Greek cuisine in Saigon

Saigon is a city that looks out upon the entire world and beckons it to come hither. And hither so much of it has been coming these last 20 years. That includes the world’s cooks and restaurateurs. Among the first to arrive when the city opened herself up were the French and Italians. They were quickly followed by Indians, Chinese and Koreans. It wasn’t long before most of the world’s culinary styles were represented here. Except for the world’s oldest: The Greek. Until recently, that is. We now have two locations where Olympic fare is to be had. But first a bit of background.

The cuisine of Greece is culinary history right in your mouth. Indeed, the world’s oldest surviving book of gastronomy is The Deipnosophists (Banquet of the Wise), by Athenaeus (AD190). What is more remarkable about this tome is that it draws on a time before the golden age of Pericles. In the work, the author quotes numerous writers who had been dead for six centuries. Greeks have always been interested in a good meal.

It’s a cuisine created by people who have long known the greater world and its gifts, but equally its hardships. And so it is a cuisine whose practitioners have learned to extract the last ounce of nutrition, as well as the last iota of pleasure from every ingredient. Greek cuisine will give you sensory memories to savour forever. You would marvel at the bread and wonder why they don’t make it like that at home. The wine, often straight from the barrel, comes from the oldest vineyards in the world. Sweets are made from recipes that have been passed down for over a thousand years. Many will say it’s the best way to go vegetarian (though no real Greek would do so).  It will extend your capacity for olive oil (lucky it’s so good for you). And at every Greek table you’ll encounter mezedhes, the small dishes taken as snacks or, if there are enough, a full meal. Mezedhes are not just food, they are where Greek gustatory verve and kitchen panache are displayed. This is where food is fun, colourful and whimsical. Mezedhes are a twinkle in the cook’s eye, a smile on the diner’s lips. They are the way the Greeks make love to your tummy. For two examples think babaganoush and hummus. Yeah, they come originally from Greece.

Greek cookery is unpretentious. Food will not be tarted up and made to look cute, grand, rare or costly. There is no over reliance on sauces, no confusion of tastes. You can be sure that whatever you order it will taste of what it is. Plus olive oil. The basis of Greek cuisine is the Holy Trinity of grain, olive and wine. These will be served at every meal, as they have been since antiquity. Apollo had three granddaughters: Spermo (Grain), Elais (Olive) and Oeno (Wine). These three are still the Greek equivalent of the kitchen gods.

So where to find Greek cuisine in Saigon? If you want to spend some cash in a place that’s well worth it, head to Saffron, at 51 Hai Ba Trung, District 1. Dark and deep, this place recalls an Aegean grotto where Circe herself might cast a spell. The service is among the highest level in town, worthy of mighty gratuities. The food is not exclusively Greek; it’s labelled as Mediterranean. But as any food historian will tell you, it was the Greeks who taught the entire Mediterranean basin the art of cookery. Purely Greek specialities here include: Saganaki (fried cheese) Souvlaki (grilled pork) Moussaka (eggplant casserole) and the classic Greek salad with feta cheese.

Down market but high quality, with a 100 percent Greek menu is Zeus, at 164 Cong Quynh, District 1. This place is a good approximation of a typical Greek souvlatzidhiko, specialising in all manner of grilled meats with side dishes and salads. You can order at the grill counter for takeaway, or have a seat in the air-con parlour for sit-down dining. For a mezedhe try the tzatziki, a dip of tangy yoghurt with fresh garlic and olive oil. Anything wrapped in pita bread is good. The Greek salad is a meal unto itself. And the classic Greek dessert, baklava, a layering of paper-thin phyllo dough, crushed nuts and honey and spice, baked to golden is a gustatory siren song.

Now you just need to learn the Greek toast: Yamas!