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.
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
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.
Posted in Hanoi, Uncategorized, Viet Kieu, Vietnam
Tagged Bún cá, fish, Hanoi, noodles, Pho, south-east asian food, street food, Viet Kieu, Vietnam, Vietnam Travel
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