Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Eating The Vietnamese Way

Vietnam is charming, magical. It is a country of contrasts from white sand beaches and verdant rice paddies to odd-shaped moss green mountains. Rivers run muddy, coconut palms grow stunted and the people are welcoming. With many rivers in the country, we were transported in bamboo boats, sturdy punts, fast river canoes, always enjoying the lush countryside. It is a poor country, especially in rural areas. And yet the children smile enchantingly, the landscape pleases and the food, oh the food is ever so delicious! This post is a foodie's guide to some of the most delectable, palate pleasing meals we had. Let me whet your appetite with some of the classics. 

Lunch or dinner could begin with Summer Rolls, softened rice paper filled with rice vermicelli, carrots, greens and shrimp or fried fish. Freshness of ingredients is par for the course. The dipping sauce comprises of miso, fish sauce, green chiles, peanuts, sugar, salt and lime juice. Divine! Fried Spring Rolls are small cylinders tightly packed with pork, crab and rice noodles and spices. Extremely divine! 

Pho is omnipresent at breakfast, lunch and dinner. People slurp and spoon it on roadsides and in restaurants. The best, yes I mean the very best I've ever had, can be sampled at Pho Pasteur in Ho Chi Minh City. Served on communal tables, the hot bowl of broth is surrounded by a blizzard of bean sprouts. basil, shiso leaves, mint, and other unidentifiable herbs to add to the broth. Oblong donut like puffs accompany the pho as well. Then there are the chiles! Contrary to popular belief, the red chiles are not as spicy as the green ones! We learned that lesson very fast! A squeeze of lime, chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other, we slurp our way alongside the locals. Pho in Saigon is much more robust than the northern versions.

Banh Xeo (phonetically pronounced baan sayo) is a turmeric laced rice pancake, filled with sliced veggies, bean sprouts and shrimp. It should be eaten piping hot. We ate some in The Mekong Delta, but our favorite was a hole-in-the-wall in Da Nang. Banh Xeo Ba Duoung is a small restaurant at the end of a nondescript narrow lane. Looking at your surroundings, you might wonder if you are in the wrong/right place, so use Google Maps and you will get there. Once you are seated the meal appears magically without ordering! That's just the first plate! Crusty pancakes filled with small shell-on shrimp peeking out, steam and sizzle. A mound of herbs, salad, sliced cucumber and eggplant, green papaya slaw, chiles, a peanut and pork sauce to die for and rice paper are on the table. Peel off a rice paper, place the pancake on it, top it with a little of everything, roll it into a cylinder, dunk it in the sauce, take a bite. Experience the burst of flavor in your mouth! A warm crunch, softness, spice, freshness! We polish it off and start again! The trick is to add the fillings sparingly so the rice paper doesn't tear. It takes a little practise, but once you get the hang of it, you are off to the races. We went through five plates easily!! This is what they are famous for. They also had an intriguing beef stir fry and Nem Lui, minced meat on sticks. All of it was delicious. It was an industrious lunch! We licked the bowls of pork and peanut sauce clean!

And then there's bun or rice noodles. Vietnam is dotted with rice paddies, swathes of eye-pleasing emerald, shamrock and chartreuse.  Noodles made with rice, swim in some kind of broth. The Bun Bo, noodles with beef, we had at Bun Bo Nam Bo Bach Phuong  in Hanoi, was exceptional. They only serve this one dish. The noodles come in a large bowl, smothered with fried onions, garlic, lettuce, herbs, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, thinly sliced raw papaya and beef. Chopsticks helped the mix the noodles as the broth at the bottom of the bowl is where the flavor lies. This bare bones restaurant only serves bun bo, and they do it masterfully.

The other noodle dish is Bun Cha, with an addition of grilled pork. Bun Cha Dac Kim, also in Hanoi, is another small establishment with trestle tables and wooden stools. You can follow your nose, smelling the barbeque. The owner looking in askance at five Indians at the table, agitatedly asked us if we eat pork! After an affirmative answer his relief was evident and the bun cha arrived. Broth ladled over grilled pork, sausage, pork belly and raw papaya... the aroma enough to drive us mad! Accompanied by rice vermicelli, herbs, salad and a pungent garlic sauce, we set about adding items to the broth. We order crab spring rolls, which are to be dunked in the broth, transforming crispy rolls into soft ones. It is like nothing I've tasted before! 

One night we ventured into another small place to eat another Hanoi delicacy, Banh Cuon. Soft, velvety rice paper rolls filled with barbecued pork and smothered with fried onions and basil, are made to perfection at Banh Cuon Gia Truyen Thant Van. The rice flour wrap is made on a thin muslin cloth stretched tight over steaming water. The wrap takes five seconds to form, after which it is quickly filled. Every roll is made fresh, so our order takes a while since everyone wants their own! They melt in your mouth, their slippery texture a challenge to pick up with chopsticks!

If you've indulged in too much meat and fish, then it is time to step inside Hum Cafe in HCMC. Be prepared for a flavor explosion. Our three meat lovers were drooling over the sweet potato salad, fried lotus stems dusted with spices, mushroom spring rolls and the tofu scallop curry. A must-do if you are in HCMC!

The scenic coast brings us to clams with ginger and lemongrass, oysters on half shell with wasabi, squid and grilled prawns. No sauce required! We sit at Ba Le, a beach cafe, dig our feet in the sand, enjoy the cool sea breeze, savor the peace and quiet and scarf down fresh seafood.

Street vendors churn sugarcane juice in super clean machines. We buy a ridiculously cheap glass every so often. Coconuts are ubiquitous, with sweet water and soft flesh. Sliced mango with chili and salt is mouth puckering. Dragon fruit, pomelo, jackfruit, passion fruit, custard apples, longans, oranges and guavas were part of our daily diet.

If you haven't had a Vietnamese cold coffee, you will have missed an essential taste of this country.

We come to the Banh Mi, the addictive sandwich of Vietnam, a crusty French bread loaf, filled with pate, roast meat, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro and a fish sauce vinaigrette. Anthony Bourdain ate at a small sandwich shop in Hoi An, Banh Mi Phuong, and now the lines are out the door. Then there's Madam Khanh- the Banh Mi Queen. Both sandwiches were outstanding, Madam Khanh having a slight edge over Bourdain's preference. 

I have to mention Quan Banh Khoai Hanh in Hue, where we ate a plateful of shrimp and pork wrapped in a glutinous coating and then steamed in banana leaves. Banh Bot Loc is so much fun to eat, messy but delicious. Chopsticks help some!

We stumbled with dessert. There weren't too many choices. On many occasions it was a sizzling banana pancake from a roadside stand, drizzled with condensed milk. Or ice cream.

Then there was che. Little Bowl in Hanoi does a tender coconut, jackfruit, tapioca pearls, pandan jelly, coconut and condensed milk bowl, served with a side of ice. Refreshing and light, che was the perfect ending.

We did enjoy fine dining at Morning Glory, Nu Eatery and Hai Cafe in Hoi An. We reveled in our stay at the luxurious Ana Mandara in Hue. Highway 4 in Hanoi offered us an extensive menu in exotic meats. The only non-Vietnamese meal we relished was the excellent thin crust pizza at Pizza 4P.  

Vietnamese food is diverse enough not repeat a meal. We left with a gamut of dishes we had yet to try !You could eat like a king or a pauper and still be completely satisfied and replete.

Chopsticks are de rigueur. An adventurous appetite is a must. The Vientiane table awaits you!