Asian Spring

31 October 2012 - 14:11 By Food Weekly

Andrew Unsworth is beguiled by Miss Vy and the herbs of Vietnam

It does not take long after arriving in Hoi An to hear about Miss Vy (pronounced Vee). She runs four restaurants in the postcard-perfect city of sloping terracotta roofs, Chinese meeting halls and temples, and tourists.

Morning Glory, her first, offers the most authentic Vietnamese and specifically Hoi An food, while Cargo over the road is perhaps more aimed at tourists, offering Western dishes but also Vietnamese classics like banana flower salad and green papaya salad.

After just one such lunch I had to ask for an interview, fully expecting to meet a tough matron who had dedicated her life to running a food empire. She sounded charming on the phone and readily agreed.

Next morning she walked into Cargo spot on time, a petite and attractive 43 (I had asked a member of staff). No matron, more Vietnamese Nigella, only more dainty.

Trinh Diem Vy is Hoi An-born and bred, and is reluctant to be away from her hometown - and its food - for very long.

The key characteristic of that food, she says, is freshness and herbs. "That's what makes it different from our neighbouring countries. The whole planet has 30000 different herbs, and here in Vietnam we have half of them. That's what gives our food such fresh aromas and flavours."

Why, I ask, is there so little chilli in the markets or in the food? "It's just one of many flavours we use, and never too much," she explains. "Vietnamese food aims at harmony and balance, a bit of everything. So not much chilli, but there is always extra on the table.

"The use of fresh herbs means we have no pre-prepared dishes. Besides, most Vietnamese still have no fridge and no oven, so we can't prepare ahead, or bake. We also cannot go for fast foods, because with herbs you need dipping sauce and then you need to sit down to eat.

"But there is a lot of chopping and preparation before dishes are assembled. Women used to spend the whole day in the kitchen," she laughs.

Miss Vy started her working life as a kid, selling herbs in the Hoi An market, where produce from the surrounding farms is still offered to the most discerning of customers: it has to be fresh, it has to be competitively priced. Unsurprisingly, her cookery course at Morning Glory starts in the same market, buying produce.

The Vietnamese, we had often been told, may be poor but they eat well because food is local and cheap. But was it always so?

"In the communist years, food was rationed, and it was a very sad story for our cuisine," she says.

"I remember when I was a little girl we got a bag of MSG from the government for a New Year treat.

"People used it to make food tastier when they lacked protein. The use of it spread from Japan to China and to Vietnam. The rationing, which started in 1945 and ended in 1990, ruined Vietnamese food.

"Luckily the economy is growing and rationing is gone, and people are more concerned about food quality and health, but they still use MSG."

People like Miss Vy are also concerned about preserving traditional dishes, now under threat for other reasons as the country opens up to the world. Does she change her dishes to suit Western and tourist tastes?

Yes, but not much. For example when using pork she makes it lean for Western tastes, but for locals it must be half fat, because the flavour is in the fat, and Vietnamese get protein from limited fat, not from dairy products.

"What are you doing for the rest of the day?" she suddenly asks. "Come and do my cookery course."

I could hardly refuse, so for the next three hours I rolled shrimp mousse in cabbage leaves, made fresh spring rolls and crispy pancakes, marinated chicken and sliced green mango. I left with a very different idea of how to cook and eat.

Tip: If trying Vietnamese cooking, use Vietnamese or Thai soy and fish sauces - they are lighter than the Chinese versions.