I've just returned, jet-lagged and completely dazzled by my month-long trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll be posting more about my trip in due course, but for now I want to share a little post about breakfast, my favourite meal of the day; particularly when the day promises to be a hot and humid one full of stunning scenery, tasty food and Asian splendour.
Breakfast in Vietnam falls into two categories: what the locals eat, and what you find in all the hotels catering for Western palates. In the former category you have pho, the 'national dish of Vietnam', a rich meaty broth housing a comforting combination of slippery rice noodles, fresh herbs, and tender pieces of (usually) chicken or beef. (More on this in another post - I too, with my Western sweet tooth, was sceptical about the notion of noodles for breakfast, but I soon became a convert.)
In the latter category, you have the usual suspects such as eggs, omelettes and baguettes, but also recognisably Western dishes given a bit of tropical flair, like these pineapple pancakes.
I first sampled these pancakes at our hotel in Hanoi. I was a little sceptical, I admit, about ordering a menu item that simply read 'pineapple pancake'. Can you guess why? Yes, dear readers who know me and my boundless greed: because it was in the singular. One pancake is simply not sufficient for my morning appetite. A bit like I'm incapable of ever ordering only one scoop of ice cream, a habit that has earned me the somewhat unflattering nickname 'Triple-Scoop McCausland'.
However, I persevered, because it's simply impossible to go hungry in Vietnam: should the single pancake prove insufficient, I thought to myself, I'll just go to the smoothie bar at the end of the road and get a papaya and coconut cream smoothie (as incredible as it sounds). Or get a plump, ripe mango from one of the many streetside fruit sellers. Or a baguette from the numerous French-inspired bakeries.
I was wrong to doubt our lovely hotel. A few minutes later I was presented with two fat pancakes, rather like crêpes but thicker, into which slices of pineapple had been pressed as the batter was cooking, resulting in sweet golden streaks of caramelised fruit. If you've only ever eaten pineapple raw, without subjecting it to the transformative treatment of heat, sugar, butter, and possibly a little vanilla, a splash of rum, a squeeze of lime or a sprinkling of cinnamon, then you need to sort your life out.
Pineapple when cooked transforms into the most utterly delectable, sweet, tangy, juicy mouthful. Combine this with a soft pillow of pancake batter and you have a dreamy plate of tropical sunshine.
I ate these beautiful creations again during our stay at Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (see photo below), my favourite stop of the whole trip and a place I'm sure I'll be telling you more about. Here I was given a plate of four, which was lucky because we'd just arrived from the overnight train and were feeling a little, well, ravenous (also sweaty, greasy and disgusting, but the hunger thing was the most pressing issue). They came rolled up into little cigars, each one boasting a golden and juicy centre of caramelised pineapple. This is what I've tried to recreate here.
This is a highly simple recipe, but one of those that is more than the sum of its parts. You make a simple crêpe batter (milk, eggs, flour), cook it into pancakes slightly thicker than the delicate French variety, then fill the lot with chopped pineapple that has been cooked over a high heat with a little butter, some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of vanilla. It turns sweet, jammy and delicious; a beautiful contrast to the thick and comforting squidgyness of the pancakes.
I made these three days after my return from Vietnam, to try and distract myself from what is a pretty bad case of post-holiday blues. I feel completely deflated, like I've been brought back to earth with a horrible bump (and actually, our flight landing at Heathrow was pretty bumpy). In many respects, England couldn't be more different to South-East Asia, and instead of relishing home comforts after a month of travelling, I'm starting to find them grating and alien, particularly where food is concerned.
Why do we happily pay around £20 for a meal in this country? After eating some of the best food of my life for under £1 in Vietnam, it genuinely pains me a bit to have to contemplate ever eating out in England again. Why do we have such gigantic dinner plates and therefore habitually scoff such enormous portions? No wonder we're all obese. Everything in Vietnam is served in tiny little bowls; not only that, but the rice comes out last, so you're mostly too full from good things like fish, meat and vegetables to contemplate ingesting nutritionally void carbohydrates.
Why do we eat with cumbersome and unwieldy knives and forks? Why do we cover everything in fat, especially cheese, when food can be so fabulously delicious without it? Why are we so obsessed with desserts and with sugar? Why is our 'exotic' fruit always rock-hard and underripe?
I'm sure I'll be back to my usual self in a few weeks, but right now I just feel desperately sad, pining for somewhere on the other side of the world that has called into question everything that once seemed normal to me.
