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.

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.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #1 – Bahn Xeo

It would be foolish to talk about Hanoi without mentioning the food. That’s like making a cup of tea and leaving out the milk. That’s like omitting seminal funk-rockers Faith No More from the rise of rap-metal in the late 90s.

I’m no stranger to Vietnamese food. For two decades my mother faithfully reproduced the food that she learnt to cook in her home town of Lang Son. She cooked simple, honest Northern Vietnamese fare  that carried more than a whiff of soy saucpiration (yea, I went there) from the Chinese province of Guangxi across the border. I therefore saw it as a given that a mother’s food should be amazing. It however didn’t stop me rebelling by diving head-first into learning to cook Italian food. But oh what a fool I was. For Vietnamese food is so much better.

I’ll be introducing a section that I shall tentatively call Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes. This is pretty self-explanatory and I’ll make sure I upload pictures that best captures the smell, as well as the surroundings in which it is eaten (also very important).

Lady making Bahn Xeo

First off we have Bahn Xeo. A couple of workmates found this dish to be one of their favourites and so we promptly rushed to their local only to find it closed. Luckily the German speaking owner (?) took us to his brother’s place instead, which was open for business. Win!

Aforementioned taste explosion

Now contrary to what I was saying sixty seconds earlier, the pictures really don’t do it justice. A paste is made with rice flour and turmeric. This is slowly fried with prawns, pork and a handful of beansprouts. The resulting pancake is eaten with Nuoc Cham (a condiment of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and sugar found everywhere in Vietnam) and some wonderfully bitter leaves. All washed down with the equally ubiquitous Tre Da (ice tea). The Nuoc Cham dipping sauce performed the Monica from Friends role here, bringing all the ingredients together into one delicious and sexy taste explosion. Its sweetness contrasts nicely with the bitter leaves, its piquancy expertly tango-dancing with the deep-fried crispy rice batter on your oh-so-grateful tongue.

All for one measly pound. For those of you lucky enough to be here, get yourself down to 69/9 Van Chuong. If you don’t live here, your local pound shop is likely to have a decent tinned-fruit section. Alternatively you can cook it yourself.

Hanoi, I’m not scared of you anymore y’hear?

I’ve been here for a month now and finally getting used to the city. I’m no longer as wide eyed (and mouthed) as I was when I first arrived. I now know how to negotiate the open manholes, hanging electricity wires and poorly parked motocycles standing between me and my next amazing meal. I survived the floods without being electrocuted.

We're in the middle of monsoon season.

I also start Vietnamese lessons next week which is a real relief. On recent nights out with western friends I’ve been the person the restaraunt-owner talks to before anyone else. So you can imagine the look on their face when its the white guy who can speak better. A hilarious time for all concerned! Kinda like the end of the 60s sitcom where everyone shares a joke and then freeze mid-laugh as the credits roll.

But it’s getting a little old now. so yay for Vietnamese lessons.

One owner even asked my white friend if I was his son. We pondered the improbable scenario that needed to occur for this to be true. It involved child trafficking.

One month on, my experience of teaching is improving. I feel I have the respect and even admiration of the students. Like most Hanoians, they have let down their guard and are much more receptive and warm towards me. This is a great feeling and makes me feel that my teaching (and not my apperance) is whats most important to these students.  We’re gettting somewhere here.

The good nature isn’t just confined to the classroom. On the street I find people are willing to rush to my aid if I had any language problems. Their English isn’t great, but the fact that they are trying to help gives me a warm feeling inside.

Of course, you still get your fair share of dickheads. Many people try to charge you western prices (normally double those of local prices) for everything, and this becomes apparent when you realise that menus and price lists are a rare sight in Hanoi. As a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) I often get charged the western price. Compared to living in London, its still a great deal, but knowing you’ve been charged over the odds adds a bitter aftertaste to your bowl of pho. Another reason to learn Vietnamese then!

Most interesting thing seen on the back of a motorbike – A HUGE block of ice riding free and unattached to the back, with the driver holding onto it with one hand and the other on the handlebar.