Eating up Vietnam #5: Hanoi

Copy of DSC_0077

I felt self-conscious as I sat on the plastic stool on the pavement at the side of a busy intersection in the Old Town of Hanoi. I was the only Westerner and, although I am nobody’s idea of tall, seemed an ungainly mess of knees and elbows on that tiny stool, like an embarrassing father squeezing himself into a pedal car. The other customers, hunched over their bowls, took no notice.

I had watched the vendor set up. She humped everything across town on a yoke on her shoulder, the big pot with the broth and the meatballs, the containers with rice vermicelli, spring onions and coriander, the bowls and the stools, which she laid out in a semi-circle, and a hand-drawn sign to tell passing customers that she was selling bún mọc.

She spoke no English and my Vietnamese had still not got beyond xin chào (hello), so I just pointed and she raised an index finger to confirm that I wanted one bowl. I nodded and she scooped a handful of noodles into the bowl, chopped a few stalks of coriander and sprinkled them over the noodles, then ladled in the pork broth and meatballs fashioned from minced pork and chopped shi-take mushrooms. She took up the cleaver again and clicked off a few slices of spring onion tops, scattered them over the top and handed the bowl to me.

Wherever I walked in the old town, I smelled pork grilling over charcoal at the little shops selling bún chả, Hanoi’s most iconic dish. The vendors marinate pork mince and belly pork overnight with fish sauce, soy sauce, honey, garlic, shallots and spring onion, then form the mince into patties like miniature burgers and cut the belly into strips and char-grill both. They blend fish sauce, sugar and vinegar with pork broth, heat it up and add the meat, then serve it to you with rice noodles and an abundance of greens. As often in Vietnam, you assemble it yourself at the table.

DSC_0164

Hanoi’s food vendors tend to do one thing and do it well. The restaurants along Chả Cá Street only do chả cá, nothing else. Chả Cá La Vong is the best known; so well-known that restaurants all over Hanoi have appropriated its name. It has been there for generations, making the same dish dozens of times every day.

I was expecting a menu, but I am not sure why when it was chả cá or eat somewhere else. Instead the waiter came with a sauté pan, sizzling with chunks of turmeric-coated fish, which he balanced on a fondue burner, then brought a bowl of rice noodles, a generous plate of herbs, and a ramekin of dipping sauce made with lime juice and chilli.

I was supposed to take over the cooking myself at that point but was not sure what to do, so the waiter, spotting my confusion, took a handful of herbs and dropped them in with the fish, and then when they had wilted, switched off the burner and left me to work out that the fish and the herbs went in the bowl with the noodles.

The chả cá was great, but then everything I had eaten in Vietnam had been great, from south to north, from Saigon to Hanoi and everywhere I had stopped in between; from smart restaurants to street food carts, from summer rolls wrapped in bus station cafes to lobster grilled on the beach. It seemed impossible to eat badly in Vietnam.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

Copy of DSC_0079e

Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

DSC_0038

I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating Up Vietnam #3: Hội An

DSC_0981

We went first to the market to pick up ingredients. Women in silk trousers and conical hats sat surrounded by baskets piled high with limes, spring onions, garlic bulbs, leafy herbs and turmeric roots. Shoppers weaved between stalls on their scooters.

Back at the cooking school, Hanh gave us each a booklet of recipes and a job to do. I started shredding the unripe papaya, Scott did the same with the carrots and Melissa assembled a dressing sauce with the familiar blend of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli.

Every country in Indochina has a take on green papaya salad. The Thai version, som tam, is well-known in the West: the others, not. Vietnam’s món gòi đu đu, is similar but simpler and lacks the conflagration of chillies. Just coat shrimps with paprika and pan-fry fleetingly, then toss with shredded papaya and carrot, mint and sesame seeds in the dressing and garnish with peanuts and onion flakes.

Once the salad was prepped, we started on gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls. It was just an assembly job after we had shredded a cucumber and carrot and squeezed the liquid from each. Soften the rice papers briefly in water, dry them off, and roll them up with the shredded vegetables, shrimps, chopped mint and onion flakes, then serve with a dipping sauce.

DSC_0968

Richard, did you say goodbye water,” said Hanh, “because the rice paper still look wet”. I stopped, patted it dry some more, and continued.

