The best thing about traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language is the element of surprise when buying from street vendors. We’d walked past this lady carrying bags filled with discs and square-shaped wafer/crisp things. On a whim and feeling like we should take a gamble upon spotting a coconut over a tupperware, we signed for an order of this mysterious dish.
The lady spoke no English at all and of the four Vietnamese words I learnt while in Saigon (all words for food), coconut was one of them. We asked for “dua” thinking that perhaps some of these wafer-like discs could be coconut-flavoured, but we weren’t getting anywhere. We decided to just choose a disc- one with black sesame seeds and what proceeded to happen was a guarantee that this was going be a very delicious treat.
It was so beautiful and simple. First the wafer was covered with molasses. Next, she sprinkled freshly grated coconut, and quite a lot of it. Finally she snapped the wafer in half and covered the coconut. She handed us over this wafer sandwich and that first bite was off the hook!
Nothing like the joy of striking delicious with a food gamble in a foreign country.
I had the pleasure of visiting Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) recently and one of my most memorable meals there was the traditional Vietnamese dish Steamed Prawns in Coconut. This had been on my list of things to try simply because it had all the key words that smelled like this is probably quite a flavoursome dish. What I didn’t realise was that when I ordered this dish, I was also going to be treated to a pre-dinner theater!
The dish came with the steamed prawns hooked onto the coconut prettily like some kind of ornament. The dish was lit up and the prawns were charred by the dancing flames. After awhile, the waiter started peeling each prawn and dropped them into the coconut. My sister and I were in awe. We had not expected to be treated to this spectacle when we ordered.
We fished out the prawns which were sweetened by the coconut juice, pleased that this dish was such a feast for the senses. It reminded me of other delicious dishes that moonlight as entertainers on the dining table. Immediately sizzling hot plates came to mind and so did Bomb Alaska. The anticipation of watching your food perform creates a mouth-watering experience which is mostly down to the ability to imagine taste.
My uncle came over the other day with a carrier bag full of pandan leaves for my mother. He picked these leaves from his garden where his one plant has truly grown in abundance.
I remember being a kid and spending Sundays in my uncle’s coffee shop, where he would make kayafor the week. Kaya literally translates from Malay to mean rich. Like a jam, it is a spread made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar and pandan leaf juice. My sister and I would fight to hold the giant wooden spoon to stir the mixture while my uncle cracked the eggs in.
Pandan leaves emit a superfragrant smell. For this reason it is used to perfume many of my favourite dishes. Added into cooking, the kitchen is rich with the aroma. Used with coconut it enhances the taste and smell of coconut and turns food a light green colour.
Knotted and added to cooking rice with coconut milk, you get nasi lemak, Malaysia’s favourite breakfast. Juiced and marinated with chicken, then used to wrap the chicken, you get Pandan Chicken, a Thai/Malaysian dish.
Pandan as a magic ingredient does not stop at savoury food. In Asia, it is also used in making cakes. I spent this trip in Kuala Lumpur looking to buy some Pandan Layer Cake, a chilled cake, sometimes topped with dessicated coconut. Last week, I found 2 different types of layer cake. The Indonesian variety, a dense cake made of many layers and the one I love, which is chilled and is made up of layers of sponge and pandan flavoured jelly. Another favourite iskuih bangkit, a cookie that is flavoured with pandan and a staple treat during Chinese New Year. I found some being sold in Chinatown the other day and snacked on the fish-shaped cookies, pretending that it was still Chinese New Year.
Pandan leaves are available to buy from the Chinese supermarkets in the UK. I remember seeing it for sale in Pat’s Chung Ying on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Although available to buy from the Chinese supermarkets, once I head back to London, I am going to miss seeing the many foods made with pandan on menus and in bakeries. Before I leave, I will be clutching on to some leaves and soaking in the wonderful fragrance.