I have bad news. I’ve published my own thoughts on the internet long enough to think that they’re important. I’m suffering from solipsistic delusions of grandeur wherein my reader base of exactly 13 subscribers (myself included) desperately awaits pictures of what I ate for dinner. It’s their passion, the imagined lust of my readers, that makes editing my food photos down into digestible bits or writing a “best of” post impossible. I have to share it all. For you. I apologize. For you.
It’s been long enough since my trip to Vietnam that I can barely remember when I what, and in what order. So I’ll start with the Big Daddy. Pho.
The pho pictured above was fantastic. I managed to eat nearly the whole bowl for elevensies despite having indulged in first and second breakfasts. After a series of disappointing pho breakfasts of beef tough enough to make chewing futile and dissolving soft noodles in one-dimensional salty broth, I found my maker (I think her name was Linh) in a bowl at Pho Hoa in Saigon/HCMC. This is pho tai, and it is very special in that the beef goes into the scorching hot broth raw or very, very rare. This does two things: packs the broth with extra flavor and cooks the beef somewhere under the point wherein it becomes rubber.
My friend David found Pho Hoa on the internet, and was later disappointed to find that it had been in the guidebook the whole time. Despite Lonely Planet knowing of its existence, Pho Hoa seemed pretty legit, if a bit more expensive than street side noodle hawkers, and by “legit” I mean “not full of mostly white foreigners”.
Each table at the restaurant was packed with platters of herbs, small dishes of hot peppers, vials of fish sauce, piles of bean sprouts and plates of fresh lime. Though it’s considered weak to punch up your broth with the provided accoutrements, I found the additional seasonings brought my pho up from very good to unforgettable. Maybe I’ve been in flavor-orgy Thailand too long, but throwing in a squirt of sour lime, a tiny dash of sugar, and a hot pepper or two rounds out the flavor, while the bean sprouts provide a nice textural variation.
I didn’t eat the fried dough served at this particular pho joint seeing as it was my third meal in three hours, but I found it revolutionary on the street in Hanoi. One thing that the Vietnamese have done so elegantly is incorporate colonial French culinary remnants into their food seamlessly with just a few local twists. These sticks of fried dough absorb hot broth while keeping a crisp exterior. Each bite means a squirt of broth and some western-inspired time chewing wheat dough.
Let’s move onto spring rolls, the other Vietnamese cuisine cliché. When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts I spent an inordinate amount of time and money at a Vietnamese restaurant called Dalat eating tofu spring rolls dipped in a peanut sauce that’s proven impossible to recreate. Like pho, it took a while to find spring rolls that were worth writing about. Unfortunately, their reputation as a tourist must-have in the motherland has led to lots of rolls of dubious quality popping up anywhere and everywhere, and I fell for the hoax again and again.
The last week of our trip had the best spring rolls, with the best being the ones in the title photo found in Hoi An. What makes a good spring roll, in my opinion, is simple: the rolls need to have been rolled recently, ideally right before serving, and the ingredients must be incredibly fresh. Or, as in the roll above, it’s got to be unique–something I’ve not tasted or experienced. This little guy was a cheap addition to a meal in Saigon. Some sort of mealy, meaty substance clung to the fresh rice noodles and herbs, while a fresh betel leaf and unidentifiable cartilage/anchovy looking thing were nestled into the outer layer.
We didn’t eat a ton of street food in Vietnam. For one, my friend who flew out from New York to meet up with Andy and I had not been living in Southeast Asia for six months, and thus had a fresh, precious gut not primed by months of eating with dubious utensils at places where the bathrooms used by the food preparers have no soap. So, out of courtesy for his gastrointestinal health, we followed more food safety pointers than usual. Also, he’s a doctor, so he knows exactly where all the creepy crawlies waiting to wreak havoc in his gut hide out. Plus, it’s harder to sit down with the locals and eat without feeling like an asshole if you have no language skills. In Thailand I am super comfortable walking into most establishments, English-language menu or not, and communicating verbally and through body language what I want to eat. In Vietnam, I felt more out-of-place and vulnerable, while also being sensitive to the cooks and other patrons who would have to put up with my wild pointing and hovering.
After visiting Uncle Ho in Hanoi, though, I felt primed and ready to sit on a teeny, tiny, little stool and gesture wildly until someone brought me food; something about paying homage to the beloved leader’s dead body made me feel like I’d earned it. So we walked to what the Lonely Planet guide referred to as something like a “special food street” and I made my move on a packed little pop-up sidewalk restaurant on a street whose name translates roughly into “stop pointing” (at the King). The fried tofu and fishcakes above consisted of this first dive into street cuisine. The meal was simple: fried proteins topped cakes of rice noodles that ladies cut apart with scissors while a basket of fresh herbs and small dishes of a tasty dipping sauce allowed us to season our food as we wished.
I felt like this simple dish represents so much of what Vietnamese food does so beautifully: fresh ingredients, simple rice noodles cooked to perfection, a small bit of indulgence (in this case, fried proteins), and deep, complicated dipping sauces that can be customized to the diner’s preference. From the Thai perspective, I can see how Vietnamese food would seem boring, but upon arriving back in Chiang Mai, I found myself lusting after these unfussy preparations, unsure of how to once again indulge in all five flavors at once, all the time.
You know what? I’m going to stop here. I’m not done telling you about the food I ate two weeks ago, but I already passed the 1000 word mark. If you made it this far, congratulations! I give you a firm internet handshake of congratulations. Well done, friend.
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