We stayed in the apartment in the center of Saigon for probably 4 months before we relocated to our home in the “suburbs”. One of our first evening outings we went to dinner riding in human-powered “rickshaws”. It was an elaborate caravan of three rickshaws maneuvering through the continually busy streets full of a cacophony of sounds. The close contact with the constantly moving mass of humanity was both exhilarating and terrifying. I quickly learned to pretend to be fearless as this appeared to be the means by which everyone survived side by side. After a lengthy ride we were deposited at a site along the Mekong River and made our way over plank bridges winding their way through homes and business too many to count. The sites, sounds, smells and the weather wound their way through and around us in a magical, exotic way. Nothing had prepared my little mind, my little heart for these explosions of colors, sounds and fragrant aromas.
I was excited beyond measure. We made our way to a floating wooden barge of a restaurant festooned with paper lanterns and colorful flags flapping in the river breeze. Everything was made of wood and we were to dine along side hundreds of other diners on the floating barge. Everything was moments away from being harvested, caught or butchered, the degree of freshness was a favor experience that immediately brought back memories of being on Grandma Sophie and Grandpa Harry’s farm.
As dusk was encroaching, we knew we were in for another feast, and having not been disappointed thus far, my siblings and I waited with bated breath for the meal to begin.
Platters of delicately fried rice, bowls of noodles, platters of shrimp and pork came and went and we were happily being introduced to the wonders of the “Orient”. Remember this was the sixties and that was the prevailing mindset. Privileged young travelers were we – as Yoda might say.
Then a dish that might have arrived with a Choral Chant accompaniment in my recollection came floating up in the hands of a very kind young man. Thin, delicate, crispy wafers of pounded deep-fried chicken with an as delicate rice wine vinegar and chili sauce was placed upon the table in front of me and once again I fell in love. Tender, light and seemingly endless this delicacy captured me at first sight and then first bite. Why unrequited you might ask? Because try if I might I have never found anything like this treat ever in the archives and archives of recipes I have searched. We visited this lovely adventure of a restaurant several more times during our stay in Saigon, until it became to dangerous to venture into the river regions as American military dependents.
So, of course it was my responsibility to try chicken the world over to see whether I could find this elusive French Vietnamese delicacy. I tried the chicken of Brazil, delicious moist stuffed and deep-fried morsels that tickled the taste buds and stays a favorite . Japanese Kara-age is tried and true, and my husband and I have been frequenting the same Japanese family restaurant for 35 years now. The closest version would probably be Tempura Chicken. After many enjoyable yet futile dining efforts I came up with my recipe (see below). It’s delicious, yet maybe not having the water lapping against the sides of the boat and the twinkling lanterns once the sun set is what I really have sought these years.
As Close As I could come to the light, crispy Chicken of the floating restaurant on the Mekong River
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast (pounded thin)
¾ cup beer (do not use a dark beer)
¾ cup rice flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-teaspoon garlic powder (to taste)
Vegetable oil (for deep-frying)
Kosher or sea salt
In a bowl whisk beer with the rice flour until very smooth.
Add in salt and garlic powder and cayenne.
Let batter sit out at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Heat oil to 375 degrees. Use candy thermometer to gauge temperature.
Dredge the pounded chicken breast into the batter coating completely with batter,
letting any excess drip off. Deep-fry turning once until golden (about 3 minutes).
Transfer to a piece of brown paper (a brown paper bag will).
Season the chicken immediately with salt.
¼ cup soy sauce (the brand of your choice)
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup Sambal Oelek (ground fresh chili paste)
- Tempura 101 (angethinkthoughts.wordpress.com)