As you can tell from my post on Saigon, I really enjoyed the food in Vietnam. And with my accelerated schedule, I had to fit in extra meals to try all of the local specialties. While this may seem like an enviable task, my waistline was not so happy about it. But what’s a couple extra pounds when you’re in one of the best countries in the world for eating?
I’ll begin my post with a caveat that I ate mostly street food in Vietnam, not restaurant food. So I didn’t try the many excellent fish preparations or dishes like caramel pork. But I tried much of what the locals eat on a day to day basis, which I consider a better barometer of a country’s food culture.
What I especially enjoyed about eating in Vietnam was the wonderful balance present in every dish. It wasn’t like India, where a curry would make you feel heavy, or Indonesia, where a plate of noodles was slick with oil. In Vietnam most dishes were provided with ample amounts of fresh herbs, lettuce, and/or bean sprouts on the side for you to add to your soup or meal as you wished. They provided a herbaceous lightness and crispness to the dish that it sometimes needed. A ban xeo pancake would simply be a greasy, if delicious, omelette without the herbs and lettuce leaves to wrap it in. The herbs completed the dish and balanced the spices and fat.
bo kho, with herbs to balance the meat and spices
Another favorite part of eating in Vietnam were the local specialties you could only find in certain regions or cities, like bun bo hue in Hue and cau lau in Hoi An. These are also dishes that are harder to find in the U.S., whereas you can find pho and banh mi all over the place, complete with bastardized “fusion” variations.
cau lau, with noodles supposedly made with special hoi an well water
I also learned to love the Vietnamese (Southeast Asian, for that matter) custom of eating soup for breakfast. Starting off your day with a spicy bowl of meat and noodles with an icey ca phe sua da on the side, preferably squatting with the locals on miniature stools – there’s nothing better.
father and son tucking in pho for breakfast
You’ve already seen most of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, so I’ll tell you about the Vietnamese cooking class I took at Hanoi Cooking Centre. We began with a tour of the nearby wet market, which had the usual meat and produce but also had a section where vendors skinned and cleaned frogs, eels, and other animals for you on the spot. It’s called a wet market since they have hoses and drains for washing away the blood. They’re not for the squeamish.
a selection of goodies: quails, quail hearts and intestines, chicken testicles, and silkworms
The market also had a good selection of the herbs that the Vietnamese use in their dishes.
Back in the kitchen we got to work. My class was on Vietnamese street food, so we were taught how to make pho, green papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, and shrimp cakes. Our teacher demonstrated each dish and then we each had a go at making it. And of course afterwards was the best part of every cooking class – eating your dishes!
me in action
small bowls of pho
our teacher expertly manning two burners at once
green papaya salad, made with a special peeler
rolling spring rolls
frying the shrimp cakes
finished shrimp cakes
bruleeing the bananas for dessert (I’m pretty sure street food vendors don’t have blow torches, but oh well)
an extra delicacy – an egg with a chicken embryo. I’d seen these all over southeast asia and was finally brave enough to try one!
it was a bit revolting – I think that’s the beak there on the left
Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup
recipe from Hanoi Cooking Centre
2kg beef bones
2 yellow onions, peeled and cut in half
1 knob of ginger, cut into chunks
1 pig’s trotter, ask your butcher to saw in half
500g beef brisket
1 star anise
4cm cassia bark or 1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp salt
600g pho noodles (rice noodles)
200g beef fillet, thinly sliced
1 TB fish sauce
4 shallots, finely sliced
4 spring onions, half finely sliced and half cut into rings
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup basil leaves (preferably Thai basil)
1 lime, cut in half or into wedges
1 long red chili, sliced
fish sauce to taste
Place beef bones on a baking tray in oven, preheated to 400 degrees. Roast for 20 minutes. Turn meat over and roast for a further 20 minutes.
Using tongs, hold the onion and ginger over a gas burner (or use a grill) to char on all sides.
Remove bones from oven and place in a large pot. Add the pig trotter. Cover with cold water and slowly bring to a simmering point, removing scum as it comes to the surface. Add onion, ginger, brisket, star anise, and cassia bark. Simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove brisket and set aside. Take care not to boil the stock as it will result in a cloudy broth. Continue to simmer stock for a further four hours. Strain stock and discard bones, vegetables, and spices.
Marinate the beef fillet in the fish sauce and set aside. Slice the brisket. Ensure the broth is at a simmering point.
Cook noodles according to box, drain thoroughly and divide ev
enly into six bowls. Place brisket, sliced fillet, shallots, spring onions, and herbs on top of the noodles. Ladle hot broth into the bowls. Generously add lime juice, chili, herbs and fish sauce according to taste.
It’s a labor-intensive recipe, but well worth it if you don’t have a local pho joint. Pho is a classic Vietnamese dish and who knows, pretty soon you might be eating it for breakfast!