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Vietnam at home

Benjarong is hosting the `Pearl of God' festival that highlights Vietnamese culture, economy and cuisine, till January 30

Pic. by S.R.Raghunathan.

Viatnamese food festival at Benjarong.

CAN YOU think of one Indian parliamentarian who would walk up to your dinner table, and ask if you're enjoying your chicken? At Benjarong, the Oriental cuisine restaurant on TTK Road, diplomats and economic attachés from Vietnam hold their glasses of wine and go around speaking to surprised customers about what was on their plate. Of course, by the time they understand each others' accents, jokes have fallen flat and nothing new has been learnt. But neither party stops beaming wide for half an hour after that. Ah, the strange pleasure in knowing that a politician cares about what you eat.

This is all thanks to a few diplomats who have stationed themselves at Benjarong till January 30 for the `Pearl of God' festival that highlights Vietnamese culture, economy and cuisine. Regi Mathew, CEO of Benjarong, had travelled to Vietnam with a few friends to imbibe its unique cultural flavours and decided to bring some of them back to Chennai. Chef Nguyen Xuan Khuong, has been flown down to toss up some authentic Vietnamese dishes for the festival. A trio of musicians have come too, and trudged along tonnes of traditional bamboo instruments.

As wonderfully exotic and never-tried-before combos arrive at our dinner table, we decide to throw caution to the winds and savour everything. And thank goodness (or hungriness) for that.

Crispy rolls

For the ravenous, starters usually prove exasperating. But when the prawn and vegetable spring rolls get to your mouth, all impatience vanishes. The Vietnamese spring rolls called Nem Ran are crispier than the Chinese rolls, and we eat them with a tangy-spicy sauce. The non-vegetarian salad that has pinches of beef tossed with torn up mint leaves, lemon rind and onion rings is what one Vietnamese diplomat thinks we don't understand. Maybe he caught us committing sacrilege by sprinkling the goes-with-everything tangy sauce on it. Oh well, at least our taste buds are happy.

The chicken and vegetarian appetisers come wrapped in rice paper and almost everyone looks at his/her neighbour to check if one must unwrap them. Remember this phrase when doubts like this arise — "eat as served". Always.

For the main course, there is tofu, of course. And chicken gravy that has coconut, sweet potato chunks and curry leaves, letting your mouth take mini-trips to Kerala at every bite. But do try the duck cooked in a clay pot with caramel and ginger. With steamed rice, you can't get more Vietnamese than this.

Mint, garlic, coriander, fish sauce and pimento are predominant ingredients in both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but the latter incorporates little unexpected textures. As you chew on perfectly soft meat, your teeth suddenly crack roasted peanuts and the fried rice has slippery smooth strips of egg. If you're one who doesn't just swallow without a second thought, you'll even notice how the spring roll crumbles to give way to spiced potato and corn kernels.

Ball of fire

For dessert, don't order chocolate. Even if it means the world to you. Because you need to at least see the dragon fruit, with its lava red skin and polka dotted pale white pulp. Ask the Chef to show you the rare fruit whole, and he'll walk in with something that looks like a hot ball of fire. Taste-wise, it has no personality, but with the sticky rice covered grilled banana with coconut milk, all is well again. The whole meal might run up to Rs. 800 for two.

The `Pearl of God' festival is also being used to strengthen economic ties between Vietnam and India. Ton Sinh Thanh, Minister Counsellor and D Hoang Minh, Economic Attache, from the Embassy of Vietnam will meet our city's businessmen at 4.00 p.m. every day till the end of the month.

ROHINI MOHAN

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