Story Flavours of Vietnam (+recipe)

Chef Tony Tan is a man of the world. Literally. Of Chinese descent, born in Malaysia, he moved to Australia 30 years ago as a student, and never left. Except to travel the world.

Now running his cook school, Tan is a respected expert in Asian cuisine, including Chinese, Nonya, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Malaysian. His school is ranked in the top 20 internationally by London’s Financial Times.

A self-confessed “food nut,” Tan also leads culinary tours of the world, including, this year, jaunts to China and Spain. Next year he will lead a tour to Vietnam, and it was on his radar at Savour New Zealand, where he was teaching a master class in Vietnamese cuisine.

It is a country he loves, and visits at least once a year.

“It is quite easy to fall in love with Vietnam,” says Tan, eager as a schoolboy. “It has a thousand-year-old culinary history.”

He whips out his cellphone to show images of the dishes he has been working on in the kitchens of the Langham Hotel.

There is the muc nhoi thit (stuffed squid or calamari) and ca ri ga (chicken curry). “The two dishes are distinctly different from each other,” says Tan.

The stuffed squid, from the north, is beautifully stuffed with pork, mushrooms and herbs, and cut into delicate slices and served with nuoc cham, a spicy dipping sauce.

The chicken curry, a southern dish, is more rustic and robust, with chunks of potato, chilli and coconut milk, served with a handful of coriander or Thai basil.

“Vietnamese is known for being really light and delicate,” says Tan. “But there is a big difference between the north and the south. The north is much more refined than the south. The north and central areas have an imperial influence, but further south, the food is much raunchier. It is big and tropical, and they go big on flavour.”

The people from north and south Vietnam have a friendly rivalry, not dissimilar to the two main islands of New Zealand. “My friend, who is from up north and very refined, said to me, ‘those people from the south are so vulgar! Their soups are so big!”‘ Flavours are a mix of sweet and sour, with lime, lemon grass, fish sauce, mint and Thai basil the key ingredients.

There are lots of vegetables, with an emphasis on freshness, and side dishes of fresh herbs and dipping sauces. “You get an explosion of flavour,” says Tan. The country is influenced by China to the north, and by its history of French colonisation, as well as neighbours Cambodia and Laos to the west.

The French influence is seen with Tan’s curry, served with a baguette as an alternative to rice and noodles. Like New Zealand, Australia has changed markedly in the last few decades, Tan says. “When I first came out to Australia 30 years ago, there was no coriander. It is amazing how it has changed. Now I can buy fresh pandan leaves at the Victoria Market.”

ca ri ga (chicken curry) Main course, serves four.

“Generally, Vietnamese curries are quite different in terms of their preparation compared to Thai, Malaysian and Indian curries,” says chef Tony Tan. “Although they share some similarities with their neighbours, the Thais and Khmers, these curries are relatively milder and more watery.

However, the following Cham-influenced recipe debunks all I’ve mentioned because it is thick, rich and heady, with the aroma of lemongrass. Serve it with a fresh crusty baguette, chopped coriander or Thai basil, chillies and a salt-pepper-lime dip and it will take you to the markets of Vietnam.”


50g lemongrass, finely sliced
2cm fresh ginger, about 20g peeled and crushed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
20g curry powder

750g free range boneless chicken, preferably thigh, cut into small pieces
Oil for deep-frying
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, inner bruised
20g curry powder mixed with 1 Tbsp water
1 long red chilli, deseeded and minced
200 ml coconut milk
400ml Vietnamese chicken stock*
20g sugar
2 tsp or about 10g of sea salt, to taste
1 tsp white pepper
250g potato or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes

To serve:
Handful of coriander or Thai basil
Freshly sliced chilli
Fresh baguette


In a food processor, process lemongrass to a fine powder. Add the ginger, garlic and curry powder and process until the mixture forms a paste. Transfer mixture to a bowl and add the chicken. Mix well and marinate for two hours.
In a medium saucepan, deep-fry the potato pieces in hot oil until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm.
Pour off all but two tablespoons of the oil. Over a medium heat, fry the garlic, onion and lemongrass until fragrant, about three minutes. Add curry powder and chill. Continue to sauté for another three minutes or until the spices are fragrant. Add the chicken and cook until it is opaque, about four or five minutes.
Add the coconut milk, chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and sugar. Lower the heat to simmer the chicken, uncovered, for about 15-20 minutes or until it is tender and the sauce is thick.
Check seasoning and add the potato before serving. Place curry in a serving bowl and offer baguette and garnishes on the side. Of course, it is also great with rice.

Muoi Tieu Chanh or Salt, Pepper and Lime Dip
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
40ml fresh lime juice
Combine the salt, pepper and lime in a small dish. Stir well and use as required.

*Note: Vietnamese chicken stock is made with cloves of garlic, spring onions or onion and ginger. Vietnamese curry powders tend to be more aromatic with hints of star anise and one of the most popular is Vianc Indian Chef curry powder. Madras or Malaysian curry powders are acceptable substitutes.

Tony Tan’s chicken curry was served with a glass of Montana Terroir Series Riverpoint Gisborne Gewürztraminer 2007.

