A typical Vietnamese meal this isn’t.
It’s easy to get stuck into a routine when it comes to particular types of cuisine: sushi and tempura for Japanese; pizza and pasta for Italian; bagoong rice and pad thai for Thai. Bo-ring. Having grown weary of such monotony ages ago, it’s become an adventure to expand my international “tasting horizons.”
An opportunity presents itself in the form of a Vietnamese meal. Imagine marinated squid (Goi Muc; P390) scored and curled when it kisses the flame then bathed in lime, chili, and coriander. At once salty, then sour, and then a mixture of the two.
Vietnamese food is nothing without the mini garden of greens that seems to sprout by my side. The broad leaves are pillows on which sprigs of mint and basil lie, weighted down with chunks of ground shrimp (Tom Lan Bot; P450) formed into mini kebabs, swished through a batter, and then fried. A crispy exterior greets me on the way to soft and juicy meat highlighted with a nuanced dipping sauce. Slices of the star-shaped fruit, belimbing (also, balimbing) add a touch of whimsy and contrast.
A pattering rain outside has my insides begging for soup. Mi Hoanhthanh (P390) is innocuously described on the menu as “Egg noodles and shrimp and pork wontons in a shrimp broth.” It looks like it too, but looks are nothing but deceiving, so taste is the final arbiter. The flavor story begins with tastes that remind me of China ”“ chewy noodles and dumplings; I’m almost tempted to be cheeky and ask if there’s siopao to go with it. As chews give way to sips, the hot broth revivifies, leaving an after taste of shrimp that brings me back to the Philippines ”“ shrimp sinigang. Discussing this culinary quandary over with my lunch date, he chuckles. “So, where exactly are we, dear?” I answer by taking a few more sips, he does too, both of us adding a few spoonfuls of the chili sauce, and the more we sip, the more it becomes clear: We’re in Vietnam. The soup, characteristic of the country’s food, retains its distinctive character while emulating the best of foreign influences.
I would’ve been satisfied to leave the meal at that but there are two main dishes to try: Thit Nuong (P590), a remarkable combination of marinated pork grilled with lemongrass and hoisin sauce that pairs perfectly with rice noodles. Similar to the bun cha I have in Hanoi, this dish is eaten as is, and alternated with mouthfuls of greens and dipping sauce, every bite different than the last.
So tender that I initially think it’s fish, Go Xao Hot Dieu (P620) is really chicken that’s been flash-cooked and then tossed with chili, mango, snow peas, and roasted cashews. More sour than say, a similar dish I once eat at a Chinese restaurant, the acidity is nicely tempered by again, my little garden of green.
The Vietnamese are not a dessert people, preferring fruit to anything more refined. But there’s an interesting ube (purple yam) pudding on the menu here (khoai; P280). More than just ube jam, the purple puree is mixed with butter, rice flour, evaporated milk, and baking powder. A surprising ingredient list but the resultant taste makes for a chewy pudding with more structure, as opposed to one that’s just pasty. The coconut milk glaze nicely echoes the vanilla undertones of the dessert.
Vietnamese Food Festival at Spices
Until September 18, 2009 (Lunch and dinner)
The Peninsula Manila
Corner of Ayala and Makati Avenues, Makati
For inquiries and table reservations: 887-2888, ext. 6694 (Restaurant Reservations).