Bánh đa Cua – Crab Cake Soup with Red Rice Noodles from Hai Phong

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It is freezing in Hanoi right now, all thing being relative.  My coworkers shudder in furry coats, doors keep closing everywhere to keep the draft at bay, and let me tell you – SOUP is on the menu, as if it ever stops being in Southeast Asia but you know.  Continue reading

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Do Nuong Sapa – Mountains of DIY Barbecue, Mountain-village Style

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“The origins of dinner tonight, will be attributed to Sapa, in the Lao Cai province of northwestern Vietnam.  They like to play with fire a lot up there.  It will happen, on the other hand, on the side of the road in Hanoi.  Thank you.” Continue reading

Street Sweets for Tết… who needs Christmas?

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Christmas in Hanoi, so far, is the occasional bony Santa-mannequin (the one on our street plays a saxophone!), the odd waft of warbled carols heard like hauntings every few days, and in the expatriate shops at least, a lot of the same cheese that happens at home, but that only serves to remind that I don’t have to do any shopping this year – miraculous, no?

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On that note, there is one thing I did want to buy, and that’s a string of fairy lights for the oh-so tropical tree-bush I dragged in from the porch, currently specked with some of the silliest ornaments I managed to scrounge up from the fairly practical items we have in the apartment (a pearl necklace, a four-leaf clover, a tarot card, and a glass bulb of garlic, among other things).  And although Christmas traditions aren’t high-ranking in my priorities, I am a little disappointed that due to an exciting new job as a retail supervisor for a bistro in Hanoi, I’m working six days a week minus holidays – and no, Christmas isn’t recognized as such here.  (oh, and another job in the evenings teaching adults, because I’m crazy)

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I’ll have the evening to phone my family, make apple crumble and martinis for me and the bf, order in some fancy sushi and be quite happy with that.  But, if I’m lucky, I might chance on another sweets seller on the street between then and now, and that would mean some genuine child-like squee-ing for a bit of bonus Viet-style cheer.

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As strange as these cakes may look, if you’ve had asian sweets before and you’re familiar with the gelatinous texture of them, then you’ll really be in heaven with a spread like this.  Maybe the most accessible (or not) is the chè con ong, (aka tea bee, if Google translate is at all correct).  It’s an incredibly sticky rice disc, and while I don’t think there’s tea or honey in it, what it does have is a deep burnished almost-caramel flavour spiked with sharp ginger and reads rather properly as gingerbread.  It’s perennially popular here around Lunar New Year, and some strange sort of flavour/calendar crossover with the western classic, which amuses me.

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Like night and day, heavy and light, this un-identified wiggly cake is … now identified as bánh đúc!  It’s made from either non-glutinous rice flour or corn flour (this one is rice), with a soft texture and mild flavour.  I dig it.

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Back to the rich side, if you’re into shortbread, you might like mung bean cake, or bánh đậu xanh.  It’s fudge-dense and sweet and mild tasting, and it stole my heart so neatly that there is in fact a box of it sitting under my Charlie Brown tree and I might have to steal a few pieces from the giftee.  Chief ingredients are mung bean powder, coconut milk and sugar, and it’s not uncommon to find the same combination in the middle of mooncakes.  Needless to say, it’s good with tea.

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Lastly, the most mysterious of the bunch was – until the point of selling – wrapped in a pandan-leaf bundle and tied like a present, and since I’m always curious about things like that, it was the first thing I selected.  On purchase, however, the woman unleashed the jiggling interior, snipped it to pieces and bunged it all into a styrofoam container with a tiny baggie of cane syrup and an oh-so-handy wooden spear.  That’s not even the mysterious part.  What’s got me scratching my head is that although it feels and tastes like a normal gelatinous rice substance it smells intensely eggy – almost in a way that’s off-putting, although I happily finished it, owing to a perverse kind of attraction to strange foods.  Anyone know what this is?

And evidently, Christmas fadeout isn’t so bad when you’ve got sticky rice. :)

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For more cheer, check out my Christmas in Hanoi set on Flickr (probably updated as the days count down)

Pho, Banh Cuon & Com Lam at Tam Dao Mountain

There’s a small phở shack high in the Tam Đảo mountains.  Seventy kilometres away from Hanoi, two hours by car, maybe more by motorbike, nondescript in every way, and perfect.  My first impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was midnight and I was drunk, and I know that there’s superlative soup in the city, too… but it didn’t stop me from ranting about poesy while the marbled beef melted away in my mouth, and the noodles responded to the simple action of my chopsticks as if inhabited by their own spirit.  This woman, whoever she was, could cook.

(Yes, I came back the next morning for more.  Wouldn’t you?)

Maybe it’s the nature of remote places in countries with long culinary traditions.  Not much to do when surrounded by pristine mountain air except perfect a craft, and forget that modernity (ie: corner-cutting) exists, right?  Morning after, I stumbled out of our hotel to mists thick enough to hide a hangover in, walked a few metres to the shack-of-delights, and ordered a stack of bánh cuốn – paper-thin rolls of fresh steamed rice crepes flecked with bits of pork and wood-ear mushrooms and topped with fried onion.  Flaky flat bundles, and gossamer-tender – this is the bánh cuốn I’ve been wanting to try and hadn’t found in Hanoi.  Matched by a few perfectly charred pork-batons floating in a subtle sweet broth, the warm plate was soon touched at the edges with cold mountain air, and I hurried to gobble it up with a few slender sprigs of cilantro, before jumping back into bed with my BF in our ancient darkwood hotel room and sleeping in until noon.  Bliss!

