Some of my fondest food memories in Vietnam involve seafood, beginning with an outing that occurred just a few months after I moved to Saigon, more than 10 years ago. Three sisters (one of them a student in an English class I taught) took me to a crab shack in Chinatown. The shack was located on a “crab street,” where every shop served the same savory crab smothered in tamarind sauce: my student insisted the one she took me to was the best ... naturally. We ate with our hands and tossed the shells onto the floor once we'd picked each claw clean. As we walked out of the restaurant, leaving behind empty beer glasses smeared with the sticky, dark brown pulp of the sauce, little pieces of tamarind-glazed shells stuck to our flip-flops, and we were destined to become friends for life.
On this last trip back in October 2005, seafood played a prominent role during visits to the coastal towns of Hoi An, Nha Trang and Phan Thiet. My sister Julie and I found ourselves obsessed with squid, even though neither of us is a fan at home, barring the deep-fried calamari appetizer we occasionally order when afflicted with lack of imagination. The squid in Vietnam has a flavor so pure, so of the sea---without being briny---that I am still trying to find just the right words to describe it. In Phan Thiet, with the fabulous Jon Bourbaud, Executive Chef at the Novotel, we marinated just-off-the-boat squid fillet in lemongrass, chili and cilantro, dipped it in nuoc cham, tasted, and swooned. The key to this dish’s success: freshness and simplicity.
Simplicity is behind one of my favorite nibbles in Vietnam: grilled shrimp with lime juice, salt, and pepper. This basic sauce is common, and I have also enjoyed it with grilled beef and grilled chicken. But I’m sticking with shrimp here, because it makes such a perfect summer appetizer. In preparation for the book, Julie and I have catered two parties: a trunk show for 75 for my friend Connie, a fellow writer and talented jewelry designer, and a dinner party for 25, at the house of our friends Joel and Dagny in Paso Robles. Along with the clay pot fish and banana flower salad that Julie has perfected---sorry, I’m holding out on this one, you’ll have to wait for the book to get the recipe---we served this grilled shrimp, and both times, people raved.
Grilled Shrimp with Lime, Salt and Pepper
- Fresh, uncooked shrimp, as much as you want to feed however many you’d like
- Lime juice
- Good sea salt
- Fresh ground pepper
- Skewers, pre-soaked in water, so they won't burn on the barbecue
Instructions for the Shrimp:
1. Fire up your barbecue.
2. Brush the shrimp with oil. I like peanut oil, but at the dinner party in Paso, Joel pulled a bottle of Pasolivo Lime Olive Oil from his cupboard. The oil is from the local Pasolivo olive estate, owned and operated by our friend Joeli Yaguda and her family. The company’s distinctive oil, blended with lime, gives the shrimp a soothing flavor that reminds me a bit of the soft vanilla-citrus quality of kaffir lime leaves. You could choose to braise your shrimp with this oil and skip the sauce altogether, and you would still have a wonderful appetizer, but I recommend giving the sauce a try.
3. Skewer the shrimp.
4. Grill the shrimp.
Instructions for the Sauce:
1. Squeeze lime juice into small dishes (however many you want to scatter around).
2. Add sea salt and ground pepper to make a watery paste. I apologize for not offering precise measurements, but this is definitely a dish you should create to taste.
A Note on SaltRecently, we tested this dish on our parents, using the following flavored salts:
Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce) Salt:
This salt was given to me by Didier Corlou, the Executive Chef at The Metropole in Hanoi. It is offensively stinky, but when mixed with the lime, it neutralizes nicely. Because the salt is one of Didier’s creations---he is a mad culinary scientist, as well as master chef---it’s not available for purchase. But you might be able to create the effect by mixing a bit of fish sauce with your lime juice.
We also used a packet of lime-coconut salt that Joeli gave us. I liked the addition of coconut a lot. I am trying to track down the name of the company that makes this salt. In the meantime, if you want to try it, I suggest shaving some fresh coconut meat into your lime mixture. You might even dribble in a little coconut milk, too.