Tag Archives: south-east asian food

Happy New Year in Huế and Hội An

Above, picked chilli. Below, rendered pork fat in dried chilli.

I’ve been dying to write about Vietnamese food from the other cities aside from Hanoi and a recent trip to the above places gave me this opportunity. This is more exciting as Hanoi is incredibly homogenous in culinary terms. If you love your Phở and Bun Cha then you’re in heaven, these places are absolutely everywhere. If however you like a multitude of choices for your evening Vietnamese street food then options are pretty limited as far as capital cities go.

My inner child was definitely in a sweet shop as a drove into Hue and Hoi An. These cities on the mid-eastern coast are known for their Royal cuisine – small dishes named after and appealing to men and women of repute from days gone by.

We arrived into Hội An at an awkward time –  Tet (or Lunar new year) celebrations were in full swing, and half the residents of the town had left to be with families in the outlying provinces. As such, eating options were limited and the place seemed populated by equally bemused tourists walking through what looked like the unopened Asia section of Disneyworld. Looking for something to sustain us as we prepared to traverse the Hai Van pass on the three hour bike trip to Hue, I stumbled upon a Cao lầu place off a main street and walked in.

Cao lầu can you go?

In Vietnam, if you’re remarking about ‘going out for a Cao lầu’, you’re going out to have an expensive and privileged time. Such was the high status given to this dish in previous times. I received initial bad press about Cao Lầu – that it was greasy and had given my girlfriend a bad tummy. But those fears dissipated as I tucked into my first bowl. Tender slices of pork belly melted alongside mint, coriander and beansprouts. But the noodles themselves were the standout performer – nutty and udon-like, their rough texture clung to the densely-flavoured broth and had just enough bite to satisfy. I destroyed the bowl in two minutes before ordering another. Prior to paying, the owner said I was đẹp chai (handsome). As far as I could tell from the bill, this self-esteem boost didn’t form part of the bill.

The motorbike drive up to Huế got such a good press in Top Gear – the presenter described it as ‘the best coastal road in the world’. It certainly was dramatic – the mist at the top lent the mountain an apocalyptic feel. And driving on cliffs while looking down into the sea made you wonder which car advert you were inadvertently in. It was an exciting drive, but the glamour quickly faded as rain fell on the potholed lanes past the mountain and we swerved to avoid blasthorned coaches, deep mud and lethargic water buffalo.

Four hours later, we arrived into Huế shivering and delirious. Before visiting the Forbidden city the next day, the Bún bò Huế in my stomach was the perfect tonic to the damp and grey weather.

The real thing.

I confess I’d already eaten this in Hanoi. But as always with these things, there’s no substitute for the real thing. the noodles in pork and beef broth were good enough but the beef meatballs put the dish on a next level. It was also served with a side condiment of pieces of rendered pork fat (similar to pork scratchings) covered in dry chilli.

A good final meal of the holiday. Heck, a good final meal.

On our last day in Đà Nẵng before flying back to Hanoi we couldn’t leave without trying Mì Quảng, a dish we had seen on street stall signs all the way from Hội An up to Huế. As a regional specialty it represented well. Bone-in stewed chicken with dense broth on noodles with bean sprouts, shallots, peanuts and interestingly, rice crackers to top it off. The side condiment was a sweet chilli jam I’ve not encountered before in Vietnam. And yes, it was delicious.

The holiday was beset by non-food-related illnesses and other mishaps, but the food was one of the highlights of the trip. For most of my life I’ve lived in cosmopolitan cities where world food was easily accessible.

But sometimes its best to meet food in its natural habitat, made by those who have no clue (or interest) on how to make anything else. You can’t get more authentic than that.


Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #8: Chả rươi

Dig in.

A slightly unusual dish this time.

Hanoi is a city that adapts to the seasons. As it enters Autumn, the temperature drops to bearable levels, people dust off their winter jackets, and double denim makes its annual comeback.

But no more evident than in changes in food. Delicious smelling fried banana, taro and sweet potato stalls start competing for space on the already packed pavements. And despite the temperature remaining a balmy 21 degrees C, Men wrap up warm and forsake the usual iced coffee with condensed milk (Ca Phe Nâu Đá) in favour of hot lipton tea. Who needs a calender?

It was around this time that a Vietnamese friend invited me to have Chả rươi as it is in season at this time. ‘What is this?’ I enquired. The strain was visible on her face as her elementary English struggled to find the euphemisms and tact needed to convince me of its merits.

After a few of her words and some googling, here’s what I found out.

Chả rươi is the meat of a type of worm found close to the shore, particularly in low-tide conditions. They are only available for a month at this time of year, and stalls often pop-up specialising in this before disappearing for the rest of the year. The worms (sometimes referred to as fly eggs) are often cooked into an omellete or mixed with ground pork into a patty and fried.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Chả rươi

Here we had the former mentioned dish with a side of herby salad and a dipping sauce. You know what? It wasn’t that bad. At first it was difficult to taste the difference between the egg and the rươi, but then I realised that it was because the worms tasted so pork-like that my brain assumed there to be pork present.

We ate just off the corner of Hàng Rươi, astonishingly this street was so well known for the dish that the authorities named the street after it. Heck, that’s like eating a burger on Burger Street in the states (if such a place exists, this was the only one I found).

If you’re living in Hanoi and of a strong mind and constitution, then I urge you to try it before it disappears for another year. It could be too late to try this dish for another year but if you’re interested then check it out on the address below, the late bird might still have time to catch the worm.

Price per small omelette:  10,000 VND

Location: look for the stalls on the corner of Hàng Rươi and Hàng Lược.

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.

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.


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.)

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