Taste of the World: Vietnam, where food and music link

Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Võ learned to cook when she was 14.
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Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Võ learned to cook when she was 14.

When Hanoi Masters musical director Vân-Ánh Võ considered a career move into food, music won.

"When I was in Shanghai with my husband, I frequently cooked and threw parties for my husband's employees," says the ensemble's zither player and chief percussionist.

"I almost opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in Pudong, Shanghai, at the time. However, the call for music is still stronger. With all of this, I guess my cooking is decent enough for people to enjoy,"

This chicken salad is from the north of Vietnam, and can be enhanced by adding more vinegar to the sauce.
Warren Smart

This chicken salad is from the north of Vietnam, and can be enhanced by adding more vinegar to the sauce.

Food is a big part of Womad. Not only is there the Global Village presenting a huge variety of ethnic food, there is also the Nova Energy Taste of the World stage, hosted by Jax Hamilton.

The Hanoi Masters give us a taste from both north and south Vietnam. 

"We love chicken salad, sweet-and-sour catfish soup, and fresh spring roll," Vân-Ánh Võ says. 

A good dipping fish sauce for fresh spring rolls should taste both strong sweet, salty and sour.
Warren Smart

A good dipping fish sauce for fresh spring rolls should taste both strong sweet, salty and sour.

"They are all very lean, fresh, and healthy with great tastes of Vietnam. These dishes also are easy to make and you can put almost everything you find in the freeze (fridge) to put in, especially the fresh spring roll." 

For the chicken salad, it's important to use Vietnamese cilantro, which in New Zealand is often called Vietnamese mint. She says that to keep it tasting even fresher, people might consider adding more vinegar to the salad sauce. This will make the dish sourer.

"Also for Vietnamese food, the dipping sauce is a very crucial element of the success of the dish. A good dipping fish sauce for fresh spring rolls should taste both strong sweet, salty, and sour at the same time," she says. 

Vân-Ánh Võ has been cooking since she was 14 years old. Whenever her large extended family gathers, she is in charge of makes food for everyone. "My mom will make sure that I am home and cook. She would help to prepare the materials but not cooking the dishes.

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"As a traditional role in Vietnam, a girl who hope to find a husband, has to know how to kill a chicken herself and cook, and cut it and put back together as a whole chicken but this time, of course the chicken does not have any feathers left and is ready to serve," she says.

"Until before I moved to the US with my husband in 2001, every Tet Lunar New Year, I would have to kill, cook, cut, and prepare 15 chickens like that for the celebration of the new year."

Everything has to be done before the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, which is the same time as the Chinese New Year.

Food and music are strongly linked in Vietnam. For example, the taste of northern dishes, like the chicken salad, stay on the mild side, so are not too sour, or sweet, or bitter, or salty. 

Aligned with this, musicians from the north are not supposed to express too much emotion, so are not too sad or not too happy. "The traditional music of the north contains the emotion inside." 

Vân-Ánh Võ says the dishes from south Vietnam are easy to recognise, because they are sour, sweet, salty or bitter. The sour catfish soup is an example. 

"We put a lot of green pineapple and tamarind sauce to make it sour but at the same time, we put sugar to make it sweet."

The dipping sauce from the south also combines strong flavours – salty fish sauce, sweet, and sour. 

"Likewise, the music from south of Vietnam is either very sad to dramatic, or very happy. Vietnamese southerners also are very outspoken and straight forward," she says.

When the ensemble heads to Womad NZ in New Plymouth from March 17 to 19, people can sample their haunting music that captures the pain and courage of living through what Vietnamese people commonly refer to as the "American War".

Vân-Ánh Võ told Josh Hall from The Guardian newspaper that music played a central role for her family during the war. 

In order for her father to "avoid holding guns and shooting at people", he signed up to be a musician. "His task," she says, "was to rush into battlefields right after two sides stopped shooting, to play the guitar and cheer up the soldiers. Even though there was a high risk of getting killed by snipers, it was still better than shooting at people," Hall wrote following the release of Hanoi Masters' album, War is a Wound, Peace is a Scar, in 2015.

This coincided with the 40th anniversary marking the end of the Vietnam War.

The CD was produced by the Grammy-winning US producer, Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Zomba Prison Project, Malawi Mouse Boys) and is on the Glitterbeat record label, which has won the World Music Expo Award's top honour the past three years running. 

"The album documents the reactions of older Vietnamese combat veterans and elders to the effects of the Vietnam War, four decades after the skies fell silent and the bombing stopped."

All her life, Vân-Ánh Võ has been playing with the Hanoi Masters. "In fact, Master Quoc Hung is my uncle."