We eventually emerged to a sunny day, and played silly tourist trying to capture the languid beauty of the town.  It was originally built by the French in 1907, evidenced by a giant stone church (over-run with amateur wedding photography sessions) and lots of villas, but these days it’s a getaway for Vietnamese to escape from the heat and motorbike stench of the city and take in the slow, cool air perfumed by rocks, mist, and lush fields of susu greens (aka chayote, usually fried simply with garlic and chili).

We never did get around to trying the susu, but we did eat our fill of another specialty common in the mountains of north and central Vietnam.  Bypassing the shops selling cơm and noodles, and the many empty restaurants built to accommodate crowds of families on vacation, we zero’d in right away on the alluring puffs of black smoke coming from the grillers on the street.

It’s so delightfully, perfectly simple.  Just point, and communicate the number of items you’d like (this is a good time to break out any minor knowledge of the Vietnamese numbering system), and a few minutes later you’re given piping hot and smoky treats to munch on over beer.  The standards seemed to be the toothsome and less-sweet white corn that is really starting to grow on me, tiny eggs dipped in crushed peanuts & MSG, fatty skewers of pork, and the coolest thing – sticky rice steamed in young bamboo, called cơm lam here and khao lam in Thailand.  It’s simple, but deceptively more-ish, and fun to eat no matter how you do it (just watch out for splinters!).

For more photos, check out the Flickr gallery.

On handling a raw Fertilized Fetal Duck Egg. (+ a recipe for Vietnamese Pork & Mint Meatballs)

Warning: some of the images in this post may be disturbing.  

One of the eggs I took home started bleeding.  Bright red arterial blood that pooled out from an impact crack like a horror-show wellspring from a vampire’s touch.  I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t, not really.  Aghast, and intrigued in a kind of art-school-meets-biology class sort of way, but not surprised.  Now, I understand, eggs don’t usually bleed, but these were special market mystery eggs, and so expected the unexpected therein, right?  The vender who sold them to me had done so with wide eyes and gesturing hands, begged me to take some safe brown chicken eggs, and loosed a flurry of instructions (warnings) that did not nothing to dissuade me from my purchase.  Ironically, after all that I was soundly convinced that I needed the two ovoids, heavy as river stones.  The surprising part is that I didn’t guess what I had actually bought until the blood came out, considering this is Vietnam and all…

Balut in the Phillipines and Malaysia.  Trứng vịt lộn in Vietnam.  毛蛋 Máo dàn – “feathered egg” in China. Pong tia koon in Cambodia.  Fertiized fetal duck egg.  It’s a kind of protein-rich and slightly gruesome snack that’s about as common as hot dogs around here.  Usually, it’s boiled till it’s cooked through, then enjoyed just like it’s regular non-corporeal cousin with a bit of salt and pepper.  In Vietnam, they like them pretty developed, too – recognizable as ducks, about 19 to 21 days old.

Here’s what I can tell you about handling them.

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1. The taste is pretty normal.

I was expecting a flavour that matched the appearance (Dante-esque?), but it turns out that a half-formed duck tastes exactly like duck.  And egg.  Some mixture of the two.  There’s a kind of guilty aftertaste that no amount of soy sauce can cover, but is it in any way worse than the way we usually treat ducks?  Or any other animals for that matter?  At least this one never felt pain or fear.

2. The texture is flipping weird.

Everything is flipside down and upways out, texture-wise.  The white is nearly solid plastic.  The yolk is firm, chalky, and laced with small veins.  And the fetus itself is poultry but delicately so.  Sacs and membranes abound.  This would be easier to take with a large – very large – ice cold beer.

3. Lược means boil in Vietnamese, and it’s good cooking advice.

It really does have to be cooked, lest it bleed all over your counter.  Ewwwww.

Granted, I boiled the first one, but the second I cracked straight into a pot of bubbling water, for the purposes outlined in point no. 4.

4. It makes a damned fine soup.

The flavour is intense and nice, and if you chop it up fine, it disperses right away into liquid and you’d NEVER KNOW it was once ever anything weird.  I made one of the best soups I’ve ever had by adding some carrot, chayote, fennel seeds, ramen noodles and some meltingly tender pork meatballs laced with fresh mint.

Just for the record, here is the recipe for the meatballs:

Vietnamese Pork Meatballs with Fresh Mint

from the Wishfulchef

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch (I used AP flour to good effect)
  • 2 teaspoons agave nectar or sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • a drizzle of vegetable oil if the pork is lean

A damned fine soup.

In a bowl, mix all ingredients together thoroughly with your hands. Roll into about 30-40 meatballs and place on a plate.  Bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes or until cooked through and not pink in the middle.  Or, have a pot of soup at a rolling boil and drop in the meatballs.  When they float to the surface, they’re done.