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The verdict on Vietnam

The ongoing Lantern Festival at Blue Ginger offers Vietnamese cuisine, with distinct eastern and western influences at their best

The Lantern Festival has its roots in the Vietnamese farming community's bonding with the family.

VIETNAM's many-splendoured flavours could be one of the culinary world's most well-guarded secrets. The thought flitted through my mind at the ongoing Lantern Festival at the Taj West End's Blue Ginger. I can barely wait for an even closer acquaintance with its east-west palate that reveals its layered notes and herbal accents dish by dish, just as a masterly perfume would.

The jade soup launches our culinary odyssey. Based on a rich vegetable stock and spinach puree, it offers diced bean curd and a hint of garlic to the tongue. It owes its essence to neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, suggest the hotel's executive chef Sandeep Kachroo. He should know — having spent months in Vietnam (even trying barbequed cobra!), while coming to grips with its kitchen truths before the Blue Ginger brand was recently launched in Bangalore as India's first full-fledged Vietnamese restaurant.

For globetrotters

With Vietnamese expertise and authentic decor, the West End restaurant links India to 15 chic Blue Ginger restaurants in Vietnam and the U.S.. Its menu appeals to globetrotters, including Bill Clinton, who can watch their fare being rustled up in a glassed-in interactive kitchen. The cuisine marries French barbeque and sautéing with spice route flavours that meld Indian curry and Chinese five-spice powder. Each serving is garnished to beguile the eye at first sight.

Served on traditional blue-bordered Minhlong crockery that depicts scenes from a royal victory over evil, we settle down to a starter of succulent squid with crisp broccoli, hinting at lemongrass, soya sauce, and lemon juice, crunchy with crushed peanuts. At this point, a Vietnamese home truth surges to the fore. Each bite reveals the freshness of its key ingredients.

But what's Blue Ginger's Lantern Festival, on till August 19, all about? The mid-autumn celebration of Tet-Trung-Thu is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when farming community folks make up for lost time with their children by lighting lanterns and cooking special dishes.

Our sample fare includes such dishes. The braised crab with glass noodle in a clay pot is outstanding. Handled with a crab cutter, the juicy flesh unlocks ocean notes without much persuasion, fragrant with delicately-rendered onion, ginger, and soya. The barbequed chicken (a clear French connection there!) is spicy at first bite, melting to tenderness within, an intelligent yoking of east-west kitchens.

Other festival specials include steamed chicken with rock salt, deep fried tuna with lemongrass and chilli, and roasted whole crispy chicken with shrimp wafers flown in from Vietnam. Most dishes are served with rice.

For veggies

But vegetarians have no cause for despair. The black Chinese mushrooms with bok choy or Chinese cabbage, done till barely cooked, smacks of an unusual natural oil that is the base of most lipsticks! Myriad other options stud the rich menu.

Out of the blue, another surprise appears. Chicken curry, its boneless chunks steeped in a fragrant coconut milk gravy. But what is it served with? Fresh French baguette!

We recover from culinary culture shock to sample an unusual dessert of steamed layers of banana and tapioca, sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds, served with a delicate coconut sauce.

Replete from a close encounter with a unique fusion cuisine, which is both healthy and light, we take in subtle details. Each diner has sauces on offer individually — whether made of fish (nouc cham), bean, spicy lemongrass, soya-lime, or ginger-lime. Dishes are not rendered to an imaginary collective taste.

Historical influences reveal their impact by degrees as in the northern Vietnamese dishes that lean on soya sauce and wok techniques, signature notes from China. The Mongolians influenced their treatment of beef dishes. Food from further south bows to the spice route, while the French colonial legacy lingers on.

As lights play over a water hyacinth pond to live Vietnamese music each evening, the Lantern Festival does not seem worth missing. It could alter conventional notions of pan-Asian cuisines forever. May I raise my lime-laced, curacao-bright Blue Ginger mocktail in a toast to that?

For reservations, call Blue Ginger on 56605660.


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