This is part three of the recap of my travels in SouthEast Asia, if you haven’t yet check out Pt1: Hong Kong – Shiny Meats and Chicken’s Feet and Pt2: Vietnam – Noodle Soup for Breakfast. The last instalment is part 4 – Vietnam Street Food.
Despite what I had heard I was still blown away by the quality and diversity of the food in Vietnam. In the markets all the food was so beautiful and fresh looking and though they did exist, supermarkets were few and far between. When chatting with the locals it was clear that everyone had an opinion on food and considered it important, a passion I liken to the French or Italian culture where people are willing to spend their time and money on food.
Aside from the noodle soups, we didn’t eat very much beef or chicken as everything seemed to be pork or seafood. There was lots of garlic and punchy herbs both familiar (mint, basil and cilantro) and new. On almost every table there was a chili sauce or fresh chilies, lime wedges and a salty garnishing liquid – mostly nouc cham but occasionally soy sauce in the North. Here are just a few of my favorite things we ate that were new to me.
On our first night in Ho Chi Minh City we tracked down a well reviewed little hole in the wall, Quan 94, that was known for their soft-shell crab dishes. We had the cha gio cua (crab spring rolls), cua lot xao me(soft shell crabs with tamarind sauce) and the miến xào cua (Glass Noodles with Crab) washed down with a few local beers. Everything was spectacular but the glass noodles were the stand out, full of delicious herbs and chunky crab meat. Going to Saigon? Go to Quan 94.
In Saigon we had Banh Xeo, in Hue it was Banh Khoai and in Hoi An in it was Ban Xeo, all of which are variations on the same delicious idea – a fried omelette or egg crepe made with shrimp, bean sprouts and rice flour. In Saigon it is lighter and cooked with less oil in a wok. It is served with fresh herbs and lettuce and you tear it into pieces to make little lettuce wraps. In central Vietnam it was heavier, crunchier and fried in lots of oil. They stuffed it with fresh tomatoes and you ate it with your fingers, all the oil and juices dripping down onto your lap. We did a cooking class in Hoi An and the crispy egg was wrapped in fresh rice paper with herbs and served with a dipping sauce for a nice texture contrast. The variation on that one simple idea seemed endless and all of the versions we tried were delicious.
When I came home the first dish I tried to recreate was Bún chả. Bún chả are pork meatballs served in a sweet and salty broth with sliced vegetables, accompanied by vermicelli and fresh herbs. In Hanoi it also comes with slices of grilled pork. Much like any good meatball the best ones we had were extra juicy but without seeming greasy. Here is my recipe for Bun Cha.
As expected, we did see quite a few fresh spring rice rolls – though only one which was filled with the typical lettuce and shrimp. As mentioned before some were filled with an omelette, but my favorite, was Nem Lui in central Vietnam which was filled with a crispy grilled pork and served with a warmly spiced peanut sauce. The texture of the crunchy pork inside the soft rice paper showed just how polished the cuisine is.
The most unusual dish we ate was probably Banh Beo a specialty of Hue. They are little steamed rice pancakes topped with dried shrimp, chillies, crispy shallots and a vinegar sauce, one of many specialties which is available in Hue only. To eat it you use teeny spoons to gently scrape the steamed rice from it’s little dish, drizzle some sauce on top and scoop it into your mouth, a process reminiscent of eating an oyster. Unlike the big-bowl meals of other cities, Hue felt like the place to go if you wanted to go on a refined food crawl.
That’s it for now, but believe me when I say that recipe development is already underway