A simple internet recipe for fried cucumber with purple perilla has inadvertently opened up a whole new chapter to this food journey. The narrow alleys and crowded streets marking the beginning and end of my long walks around town leave me gawking at the local color more an outsider than all access insider. Having to source some of the ingredients for this recipe beyond my apartment building’s sterile supermarket cracked the door ever so slightly for my integration a little bit further into this neighborhood. Shopping like a local was uncharted territory and now an experience likely missed once my time in Vietnam becomes a distant memory.
My eyeing an elderly woman’s selection of carrots and eggplants laid out atop a sidewalk tarp was all she needed to motion me into her dark shop. She flipped on a lightbulb attached to a long bare wire and illuminated a nice bounty…purple perilla along with birdseye peppers and an onion. The equivalent of ten US cents bought a plastic bag of these three items. Next door I found cucumbers and having no idea as to how one inquires into the price of four, I just pointed to the pile and handed the girl 10,000 Dong or 50 cents. My sign language request and blind transfer of money yielded 10 cucumbers in return. A head of garlic from an old man squatting next to a pile of squid cost a further nickel. Talk about a new meaning to nickel and diming. Amazing! How much would all this cost in the US?
Rice vinegar was the wildcard of this dish and I had to source it in a totally different area of my long walks, one in which any westerner is completely at home with wide sidewalks and familiar shops and restaurants. Le Thanh Ton Street lined with all its sushi joints and Japanese minimarts seemed the logical enough choice for this sort of vinegar, but of course Vietnam just being itself threw a wrench in the works. An $8 dollar soda can size bottle labeled “rice flavored” vinegar was the closest three stores could come to the real deal. First off, if I am going to part ways with that kind of money, at least don’t try to pawn off this fake mess. But even then, still…eight bucks for acidic water?
Necessity is the mother of all inventions in Vietnam and without some creativity life just grinds to a halt. Surely one of the sushi joints could sell a small container of the real stuff for cheap, right? The first place I asked kept thinking I wanted takeaway rice with vinegar on it. A pictogram explanation drew even more weird looks from the growing crowd of wait staff gathering around to figure out what the hell was going on. Inquiring within a second place crapped out as well when the confused girl bolted for the kitchen to take safe refuge from my request.
The third time is the charm and liquid gold flows at Sushi Bar. The English speaking manager sold me half a liter poured into a water bottle for $4 after some haggling and curious looks from the staff as to why a white dude came to their restaurant to buy a pantry condiment. This nonroutine transaction threw the cashier for such a loop that for no reason she tossed in pickled ginger and toothpicks for free while nervously giggling.
Food is such a personal journey and I have added several ingredients to the base recipe from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop to suit my own tastes. And yes, I realize this is not Vietnamese per se, but it brings a taste of Asia right to your kitchen, especially the purple perilla found as a garnish for everything from bun cha to pho to fried spring rolls. This peppery mint tasting herb takes an ordinary food and elevates the flavors to greatness. I hope Asian supermarkets back home are well stocked with it.
Cucumbers with Purple Perilla
5 cucumbers halved and thinly sliced on an angle
1 small white onion halved and finely sliced
1 tbsp finely minced garlic
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp seeded and finely chopped birdseye pepper
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp clear rice vinegar
1 tbsp sesame oil
Large handful of finely chopped purple perilla leaves
A couple tablespoons of peanut oil for stir frying
Heat the oil in the wok.
Add the white onion and stir constantly for a couple of minutes to slightly soften.
Add the cucumber and stir constantly several minutes until they begin to soften and slightly yellow.
Now add the garlic and pepper and stir until softened and fragrant.
Stir in the sugar, soy sauce and rice vinegar.
Add the chopped perilla leaf and stir until wilted.
Remove from heat, add the sesame oil and enjoy.
Any ingredient can be increased or decreased in quantity based on your tastes, and it’s even good chilled. That’s the beauty of cooking. We can make a dish as personalized a journey as we wish, much like a walk through Saigon that becomes an introduction into the fabric of a neighborhood.