|The Vietnamese Spread at Benjarong|
Benjarong has always been one of my favorite places to be in the city, and when K told me about the Vietnamese Food Festival, naturally, I was curious and excited. Vietnamese food has always been one of my favorite things, and till date, I haven’t had a decent Pho in Kolkata, so I needed to know what were the food available at the spread.
|Chef Nguyen Thi Nho (left) and Chef Ram Kumar (right)|
Chef Nguyen Thi Nho and Chef Ram Kumar were present in the premises, and both were eager to answer my questions about the cuisine. Vietnamese food is a curious mixture of local ingredients, French, Thai and Chinese techniques, and as a result, the food is a lovely mixture of texture and fresh flavors. The freshness of ingredients is key to Vietnamese food, and I adore the way Chef Nguyen Thi Nho explains to me the way the food differ between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The region around Hanoi prefer spice, while Ho Chi Minh City has food which is sweeter. Although Chef Nguyen was born near Hanoi, her training as a chef was done at Ho Chi Minh City, so the food she made are more influenced by that region. She is extremely particular about the food she cooks – using authentic ingredients which would bring you the taste of Vietnam in Kolkata. She discarded many dishes because she did not get the right ingredients, Chef Ram explains. Apparently, she wanted to make Banh Mi, but found the baguettes here to be too spongy for her liking. A baguette must be hard on the outside and super soft inside – not what you get here. While Chef Ram explains these things to me, she sits and sips a cup of ice cold black coffee, strong and bitter enough for Chef Ram Kumar to make a face.
The first question that I am asked is simple – “I hope you like beef?”. The glistening light of appreciation in my eyes is answer enough, Chef Ramkumar swiftly asks for some favorites, and then we settle down for a chat. I am curious about the reception of Vietnamese food in the city, and he assures me that the response has been very good, and Kolkatan people have liked the food. It was slightly difficult to source certain things, so they had to be flown – like the betel leaves in which the beef was wrapped, the beef stew spice, or the Vietnamese coriander.
|Cafe Da – Vietnamese Iced Coffee|
While we chat, little glasses of iced coffee are placed in front of us. Traditionally, a shot of filter coffee (made in a metallic drip filter) and a shot of condensed milk is mixed together before pouring over ice cubes or crushed ice. The server mixes the espresso and condensed milk together, creating a milky, yet bitter concoction, which I sip, not waiting for the ice to melt and tone down the sweetness quotient.
|Pho Bo (Beef Pho)|
The Beef Pho, or Pho Bo, is placed before me. With thin slices of cooked beef, freshly chopped mint and coriander, slices of red onion, and flat noodles, the broth is light and refreshing, simple and nutritious food, which highlights the essence of Vietnamese cuisine perfectly.
|Assorted Appetizer Platter|
An appetizer platter is placed before me, and I am spoiled for choices. The Vietnamese Fresh Shrimp Spring Rolls served with Fermented Bean Sauce and Mixed Pickles is filled with juicy, succulent prawns, mint, lettuce, and served with a sweet and pungent bean sauce. The Minced Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf with Spring Onion Oil and Roast Peanut is a very interesting dish – the betel leaves are imported from Vietnam. They are absolutely different from what we get here in Kolkata. Ideally, you should take one leaf of lettuce, then put some mint on it, followed by some cooked rice noodles, then place a slice of beef wrapped in betel leaf, sprinkle some of the sweet sauce accompanying it, wrap and serve. The idea is to wrap the beef in the herbage and eat, and the intensely flavored beef is toned down considerably. I pop a stray piece of betel-wrapped beef in my mouth, and find the soy-based glaze excellent. The Minced Beef Grilled on Lemongrass Skewers strongly smell of lemongrass and fish sauce – however, I expected it to be more juicy and tender.
|Grilled Shrimp Mousse|
The Grilled Shrimp Mousse comes on a short sugarcane stick. The idea is to bite on the sugarcane stick to add an extra hint of sweetness to the savory shrimp. Tasty, but at this point my attention is completely on the salad that is placed before me.
|Banana Blossom Salad with Chicken|
The Banana Blossom Salad with Chicken is served with little crackers which were again, flown down from Vietnam. Ideally, place a bit of the salad on one of the crackers, and consume the entire thing in a bite. Inelegant yet undaunted, I pile some of the salad on one, and bite into it. An explosion of sweet and salt burst into my mouth. The salad is heat and tang personified, the crunchiness of the fresh herbs and greens perfectly foiling the silky bits of chicken, and tastes completely different from what I have tasted before. Chef Ram Kumar smile and tells me that this salad is his favorite in the entire menu, and I do see why.
|Green Mung Bean Sticky Rice|
The main course arrives – Green Mung Bean Sticky Rice is stellar in execution – mung beans and rice steamed together till perfectly cooked before adding caramelized onion, herbs and topped with a hint of sesame. It’s again, simple and humble, but that is what makes me go back to it and sneak spoonfuls out of the bowl placed before me.
|Vietnamese Chicken Curry in Coconut Gravy|
The Vietnamese Chicken Curry has curry leaves and coconut flavoring the gravy. Tender, silky pieces of chicken thigh meat is simmered gently in it. The mild gravy would be perfect with some steamed rice, I declare silently.
|Beef with Lemongrass and Chilli|
I was enamored of the addictive kick of chilli in the Beef with Lemongrass and Chilli dish, where tender slices of beef were cooked in the lemongrass-laden dish, and then topped with crushed peanuts for some extra crunch. I kept on going back to it, and sneak in pieces of meat… the combination of tender beef with chillies and fragrant lemongrass could not be ignored for long.
The Baked Mung Bean Cake with Ice Cream was simplicity incarnate – the mung bean cake itself reminded me of mooncake filling, but the fact that it had a lovely texture and wasn’t too sweet was a bonus. Served with Vanilla Ice Cream and chopped fruits, it outshone the other dish, which was the Steamed Banana Cake, which was served with a thick layer of coconut sauce on top. I guess I have just never taken to banana, and I am not particularly fond of coconut. It was interesting, to be fair, but not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.
The Vietnamese Food Festival is on till the 24th, but there are talks about extending it to the end of this month, and I hope they do that. The dishes served are from the a-la-carte menu, where most of the dishes range from 248/- to 598/- depending on what you are eating (they have beef, crab and seafood in abundance) and a meal for two will cost roughly 1800/- plus tax. You can call Benjarong, South City Mall at 033-2422-8584 or 9331025052, place an inquiry or book a table.
Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee was invited to taste the Vietnamese menu of Benjarong Kolkata.