Finding Cheese in Vietnam
Before leaving for my recent trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong, I was able to squeeze in one last business lunch. With who? Will Fertman, of course. Why? Because we’re going to try posting Miss Cheesemonger articles to the Culture blog on a regular basis. Are you excited? I sure am!
I told him about my upcoming Asia trip, and so, as we parted ways, the last words I heard floating back to me on the wind were, “If you do find cheese in Vietnam and Hong Kong, that would be amazing.”
Well, I didn’t dig around enough in Hong Kong to find cheese (I was too busy digging around Hong Kong for handbags), but I did find it in Vietnam. Thanks to a Saigon-based friend, I found a very respectable cheese counter at Annam Gourmet Market. Clearly, this two-story shop selling foods ranging from Ritz crackers to wine caters to the Western crowd. I made a beeline for the vast cheese case at the back of the 2nd story, where a selection of (mainly) French cheeses was remarkably well kept by their Vietnamese cheesemongers. The prices ranged from about 80,000-200,000 Vietnamese dong per 100 grams, or about $17.50-$43.50 per pound. In a country where there is nearly no historical dairy consumption and the average monthly income is around $400 that’s no small amount for a food item. I identified cheeses such as: St. Nectaire, Ossau-Iraty, Tomme Milledome, Monta Ewe Tomme, Feta, a couple of Goudas, Reblochon, Pecorino Romano, and Mozzarella Galbani. In a neighboring case, there was a sizable selection of charcuterie.
Not only can you find cheese in Ho Chi Minh City, you can find cheese made in Ho Chi Minh City. One Japanese-owned pizzeria, called Pizza 4P’s, makes its own cheese from local cows’ milk for its renowned Naples-style and Japanese-influenced pizzas. The website says the restaurant engages in “Edutainment,” since patrons can watch the entire pizza-making magic take place in an open kitchen. The only catch? I found out about it in time to try booking a reservation for a Monday night, only to learn that the restaurant is closed on Mondays. This will have to be a taste adventure for another trip.
Actually, I was very surprised at how many restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere served up Italian and American fare. In Hue, located in the central part of Vietnam, Mr. Cheesemonger and I visited a popular bar called the “DMZ.” There, an all English-speaking staff serve mainly pool-playing foreigners to the beats of the Cure, Led Zeppelin, or whatever other music matches their rock/rebel aesthetic. The walls are covered with notes written by visitors past. If it wasn’t for the sight of motos roaring past outside, I would have thought I was in the Mission district of San Francisco. I saw that they had a large pizza selection, so I decided to try a vegetable calzone. It was a near perfect experience. The tomato sauce, maybe a little small in quantity, was perfectly flavored and delicately textured. The vegetables were fresh, and the crust was light and flaky. The cheese, on the other hand, nearly spelled my demise. It was so rubbery, no amount of chewing seemed to break it down, and Mr. Cheesemonger watched bemused as I choked on it twice. I can’t say I blame the restaurant, though, for that failing. Cheese is a foreign ingredient, consumed by foreigners, and I am sure, costly to keep. Plus, there are so many Hue dishes competing for attention, such as Banh beo, small rice flour galettes topped with fried onion and served with fish sauce, that cheese becomes practically insignificant.
I loved my time in Vietnam, my motherland, and I cannot wait to return. Maybe next time, I will find cheese becoming more accessible, but even if I don’t, the local culinary tradition is so rich and delicious, it doesn’t matter.