Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Tonkin mon amour – the food

Frankly, one of the reasons we wanted to go to Vietnam was to try the food. I guess we may have watched too many food shows? But seriously, all we knew was pho (mostly in Toronto, plus once in Seoul for me and a few other times here in Guangzhou), and Vietnamese coffee (something we tried for the first time ever barely too months ago!). And it certainly looked like the cuisine had a lot more to offer. And I can tell you, it was every bit as delicious as we hoped!

And what were the very very first two things we tried our first night in Hanoi? Well, beef pho (phở bò)! I mean, of course, right? And it was a the simplest, most basic street eatery. Had the habibi realized there were gas tanks right behind him he might have not enjoyed his meal so much. Fortunately, I kept quiet and we actually had one of the best pho in our whole trip!

Afterwards, and happily full and excited about the beginning of our culinary adventure, on the walk back home we came across a café in an old building with cute tiles. And there I had my second fantastic discovery –  egg coffee (cà phê trứng)! Egg and a number or things are mixed into a sweet foamy layer of deliciousness, and a layer of strong incredible coffee lies below. The discovery of the coffee at the bottom after eating through some of the egg-noggy top with a spoon was just perfect.

A perfect way to begin our tasting of Vietnam. 

One of the things I loved most about the food was it's use of super fresh raw ingredients. You had, say, your "soup" (pho), and then you threw in kumquat, chile peppers, crunchy sprouts, fragrant herbs... such a wonderful mix. And an essential one in one of my favourite dishes – grilled pork with rice noodles (bún chả).

We had bun cha at another super basic eatery by the street. We sat down on ridiculously low stools (a regular thing in Hanoi), and a bowl of grilled pork (chả) in a slightly sweet and light broth with cured vegetables arrived in front of me, together with a bgger bowl full of beautiful white rice noodles (bún) and a copious amounts of fresh herbs and red chile peppers. For me to mix and eat to my taste. And a refreshing Hanoi beer. I could have had another bowl of that. Every day.

Egg coffee is delicious, in my opinion. And it just shows that in Vietnam, basically anything can be mixed with coffee. Our favourite place for trying out coffee based concoctions was Cộng Cà Phê, a chain with a communist theme and really friendly staff. And an enormous menu. 

The staple is, of course, Vietnamese milk coffee (cà phê sữa), which uses not milk but condensed milk (a remnant of a time when fresh milk was not readily available) and that aromatic, strong coffee Vietnam is known for. Were it not for the incredible amount of sugar, I would have had this every day. Having it black, without condensed milk, was delicious, too, and I had that often. But then you also had coffee with a very airy sort of coconut ice cream, with coconut ice cream and mung beans, and (my second favourite after milk coffee) yogourt with coffee! Who would've thought! Loved it! The tartness and sweetness of yogourt at the bottom with the aroma and robustness of the coffee on top. Yes please.

OK, this is becoming an ode to food. But what the hell. If the text is too much for you to handle, you can always just look at the pics, right? So, this beauty here? Mixed noodles (miến trộn). Glass noodles (yum!) with peanuts, greens, meat and a bunch of other things I couldn't identify. Enjoyed while sitting by the street on another one of those tiny stools, before we hit one of the museums. Again, too good. And too much variety to choose from.

Now, if you don't want to eat on the street all the time, there's also finer restaurants, with just the same stuff, but even better done. One of them was Nha Hang Ngon (Nhà Hàng Ngon), where we enjoyed bì cuốn (these beautiful rolls below), chả cá lã vọng (fried fish with rice noodles, greens and a super rich and anchovy-esque sauce), and many other things which I thought would make this post overly long. Such a good meal. 

One very rainy day we found a ver recommended eatery for bún bò nam bô (mixed dry noodles with stir fry beef). I'm starting to fear many of these dishes may start looking the same to you. And that the very plain English translations may make them even sound unpalatable. But believe me, these were all different dishes with different flavours. And they were incredible.

Also, the noodles were followed by chè (dessert soup). Chè can come in a bewildering array of combinations, because it really basically just means a sweet soup or pudding. This one, however, was rice, a ginger soup, and coconut. Couldn't have asked for a better dessert.

If at some point you're feel like you need something non-Vietnamese just to refresh your palate, then how about pizza made to perfection as the result of super fresh and high quality ingredients and the precision and obsession of the Japanese? That's what you get at Pizza 4P's. And we got an out of this world pizza with burrata. Really extraordinary. And just consider the whole staff is Vietnamese, so it's not like they've all lived in Italy and therefore how what good pizza is. This is a labour of quality and dedication. Loved it.

Then there is something else you must absolutely try: phở cuốn (pho rolls) and phở chiên phồng (fried noodle soup). The rolls are simple, just beef and leaves and some other stuff rolled into white rice sheets. And then you dip that into tiny bowl with a kumquat, chile peppers, pickles and fish sauce. When done properly, it's terribly good. Our first try was, unfortunately, so so. But days later a friend took us to the good stuff. And that was indeed good. Oh, and the phở chiên phồng? Stir fry beef, more greens, on top of pillowy squares made from rice noodles. Crunchy outside, soft inside. A slightly sinful indulgence. 

Obviously, we also had spring rolls, or nem. But these ones were made by us and by our fellow travellers on a cruise we took! I'll take about the cruise later. In the meantime, yes, they were as good as they look.

OK, we're almost done! The second delicious and slightly more formal Vietnamese restaurant we went to was Quán Ăn Ngon. This place is really special because it has numerous stations preparing different kins of specialities, so you have a great variety to choose from, and everything is just incredible. We had xôi xéo (sticky rice with scallions and eel), bún bò huế (Hue style beef noodles), bánh bèo chén (waterfern cakes), rượu nếp (fermented glutinous rice) and other things. We might have over-ordered, but we stuffed our faces happy. And there was so much more we didn't try, but there was no way a human could try everything in one sitting.

Just two more very basic items. First, bánh mì. Sure, it looks like a sandwich, right? Inherited from the French, these baguettes are warm and slightly toasted. Delicious. And you could basically have any kind of filling, but we went for the traditional one (at yet another street stall) with paté and scrambled egg. Add some spicy sauce, herbs, other mysterious ingredients... and voilà, not your average sandwich anymore, but a wonderful bánh mì (or, in this case, bánh mì pate trứng).

Follow that with the local microbrew, bia hơi, which can be had at any number of street places. It seems the Czech, in a sort of comunist solidarity, brought pilsners to Vietnam. And the super light and perfectly refreshing bia hơi is the result.

So, your French baguette and your Czech pilsner, through the Vietnamese looking-glass, equals your simple and outstanding working person's Vietnamese lunch. Not to be missed.

Done! Wow, I didn't realize this could end up being such a long post. But you know what? We loved the food, and there was no way I could have made this any shorter. And there is so much more of Vietnam coming in my following posts...

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