A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Eating in Vietnam, Part 1

Will and I visited Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hoi An and Danang, traveling by train, bus and plane and staying several days in each city. Here are some of the things we ate and drank during our 2.5 weeks there.

There is fruit everywhere in Vietnam. Every street corner. For breakfast at every hotel. Massive bowls of rambutan on the backs of scooters. Enormous durians. I’d never tried dragonfruit, which is beautiful but unfortunately pretty bland. There was plenty of mango — both the extra-ripe kind I love and some very unripe, starchy samples, which took a while for me to come around to. At one outdoor bar, a friend bought from a passing vendor a small bag of underripe mango slices with some chili and salt to dip them in.

  Banh xeo
I ordered this often, as it is the perfect lunch: fresh, varied, fun to eat, proteiny, vegetably. The most common variation was a huge yellow crepe, crispy around the edges, sometimes with a hint of coconut milk in the batter; it was folded around a little shrimp and pork and a ton of bean sprouts. That would come with a massive plate of herbs, lettuce and big mustard leaves. The first one I ordered, I sort of mangled my way through, but the next time, a server showed me how to eat it: Cut off a piece of the crepe and wrap it in a lettuce or mustard leaf along with some herbs. Here's a shot of one being made in Saigon.

I identified most of the herbs I ate during my time there — culantro, cilantro, rau ram, shiso, spearmint, Thai basil, rice paddy herb. But I could never identify the feathery herb on this plate. We were also served raw slices of elephant ear stalk a lot, especially with stews.

Cheese bread and banh mi
At one hotel where breakfast was included with our room, the breakfast menu was pretty minimal – just five or six items. I ordered Banana Bread. The server brought me two bananas and a small baguette. Will ordered Cheese Bread. His breakfast was Laughing Cow cheese and a small baguette.

Laughing Cow cheese is everywhere in Vietnam, maybe because it doesn’t need much refrigeration. All the banh mi sellers have it, and most every gas station and street corner vendor had bread and Laughing Cow cheese. I used to find it kind of bland and processed-tasting, but I actually got to like it after a while. Here it is with bread, fruit and a few other items at a riverside rest stop between Nha Trang and Da Lat.

I forgot to shoot any banh mi, because we usually scarfed these little sandwiches down rather fast. On most street corners in tourist areas there’s a lady selling banh mi. The best place was in Nha Trang and often had several people lined up. Fresh bread, a few kinds of pate and head cheese, a mild buttery mustard, pickled onions and carrots.

The bread was so delicious everywhere. We brought pastries once, but I made the mistake of buying what I decided upon eating it was a durian-flavored Twinkie. So that was pretty unpleasant. I meant to try fresh durian, which was everywhere, but never got around to it. It really does smell like garbage.
Stir fries
In Dalat, the food was homier, more suited to the cooler climate. I loved it. This tofu, bell pepper and lemongrass stir fry (above) was among the best things I ate there: a serious amount of lemongrass shavings crushed together with dried red chiles, with the tofu fried and crispy. The onions we had everywhere there were small, sweet and fresh-tasting. At that meal, Will had pork and tofu; we also had some water spinach (morning glory) with fried garlic in a light broth.
Also in Da Lat, here's pork and pale green cauliflower (me) and a fried pork chop (Will). Notice all the different kinds of chile on the table: fresh, pickled, dried and crushed in a paste or in a sauce.

Train food
The food on both our train trips was excellent. Beef skewers, lemongrass-stewed chicken, green beans, rice, water spinach in broth. There was a baggie of fresh chiles taped to the meal cart, so I snagged some of those. The meal was 35,000 dong apiece, so about $1.70.

Amusing Western food
When we had to leave before breakfast one day, our hotel packed us a breakfast: Wonderbread sandwiches containing cucumbers, green onions, cocktail weenie slices, a little strip of string cheese, and a sort of pale processed bologna we saw here and there. There was a baggie of ketchup in the bag, and two bananas.

