The flavours of Vietnam at Benjarong


Among Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is considered the most healthy. From light but flavour-packed soups, to fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with herbs and veggies, to grilled meats, seafood and food on sticks, the dishes are presented with colourful herbs on the side. And everyone knows that herbs are good for you.
So we went across to Benjarong, to the "Flavours of Vietnam" festival to check out all we'd read about the cuisine.

Chef Nguyen & Chef  Ram Kumar

Chef Nguyen Thi Nho from Vietnam and Chef Ram Kumar of Benjarong have created an interesting  menu that showcases Vietnamese food. To be doubly sure of presenting true flavours, Chef Nho has brought in Vietnamese ingredients not easily available in the city. The rest, she and Chef Ram picked up from the local markets.   

Vietnamese iced coffee; jambolan cool; passion fruit juice

We chose 3 drinks from the menu to share. One was the Vietnamese coffee. The drip filter sat over a glass half-filled with condensed milk. It's mixed together and poured over ice and if you like your coffee cold and sweet, you need to order this. Jambolan Cool was the one I liked best. Made with the pulp of jamun or damson plum, it has many health benefits, none of which came to mind as I sipped and savoured the drink. The passion fruit juice was equally refreshing.

What's on the menu?

Five spiced Vietnamese fish with sriracha and nuoc cham

Vietnam is known for its street food and when these skewers with five spiced Vietnamese fish made their appearance, we attacked them at once ...well, after the pics were taken. The fish, of course was basa and best had when dipped into the sriracha and nuoc cham sauces. Piping hot too.

Charcoal grilled shrimp on sugarcane sticks

One of Vietnam's most popular appetisers is charcoal grilled shrimp mousse on sugarcane sticks. The mousse was light and airy and clung on well to the stick, a little of the sugarcane juices  had permeated into the shrimp, making it a wonderful combination of savoury prawn and sweet cane juice. The bonus, of course, is that you can chew on the stick. In Vietnam, it is served with a version of string hoppers that is wrapped around the mousse along with the herbs and dipped into the sauces.

Fresh shrimp spring rolls

There were baskets of fresh shrimp spring rolls. Through the translucent rice paper, we could see large shrimps, finely sliced cabbage and green herbs. There was a peanut sauce to dip them, every bite was a burst of flavour and freshness. As for the mint, we had to make do with the Indian variety.

Jasmine tea is always served cold in Vietnam
Deep-fried chicken spring rolls. The wrap is made with netted rice
paper and it retained its crunch even after sitting around for a bit.

Pho bo

If Vietnam has a national dish, it must be pho. Cooking a stock for 8 hours or more will result in the most delicious base for a broth. Chef Nho's pho had thin slices of beef, onions and rice noodles for texture; other spices included star anise, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, roasted onion and garlic. The soup was deliciously aromatic. Basil leaves, sliced chillies, lime and sriracha were served on the side but for me, there was nothing else that this pho needed.

Beef roll with peanut sauce has a thin slice of beef encasing a filling of minced beef with
 chicken fat which keeps the meat moist.. 

Clay pot tofu, mushroom & aubergine in a sauce with plenty of heft...yum yum
Dried bean curd skin used as a wrap for tofu cubes. The skin was crisp, the thick sauce, moreish. 

Whole hamour steamed in soyabean sauce. Best eaten with steamed rice.

Vietnamese chicken curry in coconut gravy flavoured with curry leaves!
Perfect pairing with mung bean sticky rice. 

Fried rice with lotus seeds and wrapped in lotus leaf

Beef with glass noodles

The spread...well, part of it at least!

Baked banana cake; mung bean cake; handmade jelly tofu with ginger gruel

We tried the trio of desserts specially made for the festival. My table mates pronounced the banana cake delectable. For me, it was a toss-up between the dense but sweet mung bean cake and the pandan-flavoured jelly tofu. Both were luscious.

