Archive for the 'Mekong Delta' Category

Vegetation Profile: Winter Melon

The winter melon (Chinese: 冬瓜; pinyin: dōngguā, Japanese 冬瓜(とうがん)tougan, also called white gourd or ash gourd, is a vine grown for its very large fruit, eaten as a vegetable. The fruit is fuzzy when young. By maturity, the fruit loses its hairs and develops a waxy coating, giving rise to the name wax gourd, and providing a long shelf life. The melon may grow as large as 1-2 meters in length. The word “melon” in the name is somewhat misleading, as the fruit is not sweet.

Originally cultivated in Southeast Asia, the winter melon is now widely grown in East Asia and South Asia as well. The shoots, tendrils, and leaves of the plant may also be eaten as greens.

I saw these lovely winter melons or bí đao at the market in Vinh Long during my trip to the Mekong Delta a month or so ago. My favorite bí đao preparation is canh bí, which consists of minced shrimp and pork in a sweet broth that is eaten with steamed rice. The soup’s color is a translucent, but brilliant orange that is a result of bloody shrimp heads.

Cruising the Mekong Delta

The Astronomer and I played hooky two Fridays ago to visit the Mekong Delta. We traveled with a tour group (Sinh Cafe) because the southern part of Vietnam isn’t as accessible as the larger cities. For a measly eighteen bucks, we enjoyed a two-day, one-night excursion and a souvenir t-shirt.

We began our tour at 8 AM at the Sinh Cafe office in Saigon. We arrived in the Mekong two and a half hours later and boarded a boat to see the Cai Be floating market. Unfortunately, it was quite late by Vietnam standards and most of the buying and selling action had died down.

The second stop on the tour was at the Thanh Phong candy “factory” where we saw coconut candy, rice paper and rice crispy treats being made. The coconut candy tasted like dulce de leche with only a hint of coconut, while the rice crispy treats reminded me of Kashi puffed cereal. We were told that the rice paper would be used to make egg rolls.

After the factory tour, we boarded the boat to explore the delta a bit more and then headed to lunch. Lunch was included in the package and consisted of soup, rice, pork chops, egg rolls, and some veggies. I ate way too many sweets during the candy tour, so I gave my chop and rice to my hungry traveling companion. The soup was a simple vegetable and pasta combination that seems to be a Mekong Delta specialty.

Course I: vegetable and pasta soup

Course II: pork chops with rice, vegetables and egg rolls

Toward the end of lunch, a three-piece Vietnamese band performed songs using traditional instruments. I really liked how the singers contorted their voices for the Cải Lương numbers.

Post-lunch we hopped on the boat once more to further explore the Delta. The surroundings were beautiful and peaceful. After an hour or so, the boat dropped us off in the city of Vinh Long where we boarded a bus that took us to the city of Can Tho via ferry.

For dinner, The Astronomer and I ditched the tour group and sought out some good ‘ol street food. Can Tho is the largest city in the southern portion of the country, but sadly doesn’t have a large selection of street eats. We stopped for a bite at a stall selling bun mang on Tran Viet Chau Street.

The damp Mekong air put us in the mood for a hot bowl of duck noodle soup.

Duck Noodle Soup (10,000 VND)

The bun mang really hit the spot; I especially enjoyed dipping the duck in the ginger fish sauce. The Astronomer drowned his blood Jello in the ginger fish sauce to make it more palatable—whatever floats your boat. After dinner we went to the hotel and crashed.

Day two of the tour began bright and early. The hotel buzzed our room at 6:30 AM and we departed to see the Cai Rang floating market at 7:30 AM. The market is mainly for wholesalers rather than regular folks, so we didn’t make any purchases. The large pole on each boat signifies what the boat is selling.

After a three-hour tour of the markets and surrounding areas, we arrived at a fruit orchard to relax. There were many hammocks set up along the shady trees, which The Astronomer really dug. We also enjoyed some fresh fruits.

The penultimate stop on the Mekong Delta tour was at a rice husking factory. As a proponent of whole-grains and fiber, I must admit that I was saddened by this whole affair. We saw a huge machine that essentially stripped the nutrients from the rice—how depressing.

Before busing back to Saigon, the tour stopped at a restaurant in Can Tho for lunch. The prices were high and the portions were small. Double whammy. Time constraints made it impossible to ditch the group during this meal. The Astronomer ordered the beef and fries, while I had some frog!

Beef and fries with baguette (30,000 VND)

Frog sauteed with onions, glass noodles, and mushrooms (30,000 VND)

This was my first encounter with frog, which I thought tasted like a cross between chicken and fish. Ribbit! My mom says that I should eat a lot of frog in Vietnam because American frozen frog just isn’t as good. Yes, ma’am.

Vegetation Profile: Bitter Melon

Momordica charantia is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown for edible fruit, which is among the most bitter of all vegetables. English names for the plant and its fruit include bitter melon or bitter gourd (translated from Chinese: 苦瓜; pinyin: kǔguā), in Jamaica it is generally known as cerasse. The original home of the species is not known, other than that it is a native of the tropics. It is widely grown in South and Southeast Asia, China, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The fruit has a distinct warty looking exterior and an oblong shape. It is hollow in cross-section, with a relatively thin layer of flesh surrounding a central seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The typical Chinese phenotype is 20 to 30 cm long, oblong with bluntly tapering ends and pale green in color, with a gently undulating, warty surface.

Bitter melon or khổ qua is a staple in down home Vietnamese cooking. I have encountered it stuffed with ground meat at com binh dan establishments and simmered in a soup at my grandma’s sister’s house. I’ve even seen it stuffed with meat and simmering in a soup simultaneously. Regardless of the style of preparation, bitter melon seems to be an acquired taste that just doesn’t vibe well with me. The melon’s texture is pleasant, but its flavor is way too harsh.

Vegetation Profile: Elephant Ear

Bac ha is the Vietnamese name for an Asian vegetable which is known by a variety of names in English including taro stem and elephant ear. The scientific name for the plant is Alocasia odora. The plant is native to Southeast Asia, and is available from Asian markets and specialty stores. It is also possible to grow bac ha at home, since it is often used as an ornamental plant in temperate and tropical gardens.

The plant is in the same family as taro, which leads some consumers to confuse the two. The use of “taro stems” to describe bac ha increases the confusion. However, the edible part of bac ha is the stems, not the corms, as is the case with taro. Although bac ha corms can be eaten, the primary reason for cultivating the plant is the fleshy long stalks, not the corms. Just like with taro, however, bac ha must be carefully cooked before consumption, or the plant can stimulate an allergic reaction.

I can’t believe this is the first vegetable I’ve profiled. What can I say? Fruits are my fave.

I found these beautiful stalks of bac ha at an outdoor market in the city of Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta this past weekend. I was taken aback by how long they were; the tropical climate in Vietnam sure is amazing for growing hefty produce.

I only know of one dish that features bac ha and it’s a delightful soup called canh chua. I’ve mentioned my love for this soup many times on gas•tron•o•my. When cooked, the texture of bac ha becomes very sponge-like and tastily soaks up the soup’s sour notes. Although I’ve never tasted raw bac ha, I imagine it to be a bit like celery—crunchy, loaded with water and a bit tasteless.

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