SAIGON WAS ONE OF THE PEARLS OF THE FRENCH EMPIRE, AND THOUGH THE STREETS BE RENAMED, A COLONIAL AIR LINGERS ON HERE. Vietnam is the country where I overcame my Anglo-Saxon queasiness for strange new substances, and took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Snake, wild boar, more recently dog and seahorse
wine, I have hogged and scoffed it all, as Noodlepie might put it, but for whatever reason my culinary adventures have tended to stay on the meaty side. Maybe that is because I am a meatlover at heart,
it is hard to say. If there has been any theme to this latest Vietnamese jaunt, codenamed Summer Love in the Cruel Heart of Winter, it is this: fruit. That is probably due to the new feminine influence in my life,
the girl who invited me to Vietnam, and is such a girl thing anyway, isn't it? -- that's why I normally don't consume much of the stuff. But one of the fecking Air China flight, was cut up a few slices of that tubular Vietnamese watermelon, and serve them
to me. Seeds and all. Later that morning, after I had
Au Manoir de Khai
251 Dien Bien Phu, D3 Tel: 930 3394, HCMC
Five star French restaurant housed in an elegant villa. Reckoned to be the best French restaurant in HCMC.
K Cafe: 28 Do Quang Dau Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1. Phone: (08) 3913 4673. For deliveries: call (097) 655 2042. Website: click here. (Refresh the webcam on the site to see what is going inside at any hour. It makes me sad I am not in Ho Chi Minh City right now!)
K Cafe (also known as the Minh Kha Cafe) claims to be the only French bistro in the "touristic" neighbourhood of Ho Chi Minh City (which means, in this case, Pham Ngu Lao Ward). The Word magazine went so far as to proclaim this place as "the closest Saigon has to a Parisian zinc." That first claim could well be true; I haven't seen many other French style bistros around on my many walks and stumbles through Pham Ngu Lao. That it serves authentic French food is evident (you need only witness the preponderance of goat cheese salad and baguettes in the menu.) As to the second claim, the more audacious claim, I will have to trust The Word and its reputation. Augustin (at 10 Nguyen Thiep, Street) has been rated by many local ex-pats as the best budget French restaurant in town with great bistro style meals, and La Nicoise (42 Ngo Duc Ke Street) comes similarly recommended. However noteworthy, these places are more like real restaurants, without the social vibe and parties spilling out on the street (which happens at the K Cafe from time to time.) It might be lost on some restaurateurs, but bistros have always been social places. The quality of the social atmosphere should, ideally, be more important than the quality of the food. "Zincs are the keys to their community," as one travel writer put it. "Habitués treat them like home, coming and going, reading and slandering, daydreaming and grumbling. Zincs were originally defined by their limitations, serving coffee, wine, and beer. Hard-boiled eggs, dried sausage, cheese, and ham on a buttered baguette were an afterthought."
K Cafe has a social conscience... and this extends far beyond throwing good parties. The cafe sells caps to raise money for Vietnamese street children. It is involved in social issues. Blogging about politics can get you arrested in Vietnam, but The Wall of K Cafe's Facebook site is cluttered with controversy. Recent (December 2010) posts on the wall relate to electrical power outages caused by drought, the plight of human rights and free expression in Vietnam, and even the growing popularity of Christmas in this Communist nation. The wall is updated regularly, so there is plenty of food for thought. If you are after regular food for sustenance, rather, you won't be disappointed. Items on the menu include the Croque Madame (with egg) and French Fries (80,000 Đồng), Terrine de Campagne or meatloaf baguette (50,000 Đồng), Merguez or Arabian spicy sausage baguette (60,000 Đồng), plenty of pasta like the Tagliatelles aux 3 fromages (95,000 Đồng), ostrich filet (130,000 Đồng), chicken Cordon Bleu, pork filet mignon with mushroom sauce (100,000 Đồng), pork chops with Belgian style mustard sauce (80,000 Đồng),
and of course the obligatory Salade au fromage de cherve chaud (100,000 Đồng).