On the plus side, though, there's nothing like a month away in exotic climes to put everything into perspective. Food, although probably my number one source of enjoyment in life, is far too frequently my number one source of stress, too. I have a tendency to get a little obsessive and perfectionist in the kitchen, constantly inviting friends over for lunch, dinner or breakfast and feeling that I have to present them with some Masterchef-worthy creation when deep down I know they'd probably be happy with a bowl of pasta and a cup of tea. I too often find myself rushing around town, making numerous shopping trips for ingredients because I know that the Asian grocers on the other side of town do better chickpeas than the supermarket, and the bread stall on the market does better bread than Tesco, and this fishmonger is better than that one, and panicking if I can't find a certain obscure ingredient that I deem crucial to the success of one dish, sometimes travelling miles out of my way to get it.
It's had me close to tears on several occasions, usually when I finally make it to the checkout and there is a queue and my arms are hurting from holding a heavy basket and I'm contemplating how on earth to get everything home on my bike without it squashing or falling out, and then the final straw is when the self-service checkout refuses to work properly (when does this ever not happen, I hear you cry), and I start hitting things. I've driven myself mad trying to frantically write blog posts to various deadlines - many of which are completely self-imposed and therefore fundamentally meaningless - trying to take artful photos of my cooking when all I really want to do is just eat the damn thing, trying to think of new and exciting recipes to share with you all when all I really want to do is tuck into a big bowl of pasta with nutmeg and grated parmesan.
Having a month off cooking and worrying about food shopping was utterly blissful. Savouring the simple pleasures of Vietnam, like a bowl of plain rice noodles with fresh herbs, or a perfect juicy mangosteen, or a delicious piece of tender lemongrass-coated chicken, has impressed upon me the madness of the way in which I live in relation to food.
Food should be, primarily, something that brings joy, not stress and tears. I contemplated returning to cooking and food blogging with dread and trepidation during my final few days in Asia, asking myself what it was all for, whether anyone really cared, why I torment myself with all this for no apparent reason. I had wild ideas about giving up food and the blog altogether, about shutting myself off from the world of food magazines, food journalism, cooking TV; the faux-drama of things like Masterchef and Great British Menu suddenly seemed laughably trivial - crass, even - compared to the very real drama of fast-paced life in Vietnam.
But then Sunday morning happened, and all I wanted was to get into the kitchen and to rustle up a batch of pineapple pancakes to remind me of my holiday. That's when I realised that, of course, food can be a wonderful thing, provided it is not taken too seriously. It is a means of reviving happy memories, of sharing experiences, of creating ties. It shouldn't be stressful or a source of anxiety, when done properly with just the right amount of care and good humour.
I'm really writing this to myself, in the hope that I'll remember all these things in the future, when my basket is heavy and the self-service checkout isn't working and I still have to bike to the other side of town to get some pomegranate molasses from the Asian grocer before rushing home to see if my bread has risen and my home-made cheese has firmed up.
However, I'm sure many of you out there will be able to relate. Then again, you've probably sensibly realised this already. I just needed four weeks on the other side of the world to come to this conclusion.
So for that, Vietnam, and those pineapple pancakes: thank you.
Pineapple pancakes (serves 2 very generously, or 4 less hungry people):
- 200g flour (I used spelt flour, but ordinary would be fine)
- 2 eggs
- 600ml milk
- Pinch salt
- Butter, for cooking
- 1 medium pineapple, cut into small thin chunks
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Icing sugar, for dusting
First, make the pancake batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, then make a well in the centre with a spoon and add the eggs. Pour in a little of the milk then, using an electric whisk, whisk the egg and milk into the flour, gradually incorporating more flour as you add the rest of the milk. You should end up with a thin, lump-free batter. Add the salt and whisk again.
Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Heat a knob of butter in a large non-stick saucepan or frying pan until sizzling, then add the pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until caramelised and sticky, and most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the vanilla. Set aside and keep warm.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and get some more sheets of greaseproof ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan, around 25cm in diameter, very hot, then add a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan. Wipe off any excess with kitchen paper, spreading the butter over the base of the pan, then pour a ladleful of batter onto the pan - you want a pancake about 5mm thick. Cook for a minute on one side, then flip over using a palette knife and cook for another minute. When done, place on the greaseproof paper on the baking sheet, then put in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining mixture, layering the pancakes between greaseproof as you go and keeping them warm in the oven.
When ready to serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of pineapple mixture in the centre of each pancake, then roll it up. Dust with icing sugar and devour, preferably with tea.