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Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #9: Bánh Tôm

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I realise I am kind of resurrecting this blog from the grave having not updated it in a long time (did that sound like I’m blogging as a dead person?). However writing these words while back in the UK for a few months, its amazing how nostalgia spurs you into action, making you appreciate things that you didn’t consider the value of before. This post has been itching to fly for five months and was only completed today. There’s so much good food on the Hanoi streets and I would be stupid to ignore it any longer. Lets eat.

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You wont find a fitter sea critter fritter.

Vietnam is a land of cakes, yet not all of them are sweet.

You may have noticed that lot of Vietnamese dishes are preceded by the word ‘Bánh’, to which ‘cake’ is the closest translation. The word is not used exclusively for dessert dishes as is normally the case in the West. other examples include Bánh cuốnBánh mì (more on these later) The featured dish today is a ‘Bánh’ of the shellfish kind: shrimp cakes, a cake that Hanoians can be justly proud of.

A drive on my motorbike up a left-turning on Xuân Diệu road (a.k.a. the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Hanoi) leads to a more sedate bank of West Lake complete with a temple and a long line of Bánh Tôm joints. When they all group together like this, you know you’re in a good place. Maybe Milton Friedman was right, such intense competition in a confined area has usually meant higher quality.

Choosing a good place to eat is always a difficult task when there are so many stalls selling the same thing. I normally walk past the closest restaurant to the most popular road leading to the area. Those places do well enough with passing trade and as such do not need to maintain loyal customers through the quality of their food. Of course guidebooks will tell you to go to the place most popular with the locals, but that doesn’t account for change. How do customers manage to leave the complacent and overrated places behind if they are the ones people are always told to go to?

Crunchy and chewy

I digress. Rocking up with a friend, we choose the one with the right combination of friendly staff, cleanliness and furiously eating people. We order several and eat them with dipping sauce, coriander and wash it down with a beer. The fritters are fried with the shell still on… Crun-chewy. There are still those who try and take the shell off while eating these, but I would also bet good money that the same people watch this programme.

After a hearty pit stop at the fried crustacean station, stroll outside, gaze at the lake view and sigh. You’ve just found the quietest spot in Hanoi.

Also check out Piklet & pie’s amazing feature on the same dish.

Address: Close to Phủ Tây Hồ, Bến Nhật Bản streetTây Hồ district

Price: 6,000 VND per cake

Christmas in Malaysia: One day, five dinner parties and twenty mosquito bites

A Malaysian open house.

Spending my first holiday period away from the wind-chilled city of Manchester, I decided to visit some friends in Kuala Lumpur over the festive season. This culminated in a mammoth food-and-alcohol-fuelled Christmas day. Not so different from the Western Christmas experience then.

Actually, in other ways, it was. There is something immediately novel (and then disconcerting) about seeing images of Santa everywhere whilst nursing a sunburnt neck. On one muggy Malaysian morning I woke up to a Bhaṅgṛā version of ‘Jingle bells’. Another time, I walked through one of K.L.’s many malls in air conditioned comfort and serenaded by carol singers at every turn.  Surely ‘White Christmas’ can only work when sung through icy breath?

The country is made up of Chinese, Malay and Indian races who have lived with each other for long enough to teach the West a thing or two about multiculturalism. Where else would you see a Chinese girl eating a curry with a wonton soup starter? Or a middle-aged Chinese lady arm-in-arm with a middle-aged Indian lady? These people might as well be nodding their heads to Salif Keita on the way to an Jay Chou concert. In this country, even I look racist.

And as to be expected, this also means that the food is amazing. I was lucky enough to attend bunch of open houses on Jesus’ birthday. An open house is a day-long opening of your house to guests, with a large platter of dishes on display. The idea is that guests are free to come and go as they please, lending a more informal slant to proceedings when compared to the dinner parties we’re used to in the west. On a bonus note there isn’t a Norah Jones cd in sight.

Walk into any over 30s dinner party in England and Norah Jones will be on the Ipod speakers. FACT.

How was the food? Malaysian curries are typically drier than their Indian counterparts which means their flavour is often more concentrated. This consistency means eating with your hands (as most Malaysians do) makes a lot of sense.

I wolfed down Beef Rendang (a curry cooked with coconut milk), Nasi Lemak (a dry fish curry with rice wrapped in banana leaf with peanuts and boiled egg) and very oily chicken curry.

Nasi Lemak: My Favourite

I had so much food that the day eventually became a culinary blur, myself  being dragged from house to house, food placed in front of me and before I knew it my mouth was chewing. I wasn’t complaining – it was like being forced line-after-line of pure uncut cocaine by smiling Malaysian mothers. Only the occasional reggae version of ‘Silent Night’ interrupted the sound of eating.

Beef Rendang

Thosai (rice flour pancake) with Prawn Sambal, Coconut Chutney and Coconut Rice

Indian sweets make a common appearance at open houses.

Christmas day formally ended at 6am at a Christian household amongst a hazy backdrop of whiskey, Bhaṅgṛā and The Bee Gees. But that’s another story for another time.

Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #2: Bún cá (Fish noodle soup)

You are a filthy whore.

There is a Vietnamese saying: You turn to noodles (or your mistress) once you’re bored with your rice (or your wife). And just recently, a Viet-American rapper posted a song in which he compares his bedroom prowess to a bowl of Phở. Try as we might, it is impossible to disconnect the relationship between food and sex.

Which brings me to fish noodle soup.

Having powerful Vietnamese friends can get you far in Vietnam, but having civilian Vietnamese friends will merely grant you access to consistently memorable food. But that’s good enough for me.  As a gracious gesture for teaching her English, a friend’s Hanoian girlfriend takes me for a 60 pence bowl of Bún cá. But not just any old rice noodles. They are cut like tagliatelle and then left to brown in the Hanoian sun. The slow drying results in a rougher textured noodle that somehow manages to soak up lots of the the delicious fish broth in which it sits whilst remaining ‘al dente’ at the biting point.

Take me now.

The broth is made from the bones of the ‘lake fish’ (I couldn’t get a better definition from my friend) and topped with fish sausage, spring onions and a very bamboo-like yellow vegetable.

Slurping down to the bottom of the bowl,  I could feel the endorphins bouncing around my head like freed zoo animals.  Is this the same feeling girls get when they eat chocolate? I finally understand that Cadburys Flake advert from years ago.

As we ate, the streets shimmered under the monsoon rain as everyone ran for cover. maybe this place isn’t so different from Manchester after all.

First class

Well I’ve just had my first class. If only i could take a picture of the look that the vietnamese give me when I am introduced as their new ENGLISH teacher.

A kind of shock and bemusement which I kind of expect. What I didn’t expect was one of the students, indignant at being on the losing side of a word-game, mumbled something in angry vietnamese (I could tell it was angry because she sounded like my mother) and then told me to **** off. All in all then, a great start to my teaching career.

Apart from (or perhaps because of) that incident I’m looking forward to what the future holds. This is gonna be fun.

Other fun stuff: walking down the old quarter the other night a motorbike driver offers me “Vietnamese massage, very young girl, eeeeeverything fifteen doller (he actually did say eeeeeeverything)”. I hopefully enquire whether he has any much older women. MUCH older. He appears bemused and drives off.

Most interesting thing seen on the back of a motorbike this week: a 12-foot ladder laid horizontally. I wouldn’t want to be close to that bike at a junction.

Arrival in Hanoi

This picture really doesn't do justice to the number of motobikes in the city.

I have arrived in Hanoi. while taking the taxi to the city, I formed my first few observations of the city:

  • Hanoi is loud. really loud. It rocks to the constant beeping of horns from motorbikes and cars, giving off the impression of chaos. However I didnt see anyone get hurt and so downgraded my impression to that of a slow car chase scene. especially when motorbikes have no qualms about zipping down the wrong side of the road against knee-deep traffic. Unfortunately there was no funk soundtrack, just the saccarine-emotion blare of vietnamese power ballads (actually not that different to what my mum listens to on her VCDs).
  • To get an idea of how much honking goes on here, the taxi man’s horn was worn down so much I could make out the groove of his nails on the steering wheel.
  • People have this skill of squatting flat-footed which enables them to rest without the need for a chair and without their bum touching the ground. While it looks easy its actually quite difficult to master as I have found while practicing myself (note: avoid squatting asian-style while wearing skinny hipster jeans. They tend to tear in embarrasing places).

Since I normally hear Vietnamese spoken by my family and their friends, to be surrounded by so many native speakers is strange, as if at any point my parents will walk into shot and talk very conspicuously to the adjacent family about how my Cantonese isn’t up to scratch. As one lives in Manchester and the other 2 hours away, it is unlikely that this will happen. I was never taught Vietnamese and my family have a sneaky habit of using it when they don’t want me know what they are talking about. Much like those kids in school who used egg-language to laugh about your blatantly ten-pound gym trainers. It is therefore one of my primary objectives is to learn this language.

All of this in due time. but at the moment everyone here looks like me but I dont understand a word of what they are saying. I have the same guitar as everyone else but I’m not in the band (that piece of poetry was for free).