on Vietnam's table.

Overall, the diet is remarkably light, brothy, loaded with vegetables, and sparing with meat. Having nearly a mania for freshness, Vietnamese housewives go to the market daily and will turn up their noses at anything but just-picked produce.

Rather than rely on flavor boosters like butter, cream and cheese, they have a free hand with intense herbs and spices. A quartet of cinnamon, star anise, pepper and black cardamom are the most popular, with turmeric and ginger close behind.

Their cuisine combines elements of Chinese rule, French colonization and Southeast Asian influence. What seems uniquely Vietnamese, however, are the frequent reminders that eating is, of course, a health remedy. So many superstitions swirl in the sauce, though, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between stockpot and crackpot.

Much of this I learned from several days spent in the company of Didier Corlou, executive chef at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. When he's not giving master classes around the world, Corlou teaches a cooking course for guests staying at this venerable but sleekly maintained spot that over the past century has played host to everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene to Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda.

A Frenchman who moved to Hanoi in the early 1990s, he's the author of Didier Corlou's Vietnamese Cuisine, which was deemed a "masterpiece" in February at the World Cookbook Awards in Sweden.

Corlou, 49, also has received a National Order of Merit by French President Jacques Chirac for his culinary contributions to both French and Vietnamese cultures, and has cooked for visiting heads of state such as Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin.

I met Corlou when it was my great good fortune to dine at Le Beaulieu, his restaurant, which is generally considered to be the finest not only in Hanoi but all of Vietnam.

Dishes such as a clove-studded onion, baked in its own skin with a marinade of cinnamon and star anise; tuna cooked with passion fruit; or cinnamon ice cream coated with bee pollen show an artful blend of high French technique with humble Asian ingredients.

"Here, food, la gastronomie, is not so important, so chefs don't get a big head. Vietnamese are lovely people. They are not aggressive, but simple. So is their food," he says.

Some of the country's most beloved recipes came about during the war, he says, when no food could be imported because of embargoes. People had to eat what was already there and created dishes from previously discarded items such as pumpkin stems or morning glory vine.

"They also eat six times a day, little portions," Corlou said, smacking his own ample belly. "You never see a fat Vietnamese!"

A short, stocky man, Corlou has a zestful demeanor. When he describes a recipe, he hunches over and brings his hands up close to his nose, as if he can already smell the flavors on his fingertips.

"What is the main difference between Chinese and Vietnamese food?" he asks rhetorically, when discussing Vietnam's northern neighbor. "Chinese is mostly sauteed in oil. Vietnamese dishes are poached in fragrant broth. And, above all, it's the herbs. In many cases, it's one herb for one dish."

Corlou is an enthusiastic fan of nuoc nam, which he calls "the soy sauce of Vietnam," because it is put on nearly everything. Nuoc nam is made by salting freshly caught fish (1 portion of salt to 7 of seafood) and letting the mixture set in earthenware casks for up to 12 months, after which the resulting liquid is pressed free. A simple way to enjoy nuoc nam is to mix it with olive oil and drizzle it on tomatoes.

What's most endearing about Corlou is that, while justifiably proud of his menu at Le Beaulieu, he insists that Hanoi's finest food is what you find being cooked on the street.

I found this to be true when, jet-lagged and up early one morning, I took a run around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is at the center of what's called Frenchtown. Here, in narrow streets surrounding the water, are dozens of tiny restaurants that serve steaming bowls of pho (pronounced "fuh").

Customers sit on low wooden stools placed out on the sidewalk, while slurping bowls of a noodle soup that is a national treasure - Vietnam's equivalent of paella in Spain or crepes in Brittany, France.

Most often made with chicken or beef, pho has thin slices of the precooked protein stirred into a flavorful bouillon in which noodles have just been cooked. As are many Vietnamese dishes, pho is served with a plate of do-it-yourself additions such as basil leaves, bamboo shoots, chili sauce and lime juice.

The Vietnamese compose their pho so that no two bowls taste exactly alike - except, I discover, all are delicious and fill you with a sense of indescribable well-being. Pho for the soul.

Later that day, I accompany Corlou on a shopping expedition to the Cho 19-12 Market, a name that commemorates Dec. 19, 1946, the date when Ho Chi Minh (or "Uncle Ho," as he's still affectionately called here) officially led his countrymen into a War of Resistance against the colonial French.

Corlou leads an army of his own - he has an astonishing 90 chefs in his kitchen and 10 full-time apprentices - yet he trusts no one to come to the market each morning to buy what's freshest for his cooking lessons.

Corlou's force of personality expands to dominate even this spot, which is loud and frenzied, and where you have to watch your step because, after peeling shrimp or vegetables, vendors simply toss scrapings into the narrow aisles. These passageways also are clogged by people on motor scooters, driving in both directions, honking at anything that gets in their way.

"Monsieur, monsieur!" Rising above this din are the vendors' cries. They all know Corlou and wave their goods about - live lobsters, sugar cane and quail eggs - in vain attempts to entice him. But Corlou is a steamroller, pressing ahead and muttering orders to his assistants who close all deals in his wake.

We pass enormous, bubbling tubs of live snails, cuttlefish, dragon fish and tiger shrimp the size of zucchini. We also encounter countless herbs and vegetables I've never seen before - banana flowers, young lemon leaf and lotus root.

Corlou reminds me of his one-herb/one-dish formulation. Turmeric, he says, goes well in fish soup. Kohlrabi, or cabbage turnip, is perfect for pot au feu. Galangal has a piquant, gingery-peppery flavor that he recommends for pork.

He differentiates between many varieties of coriander, eventually holding aloft a bunch of spindly, tiny-leafed greens. "Good for crabs," he says. "And, it's like the reverse of an aphrodisiac. This herb will put you to sleep."

Back at the Metropole's kitchen, as Corlou conducts his cooking class, he volunteers more helpful tips. Some are gastronomic or homeopathic, others seem a bit like hocus-pocus.

Never buy scallops that are white, he says, because this means they've been frozen. (Fresh scallops should be the color of cream.) You can tell the difference between old ginger root and new by flicking the skin with your fingernail. "The tougher the exterior, the older it is ... just like humans," he says, with a wink.

And, eat bee pollen, he says. "You'll live longer!"

I already drank snake liqueur, I think. Isn't that enough of a Vietnamese gastro adventure to ensure my immortality?

Magical Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

1 1/4 ounces carrot

1 1/4 ounces papaya

2 tablespoons sugar (divided use)

2 tablespoons vinegar (divided use)

3 cloves garlic

1 red chile

3 tablespoons nuoc nam

10 ounces water

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Finely chop or shred carrot and papaya. Marinate them in half of the sugar and vinegar. While mixture marinates, pound and finely chop garlic. Seed and finely chop chile.

Mix nuoc nam with water, chile, garlic, pepper and remainder of vinegar and sugar. Add carrot and papaya. Blend well.

Note: This sauce complements a wide variety of dishes, which is why Didier Corlou calls it "magical." It can be kept in the refrigerator for two days.

Per 1 tablespoon serving: 8 calories; 0 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 165 milligrams sodium

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