We cooked aubergines, then, with a technique more commonly used for fish. Peel, quarter and briefly deep-fry the aubergines, then roast them in a clay pot with spring onions, paprika, sugar and soy sauce until it caramelises. Garnish it with chopped coriander and serve with rice on the side.

The phở was just about ready by the time the aubergines were on the heat. We made a simplified version of this well-known noodle soup with the stock extracted from beef bones furiously boiled for twenty minutes – it is better simmered for an hour or more – with sugar, ginger, coriander, star anise and shallots. We coated a beef fillet with chilli paste and sugar and left it to marinate while the stock was cooking, then sliced it and served it with beansprouts, mint and peanuts and the stock poured over the top.

Hội An has a noodle dish of its own which I like even better than phở. Cao lầu is made with pork shoulder marinated and roasted in the Cantonese way, flat noodles, a generous handful of leafy herbs and pillows of deep fried pork rind. They will tell you in Hội An that it can only be made with water from an ancient well in the town, which is obviously not true, but I never saw it on menus elsewhere.

Cao_Lau_Hoi_An

There is a story, too, about bánh bao vac, or white rose as it is called on English menus. They say that the recipe is a secret, known only to one family which has handed it down the generations and supplies every restaurant in Hội An. It sounds to me like something they have made up for tourists. Surely any good chef could work out what was in it and try different quantities until it was right. But, again, I never saw it anywhere else but Hội An.

White rose is half a dozen rice flour dumplings, stuffed with shrimps, onions and seasoning, topped with deep-fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. They are much lighter than the Chinese-style dumplings you find all over Asia, and made me think more of tortellini. They are not exactly white and they look nothing like roses.

Cá kho tộ (fish in clay pot) is not a local dish. It is on menus throughout Vietnam. There are any number of variations but the basic idea is to roast snakehead fish, or similar, in a clay pot with a counter-intuitive caramel sauce. I ate it throughout Vietnam, but it was never quite as good as it was in the courtyard of a lovely restaurant overlooking the river in Hội An.

© Richard Senior 2015                     

Cao lầu image: By Dragfyre (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

photo (2)

In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

Flickr4062448221

There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

DSC_0077

Scooters wail through the tangle of alleys, weaving round ladies in conical hats with yokes balanced over their shoulders and old pushbikes half-buried under baskets of fruit and slowly perambulating cyclos. The sound reverberates off the walls of the decaying colonial buildings with their sagging awnings and missing windows and roofs bodged up with corrugated iron.

Traders spill out of their shops and fill the pavements with mannequins, fridges, anvils and circular saws. Women sit cross-legged, shaving pigs’ trotters and scaling fish with cleavers; men kneel over sheets of stainless steel, hammering, grinding, welding, drilling, and fashion them into boxes and bins. Street food vendors arrange tight circles of miniature stools on any available corner. There is nowhere to walk but in the road with the scooters.

DSC_0093

One shop sells nothing but heaters. Next door sells nothing but fans. Three doors further on sells lightbulbs. Two doors beyond that sells adaptors and leads. You go to one side of the road when your scooter needs tyres, to the other when it needs a new seat. And if it needs a new mirror as well, then you nip across town to the French Quarter. There are two streets on which every shop sells metal boxes, one street reserved for flowers and one for bamboo poles. Padlocks and door handles have half a street each, as have cooking salt and caged birds. Shoes get a crossroads of their own, but trainers, flip-flops and football boots have to share with army surplus. Musical instruments are lumped together with antiques, on the hunch, perhaps, that people who play instruments are likely to collect antiques.

DSC_0406

Chả Cá Street is named for the single dish which the restaurants along it sell. The best known is Chả Cá La Vong, so well known that restaurants all over town have ripped off its name. It is a poky little place with a rickety staircase leading up to a room with the look and atmosphere of a rowdy works canteen. Though it is in all the guidebooks and on every food blog, most of the other customers are shirt and tie locals. There is no menu, because chả cá really is all they do. They don’t see the need – as a restaurant would at home – for novelty chả cás or alternatives for people who go to a chả cá restaurant but don’t really care for chả cá.

The waiters bring the chả cá in relays. First, a sizzling fondue pot filled with turmeric-stained fish. Then, as that hisses and crackles in the middle of your table, a bowl of rice noodles. Then a ramekin of dipping sauce, a plate of crushed peanuts and a handful of herbs, which the waiter dunks in with the fish to wilt, and leaves you to assemble it when the fish and the herbs are done.

(c) Richard Senior 2014