“Let’s go back, back to the beginning. Back to when the earth, the sun, and stars all aligned…”
And you know the rest. I think it goes well with today’s post. Rain and reminiscing… this will be the last post for a while, as school has started and will soon start to kick my tush. And as I am in Berkeley, cooking has been limited, so I thought I would give you a cursory intro to Vietnamese food, all from my trip last summer. The weather (cold and wet is my favorite) is nostalgia inducing I think. I won’t be too ambitious though, so for today, just Northern Vietnam (mien Bac). If you happen to be stuck indoors, I hope you enjoy the pictures and blurbs as much as I enjoyed living them. For those who were fortunate enough to be on this trip, thanks for these memories. You made them extraordinary.
Frere Phong gives a lot of advice. I listen to about 20% of it (recalcitrant teen – what can I say?), but before heading off to the motherland, Frere gave us one sound bit of fab advice: “For the first few days or so before your body acclimates, try not to drink water or any iced beverages. Stick to hot tea and beer.” Did Frere just give me license to drink? Oh yes he did! Joyous, right? Wrong. Because sadly Viet Nam is dominated by things like Bia HaNoi or 333 or Tiger Beer. And believe me, I’ve had my share of gross beer, but this has got to be the worst. For a girl who likes her hefeweizen and pale ales, Vietnamese beer is not the most pleasant experience. But as a wee child, Frere also taught me,” Ta về ta tắm ao ta; Dù trong dù đục, ao nhà vẫn hơn.” I took that to heart and kept an open mind throughout the trip, which led to a rather adventurous culinary expedition. I mean why not, right? It is que huong afterall!
Ha Noi, Viet Nam.
Viet Nam is the mecca for exotic fruit lovers! What place in the States can boast pitaya (thanh long) or year-round longans (nhan) and starfruit (khe)? Other fruits like lychee (vai) are best spring and early summer. Jackfruit (mit) is very bland by late summer and are not readily available. My personal favorite is rambutan (chomchom), which fortunately is in season summer to late fall. Encapsulated within the hairy red skin is a white, succulent, fleshy fruit chillin’ in its own sweet juice. Yuum. If you buy the pricier species, the flesh comes right off the seed, no problem. And you can be like the multitude of other Vietnamese folk who simply spit the seeds and drop the skins right onto the streets. (Ahem, this is why I study public health btw, details later). Where to find these fruits? At the local markets, on trolley carts, the back of bikes, and ladies ganh hang rong. Another part of the Vietnamese fruit tradition is the ever popular sugar cane – specifically sugar cane juice! It is the most satisfying drink your American-jaded tongue will ever lay its taste buds upon, I promise! Nothing is more satiating! For under $0.25 USD per bag of juice, it cools you and your temperament (hot&humid = moody). You can find it on practically any street corner, and it is made to order! Usually squeezed by machine and only flavored with freshly squeezed kumquat (tac) or other citrus, the sweet juice is heaven on earth!
While roaming the busy streets of Ha Noi, we stumbled upon an outdoor food court (Quan An Ngon), complete with misters and fans, and tons of potted banana plants and plenty of foliage to absorb the crazy tropic heat. And apparently, this is a place the locals frequent, so very good food at very cheap prices. Then again, you can’t honestly complain about a few cents here and there. We all ordered a round of Bun Thang, which literally means “ladder noodles.” This is the first lesson in Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese food is deceptively difficult to make – it is usually ingredient and effort intensive. The bun thang is a rice vermicelli noodle in a chicken based broth, adorned with tons of shredded chicken meat and God-knows-what-other-goodness. This broth probably has at least 20 ingredients, and not to mention all the sauces and veggies (basils, mints, scallions, etc) that are required to give your palate a complete flavorful phenomenon. And because this was a food court, we also ordered several rounds of banh tom chien, or tempura shrimp. Lesson #2 in Vietnamese cuisine. It wouldn’t be Vietnamese without nuoc mam, fish sauce, specifically nuoc mam dam, vinegared fish sauce, for this dish. And in this dipping sauce there is always minced garlic, slivered chillies, and I think this place even added green apple? I can’t remember… but other types of dipping sauces are nuoc mam gung (ginger), mam tom (fermented shrimp paste?), and nuoc tuong (vinegared soy sauce). And to eat this, you need all the lettuce leaves and veggies to make a proper wrap/roll. A very flavorful and interactive way of eating, wouldn’t you say? In addition, we ordered tons of other little dishes to accompany our meal and lots of che, a Vietnamese pudding/dessert/thing.
Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam.
This is one of those must-stop-by tourist places in Viet Nam – and for good reason too! Ha Long Bay is a chain of little islands that stud the emerald waters of the Tonkin Gulf like mounds of glitzy crystals. And on each island, there are beautiful stalactite caves, which over-imaginative tour guides have transformed into images of fallen fairies, praying Buddhas, crouching tigers and hidden dragons. I kid you not. “Ha Long” actually means descending dragon. Putting legends aside, this place is beautiful and a must-see.
Since these islands are only accessible by boat, we took an all inclusive dragon boat out to visit the many caves. We were served a surprisingly pleasant meal – the views of the sapphire sky and emerald water didn’t hurt either. But with more than 3000 km of Pacific coastline, of course they served us seafood! Vietnamese seafood is delicious, and the best fish, prawns and shellfish are already being exported to the US, so the stuff still left in the country is only second-rate. But even second-rate is delicious!
This is a plate of clams, cooked in a lemon grass and ginger broth, served piping hot. It was soo fresh that I could still taste the sea salt and SAND in these babies. I never said Vietnamese food was clean… but seriously. Next to fruits, Vietnamese seafood was the best part of this culinary adventure. I had so many bivalves on this trip, and I can’t properly name all of them. But perhaps those native speakers can help me out.. we had so huyet, ngheu, chem chep, oc dua, v.v. Soo good! Just wait until my Southern Vietnam entry, and boy, these things will be piled high. In addition, on this boat ride, we were also served tom rang muoi or salt crusted shrimp, a typical dish that can be found in most Chinese restaurants in the states. What makes this dish Vietnamese then? Why the nuoc mam of course, duh! So, these are full bodied shrimp that have been fried after being dipped in some sort of salty seasoned batter. Most people tear off the head and suck out the brains, and then eat the rest of the body whole. I can’t stand swallowing the shell, so I lick off all the flavor and tear off the shell before consuming the meat inside. Whatever floats your boat I guess…
This dish is a northern Vietnamese staple – bitter melon or kho qua or also also known as muop dang depending on what region of Viet Nam you are from. Not my favorite dish or vegetable, too bitter. Usually you will find bitter melon stuffed with a meat filling and made into a medicinal soup (Holy Basil Recipe). I avoided it whenever I could when my grandma or mom made it, even when they swear by its medicinal properties. I just don’t like it, but who could resist such a photogenic dish? Here, I believe it is sauteed with garlic, shallots and possibly dried shrimp (tom kho), though the mysterious bits in the picture allude me.
But that concludes the food highlights of Northern Vietnam. It only gets better the further south we go, so check back every so often. A site update: you can now get feeds from my blog, just use the Meta links to the right. Also, thanks to someoneiknow, I have a prettier banner to go with the newer and cleaner layout. Things to look forward to this weekend? Hhm, well, let me count the ways. (1) Make lots of cookies using my 100 piece cookie cutter set for Piggy because her birthday is coming up. (2) Selling banh chung in the rain. (3) Perhaps another Santana Row Farmer’s Market in the rain. (4) Potentially a movie, but I am a notorious flaker, sorry, so I won’t be sure until it actually happens. (5) Lots of family time, which translates to food time, which is a synonym for more pictures and entries!
So until next time food lovers! Stay warm, stay dry, and good luck to your future endeavors in the kitchen!