Eating up Vietnam #5: Hanoi

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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.

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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 #1: Saigon

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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

Eating at Yatai in Fukuoka

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There are few sights in Fukuoka, although there is a handful of heritage buildings, a pleasant park and the remains of a castle, as well as the endless scope for immature sniggering at a name which begins with ‘fuck you’. But there are well over a hundred yatai.

At nightfall, outside the big stores on the main shopping streets, vendors drag trailers up onto the pavement and convert them, Transformer-style, into pop-up restaurants. Yatai, they call them.

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From the outside, they look like workmen’s huts, or makeshift shelters for the homeless, with walls and a roof made of rough wooden sheets and opaque plastic windows. Some are open at one side, some have a curtain made of fabric or plastic, while a few have a proper door.

It is hard not to feel as if you are intruding when you push the curtain aside and take your place at one of the half dozen or so stools round the counter. You will almost certainly be the only foreigner. The other customers will probably be suited salarymen stopping off after work for a snack and a few glasses of shōchū. The chef is unlikely to speak any English; if you are lucky, there might be some English on the menu, and if very lucky it might make sense. A lot of the time, though, you are reliant on pointing, miming, taking pot luck or asking for something which you know they will have.

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There is more or less bound to be ramen, and Fukuoka has its own take on this iconic dish. The thick, unctuous broth is made with pork bones and caramelised onion and ginger, and cooked at a boil instead of a simmer, and served with thin noodles, red ginger, green onions and little puddles of black garlic oil. There will be yakitori, meatballs, gyoza dumplings and mentaiko, another speciality of the city: spiced and lightly-seared cod roe.

The first time I ate at a yatai, I sat with a group of salarymen, ties askew and several shōchūs into a bibulous evening, and one of them spoke excellent English – he modestly denied it – and guided me through the Japanese-only menu with suggestions on what to order. The next time, though, I was on my own but for a hit-and-miss app which could sometimes decipher Japanese script and, if it could not, just made something up. I hoped that the “fishermen with morning mist” was good and went well with the “toolshed drunk in water”. The weave of my t-shirt meant “eight,” the app told me in passing.

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The yatai stay open into the early hours but I dare say they are much like a British kebab shop later on when people tumble out of bars and decide they have to eat. They are packed up, then, and magicked away in that brief hiatus between the latest drinkers shuffling off home and the earliest commuters marching in to work.

Once the sun comes up, there is no sign that the yatai had ever been there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Zanzibar Night Market

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When the sun goes down, trestle tables go up in Forodhani Gardens in the middle of Stone Town. They are filled with lobsters, gleaming white squid, fat octopus tentacles, kingfish, marlin and tuna. Dozens of vendors light charcoal grills and wheel in juice presses like old-fashioned mangles. The crowds swarm in and jostle each other and the vendors shout and orders are placed and fish is thrown onto the grill. The juice man works at pit stop speed, forcing sugar cane through the press, folding it, forcing it through again, then again, and again, until it has given up all of its juice. Then he mixes in lime and ginger.

Squid is deceptively hard to get right. So many restaurants cook it too long, or not long enough. But the grill man knew better than that. He sliced it up with a few quick strokes and tipped it onto a paper plate with a handful of salad and a good squirt of chilli and tomalley sauce. He owed me some change but talked me into settling for a coconut bread. I ate the squid and the bread as I looked round the rest of the stalls, then replaced them with kingfish and green pepper skewers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Bruschetta: Ready before the Ready Meal

Why have ready meals when you can have bruschetta?

Dice a few tomatoes, chiffonade (slice into microfine strips) or chop a handful of basil leaves, throw both in a bowl with a glug of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper and gently toss. Then heat a grill or griddle pan, slice up a rustic loaf and grill/griddle the bread for a minute or so each side, rub one side with half a garlic clove and top with the tomato and basil.

At least as quick as microwaving some depressing “Mediterranean-style chicken” concoction from the supermarket.

Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet: Eating in Bangkok

All along the street, there are pushcarts piled up with food; with fried chicken, grilled octopus, satays, spring rolls, meatballs, noodle soup, and pad thai, which the vendor will make to order in seconds. She throws diced chicken into a hot wok, adds beansprouts and rice noodles, an egg if you want one, then soy sauce and tamarind, tosses it together and tips it onto a paper plate. You add a handful of chopped peanuts, a few dried shrimps, a sprinkle of sugar, a glug of fish sauce, chilli flakes, chilli sauce and pickled chilli slices.

My guidebook grumbled that the pad thai from carts around Khao San Road is not authentic, and doubtless it is not, but it was at least as good as I would get in my local Thai restaurant, and I was not complaining for the price of a packet of crisps back home.

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The first few times I ate out in Thailand, I tried to order a starter, a main and a side; but it either all came at once or in whatever order it happened to be ready. Thai meals are not structured like that. Rice – a side dish to us, a change from potatoes – is the heart of the meal for Thais. Khao means rice, but it also means meal. Everything else, the soups, the salads, the curries, the grilled fish, is a garnish for the rice. The idea is to have a balance of flavours: Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet, the cornerstones of Thai cuisine (and perhaps also the members of a Nineties girl band).

The fish was laid out on ice at the door of the restaurant and the eyes were black, the gills bright red. I had fish every night for a week. Always on the bone, grilled or deep-fried whole, served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chilli, lime juice and sugar. Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.

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There is a lot more to Thai curries than the soupy green and red clichés the whole world knows. Fiery jungle curry, for instance; and the subtler turmeric, lemongrass and coconut flavours of Massaman curry. Yellow curry paste is smeared over seafood before grilling; red curry paste is stir-fried with pork and green beans in pad prik moo.

I like chilli well enough, but it took me a while to build up the tolerance for incendiary dishes like som tam, made with shredded papaya and enough birdseye chillies to win a bet. I asked a Thai girl how many chillies she would use in a papaya salad. “Hmm, four, six,” she said, as if that were not many.

(c) Richard Senior 2014