Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Eating with Eichholtz
I ate my first ever Vietnamese meal a long time ago in Lomé, the capital of Togo. My friend from secondary school and I were to spend a month mountain biking in West Africa. After a long flight in a rickety Aeroflot Tupolev, Gerard and I were getting our bearings at a guest house run by an older Vietnamese lady, awaiting the arrival of our mountain bikes. The lady in question was an excellent cook and the pièce de résistance of the first lunch was a large plate of frog legs with a wonderful mint sauce. A few days of feasting later, we picked up our bikes from a counter at the airport and our journey inland could begin. But I’d developed a lifelong love of Vietnamese food.
My love was largely platonic, as it was rarely consumed. This is because around that time I moved to Maastricht, which had no Vietnamese restaurants whatsoever. A market stall selling greasy egg rolls – that was all. I had to satisfy my hunger elsewhere.
Fortunately, this situation resolved itself a few years ago. Maastricht now has a real Vietnamese restaurant: Saigon Cuisine on the Boschstraat. It has the same typically bleak snack bar interior so many restaurants in Asia have, but this usually doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of the food they serve. Time for a test!
I may have a predilection for Vietnamese food, but I’m aware of my limitations, so I sampled Saigon Cuisine’s dishes in the company of two experts: Nguyen Thi Nhan and Tran Thai Son. Both were born and raised in Vietnam and are now studying in Maastricht. Nhan has been here for three years; she finished her master’s degree and is currently pursuing a PhD at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences. She’s from the Hanoi area. Son is from South Vietnam and is enrolled in the master’s in Business Research at the School of Business and Economics. They tell me they rarely eat Vietnamese food here in Maastricht, as it’s difficult to make at home and going out to dinner doesn’t fit their budgets. Nhan’s favourite home-cooked meal is Dutch stamppot! And to think there are still people who complain that foreigners don’t integrate well…
I’ve been to Saigon Cuisine before, of course, but this is my first time visiting the restaurant with people who really know their Vietnamese food, so I’m very curious. We first order the Goi Cuon Tom Thit, freshly rolled cold spring rolls filled with noodles, vegetables and shrimp or chicken – my table companions preferred these to the vegetarian options available. The rolls are served with a slightly sweet sauce made from beans and peanuts. Nhan and Son are happy with the result. The spring rolls have the right structure. They’re perfectly rolled, in such a way that all the ingredients are visible through the rice paper. They’re soft and crunchy at the same time. Without the sauce they’re a little bland, but the sauce adds just the right lift, although Nhan prefers a saltier sauce: apparently, sweet sauce is more of a South Vietnamese thing.
Next, we order a bowl of pho. Pho is a beef broth with noodles, vegetables, beef (finely chopped tenderloin, in this case) and fresh herbs (Thai basil). Pho is a classic Vietnamese dish; normally, everyone at the table eats a whole bowl of it. We share a big pot between the three of us. I’m taught some Vietnamese dining etiquette: the woman at the table dishes out the soup and the oldest man is served first. The soup isn’t spicy, but we can add chopped fresh black pepper, lemon or pepper sauce to taste. I love the pho and the juicy tenderloin, but my table companions are of the opinion that there aren’t quite enough herbs in the soup. Back home, pho contains a wider variety of fresh herbs, giving it a richer flavour.
The last dish we try is Bun Thit Nuong, a noodle dish with grilled pork shoulder and raw vegetables. It’s served with some fried spring rolls. Another lesson in table manners: the three of us take food from the large bowl and put it in our own bowls, but we flip our chopsticks around to do so for reasons of hygiene. The pork is very tasty – fatty, slightly sweet with honey, tender inside and crunchy-sticky on the edges. Nhan and Son are also very satisfied.
At Saigon Cuisine, we tried various classic Vietnamese dishes and they were delicious. And even students can afford to eat here: most main dishes are around €10.
Every three weeks, Professor Piet Eichholtz (Professor of Finance at SBE) trawls the streets of Maastricht in search of good food with a student or colleague and reports on his findings here