I think we’re a bit in love with Vietnam. We’ve overstayed here a bit, as well. The last week of our month-long visa finds us still in the deep south, thousands of miles away from Hanoi. We want to make our way to Dalat, to discover the “secret world of ragu” and extend the visas. After a morning swim in the sea, we set out to the Central Highlands. Dalat is famous for it’s “permanent spring”, so we though it’d be a good idea to keep our jackets handy. But after crossing villages where the setting is more Tibetan than tropical and finding ourselves in an unheated hotel at 10 degrees Celsius, we go into shock. We got so used to the heat that, like the Vietnamese, at these temperatures we’d gladly put on parkas and warm gloves. Still, this may be better that the Javan hell, where putting on underwear or shoes any other than flip-flops seemed like a really bad idea.
Dalat is a mountain resort of sorts and it differs much from the rest of the country. It’s promoted as the “little Paris” and “romantic capital” of Vietnam. As such, it’s quite popular with newly-weds. Thanks to spring temperatures, flowers bloom wildly all year round, and vegetables impossible to grow elsewhere in Vietnam can be grown here.
We arrive in Dalat in the week that precedes the Lunar New Year, or the Vietnamese Tet holiday, and the city is filled with vases full of living flowers that are used for decorating houses. There are also many flower-boxes and the cherry trees are in full bloom. Since the climate is different here, so is the cuisine, and the formerly ubiquitous sugar cane juice stalls are substituted by steaming pots of mung or soy bean milk simmered with pandan leaves.
We didn’t come to Vietnam in search of European atmosphere, yet the perspective of devouring vegetable-filled ragout seemed reason enough to visit Dalat. Because we’ve been lugging around Kim Fey’s book on Vietnam (and reading it, too!), we came into the secret knowledge of the dish the colonizers left behind. The cooler climes and the availability of European vegetables explains why this warming stew did not leave with the French. Making ragout is a lengthy process, so it’s usually not on the menus. Though, if you know which restaurants serve it, you can order beforehand. Unfortunately, we were not able to find the restaurants we’ve found on the Internet, at the provided addresses. I admit, we did not go to great lengths to find them because already on the second day, lured by an irresistible smell, we were sitting down at a unimposing eatery that specializes in grilled pork.
Cơm tâm may be the most common sign in front of Vietnamese restaurants. It means broken rice, or simply rice of the second category, slightly crushed during processing. The taste does not differ from regular rice but the texture reminds me a bit of couscous. It’s served with all kinds of dishes, sometimes with the dish the vendor specializes in or as a compliment to the buffet of pre-prepared foods. The restaurant we found specializes in pork, sliced thinly and grilled in a sweet and lightly spicy marinade. Some sweet broth is served aside, to aid digestion. As I’ve written earlier, finding good pork is not difficult in Vietnam. But this, rather plain piece of meat, is a real knock-out that kept us coming back for more. Never mind the three pieces of cucumber that in no way could satisfy our lust for greens, especially in the context of visiting the vegetable capital of Vietnam.
I’m not much of a carnivore and the dish pictured looks like… an ordinary pork chop? It would surely not get my attention if it wasn’t for it’s incredible succulence and, as people like to say, how it melts in the mouth. Even as I’m writing this, I feel like taking a major detour south and grabbing one more serving. Or even maybe two! Marcin took a liking to the loaded spring roll and fried egg version, while I remained faithful to the basics, since there’s no need to improve perfection.
As far as meat is concerned, to us, half the success is the freshness of the “material” and the dish. In Vietnam, the time from slaughter to butcher is apparently only 4 to 5 hours. This cannot be compared to the time meat spends laying about on the supermarket shelves. We also often freeze and de-freeze it at home. On the other hand, in Vietnam many houses don’t have a refrigerator and markets are open in the morning and in the afternoon. Restaurants are supplied regularly during the day, while house-wives who don’t have a second job often shop twice daily. It may seem a little overboard, but it also shows the great love the Vietnamese have for food, and it’s part of the reason why we find Vietnamese cuisine so irresistible.