At Womad people will hear traditional singing, and a variety of instruments, including dan Tranh (zither), dan Bau (monochord with a whammy bar made of water buffalo horn), dan Nguyet (moon-shape lute), dan T'rung (bamboo xylophone), traditional percussions, bamboo tubes, and the K'ni.  

The latter is an instrument from the south highlands of Vietnam. It is a two-string fiddle with a bow made of a thin bamboo stick. "The way the K'ni is amplified is very special," she says.

"There's a thread string connecting the two metal strings to a small and flat piece of plastic. When it is played, the player will put the plastic in between his/her teeth and move his/her lips and mouth to amplify the sound."

When using the mouth and lips as the amplifier for the instrument, the player can shape the sound as if the instrument "speaks" a language. 

The songs performed by Hanoi Masters have deep meaning about the war that ravaged their country.

"Whether presenting traditional songs or self-penned material, we deal with the conflict's aftermath in an attempt to redress the imbalance of Western (mainly American) narratives about the era through such films as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and songs like Born in the USA."

When the Hanoi Masters head to Womad, it will be their first time in New Zealand.

"We are very excited to share our music, influence and get influences from other artists and people as well," Vân-Ánh Võ says.

Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp canola or other neutral oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

3/4 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp sugar

1 1/2 Tbsp fish sauce

1/4 cup tamarind liquid

5 1/2 cups water

700 grams, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 cup bite-sized chunks fresh pineapple

10 to 12 okra, stemmed and cut into 2cm pieces

4 ripe tomatoes, cored, halved horizontally and cut into wedges

2 cups beansprouts or microgreens

1 tsp ground cumin

5 or 6 sprigs coriander or Vietnamese min, coarsely chopped

Method:

1. In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. 

2. Add the salt, sugar, fish sauce, tamarind liquid, and water, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, add the fish and pineapple, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the fish and pineapple are tender but still firm. 

3. Just before serving, return the soup to a simmer. Drop in the okra and cook for 2 minutes, or until tender but still firm. Add the tomatoes, bean sprouts, and cumin. When the bean sprouts have just wilted, after about 30 seconds, turn off the heat. Taste and add extra salt or fish sauce, if necessary.

4. Ladle into a serving bowl, garnish with the coriander, and serve immediately.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Ingredients:

400g chicken meat (preferably dark meat)

1 tsp white sugar

1/2 cup white vinegar 

1/2 cup water

2.5cm of fresh ginger

3 shallots

1 big white onion

 1 medium-sized carrot

1 juicy lemon or lime

Ground black pepper

1 bunch of Vietnamese cilantro (rau ram) 

3-4 Thai lemon leaves 

2 tsp salt

A handful of dry-roasted peanuts

Method:

1. Boil the chicken meat with the salt, sugar, fresh ginger and 1 to 2 shallots. 

2. After the chicken is cooked, wait for the meat to cool down then use your hands to shred into small long pieces. 

3. Cut the white onion into pinky-sized pieces and put into cold water mixed with the 1/2 cup of vinegar for 30 minutes. Take it out and let it dry. 

4. Cut the Thai lemon leaves and the carrot into thin strings.

5. Make the salad sauce.

6. Place the chicken, carrot and onion together in a bowl and combine with the sauce. Next Add the Vietnamese cilantro and Thai lemon leaves and mix.

7. Put everything on a plate and sprinkle the dry-roasted peanuts on top of the salad. Everything should be ready to serve now.

Salad Sauce

2 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 Tbsp white sugar

2 Tbsp rice vinegar

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp salt

Mix together all the ingredients to create a sweet but sour sauce.

Vietnamese Shrimp Spring Rolls

Ingredients:

14 round rice paper wrappers

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves

500g cooked shrimps, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise

14 lettuce leaves

3 cups fresh bean sprouts

2 carrots thinly sliced

1 capsicum thinly sliced

Method:

1. Start by softening the rice papers. Fill a large plate with warm water. Dip a rice papers very carefully and gradually for about 1 minute, until totally soften. Lay rice paper on a clean cloth. You can use 2 papers to make them stronger if you wish.

2. Arrange some mint and coriander leaves at the bottom of the rice paper, then about 4 shrimp halves. Top with a lettuce leaf, carrots, capsicums and a small handful of bean sprouts Add additional mint leaves. Top with a second lettuce leaf. Always keep about 3cm uncovered on each side.

3. Now the rolling part. Fold uncovered sides inward, then tightly roll the rice paper. 

4. Repeat with remaining ingredients until all used up.

Dipping Sauce:

4 Tbsp fish sauce

2 Tbsp white vinegar

2 Tbsp lime juice (or lemon)

2 Tbsp sugar

2 Tbsp water

1 fresh chilli

1 clove garlic 

1. Make this first and allow the flavours to come together as you make the spring rolls.

2. Combine the first five ingredients, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the finely chopped chilli and garlic. 

 - Stuff

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