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.
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
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
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.
Posted in Hanoi, Viet Kieu, Vietnam
Tagged Bahn Mi, Bahn Xeo, culinary, food, Hanoi, Pho, street food, Vietnam, Vietnam Travel, Vietnamese