In Vietnam the word "bistro" often refers to what we would consider a bogstandard Vietnamese restaurant. In the United States, for example, there are places called the "Saigon Bistro" which serve nothing but Vietnamese food. There is nothing French about them.
too -- packed with rare nutrients and potent vitamin combinations. As Rick Kump wrote: "The taste from heaven, the
smell from hell, it's the durian! One of the highest respected fruits throughout Southeast Asia, the durian has earned the nickname "King of the Fruits". King or not, it's one of the most interesting fruits I've ever come across. To those who are used to apples and
bananas, the durian experience is anything but ordinary... All durians have a custard-like consistency and can taste sweet or even nutty. My first reaction to the taste was one of surprise more than pleasure. It tasted like sweet, garlic pudding! The durian's health
qualities also have a good reputation throughout Asia. The durian is high in fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins. The durian is also said to have heating qualities, which keep its eaters warm at night. This may be due to the amounts of sulfur, said to be
a beautifying mineral, which also give the durian its slightly garlic taste..."
The particular varieties of fruit are less important than the beautiful appearance of the fruit tray,
with its harmonious colors and balanced presentation. Nowadays, a bundle of green bananas is also a must. Like the Horn of Plenty, the
tray of five traditional fruits symbolizes the wish for abundance. It is also the emblem of the five elements of Asian cosmology: water, earth,
wood, metal and fire.
"From the time they are small, Vietnamese children come to associate three fruits with particular stories: the thi (Vietnamese persimmon), the watermelon and
"The thi fruit is succulent, smooth and attractive. When ripe, it turns gentle yellow and gives off a subtle, sweet smell; it is often one of the five fruits placed on pagoda altars.
Children are likely to hear of thi in the Tấm Cám, Vietnam's Cinderella. The tale is based on the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. In the story, Tấm is killed
by her stepmother and stepsister, but is reborn into a thi tree bearing only a single, beautiful fruit. An old woman, seeing the gorgeous fruit, takes it home, not to eat,
but to cherish as a prized possession. Tấm is reborn from the fruit and becomes the woman's adopted daughter, after which she is reunited with her husband the King.
"Watermelon also serves as a votive offering on altars, and plays a very important role in an appealing fairytale for children. Three thousand years ago, the story goes, during the times of the
Hung kings, a young man named An Tiem was adopted by King Hung. Spoken ill of by the king's toadies, An Tiem and his wife, the princess, and their children were exiled to a wild island where they
led a very harsh life. One day a flock of birds flew over the island, dropping some black seeds on the island. An Tiem planted those mysterious black seeds, and soon they bore fruit. He cultivated the seeds
for his crop and traded them for rice and necessary equipment with trading ships that came to the island. An Tiem's life quickly improved and eventually, through his hard work and intelligence, he became
rich. On hearing of An Tiem's success, King Hung had him welcomed back to the royal palace.
"The succulent star fruit (carambola) with five sections, can be served raw in salad, or cooked in soup. It is also served as a dessert. There are two types of star fruit: the sweet and the sour, both kinds
grown in out-of-the-way garden corners or by the ponds. There is a folk tale about the star fruit tree. Two brothers, when coming into their inheritance, received unequal portions. As was the custom, the elder
brother took the majority, but contrary to custom, the elder brother failed to provide for his sibling, leaving his younger brother only a shabby cottage and a star fruit tree.
"One day a phoenix came to eat the fruit of the young man's tree, but made a promise, as follows: "For every fruit I eat, I will return you a bar of gold. You must sew a bag three
spans wide to hold the gold you will receive." The young man followed the instructions of the mysterious phoenix and that very night was taken to an island in the middle of the sea to collect his gold.
"When he saw how wealthy his younger brother had become, and hearing the story of the magical bird from his guileless brother, the elder brother persuaded the young man to trade the star fruit tree for all the elder
brother's treasures. The next day the elder brother made the same bargain with the phoenix. Just as he expected, the bird came to eat the star fruit and made the same promise to the elder brother, who sewed the biggest bag
he could to hold his gold. But when he got to his island, he was so greedy he filled up his bag with so much gold that after flying a short way, the phoenix could carry him no longer and had to drop him into the sea, where he
sank still clutching his treasure..."