December 27 2010
A dozen or so years ago, I was staying in the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi when I bumped into the chef Richard Neat. He had won two Michelin stars at Pied à Terre, in London’s Charlotte Street, but was now running the Taj’s top-floor restaurant. I asked him what it was like being in such a vibrant city: the great street food, the spices in Chandni Chowk market, the gastronomic legacy of the Mogul Empire… what had inspired him, as a chef, from his time in Delhi? “Nothing,” he smiled, “but my swimming’s got much better.” It transpired that all his produce arrived in weekly containers from Rungis, Paris’s wholesale food market – even, I was astonished to hear, the aubergines in my starter.
How things have changed. Take the chef at The Nam Hai, on the east coast of central Vietnam, and one of Asia’s most beautiful modern hotels. You are more likely to find executive chef Conrado Tromp in his herb garden, tending to his water spinach and lemon basil, than perfecting his backstroke in the hotel’s 50m beachside pool. The provenance of many of his ingredients can be measured in food yards, not miles.
Tromp is happy to cook Western food for those yearning for a steak with béarnaise and chips, but it is the local food culture that excites him as a chef. The soul of Vietnamese cuisine is freshness – soft rice noodles from the local market, for example, bathed in delicate broth and scented with a small shrubbery of perky, citrus-scented herbs – and Tromp’s Vietnamese menu neatly captures both the invigorating scents and flavours of the cuisine, and its inherent lightness. His version of a fresh spring roll (goi cuon) is a case in point: rice paper wrapped around freshwater prawns, herbs, a slice or two of barbecued pork, rice vermicelli and spring onion, served with a light dipping sauce – it’s utterly irresistible.
The nearby town (and World Heritage Site) of Hoi An has plenty of excellent restaurants serving local specialities. You might sample “white roses” – tiny shrimp enclosed in beguilingly pretty rice-flour pancakes and steamed – at Miss Ly’s, near the market; or cao lau – local noodles served with roast pork, herbs and crisp, smoky croûtons – at Secret Garden, which also offers the best cookery classes in town; or visit Morning Glory, in a glorious old colonial building, which offers a few cleverly evolved dishes alongside such classics as shredded green papaya salad with sesame-crusted beef.
With such wonderful dishes on offer, the idea of eating food imported from Europe seems crazy. Most of The Nam Hai’s guests arrive courtesy of Singapore Airlines at nearby Da Nang Airport: an eminently sensible route for human beings, but not such a good idea for vegetables.