We learnt a few things about Vietnamese food too - the food is always made fresh, is light and full of zest thanks to the abundance of herbs used both in cooking and eaten along with the meal. Another point of interest is that coconut water, rather than coconut milk or plain water is used to cook the food which adds oodles of flavour.

Flavours of Vietnam is on till August 26th.
Benjarong is at 146, TTK Road
Chennai 600018.
044 24322640

*This was an invited review 

Q Bar and The Art of the Table


Fratelli Vineyards. Could be an Italian winery, right?
Surprise surprise... it's an Indian vineyard at Akluj, Maharashtra that produces some really top class wines.

At an elegant wine and dinner evening last month, Q Bar, The Hilton Chennai and Fratelli Vineyards presented The Art of the Table, where we tasted regionally sourced produce and Fratelli's single vineyard reserve wines as well as some from their international wine portfolio.

Chris Wedge

It's only been 35 years since India started producing wines; it's only been a year since some of these top class wines have started being sold at Chennai. International wine consultant Craig Wedge who is also Brand Director of Fratelli wines commenced the evening telling us that India does produce some really good wines but sadly, many of these wines are not considered "worthy". To prove his point, we tasted Fratelli's Grand Cuvée Brut Zero Dosage wine, a dry and crisp pale sparkling wine with a faint yeasty finish. Close your eyes, savour the wine. Yes, it has a 'made in India' label on it!

Fratelli Grand Cuveé Brut Zero Dosage

Pork rillette walnut bread; apple & liver bouchée

Chef Manish Uniyal's culinary creativity was on show as the evening progressed, starting with the appetisers. The selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings included apple and liver bouchée as well as pork rillettes on walnut bread, both of which were perfect with the wine.

Fratelli Shiraz Rose from Akluj

Green tea savarin, tomatoes compote, salvia blossom

Fratelli's Shiraz Rosé makes for a lovely aperitif wine from Akluj. Pale pink and reminiscent of strawberries and red stone fruit in colour and taste, it was served with a green tea savarin. Not only were the colours striking but the cheesy aftertaste of the savarin was well-balanced by the acidity of the wine.

Duck Three Ways; Moulin de Gassac Languedoc-Rousillion from France

We had Duck Three Ways with Moulin de Gassac Sauvignon. All three ways were delicious, the pairing wine a perfect match for the slight smokiness of the duck meat.

Soup course: White asparagus truffle cream
Swordfish Green Peppercorn Butter

The white asparagus truffle cream soup was silky smooth. Punctuating the silkiness were slices of white asparagus that added texture. It was delicately seasoned.
The first entrée was swordfish with green peppercorn butter. The flesh was firm and well-cooked though I thought the sauce could do with more acidity. Even the squeeze of lemon juice over did not really help. Of the two wines, Kloof Street Chenin Blanc from South Africa and Fratelli Sangiovese from Akluj, I preferred the Indian wine.   

Champagne and orange sorbet to cleanse the palate. A perfect balance of flavours

Kloof Street Rouge Swartland, SA

Balsamic glazed lamb rack, Romano gnocchi, glaze

Balsamic glazed rack of lamb brought the spotlight back again on Chef Manish's culinary talents. Fork-tender lamb ribs finished with a balsamic glaze and a moreish Romano gnocchi to brush it up with. The delicate tuile had a faint herb flavour. Pretty as a picture too and perfect with the spicy notes of the Kloof Street Rouge from South Africa.

Anna Pavlova Forest Berries

A light end to the meal came in the form of a meringue. The tartness of the red berries cut through the sweetness of the pavlova, the soft-whipped Chantilly cream was almost cloud-like. The only jarring note in this creation was the too-thick disc of white chocolate. Perhaps, it was just that - not meant to be eaten.

We talk of new world wines that are made in non-traditional wine growing countries but it was indeed an eye-opener to know that India also produces world class wines.

Cheers to that! 

*This was an invited review. 
Disclaimer: all opinions mentioned here are my own and need not agree with those of others.

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