Amazing foreign food
The Indian restaurants we visited were uniformly excellent — hot, fresh naan; tons of garlic; fresh veggies; tandoori fish chunks bubbled and browned like marshmallows; spicy curries with fresh curry leaves. We also had some splendid German food — housemade brats, beef rolls, pickled cabbage — and some okay Italian and Spanish food.

This is the pho from Big Bowl, a fast-food breakfast joint at the Danang airport. Even fast food at the airport comes with a side plate of fresh herbs.

We also ate pho at Pho 2000, where Bill Clinton once did. And we had it for breakfast here and there.

Hot pots and drunk pockets
There are a lot of clay pot-style dishes everywhere; in fact, I made one during my cooking class (see Part 2). We had a less fancy but similar take at a restaurant near our hotel in Saigon, where we saw the owner carry out a steaming hot foil packet of food to a table; we pointed at it and got our own delivered soon after. It was soft fried tofu, mushrooms and veggies in a piping hot brown sauce, served with a side of puffed up fried noodles. Excellent late-night food.

Especially in Nha Trang, seafood was bigtime, and we had grilled fish and fish stews a lot. The ubiquitous mackerel was very fresh and not very oily — almost like a white fish, it was so mild and sweet. I also had some nice mild red snapper.

My favorite seafood, though, was at SH Garden in Saigon, a beautiful rooftop restaurant with Japanese and Vietnamese influences. We took a rickety old wood-and-wrought-iron lift up to it. The first time we went, we had these clams with butter, garlic and chile — we just an appetizer there and moved on. The second time, I ordered a fish called scad, grilled with a sticky, sour-sweet tamarind sauce and served with lettuce leaves, herbs and rice noodles for wrapping it in. The scad was pretty bony but absolutely lovely. It reminded me of trout — rich, but not gray or oily.
SH Garden also served Will this amazing stewed fatty pork with eggs. The broth was surprisingly delicate — maybe made with dashi?

Food on skewers
In Da Lat, there were lots of skewered meat vendors. The selection was impressive: chicken organ meats, eggs, prepared sausages, homemade sausages, whole birds, plus the usual pork, beef and chickens cuts. My favorite was a slightly sweet lemongrass pork sausage.

Coffee and tea
I quit drinking coffee three years ago, but in Vietnam I started again. It’s just so good there: inky black, smooth, over ice, with condensed milk if you want it. It’s often served with iced lotus tea or jasmine tea alongside (unless the temperature was below 85 or so, in which case the tea was served hot, as here).

In Da Lat, we had some warm artichoke tea, which is made with just straight-up dried artichoke. It’s good for your liver, everyone says. It’s surprisingly roasty-malty, with natural sweetness and pleasant hints of artichoke flavor.

There are several decent domestic lagers, of which the red-label Saigon Beer was my favorite. At cheap places, it cost about 12,000 dong, so around $0.60 a bottle.

I got tired of beer every now and then — it’s like water when you drink it so much. I would occasionally order a gin and tonic or other liquor drink, but the liquor was usually watered down, even at fancier places, or tasted unlike the brand in ways that made me suspect it was cut with other spirits. I bought some $4 "Wall Street blended spirit" scotch so we could have a cocktail in the room, but it wasn’t very good. Peaty and salty, but blended with a local vodka-type thing.

This mojito with fresh chile in it was the exception to our lame drinks. Strong, balanced, with just a warm tingle from the chile, not too much. Also I had a negroni at Larry’s Bar, a swank place in the basement of the Dalat Palace Hotel, which was quite awesome.

The local rum in Nha Trang was good – very sweet and banana-y.

In Dalat, they make wine from mulberries. The red I tried (a grape/mulberry blend) was pretty impressive: dry, not complex but quite drinkable.

In Danang we ate pizza at Luna Pub, and the house red — a carmenere, I think — was the best house red I’ve ever had. I wish I could remember more about it than that.

I took a cooking class while I was over there; I'll write about that in an upcoming post.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! I deeply want everything you described. And by the way, the fatty pork with eggs that Will had appears to be the Vietnamese version of what the thai call pa lo. -alex

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