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Vietnam: A Barbecue View

September 17, 1997|STEVEN RAICHLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Raichlen is the author of "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking" (Viking, 1995)

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — I have a theory about the best way to when the weather is miserably hot. I take my cue from Sunbelt lands that have scorching climates all year long: Hot climates beget cuisines that are well-suited to warm-weather eating. And nowhere is this more true than Vietnam.

I've come here hot on the barbecue trail. I don't have far to go to strike pay dirt. My hotel, the New World, is across the street from Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Central Market. And as are markets throughout Southeast Asia, Ben Thanh is teeming with grill jockeys.

My first stop is a stall where a woman grills chicken wings that have been marinating in a fragrant paste of lemon grass, garlic and fish sauce. Another vendor proffers an egg that has been "hard-boiled" over a coconut shell charcoal fire. I wrap it in a lettuce leaf with a sprig of mint and dip it in nuoc cham, Vietnam's delicate table sauce--a piquant mixture of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. The combination is as delectable as it is unexpected.

I also get a lesson in business ethics at my next stop, a woman selling paper-thin sheets of sliced dried bananas, which she flame-toasts on a small hibachi. Her neighbor overhears her charging me the equivalent of 60 cents, apparently three or four times the rate for a Vietnamese. She shrilly chides the vendor, and I am promptly given another sheet of grilled bananas to make the transaction more equitable.

Grilling is ubiquitous in Vietnam, in part, I suspect, because it's so cheap. As in Thailand and Indonesia, coconut is a major crop here, and the tree's by-product--coconut husks--makes excellent charcoal. Many of the street vendors who set up grills are probably motivated by a desire to avoid the expense of frying oil.

But grilling isn't only for the poor, a fact brought home to me on my next stop--a tony restaurant called Vietnam House. Situated on the second floor of a fashionable townhouse on Dong Khoi Street, Vietnam House seems to exist chiefly for the pleasure of deep-pocketed foreigners. This has both advantages and drawbacks: You get to dine among the lacquered screens and gilded wood carvings, serenaded by live twangy Vietnamese classical music, served by waitresses in ao dai (slit dresses). On the down side, you feel a little like you're in Epcot.

You wouldn't say Vietnam House specializes in grills, but two items here rank as world-class barbecue. The first is chao tom, an ingenious combination of shrimp mousse grilled on a piece of sugar cane. Talk about an explosive contrast of flavors and textures. This dish has it all: soft shrimp mousse and crispy, chewy sugar cane, briny seafood and dulcet cane juice. You don't really eat the cane so much as chew it to release the sweet juices.

The other dish is bo goi la lot, beef grilled in la lot leaves and served on tiny skewers. La lot is the crinkly, round, piquant leaf of a Southeast Asian vine that reminds me a little of basil. The beef fairly sizzles, its fat counterbalanced by the herbal tang of the leaf.

This combination of grilled meats with aromatic herbs is one of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine and one of its most appealing features, especially in summer. The following kebabs make great pass-arounds for summer entertaining.

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VIETNAMESE GRILLED BEEF AND BASIL ROLLS

This recipe was inspired by a classic Vietnamese appetizer, bo goi la lot, beef grilled in la lot leaves, which are available in most Vietnamese markets. But don't despair if you can't find fresh la lot leaves; these delicate rolls are equally delicious made with fresh basil, which I call for in this recipe. Sometimes these rolls are made with thin beef slices, sometimes with ground beef. This is how they make the rolls in the Vietnam House restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.

1/2 pound very lean ground sirloin

2 cloves garlic, minced

Fish sauce

Sugar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 bunches basil (50 to 60 large leaves)

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted peanuts

Combine ground sirloin, garlic, 5 teaspoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar and pepper in mixing bowl. Taste and add more fish sauce or sugar to taste; mixture should be both salty and sweet. (Note: To avoid eating raw beef when tasting, grill or cook tiny patty in nonstick skillet.)

Mound 2 teaspoons beef mixture on basil leaf and roll lengthwise into compact cylinder. Repeat until all of beef mixture and basil leaves are used. Skewer rolls widthwise on slender bamboo skewers, 4 or 5 rolls to each skewer. (Note: Rolls can be prepared ahead to this point and refrigerated.)

Preheat grill to high and grill beef rolls until cooked through (basil will become lightly browned and rolls will be very hot to touch), about 2 minutes per side. Sprinkle with peanuts and serve at once.

50 to 60 small rolls or 3 to 4 appetizer servings. Each of 50 rolls:

11 calories; 25 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

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