The seafood in Vietnam is sweeter and more succulent than anywhere I can remember. I ate this simple but lovely dish in a café overlooking the endless white sands of China Beach, made famous by American soldiers during the war, who took time off here while the Vietcong kept watch on them from their cave hideouts in the Marble Mountains nearby.
As long as you cook the squid very briefly and add a hint of sugar you can make this one of the most pleasurable quick summer meals. The best type of steamer to use is the wide stainless steel two-tiered kind or the Chinese basket kind which stacks on top of a saucepan. Ready-prepared small squid are now sold in major supermarkets and by some fishmongers.
Slice the squid thinly across in rings, leaving the tentacles whole. Crush the peppercorns coarsely in a pestle and mortar. Cut the chilli open lengthways under running water and discard the seeds and stem. Peel the ginger, then chop both chilli and ginger together very finely. Mix them with the rice vinegar and transfer to a very small, shallow serving bowl to put on the table. Chop the mint leaves up roughly.
To cook the squid, put it in the top of a wide steamer, or 2 smaller ones — the steamer should not be over the water at this stage. Bring the water to a fierce boil, then put the steamer basket over the water and cover. Steam for literally just a minute or two, until the squid has turned opaque. Then turn the squid into a mixing bowl, add the caster sugar, coarse black pepper, a sprinkling of crushed sea salt and the chopped mint. Pile into a heated serving dish and serve immediately, with the dipping sauce.
© 1997 Josceline Dimbleby. All rights reserved.