You don’t have to travel overseas to experience Vietnamese culture, just head for Sydney’s Cabramatta.
I’m sniffing at a sprig of Vietnamese mint, one of the many Vietnamese herbs that brother and sister duo Hanh and Peter have introduced us to.
The woman sitting opposite me is chewing earnestly on an array of herbs placed in front of her, while the other occupants of the room, many who are Sydneysiders for which this is their first trip to the south-western suburb of Cabramatta, are busily making notes.
Food safari Sydney
About 35 of us are getting ready to walk the streets of Cabramatta on a tour with Maeve O’Meara’s Gourmet Safaris.
“Of the various Asian cuisines, Vietnamese cooking is by far the best option for people who are gluten intolerant”, says Peter, who used to work in his aunt’s string of Vietnamese restaurants.
He goes on to explain the subtle differences between the Asian foods. “Thai food is very extreme while Cambodian/Laotian cuisine is fermented, salted, preserved and earthy. Mainland Chinese food is by and large wheat based and heavy in oil.”
Even within Vietnam, there is a variance in cooking styles. As the temperature in the cooler northern regions gets down to 15°C northern cuisine is salty and spicy, while southern Vietnamese cooking is sweet.
A spoonful of sugar
A spoonful of sugar is a treat for children in rural areas in central Vietnam, while the food prepared around the Mekong Delta reflects the easy accessibility to a wide variety of fresh vegetables and herbs.
“In Vietnam, you can choose from over 60 different kinds of herbs but in Cabramatta there are only 30”, says Peter, “the most important thing is to learn the art of substituting herbs.”
Listening to Peter talk about the different cuisines in the country where he was born makes me want to pack my bags and jet off on a tour of Vietnam. After thousands of years of colonisation by the Chinese and the introduction of escargot, cheese, baguettes and French dill by the French, Vietnamese cuisine has developed distinct flavoursome characteristics of its own.
“It’s vital to use only fresh ingredients,” says Peter. Even the colouring used is natural. Coconut, yellow bean and pandan create the white, yellow and green psychedelic colours found in the cakes we’re served at morning tea. We’re introduced to rice crackers (the secret is to microwave them for exactly one minute and 15 seconds) and peanut candy washed down by lotus green tea.
Peter and Hahn’s parents arrived in Australia from Ho Chi Minh City (then known as Saigon) with nothing but a change of clothes. After the communist takeover in 1975, they escaped down the Mekong River and, like many other families from Vietnam, built their home in Cabramatta.
A few years ago, most Sydneysiders wouldn’t be seen dead in Cabramatta, which had a dubious reputation as the centre for Sydney’s drug trade and was a stomping ground for Vietnamese triads.
This reputation is beginning to change as new businesses flourish and the younger generation return to patronise the restaurants, cafes and food shops.
Peter (whose day job is a project manager with a city council) can’t picture himself moving to a trendier suburb and paying $2 for a dead lemongrass. Han (who is a solicitor by day) makes a dipping sauce from a recipe passed down through the generations from mother to daughter.
Armed with information and shopping lists, we break up into two groups and head off on our gourmet safari.
Cabramatta is a vibrant hub of movement, colour and sound. Elderly women shuffle around in slippers and pyjama-like suits decorated with tiny flower patterns. Wiry men pushing boxes of produce weave between a sea of Asian faces. Colourful fabric shops are filled with haggling customers, Asian pop music blares out of the record stores while a babble of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian and Burmese voices meld into the din.
The entrance to the main pedestrian mall is marked by a pagoda-like structure flanked by temple lions to ward off evil spirits. Along the mall, there are life-sized stone animal statues representing the Chinese zodiac. There’s even a reproduction stone stele that looks like a replica of the ancient steles used to record the names of the scholars at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.
Hanh leads our group through the maze of laneways and alleys introducing us to fish markets, fresh vegetable and herb shops. At the fruit shops, durian, rambutan and lychee are more prominent than apples and apricots.
At a milk bar, we order lychee and strawberry shakes while Hanh passes around an avocado shake for us to sample. We pick on goodies like banana and sticky rice (for $2.80 it comes with a good dollop of coconut cream) while Long (a visiting guide from Vietnam) gets stuck into the beef jerky, which at $4.50 for 100 grams is a bargain. The pork bun shop and the iced coffee shop are local favourites. However, my favourite snack is the fresh custard cakes (you can get a bag of 20 bite-sized cakes for a mere $4).
Inside the T&t supermarket, we crowd in the fish oil aisle while Hahn shows us the various grades of fish oil and the different quality rice paper rolls. Further down the street, Peter points out his favourite barbeque shop where the chicken stomachs make a great snack food to go with beer. From the looks on the faces of my companions, it’s a recommendation I suspect that will not get too many takers.
The tour ends with a light lunch at the Lime Leaf Restaurant, where we roll our own rice paper rolls stuffed with sugarcane prawns and slurp bowls of delicious beef pho noodle broth.
While Cabramatta offers a touch of Asia at any time of the year, the most vibrant time to visit is during the Chilli Festival, Seafood Festival or Chinese New Year celebrations when you can go to the temple to see the girls dressed in their Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress).