Category Archives: Vietnam

Taste is a state of mind.

 

A highly-addictive white substance popular with the youth.

 

My dad was a Chinese restaurant chef in Manchester in the early Nineties (hopefully you’ll have a mental image of garlic frying to the sound of M People). If you’ve ever had Cantonese food in the West, you’ll know that the food is both gloopy and delicious. But not tasty in a ‘these ingredients work really well together’ kind of way, but more that you can’t physically stop eating and you don’t know why. Its the same feeling you get when eating certain types of potato crisps, that tingling in your mouth after you’ve finished the family-sized bag alone in your room. The snack-guilt realisation that this bag has replaced one of your daily meals. Your stomach a pit of dehydrated-potato despair.

My dad’s food owed its shiny thick sauces to the widespread use of cornstarch and its savoury addictiveness to Monosodium Glutamate (or MSG for short). It’s a flavour enhancer by trade, which presumably means that it will make water taste more watery when added.

My mum never really used the stuff – she said it was for cooks who couldn’t cook. And so opened the gulf in culinary relations between my parents. One side of the wall was the additive-ridden and chilli spiked, where go-go girls armed with a mysterious white substance would show you a good time before running off and leaving you with a slight headache. The other side used humble ingredients intelligently but simply, paying more attention to the balance of different textures and flavours. The result was honest homely fare.

From this description it is obvious as to which school I subscribed to. Which is why I was excited when I learnt the words ‘khong me jing’ here which means ‘no MSG’. It’s an additive ubiquitous in Hanoi – shops here sell piles of the salt-like grain alongside sugared milk and instant noodles.

Most Phở here is converted to the chemical. As you order a bowl of noodles, MSG is added to your bowl as they pour the beef broth over the top. So the next time I had it on the street I used my newly-learnt words and sat down accomplised, triumphant as the lady nodded her understanding and furnished me a steaming bowl.

The broth was delicious. The beef stock oozing flavour, combining with star anise and fish sauce to form the tight rhythm-section of your favourite song. Like music to my mouth. I finished the bowl with zest and looked forward to reclaiming my romantic view of Vietnam as a place of delicious traditional food made from natural ingredients.

As I went to pay, I noticed that the same lady who served me was busy ladling large spoons of a salt-like substance directly into the beef stockpot. There was MSG in there all along. Her face was expressionless as money exchanged hands, and I walked away wondering which other of my favourite dishes here have also had the equivalent of steroids pumped into their perma-tanned arms.

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Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #7: Bánh Gói

Not an English motorway station in sight.

A quick one this.

In a bit of a rush between a 12-hour-day and drinks I stopped off to grab a few quick bites at the side of the road on my main street of Đội Cấn. I had driven by this stall several times on the way to work and thought the same thing every time. They look like Cornish Pasties, an English hand-held snack of meat and potatoes in a pastry thick enough to withstand accidental blows whilst stuck in a harsh English coal mine.

Called ‘pillow cake’ in Vietnamese, these pastries were made from a thinner dough akin to an Indian samosa. Maybe the Vietnamese mines had better conditions in those days. Either way I appreciated the lightness of the pastry with this much oil involved. It was filled with pork and glass noodles and probably other things but they were long gone before I had the chance to inspect the contents my mouth. Comes served with the mint and the lettuce and the spicy dipping sauce and your own saliva.

Where: Close to the corner of Đội Cấn and Liễu Giai.

How much: 6,000 VND each.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #6: Cơm chay

My early experiences of Asian vegetarian food revolved around going to the local Manchester Buddhist temple in my teens. A hive of activity, the temple was a regular gathering spot for the Manchester Vietnamese community and housed two communal kitchens where volunteers cooked for up to a hundred people. The food was normally excellent. But at one particular religious event, every plate I tried turned out to be meat-free. And it wasn’t in an obvious way – every dish dressed smartly like it was about to infiltrate a brando-sponsored banquet. The most reviled was the battered wheat protein that looked like chicken nuggets to my youthful eyes, but in reality tasted like deep-fried plastic.

A devotee of the triple religion, Mum explained that it was customary on certain days to eat only vegetarian food. Presumably this was done as an expression of virtue and self-restraint but as a devout carnivore, my own experience was more of confusion, deceit and misfortune.

And that’s how I left that issue. Of course I was to eat tofu and other vegetarian-geared products afterwards at university but these foods were clearly marked in trendy packaging, marked with words that I could actually read.

It was therefore with trepidation that I approached my colleague’s suggestion of Cơm Chay as a post-work dinner. I wasn’t up for sampling more unfulfilling slop.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that when you are aware of what you are eating, you normally tend to enjoy it. The food was excellent. The ‘beef’ in ginger (see top picture) was so good it tasted better than most beef cutlets at my local English supermarket.

So good that I dragged a fellow blogger there (who was also a fellow sceptic) to try it out for herself. Unfortunately, the second visit to the same restaurant was a more disappointing experience. Lukewarm food coming out superstitiously early is never a good sign. My fellow diner did however find the ‘pork skewers’ particularly good.

Still, devoid of lies and religious baggage, I’m sold on the wheat-protein delights. Fellow westerners, drop the hippie misconceptions about soya-based food and give it a go. Do you see what an open-minded meat-eater I am?

Where: 79A Tran Hung Dao, Hoàn Kiếm

How much: 120,000 VND

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #5: Nem tai lợn (fresh pig’s ear spring rolls)

ear-to-tail cuisine.

I often get caught out in the monsoon rain wearing only a T-shirt and sandals. It normally means a wet end to my day, which loses out a swirl of American sitcoms and sickly sweet Vietnamese snacks.

Not this time. Out on Ngoc Ha market as God began sobbing, I took shelter under an unassuming gazebo which housed what looked like a salad stall. Deprived of vitamins from my love of Bún chả (more on this later) I had made flirty eyes towards this exact stall the day before, promising myself I would get more acquainted with it when I had a chance.

It seems the heavens bought us together to become one.” I said.

“Chào em.” came the reply.

Being trapped by the rain isn't always a bad thing.

In Britain, to make a pigs ear of something is to totally mess it up. ‘You’ve made a pig’s ear of my cucumber sandwich!’ is how we scolded our servants, before finishing off our tea and heading out for a spot of tennis.

In Vietnam they invert the equation.

The ear is julienned and tossed in toasted rice flour. Another product is made by pulverizing the ear and leaving it to ferment wrapped in banana leaves. Both concoctions are paired with thinly-sliced carrot, coriander and lettuce leaves and wrapped in thin rice-paper. The nem is served with a spicy dipping sauce with peanuts inside.

The result: It was like the Dillinger Escape Plan had gatecrashed a party in my mouth. There was contrasting call-and-response between cartilage-crunch and the fermented chewiness of both pig’s ears. The mellow jazz of the rice paper quickly giving way to the piquant-scream of the dipping sauce. I ate in 13/8 timing and it was good.

A few mumbles and lots of pointing later, out came these:

Two parcels of pork meat cooked with wood-ear mushrooms. The outer-rice had the consistency of jelly, making a fine contrast with the juicy interior. I have no idea what they are called. If any Vietnamese people are reading, I’d appreciate the knowledge.

Crun-chewy.

I couldn’t go without sampling the salad, which turned out to be a similar mix to the Nem but in salad form. Also delicious.

The women who run the stall happened to be very nice people who let me take enough pictures to make it look like a murder scene. I thoroughly recommend you give them a visit sometime. Monsoon weather is optional.

I didn’t plan to eat here, just played it by ear. In order to find the best food in Hanoi, you need to keep your ears to the ground. They may be made from the ears, but they certainly bought home the bacon. You can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear but who cares when its this tasty?

Where: 14 Cho Ngọc Hà, Ba Dinh

How much: 40,000 VND (probably includes a foreigner mark-up, but worth it.)


Almond eyes on English guys

This isn't my classroom. There's too much natural light.

At the school where I teach, I have the provilage (or the convilage) of teaching Vietnamese people of all ages and abilities. On weekdays I am teaching adults how to say ‘pool’ instead of ‘poo’ and teenagers how to gossip about their friends. By the weekend I am trying to get a 4-year-old to identify an apple from a pear. I know of few other professions where you are required to engage with such a multitude of age groups for such a sustained period of time. As such, you are required to adapt your teaching to the audience. Getting my ten-year-olds to talk about their job is out of bounds, as is getting my adults to sing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

I’m sure there are a hundred blogs on teaching English as a foreign language so I’ll keep this one fairly niche.

Teaching kindergarten children on some days gives me a hundred reasons to have a child myself. On other days well, what’s the opposite of giving birth?Overall I suffer from an overdose of cute. A Vietnamese person looks 16 until the age of 35. Small and cute, that’s what we’re good at until at least the mid-life crisis. By that logic and by comparison, your average South-east Asian child boasts a dangerous supply of cuteness. Just watch this video.

The teenagers? Well throw out all misconceptions you may have picked up over the years from studying alongside Chinese students. They are the same the world over. Back in my day, teenagers used to, well, not exactly respect the teachers but… well you would expect  at least the oriental students to be well-behaved. Rising through the ranks of primary and secondary school, I was this living, breathing, eating stereotype. I was a fucking angel and these Vietnamese kids are destroying all my hard work.

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On a more serious note, the more I teach here, the more I notice that Vietnamese-looking westerners have a bad reputation in the ESL (English for speakers of other languages) world. They are less likely to be hired and when they are, they tend to get lower wages than their white counterparts.  I can understand to some extent that from a teaching perspective you don’t want the teacher to be a native Vietnamese speaker, as their English pronunciation is likely to be skewed. However the primary reason for this inequality is the perception among paying parents that we make inferior teachers.

Luckily, I’m at a school where such reverse-racism is tackled in a professional manner, which has given me the opportunity and confidence to teach the way I want. At the start of my courses, students normally respond to me with curiosity (“Why you look Vietnamee?”) followed by denial, anger (see previous post),  fear, bargaining and finally, acceptance.

The final stage is the most important and the most reassuring. It takes a while but finally the students come to value your teaching and as such, elevate its importance above your skin colour. I’m sure there are Australian Indians, Afro-Americans who have been through this themselves. Hopefully our experiences will go some way towards dispelling such widespread prejudice towards non-white English teachers.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #4: Phở cuốn (beef rolls)

Continuing the Truc Bach theme, the area is a bit of a foodie paradise. A stroll past the seafood and lau (hotpot) places takes you to the area known as Phở cuốn street. This is how eateries are distributed here, you normally have one street dedicated to selling the same food. And its not as if these places have extensive menus or anything, EVERY single place serves the same three dishes.

These are pretty much guaranteed not to give you lung cancer.

Coming from the capitalist west, I initially wondered why speciality food joints weren’t spread out more evenly over the city. Surely the competition at Phở cuốn street would be too much for some businesses to bear. I mean, can you imagine ten large supermarket chains having outlets next to each other? But as often with financial and economic matters, I was wrong. Every single one of these places is packed. Why? because the Hanoian mindset is the completely opposite way to how we think in the West. They decide what they want to eat before they’ve looked at the menu, before they’ve even left the house. It therefore makes sense for retailers to concentrate into areas known to serve these dishes in order to attract the most business.

I spend most of my idle time making mundane connections in languages. Like the other day when this guy on a motorbike looked at my rolled tobacco cigarette (rare in Hanoi) and called it a ‘thuốc lá cuốn’. My brain started to hurt as I formed a connection:

thuốc lá cuốn… Phở cuốn… so ‘cuốn’ must mean rolled!’

But I had no-one to hi-five.

Phở cuốn is medium-thick rice sheets rolled with minced beef and lettuce, coriander and a few other fresh herbs that I really learn the names of. Served alongside Nuoc Cham, it’s a really simple dish that seems to encapsulate the food here in Hanoi really well. Light, zingy and fresh tasting. Found throughout the city, Hanoians are justifiably proud of this dish.

After the meal, I couldn’t help but take the picture below. A common sight in a city where it is nearly always impossible to find the real thing.

Genuine Calven Klains

What: Phở cuốn

Where: 27 Truc Bach, Ba Dinh

How much: 30,000 VND

Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #3: Oyster Cháo (rice porridge)

Which of these dishes is the tastiest? The answer may surprise you.

In attempting to master this strange language, I immediately have the advantage over my Western peers as Cantonese (my mother tongue) is also a tonal language. Additionally, several words in Vietnamese are shared with their Chinese neighbours in the north. This can be compared to similarities between German and English. Examples of similar words include ‘dau’, which means bean, ‘mow goo’  which translates to mushroom, and ‘Coca’ which is a popular soft drink.

And like blighty’s love affair with the German-invented donor kebab, certain dishes are shared between countries with variations that make it specific to that country. The donor kebabs of Berlin come full of vegetables and make a decent lunch. The donor kebabs of London come full of meat and make a decent vomit on a Saturday night in Shoreditch.

One dish that the South-east Asian countries share is rice boiled long time with water into a rice porridge. Something like a watery risotto, it’s known as Juk to those in Hong Kong, Okayu to the Japanese, and cháo here in Hanoi. I stumbled upon a bowl of ground-oyster cháo at a stall on the shore of Truc Bach lake, a prosperous area north-east that is known for its seafood. Topped with fried shallots and a really meaty herb, It was great. Nourishing, delicious and well better than the stuff my mum used to make. In fact, eating here is a constant betrayal of mother’s home cooking,  I simply find everything here to be much better than anything she could muster.

An arm and a leg

That might be too extreme a statement. Alongside that we had plate of grilled snails that were pretty disappointing. I could have used the meat to erase my maths homework, and the taste was really bland. Becoming accustomed to quality food here, ordering a crappy dish really grinds my gears. But what’s worse, they cost five times the amount of what the cháo had cost. Let this be a lesson to me: like the English football team at global football tournaments, money doesn’t always translate to success here.