5,000 workers go on strike at shoe factory in northern Vietnam for higher wages

HANOI, Vietnam: More than 5,000 workers have walked off the job at a privately owned footwear company in northern Vietnam and demanded a pay increase to cushion the impact of rising inflation, a company official said Tuesday.

The company recently increased its workers’ salaries 100,000 Vietnamese dong (US$6.30) to an average monthly pay of 800,000 dong (US$50). The new salary is about 38 percent higher than the minimum wage for workers at Vietnamese owned firms, said an official with Sao Vang Ltd. Co., who only identified himself as Hieu, citing policy.

But the workers stopped working Monday to ask for more, he said.

“It is hard to say that they are demanding, given the fact that inflation is skyrocketing,” Hieu said. “This is putting more and more pressure on businesses here.”

Consumer prices in Vietnam are 21.3 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to government figures. A wave of strikes has hit companies across the country as the inflation rate has grown this year.

Sao Vang has been operating in Hai Phong City, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) east of Hanoi, since 1994. It currently employs about 6,000 workers. The company produces shoes for export to Europe and elsewhere in Asia.

South Vietnam officials jailed for smuggling money across border

Two officials in the southern Binh Duong Province have been sentenced to prison while another received a suspended sentence for illegally transferring money through the Vietnam – Cambodia border.

Thu Dau Mot Town’s Tax Department officials Phung Hoang Bach, 49, and Bui Gia Hung, 38, were sentenced to four years and two years jail respectively.

Tran The Hung, 31, a manager of Binh Duong Province’s Water Supply and Drainage Company affiliate got a six-month suspended sentence, a court in the neighboring province of Tay Ninh ruled recently.

The indictment pronounced the three officials had been caught smuggling more than US$88,000 and VND15 million ($928) across the Moc Bai border control area in a car on March 21.

During questioning, the three officials admitted the cash was obtained from winnings at the New World Casino in Cambodia.

The officials also said this was the third time they had gambled at the casino.

The smuggled money has been confiscated, authorities said.

Tay Ninh police additionally fined Le Hong Anh, the driver of the vehicle carrying the officials, VND2 million ($123).

Vietnam may limit future rice exports

HANOI — Vietnam may permanently reduce rice exports by 2010 and beyond to ensure food security for its growing population, state media reports and government officials said on Monday.

Outward shipments from the world’s second largest rice exporter could be capped at 4.3 million tons a year by 2015 and 3.8 million tons by 2020, according to a report in the state-run Vietnam News daily.

Cutting overseas sales of the staple crop would balance the effects of “the growing population and bad crops caused by natural disasters, insects and inclement weather,” the daily reported, citing unnamed officials.

Government experts stressed that the plan was currently under consideration by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and would require the approval of the government leadership of the communist country.

“It’s just an idea for a long-term rice export policy until 2020,” said Phung Thi Kim Thoa, a senior ministry official in charge of rice exports, when asked to comment on the state media report.

“We are working on a project which would have to be approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and then by the prime minister. We are collecting opinions from concerned ministries on this matter.”

Global food prices have surged this year, fuelling supply fears and inflation in countries including Vietnam.

Vietnam has capped 2008 national rice exports at 3.5-4 million tons, down from a previous target of 4.5 million tons, and ordered a halt to the signing of new export contracts until the end of June.

Experts in Vietnam have warned that the country’s arable lands are shrinking fast while the population, now estimated at 86 million, has grown rapidly since the end of the war in 1975 triggered a baby boom.

“Vietnam has lost a lot of arable land to urbanization and industrialization,” said economist Le Dang Doanh, a veteran government advisor.

“There are too many industrial parks, projects, golf courses, and so on. The problem is now how to ensure food security as demographic pressures, the increase of the population, are still increasing.”

World grain prices have sky-rocketed this year, a trend blamed on higher energy and fertilizer costs, greater global demand, droughts, the loss of farmland to biofuel plantations, industry and cities, and price speculation.

Vietnam banks raise rates, stocks fall

HANOI, May 19 (Reuters) – Vietnamese banks boosted interest rates on Monday after the central bank abolished a 12 percent ceiling rate on dong deposits and raised three interest rates over the weekend to fight a surge in inflation.

Annual inflation is galloping at more than 20 percent and the central bank has carried out a number of measures to try to stem the rise in prices.

The latest, announced on Saturday and effective on Monday, underlines the central bank’s priority is to combat inflation, analysts said.

“This is a positive step the central bank has made to tighten monetary policy through market-oriented measures, which demonstrates the government’s resolution in maintaining the policy priority on inflation control over growth,” economist Helen Qiao at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong said.

But the news weighed on the main Vietnam stock index .VNI on the view that investors would find the higher bank rates more attractive than keeping their money in a market that has fallen 50 percent since the start of the year as inflation has jumped.

The cap on deposit rates was imposed in February to stabilise the banking system after banks started bidding aggressively for deposits when the central bank tightened monetary conditions.

In abolishing the cap, the central bank said banks can fix their own rates on dong deposits and lending at up to 150 percent of a base rate of 12 percent. Previously, a base rate of 8.75 percent had been applied to lending only.

