A WHOLE new world of flavours and aromas has opened up in Cilantro, Trident Gurgaon, as it courts the cuisine that has caught the fancy of the world. Cilantro is playing host to Executive Chef Doan Van Tuan of the multi-award-winning Furama Resort in Danang and he will be laying out the treasures of the Vietnamese table till July 10. Giving him a hand in this adventure of discovery is the Trident's Executive Chef, Sandeep Kalra, who has researched Vietnamese cuisine for five years, and describes it as "fresh, flavoursome and full of surprises".
And, surprises there are in plenty in the á la carte menu. For me, Vietnamese food started with Pho (the soup that you cannot stop asking for more) and Banh Mi (the sandwiches that stand out for their distinctive fillings), till I discovered Banh Sue at Cilantro's Hello Vietnam festival. The batter of these delicious crepes, explained Chef Kalra, is made with rice flour, coconut water and turmeric. The filling consists of slices of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onions and bean sprouts. The crepes are served wrapped in rice paper and lettuce; in parts of Vietnam, a sausage is added to lend weight to the wrapping.
This dish, to me, represents the core values of Vietnamese cuisine, combining as it does multiple flavours and textures. "Vietnamese food is soft, crunchy, full of subtle flavours and involves minimal cooking," says Chef Kalra. Leafy vegetables and sprouts also keep making an appearance in every dish -- the Vietnamese, it seems, discovered the health benefits of sprouts much before anyone else in the world.
Chef Kalra reminisced how he was impressed by the Vietnamese tradition of serving lettuce -- another French influence after breads, baguettes and crepes -- before and during a meal. "They don't bring you a bread basket; they get you lettuce instead," Chef Kalra informed us. The lightness of Vietnamese cuisine is balanced by the world of flavours it combines in it.
The S-shaped sliver of a country also presents a smorgasbord of local variations. The table of Hanoi in the north is more eclectic; this is where you'll fine curries and baguettes. Danang, at the centre, is famous for its spicy food and charcoal-grilled meats and seafood. And if you're in Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon in the deep south, the food will taste sweet and sour, and crisp salads will be in abundance.
Naturally, it's a heady mix of coriander, lemongrass, mint, Thai basil, star anise, cinnamon and bird's eye chillies that tantalises your nostrils and tickles your curiosity when you open a Vietnamese hot pot. Take Pho, for instance: its broth is infused with cinnamon and star anise, which give it another flavour dimension altogether.
My other favourites from the menu: banana flower salad (the favourite mocha of Bengalis) with peanuts, chicken, seafood and coconut dressing -- a humble street dish, it has been elevated to flavourful heights at Cilantro; the equally flirty green mango and marinated shrimp salad (som tam has serious competition!); the unputdownable char-grilled chicken wrapped in betel leaf with lemongrass, served with rice paper and fresh lettuce; the sinus-clearing tofu soup with sauteed tomato and fresh herbs (just in case you have had your share of Pho ga, the classic chicken soup with rice noodles, scallion, basil and lime leaf); and of course, the chicken and coconut curry (Ca Ri Ga), loaded with carrots and potatoes (and any other vegetables or fungi you fancy), and served with baguettes (at Cilantro, you also get jasmine rice, but there's nothing better than a baguette to mop up a curry. And for a change, I loved the dessert -- a steamed layered cake with pandan, moong bean and coconut flavours.
On the opening night of the festival, Vietnam's Ambassador, His Excellency Ton Sinh Thanh, said that "the cuisine of a country is a window to its culture". Cilantro's Vietnamese food festival has proved yet again that savouring a nation's cuisine is the best way of understanding it.
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