Monday, 29 February 2016

Pleasure in Small Portions

Temples have been the focal points of many cultural landscapes since Mesopotamian times. Parthenon as a temple epitomizes the highest order of classical architecture. It has been built on top of a hill to depict its place in the spatial hierarchy of ancient Athens. Almost in parallel to the latter part of Greek civilization, ancient Sri Lankans built temples of gigantic proportions in the plains of Anuradhapura kingdom (377 BC – 1017 AD). Sometimes temples are placed on high grounds for greater emphasis and veneration. Such temples are dotting the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka. Similar landscapes can be seen in other Asian countries like Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam.

                                                    Stupa at Mihintale, Sri Lanka, 7th Century AD
                                                                                                       (pic from Google)

During one of my visits to Hanoi city in Vietnam, a good old friend called Ngo Minh Hung accompanied me to see a tiny temple called ‘one pillar pagoda’. It is not spectacular in size but distinctive in terms of architectural value. Its importance to the Vietnamese is such that it often associates with the cultural image of the country. It is also regarded as one of the most iconic temples of Vietnam despite its size.

                                                                                                            (pics from Google)

One pillar pagoda has been built by the Emperor Ly Thai Tong who has ruled from 1024 -1054 AD. It was an offering to the Goddess of Mercy who bestowed him with a hair to the throne.  The pagoda is entirely a timber structure built on a single stone pillar. It has been designed to resemble a lotus blossom rising out of muddy water. Lotus blossom is the Buddhist symbol for enlightenment and muddy water symbolize the sorrows of life. What exists there today is a pagoda re-built by the government after it was destroyed in 1954 by the departing French occupiers.

It is not possible to enter this teeny-weeny 3 sq.m. pagoda, but it is a serene pleasure to watch it from the lush garden surrounding it. That is possible only if you do not get distracted by thousands of tourists who flock around it to get the best perspective. Undoubtedly, this little gem is the most admired architectural edifice in the city that also offers a concoction of French and Vietnamese architecture, myriad of lakes, lush green parks and tree lined streets. 
While my eyes were enjoying the pleasure of little doses of architecture, especially in the ancient quarter of Hanoi called “36 old streets”, the tongue was craving for some gastronomical pleasure. Hung accompanied me to a place he introduced as the oldest restaurant in Hanoi. Many tourists and locals flock to this 100 year old restaurant called ‘Cha Ca La Vong’ located on Cha Ca La Vong street, to enjoy a dish called Cha Ca La Vong. The street, premises and the dish happen to bear the same name. 

                                                                                                        (pics from Google)

In fact it is the only dish the restaurant offers and therefore there is no menu to choose from. We joined a line of about 15 people and waited on the sidewalk. Once we got our chance to enter the tiny restaurant through a rickety old staircase we saw a dining room full of diners. It was time to rub shoulders with some strangers at a communal dining table.

Minh did the ordering and I just enjoyed the cacophony of sounds and fragrant smell of the unique dish. Soon a waiter brought a burner and a skillet of pre-cooked fish and placed them in front of us. As Minh told me the dish consists of a local variety of catfish cooked with turmeric, shrimp paste, fish sauce and herbs following a secret recipe. The yellowish chunks of fish were served with plates of silky rice noodle, peanuts, chilies and a mix of fresh herbs. The last stage of cooking and assembly of the dish was in ‘do-it-yourself’ style. Minh did the cooking and I just enjoyed the flavorful dish.

                                                                                                       (pics from Google)

The popularity of the restaurant and its iconic dish is such that there are also imposters in nearby streets who offer competitive versions under look-alike names like “Cha Ca La Lvong”.     
Whenever I enjoyed a new dish in a foreign city I try to cook it. However, I didn’t dare to cook that unique dish. Instead, I tried to make one of my all-time favorite Vietnamese dishes.  

Lotus Stem Salad with Shrimps

Bunch of lotus stems (white ones) cleaned and washed  
10-12 shrimps de-shelled and de-veined (let tails on)
2” piece of carrot very thinly julienned
1 tbsp. lemon juice
½ tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. white vinegar
2 tbsp. light fish sauce
½ tsp salt
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2 red chili
Sprig of sweet basil leave
Few coriander leave with stems
Spring of mint leave
½ tbsp. dry roasted peanuts
½ tbsp. fried shallots


Put lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix until sugar and salt are dissolved. This is the sauce for the salad.
Julienne lotus stems, carrot and chili
Poach shrimps over medium heat with water and little bit of vinegar until they are just cooked.
Marinate shrimps in 1 tbsp. of sauce and 1 tbsp. of light fish sauce for 3minuts.
Marinate lotus stems, carrot, basil, mint, coriander and chili with the rest of the sauce.
Add marinated shrimp and remaining fish sauce into it and toss until well combined.
Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with roasted peanuts and fried shallot to garnish.

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