The central bank said it would set the base rate each month but it could also adjust it when necessary.

The central bank also raised its refinancing rate on loans to commercial banks to 13 percent from 7.5 percent and its discount rate, used to buy debt from banks, to 11 percent from 6 percent.

Qiao said the move should help reduce the gap between nominal interest rates and inflation, making deposits more attractive and helping relieve tight liquidity in the wake of the central bank’s anti-inflation measures, which have included higher rates and compulsory bank reserves.


In response to the central bank’s announcements, state-run BIDV, Vietnam’s second-largest bank by assets, started offering new rates on dong deposits on Monday.

If offered to pay up to 13.5 percent for dong savings of between six and 12 months, from 12 percent earlier. It offered dong loans at 16.5 percent to 18 percent, up from 13 percent on one-year loans offered in the interbank market on Friday.

Other banks, such as Sacombank STB.HM, followed suit.

The Ho Chi Minh stock index .VNI fell 0.95 percent on Monday, its 11th consecutive fall in a row.

“The lifting of 12 percent ceiling rate on dong deposits will not help the stock market have a U-turn because no matter how much demand grows for Sacombank’s shares, it will not improve the demand of the whole market,” said Bui Ngoc Long, Marketing Director at International Royal Securities.

Shares in Vietnam’s only listed banks fell. Sacombank dropped 1.8 percent and Asia Commercial Bank ACB.HN slipped 2.24 percent.

For weeks, commercial banks have held competitions to win cars, or offered gold and other incentives to lure depositors while dong deposit rates were capped at 12 percent.

Goldman Sachs has forecast Vietnam’s economic growth will slow in 2008 to 7.3 percent from 8.5 percent last year. It said the consumer price index would grow 19 percent on average in 2008 from 8.3 percent in 2007.

The fast-growing economy is a favourite foreign direct investment destination but economic risks have increased. Bank credit grew 50 percent last year and real estate prices soared.

Standard & Poor’s this month cut its ratings outlook on Vietnam’s sovereign rating to negative from stable because of macro-economic concerns. (Additional reporting by Grant McCool; editing by Neil Fullick)

Vietnam deports American democracy activist

Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

(05-18 ) 20:16 PDT Elk Grove — When Northern California activist Quan Quoc Nguyen sneaked into his native Vietnam last Nov. 15, crossing the Cambodian border on the back of a bicycle, he figured he had a 50 percent chance of being arrested.

Two days later, he was picked up and accused of terrorism for using fake identification and for authoring pro-democracy leaflets that described ways to peacefully get rid of the communist government. He faced the prospect of spending years away from his wife and two teenage sons.

But on Sunday, the 54-year-old engineer was back home with his family in Elk Grove (Sacramento County) after six months in jail – and following a whirlwind of a week. Nguyen was convicted of terrorism Tuesday in a Ho Chi Minh City court, then deported on Saturday. About 7:30 p.m. Saturday, he arrived at San Francisco International Airport, where he was met by a throng of cheering supporters, among them Democratic Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento.

“I used the time (in jail) to feel the suffering of the people” in Vietnam, Nguyen said in a telephone interview. “I showed them that I’m ready to share their suffering with them.”

Jones, one of several California politicians who pressured the Vietnamese government to release Nguyen, praised him and said he had brought needed attention to his cause.

“This is a great day for (Nguyen) and his family, but also for the Vietnamese American community and anyone who cares about individual liberty and freedom,” Jones said. Nguyen was sentenced last Tuesday to six months behind bars, a sentence he was four days from completing. He had been arrested with seven others. Two Vietnamese citizens also were convicted; one has three months left to serve.

The state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that Nguyen’s trial showed that he “committed to run, and raise funds for the Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform) terrorist group and entered Vietnam to carry out its terrorist plot.”

Nguyen’s indictment, the agency said, alleged that he planned to “build a terrorism network of Viet Tan in Vietnam and distribute leaflets to incite people to cause social disturbances, oppose the State, and threaten the State’s security.”

Nguyen is a member of the leadership committee of Viet Tan, a peaceful, pro-democracy political party based in San Jose, said party spokesman Duy Hoang of Washington, D.C.

Nguyen said he wrote the text for the leaflets, which were printed and distributed in Vietnam. He said he “wanted to let people know how to promote nonviolent struggle and how powerless people can get the power.”

Nguyen, who as a high school math teacher escaped by boat from Vietnam in 1981, said he went back to visit a sister and old friends. He said he is not allowed to enter the country under his own name. When he was interrogated, he said, he admitted he authored the leaflets.

“I don’t want to deny it,” he said. “I want to pay the price for my beliefs.”

His wife, Huong Mai Ngo, said she didn’t even know her husband was inside Vietnam until she learned of his arrest. He didn’t want to worry her, so he told her he was traveling to Thailand.

Ngo said she could write her husband just one letter a month, and it was censored by the government. A Vietnamese lawyer that she hired quit the case, she said, after his family was threatened.

Nguyen was able to call his wife and speak to her for the first time from the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. His first words were, “Don’t cry, OK, don’t cry.”

She didn’t. But Ngo wept at the airport.

Vietnam deports American democracy activist