Sunday, October 14, 2007

Street-side dining in Hanoi

When the tummy starts to rumble, don’t grumble, for there are a lot of choices on the streets of Hanoi.


To sample some of Hanoi’s best culinary delights, you have to hit the streets because that is where the best one-dish wonders are to be found.

Early morning, streets in the city spring to life with vendors setting up stalls offering all kinds of good eats – everything from soupy noodles and rice cakes in banana leaves, to spicy beef on a stick and baguette sandwiches, to grilled sausages and steamed corn.

On any street corner, you will see a tiny portable kitchen capable of dishing up a delicious meal in no time. Some of my best meals were had while perched on a low stool by the roadside, the way the locals have their meals. It is a cheerful scene repeated all over the city.

Dining out: In Hanoi, the locals think nothing of having a meal by the road.

Then there are the hawkers peddling tempting treats in bamboo baskets suspended from shoulder poles. Remarkably, all that is needed to serve up a meal can be found in the two baskets – one might hold a charcoal stove where soup is kept simmering and the other, the ingredients. Such food peddlers were common in Malaysia 30 to 40 years ago but have since died out. In Hanoi however, they still rule the streets.

Vietnamese food, while often associated with Thai, is not nearly as spicy. It is light and subtle in flavour, but highly aromatic due to the liberal use of fragrant herbs. Bold flavours are found in condiments such as dipping sauces, sliced chillies and pickled garlic. The Vietnamese eat almost everything with nuoc cham sauce. The primary ingredients of this ubiquitous dip are nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), rice vinegar, lime juice and sugar, but most eateries have their own closely guarded recipe to give their version an edge.

My culinary adventure in Hanoi starts with pho (pronounced “fur”) every morning. Just like the locals, I begin the day with a steaming bowl of the rice noodles in beef stock. The name is supposedly derived from the French word pot au feu (pot on the fire).

What makes a great bowl of pho is the beef stock, made by simmering beef bones, onions, herbs and spices. The noodles are topped with curls of spring onions and slices of chicken meat (pho ga) or beef (pho bo). A basket of bean sprouts and raw herbs – coriander, basil or mint – accompanies the noodles, for you to garnish as you please. I find that a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of cut chillies lend some edge to the fragrant broth.

Freshly roasted chestnuts.

However, the pho which I tasted in numerous stalls in Hanoi were unlike what we get in Kuala Lumpur. In Hanoi, the broth is mildly flavoured and nothing like the robust beefy stock served in KL restaurants. I guess eateries here have altered the recipe to suit local taste buds.

A smoky waft of barbequed meat in the air means that a bun cha stall is near. In this dish, charred pork patties are piled on top of a mound of cold noodles and served with nuoc cham dipping sauce, pickled papaya slices, and a basket of fragrant herbs. The tangy dip brings to life the flavours of the lemongrass marinade, making for a satisfying meal. Bun cha is often accompanied by a plate of nem, deep-fried spring rolls with fillings of pork, crab meat, rice vermicelli and mushroom.

If you spot a peddler with a huge wicker basket covered up with cloth, it is most likely banh khunc that she is selling. This steamed glutinous rice is not just a breakfast staple, but enjoyed as a snack throughout the day. The tight cloth wrap keeps the rice warm. You can choose from a sweet topping of ground peanut and sugar, or a savoury one of meat floss. Both taste good.

A lady selling banh khunc for breakfast or as a snack.

It never fails to amaze me how different countries can have similar culinary delights. Banh khunc, for instance, is pretty much like our Nyonya pulut inti. Banh cuon, on the other hand, is Vietnam’s version of chee cheong fun. These rice flour crêpes come either plain or filled with minced pork, mushroom and onion. I was lucky enough to find a shop where the crêpes are freshly steamed, just across from my lodgings in Fortuan Hotel on Hang Bo street.

The vendor expertly mans two cloth-lined pans simultaneously. As she pours rice batter on one pan and spreads it into a big circle, she keeps a close watch on the other pan where the crêpe has almost been steamed to perfection. With a deft turn of the wrist, she lifts the thin crepe onto her workboard, throws in some meat filling, rolls it up, slices it thickly, scoops everything onto a plate, then sprinkles over a big handful of fried shallots. In mere minutes, a platter of delight is on my table.

The accompanying sauce is nothing like our thim cheong or thick curry, but another variation of nuoc cham. The first time I ate this dish, I poured the sauce over the noodle, like how we would eat chee cheong fun, and drew laughter from the locals. They eagerly showed me the right way to enjoy the dish: squeeze some lime juice into the sauce, throw in some herbs, then dunk the rice crêpes in. The gentle blend of salty, sweet, sour and aromatic greens definitely make this dish work for me.

If Thailand has som tam (papaya salad), Vietnam has nom. In the Vietnamese version, shredded green papaya is wrapped in rice paper, together with slices of grilled quail and duck gizzards. The rolls are dipped in a fish sauce. I much prefer the Thai version, though, as I find the meaty taste jars with that of fresh papaya.

Even here you can find fried breads.

In Hanoi, another must-try is xoi, which is steamed glutinous rice with meat toppings. You can choose either plain or yellow rice, or rice mixed with corn kernels. On top of your choice of meat topping – choose from a wide range of pate, black sauce belly pork, minced pork, ham, sausage and so on – the stall operator will shave slices from a ball of yellow dough (I think it is mashed mung bean) and add a few lashings of oil from a bottle. I enjoyed this dish so much that I had it two nights in a row. Locals love this dish too as the two shops offering this fare at Nguyen Huu Huan road are always packed with diners.

Feeling peckish at night? Hang Bo street is the place to head to. Here, stalls offering roasted dried cuttlefish sprout up at night. Unlike their counterparts in Malaysia and Thailand who rely on machine rollers, the vendors in Hanoi still prepare the snack by hand, beating the roasted cuttlefish with a wooden baton until it is flattened and stringy. It is accompanied by a chilli dip, spicy mango salad and beer.

The Vietnamese equivalent to ais kacang is che. Shaved iced is topped with black jelly, red and mung beans, nata de coco, lotus seeds, jelly, sago pearls, coconut cream and syrup.

Sweet experiences: A popular dessert in To Tich Lane is the fruit cocktail. — CHOU K. S.

Another common dessert is banh troi tau. These chewy glutinous rice balls with fillings of coconut, sesame seeds or green beans come in a sweet ginger syrup.

To cool down on a hot day, head to To Tich lane in Hanoi’s Old Quarters. It is lined with fruit juice bars. You can opt for a fruit smoothy but a yummy option is the fruit cocktail. A glass of colourful fruit cubes – a mix of dragonfruit, strawberry, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon and whatever else that is in season – is topped with spoonfuls of condensed milk, coconut cream and shaved iced. To enjoy this refreshing dessert the way locals do, mash the fruits with a spoon as you work your way down the glass – it is delicious!

So, when in Hanoi, forget the three-star restaurants and their four-course meals. Instead, trawl the streets for what is the most delicious way to discover Vietnam’s culinary culture.

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