Sweet memories of Hanoi

In July 1997 I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam. After having lived in Hong Kong for almost 4 years, I was ready to head home to London, but this amazing opportunity came up to head to Hanoi and be part of a small expatriate team who would open The Press Club – a French joint venture with the Vietnamese Press Association. So with our belongings packed off to a storage facility in London, we headed off into what was the relative unknown.

The immediate feeling of being in Hanoi was an assault on the senses… the noise, the motorbikes, the smells and the scenery. To me it was true Asia with very little Western intervention… and then I noticed the stunning colonial french architecture, the Italian ice cream parlour and the local baguettes which were sold on every street corner to make the delicious Banh Mi. Hanoi in ’97 was elegant in her faded grandeur, with a young population hungry for success.

So began the journey of The Press Club, with  brief to bring the very best food and beverage facility to Hanoi… a club with no membership, a hotel without the rooms…meeting the dining and event needs of the city. It was hard work, and in some ways, hard living. From the convenience of Hong Kong with everything there 24/7 to a city with no public transport system or even a supermarket. But learning the ropes were fun… a ‘taxi credit booklet’ was the uber equivalent – or take a motorbike for $1 /journey, finding the French butcher who made amazing Toulouse sausages, or navigating the local markets – although in reality we had cleaner who came three times a week and would cook the most amazing dishes and leave them in the fridge for us to heat up!

Vietnamese food was a revelation… often compared to Thai, but in my opinion its lighter, more subtle, more fragrant and possibly a little simpler. My good friend Annabel Jackson launched her book ‘Street Cafe Vietnam’ in 1998 and if you can still find it, you will not only discover some great recipes, but also her research into the regional cooking. I would love going out for lunch with my colleagues, generally on the back of their motorbike to eat street food… freshly grilled pork or hot steaming Pho. One of the most popular dishes was Caramel Pork which is simple but utterly delicious. I tried to recreate it this week – probably spurred on by the need for ginger and asian flavours in the run up to Christmas. It was an instant hit with the hungry teens… tender pork belly, slightly sweet and gingery, steamed brown rice and cabbage stirfried with garlic.

My recipe  was inspired by Annabel Jackson’s although I stuck to traditional Pork Belly as its more unctuous, and cooked it long and slow.

2 packets of Pork Belly (waitrose) – cut into chunks

1 large brown onion

1 Tbs ginger – grated or sliced

3 cloves garlic – chopped

1 red chilli – medium hot

1 stalk of lemon grass

3 Tbs granulated sugar

4 Tbs  Fish Sauce

2 -3 cups of water or coconut water

Salt/pepper/lime juice to taste upon serving.

In one pan (large enough to fit all ingredients) put the sugar and a little bit of water and create a caramel over medium to high heat.

In another frying pan fry the onions, garlic and ginger until soft and then add the pork and fry until lightly coloured.

Once the caramel has started, watch the pan carefully so that it doesn’t burn. When the meat has all browned, carefully add it to the caramel and stir to coat. Then add the cups of water or coconut water. This now needs to be brought to the boil and simmered on low heat with the lid off for at about an hour . The sauce should be reduced by at least half so it is sweet and slightly sticky. Serve with rice and steamed/stirfried vegetables.

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