This is the second half of a two part series. See Everything I Ate in Vietnam, Part I for the whole story.
You poor, poor readers. What a task I’m putting you to. I’ve already subjected you to 1,000 words about Vietnamese food, and I’m not even done. You, my dear one of 13 (including myself), are a trooper. A winner. I will reward your tenacious spirit with this picture of a Vietnamese sandwich:
Take the sandwich, for example. For less than one US dollar, you can have a meal loaded with seemingly French ingredients: cheese, pâté, and a baguette! Yet, it doesn’t taste French. Not at all. First, the bread differs from its crusty forbearer; it’s less dense, with large, yeasty air holes beneath the chewy crust. While Vietnam has adopted bread, it’s also adapted it to suit their own applications. The cheese is used for its gummy creaminess–it’s a sealant fusing the meal together. The pâté? I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t taste like the sort I’ve had served with olives and stinky cheeses.
Some combination of mint, cilantro, and torn basil provides fresh, herby notes, while assorted meats, probably originating from the pig round out the major fillings. A quick squirt of mayonnaise and red chile sauce complete the sandwich. It’s not exactly health food, but the scent of fresh bread and crushed cilantro emanating from early morning stands seduced me into many a purchase.
Speaking of seductions, Hoi An’s culinary specialties also managed to firmly grasp my stomach’s attention. Native to this small town in central Vietnam, cao lau consists of freshly-made wheat noodles, herbs, peppers, fried wonton wrappers, and tofu or pork topping a small pool of broth. I sampled the wares from no fewer than three vendors in five days, mixing together the noodles with the other ingredients until each bite guaranteed an amalgamation of flavor. It sounds simple, sure, but the noodles were divine served slightly firm on the inside but a bit melty on the outside.
Central Vietnam maintains a reputation of having the most delicious food in the country. It’s spicier and more flavor-forward than the offerings in the north and south, with a culinary history reaching further into the past than the other regions. Along with cao lau, white rose dumplings filled with pork and shrimp (not pictured because I’m stupid) attract Vietnamese and foreigners foodies to the area. I enjoyed bowls of cao lau and white rose on the street as well as at restaurants like Miss Ly’s Cafeteria.
Banh Xeo roughly translates into sizzling cakes, though many of the English descriptions consider the dish the equivalent of Vietnamese crepes. This is SO wrong, at least in Central Vietnam. I thought these suckers were much closer to tacos, with a crispy shell containing succulent pieces of shrimp and mystery meat (probably pork) and served alongside chile sauces, bright herbs, and limes. Pickled fruits and vegetables and rice paper completed one of my favorite plates.
Though these are allegedly available on the street, I never once saw this exact type sold that way. These were from Morning Glory, a restaurant in Hoi An designed for tourists who want to sample street food with access to cloth napkins. I could be snarky about this place, but it was really delicious with a menu more like an encyclopedia of Vietnamese street food.
We found a restaurant in Saigon with a similar street-food-inside concept that worked for our group of pretentious street food connoisseur (me) and sensible guy trying not to get sick and enjoy his vacation (David, and really, this should be Andy, too). I cannot remember its name, but it was in all the guides, and with reason. Here I ordered bo la lot, or beef wrapped in betel leaves and charbroiled until the betel leaves crisped up around the tender meat.
Again, the meal was served with rice paper and herbs. In many applications, rice paper does not need to be wet and wrapped around ingredients. Instead, you can use them as you could a corn tortilla, piling on herbs and ingredients to your taste and eating with your hands. The platter with the bo la lot was a pleasure to eat with all the sides. I ate the pieces together and separately, finding which flavor combinations worked together, and having no idea if I was doing it according to custom.
The only unpalatable part was the green bananas, served with the peel. You can see the slices tucked behind the tart, green starfruit. Bananas this green, with their peels, are really disgusting. I do not recommend this, especially when a tastier green fruit is served as well.
I ate the betel leaf spring roll from yesterday’s post (I know, I’m disorganized, but it’s my website and I can do what I want) along with this plate of food, and I must admit I felt a bit weird afterward; I couldn’t read a map at all.
I had a similar problem with clear thinking after I chased a banh mi with this durian pastry picked up from a bakery near our hostel in Saigon. Vietnam had delicious sweets, from the coconut caramels to goods from all the excellent bakeries. Though the foreigners tended to outnumber the Vietnamese folks in shops slinging pastries, the proprietors all seemed to be locals, and the quality was always very high.
Considering that Vietnam’s food culture is largely a new phenomenon, given centuries of famine before this era of relative plenty, the cuisine impressed me after a few false starts. I do feel like I missed out on experiencing authentic renditions of some of the classics. I tried pigeon, but only at a an overpriced, cookie-cutter guidebook restaurant in Hanoi (my choice of restaurant, too). I didn’t sample the northern-style stuffed crab until locked down on a boat full of other tourists on Ha Long Bay with a recipe clearly modified for the perceived palate. I chased after a restaurant in the third district of Saigon that promised to serve the southern specialty of goat breast (udder) curry, but it appeared to be gone. I missed sampling the mixed desserts that don’t use an oven.
I’ll be interested to follow the path of Vietnamese cooking. From what I’ve heard (and eaten), even the most authentic Vietnamese food in the US prepared by recent immigrants with full access to traditional ingredients has evolved in response to its context in a place of abundance. Previously a food destination for those wishing to sample what’s illegal or protected elsewhere, the country has come into its own as a place to eat. Elevation of street food into haute cuisine has been a strategy that has worked for Thailand in attracting tourists and securing a reputation as a foodie paradise, and I think that Vietnam’s entrepreneurs could easily employ similar techniques to elevate the idea of Vietnamese food to its rightful place.
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