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Pho on the go!

Who would have thought that sushi would gather such sudden and overwhelming popularity in India. Now, Vietnamese cuisine, may similarly be a food trend to watch out for…

Pho Soup If an upright boat by the entrance of a restaurant catches your attention the next time you are in Defence Colony on a cold winter morning, it would be advisable to simply step in! It’s the flavours of Vietnam beckoning you at Chilli Seasonss, the family diner in the market. And if you’ve never had a steaming bowl of pho — or are feeling nostalgic for one, having sampled it at one of the “pho restaurants” that dot north America’s fast foodscape in particular — this is the place to make your acquaintance with it. For the record, this is a soup, full of the goodness of noodles (and veggies and meats), traditionally had for breakfast but a satisfying enough meal any time of the day.

Despite being one of the most popular cuisines the world over– and not just thanks to its former colonial occupier, France, that imported the food and turned it chic — Vietnamese cuisine has never really caught on in India. While Chinese and Thai and, lately, even Japanese, Malaysian and Korean cuisines have been wooing Indian palates, Asia’s “nouvelle cuisine”, as it is often called, has remained largely unknown. This despite the fact that it is one of the healthiest and most flavourful options around, placing an emphasis on fresh herbs (mint, turmeric) and black pepper (not red chillies) that would meet the approval of most of our “spice-seekers”. Now, the good news is that it may be a trend to watch out for in the coming years.

Vietnamese Food Boat While the Taj’s Blue Ginger has curried much favour in Bangalore in the last five-six years and has finally made a foray into the Delhi market this year, samplings of Vietnamese dishes can be had at non five-star prices too. Indeed, it would be ironical if a cuisine popular the world over as “street food” — whether quick bowls of soup, or platefuls of stir-frys and noodles or indeed “fusion” sandwiches in which French baguettes are lined with Vietnamese-style pate, and seasoned with mint and fish sauce (!) – remained confined to expensive diners. Luckily, there are a few other options available too.

At Chilli Seasonss, run by restaurateur Sudha Kukreja, it is possible to sample not just the more familiar and fragrant chao tom (prawns on sugarcane batons) and summer (or “spring”) rolls with fresh veggies and salad wrapped tightly in rice paper, but also an excellent Hanoi-style fish (with mint and cherry tomatoes), lightly done in a southeastern style, a selection of curries (that are much lighter than the coconut-infused ones of Thai or south-Indian ones), as well as street-style noodles (with tamarind) and even a hawker’s “baked” curry with prawns served in a pineapple shell. The festival is on till early December but the Vietnamese ambassador has, ostensibly, urged Kukreja to open up a full-fledged Vietnamese restaurant. So, wait and watch.

Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls Kayalan, the promising year-old takeaway service in Delhi that has now extended its repertoire from Malaysian to Malaysian and Thai, can also customise a Vietnamese menu for you on request. “We don’t have it on our regular takeaway menu but can cater for a party,” says promoter Kula Naidu, who points out that the cuisine, unlike many other south-east Asian ones, is spicier and less coconut-reliant. (Vietnam actually has three distinctive cuisines; that from the south being spicier than Chinese-influenced north.)

The other place to watch out for would be Republic of Noodles. The brand, catering to pan-Asian street food, was first developed by former Oberoi hand Raj Rao (also instrumental in launching Three Sixty at the Delhi property) and was acquired, last year, by Lemon Tree hotels. The restaurant has a sizeable Vietnamese menu and apart from its present haunts, Goa and Bangalore, seeks to expand its presence to Delhi too—but only in about two years’ time. “We’ll bring the brand once we open a bigger hotel at the international airport,” says Aradhna Lal, vice president, marketing.

In the meanwhile, other Asian menus around town continue to offer teasers. At Old World Hospitality’s Oriental Octopus, for instance, one of the best-sellers on the menu is the Vietnamese style pepper prawns that come with a delicious coating of garlic and roughly pounded fresh black pepper. At Kylin, the trendy lounge where even the cocktails have an Asian touch, caramalised prawns offer us a taste of the Vietnamese philosophy of combining opposing flavours (sweet with sour or hot), colours and ingredients (those inducing “heat” with “cooling” ones) to balance the yin and the yang. But for me, one of the most interesting dishes that I have discovered is, no, not the fish or the steamed minced prawns on a sugarcane stick that Indians have taken to as perhaps another form of the skewered kebab but a simple enough version of “chilli rice”— long grained, not short, as you would get in Thai or Malaysian eateries. At Kukreja’s restaurant, the rice arrives within a scooped out bamboo, surprising you with the crunch of a hidden chestnut or two, bursting with the aroma of lemon grass. That’s Vietnamese cuisine at its best.

The unmentionables

While Vietnamese cuisine(s) are known for their fresh flavours as well as the fact that the vegetarian repertoire is extensive, there are some bizarre ingredients as well that are sometimes used traditionally in that country. Cobra beating hearts, silk worms and bull penis are listed as these. A breakfast dish is a fertilized duck egg which is boiled and eaten. There are also paddy crabs and snails to season the noodles! Aren’t we glad that these seem most unlikely to make it to our own menus.

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