We’re about 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Saigon and 1500 metres (4900 feet) above sea level, but by road the journey takes up to six hours. The town’s location helps keep it a little less trafficked by foreign tourists, but local Vietnamese tourists fill the town in the busy season, escaping the stifling summer heat of the lower-lying regions.
Once known as “Le Petite Paris”, Da Lat’s ageing architecture still retains some of the grandeur of the past — but with some love and attention, it could easily become, once again, the sparkling city of the central highlands.
As we drive into town, it feels like I’m in the French Alps during springtime, with French villas and mountains covered in tall pine trees. The refreshingly cool weather offers perfect conditions for growing the top-quality herbs and vegetables that Da Lat is so well known for.
Naturally, my first stop is the very pretty Da Lat market, and luckily I arrive early enough to watch the wholesalers selling their produce to the stallholders. Hundreds of enormous trucks empty their loads of fresh artichokes, broccoli, cauliflowers, avocados, strawberries, potatoes, carrots and an array of herbs onto the surrounding streets and footpaths of the central market.
This area is like a city within itself at this hour — there is so much activity, and the most amazing colours.
I immerse myself in the middle of all the chaos, among the food vendors who are selling warm sticky rice and noodle soups to the market people. They are all really excited to see a camera crew in their workplace. I am pulled in all directions, each vendor wanting me to showcase their particular product. I love their passion and how proud they all are of their produce.
The name Da Lat, which originates from the hill tribe people of this region, means “Stream of the Lat people”. The Lat people are highly gifted in agriculture, and today Vietnam is the world’s largest coffee producer, with 85 per cent of the crop being grown in the Da Lat central highlands.
The French introduced coffee-growing to Da Lat in 1857, and it is now one of Vietnam’s major sources of income, with almost 2 million tonnes exported per year. Most of the coffee plants produce robusta beans, with the production of the more superior arabica beans increasing every year.
We head high into the mountains, deep in the pine forests, to search for a particular variety called “ca phe chon”, also known as “weasel coffee”. Mr Toan, a local weasel coffee farmer, tells me that this prized coffee is the most expensive in the world, fetching up to $40 a cup.
Mr Toan explains the process in the most simplistic and logical way. “The weasels skilfully pick the ripest red coffee berries to feast on. As the weasels digest the berries, enzymes within the animal break down and remove the bitter taste of the bean, when it’s in the digestive tract, before the beans are expelled a few days later. My children then collect the expelled beans, wash them, and dry them in the sun before I give them a light roasting.”
Mr Toan grinds some of his fine coffee, presses it into a Vietnamese coffee filter, then fills it with boiled water. I sit patiently and watch the coffee drip slowly into my glass.
From “poo to brew”, this coffee is incredibly full-bodied, but without the customary bitterness and acidity. It has sweet notes, with a hint of subtle caramel and chocolate. It is wonderfully aromatic with long, clean flavours. After sampling this memorable drop, I now understand why coffee connoisseurs around the world are obsessed with this variety of coffee beans.
The more time I spend in Da Lat, the more I come to realise just how much the French influenced Vietnamese cuisine. Not only did they introduce coffee to Vietnam, but also foods such as the much-loved baguette, pâté, mayonnaise, cheese, and even beef.
As a kid, I used to have a baguette for my school lunch almost every day, and that baguette was always filled with pâté, mayo and some cold-cut meats. However, I never realised that my traditional Vietnamese “Banh mi” was actually a typical French pork baguette.
So many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine have French origins, the most obvious being “Pho”, a Vietnamese beef noodle consommé-like soup that is believed to have originated from the French beef dish “Pot au feu”; both dishes use marrow bones and charred onion for superior colour and flavour. The Vietnamese never consumed beef before the French colonised Vietnam — cows and buffaloes were only working animals, used for ploughing fields. But today, beef is loved by most Vietnamese. You will find pho restaurants throughout the country, and street-food vendors selling the popular Vietnamese version of steak and pommes frites, called “Bistek”.
In the late 1800s, the French also introduced exotic vegetables to Vietnam — vegetables such as asparagus, tomato, potato, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, beetroot (beet), broccoli, choko, pumpkin (winter squash), artichoke, zucchini (courgette), green beans, kohlrabi and celery, which are not native to Vietnam but are now abundantly grown around Da Lat.
I spend the next few days searching for recipes featuring these introduced vegetables. One of my favourite ingredients from Da Lat is the pumpkin fl ower, which can be wok-tossed in a stir-fry, blanched and added to salads, or simply stuffed and flash-fried. Da Lat is famous for its varieties of edible flowers, so I buy a whole bunch from a local organic farm and take it to one of the oldest French-built hotels in town, called the Da Lat Palace. I set up my bench outside the hotel, next to their vintage Citroën overlooking French villas and churches, and prepare my pumpkin flower dish, which I stuff with pounded prawns (shrimp) and fresh dill.
Cooking this dish in Da Lat, surrounded by French architecture and grandeur, transports me back to Indochine — a colonial Vietnam that I was too young to know about, but an era I am determined to discover and learn more about.
This is an edited extract from The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen, published by SBS, RRP $69.95. On sale now.
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