Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eating Vietnam

The sights, the sounds, the smells... yes, the sweet smells of Vietnam. It's a pungent mix of exhaust fumes, earthiness and fish sauce... I love it.

There is a very distinct smell to Vietnam and when I encounter that same smell anywhere else in the world, it brings me back to the busy streets of Saigon.

{overlooking Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minh City - the Mekong Delta}

I've been lucky enough to travel to Vietnam twice: once when I was 16 and last year, 12 years after my first family trip. Most of my relatives still live in southern Vietnam so it's always a big reunion when the '"viet kieus" can make it back to the homeland (even though I was born in the U.S.).

Besides being able to reunite with amazing family members, I am most ecstatic about the delicious goodies that I get to stuff into my belly! Vietnam is a food-loving country. You've seen the TV shows documenting such things, and yes, that's how they live. Food stalls, food alleys, food being prepped on the street... it all adds to the uniqueness that is "eating out" in Vietnam.

I would say 60% of my time in Vietnam was spent figuring out my next meal, I know, life is tough.

While you can most of these dishes in the U.S., there is something about plopping your butt down on a plastic chair, pulling it up to a tiny plastic table and watching the lady make your food right in front of you, there is nothing like it.

Since I took so many food pics during my trip last year, I decided to compile my Top 10 favorite things to eat when I'm in Vietnam (in no particular order).

1. Fresh Fruit: With Vietnam being a tropical country, the fruit that grows there is lush, vibrant, and delicious! You can get a lot of the fruit in the States, but they're usually frozen/canned, which takes away from the flavor. The fruits that I usually indulge in when I'm over there are: lychee, mangosteen, rambutan, longan and the custardy goodness that is DURIAN! A lot of people think durian smells like rotten onions, I on the other hand, think it smells wonderful and musty (in a good way).

{mangosteens at the market - the mangosteen flesh!}

{L: spiky durian! R: various tropical fruit}

2. Banh cuon (stuffed rice rolls): The ladies on the street make the thin rice sheets on a steamer right in front of you. If you wish, you can ask for the rolls to be stuffed with a pork/woodear mushroom filling. The rolls are topped with cha (pork rolls), herbs, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and fried shallots. Pour some fish sauce on top and this is the perfect cool meal for the sweltering Vietnam heat.

{banh cuon}

3. Banh xeo (viet crepe): The sizzling pans filled with batter that is tinted yellow from tumeric is the Vietnamese version of a French crepe. The banh xeos are usually filled with shrimp, pork, and other goodies. We came across some cute mini banh xeos in Nha Trang - that was cooked with shrimp and squid. This dish is what I usually crave when I come home... it's always more fun to eat this dish with a group of people.

{this banh xeo was bigger than my head!}

{baby banh xeos}

4. Banh canh: My mom makes a mean banh canh, but there was a lady down the street from my grandma's house that has been selling banh canh for decades! She sets up her shop in an alleyway and she usually sells out by Noon. I love the unctuousness of the thick noodles and the floating congealed pork blood is always a plus. Throw in a pigs foot and I'm in heaven.

{banh canh: so simple yet so complex at the same time}

5. Fresh seafood: Since Vietnam is hugged by the South China Sea, the seafood is plentiful around these parts. The best things to get are the cua rang muoi [salted fried crab], and the ever present snails. There are streets in Saigon that are known for cooking up snails. You grab a plastic seat/table, order from a full list of flavors (coconut, lemongrass, tamarind, etc.) and then work on sucking out the delicious meat! The periwinkle snails are small, so you don't even need to use a toothpick to get the meat out.

{L: snails in a coconut sauce. R: The snail carnage!}

{L: Fresh seafood for sale on the street in Nha Trang. R: Cua Rang Muoi}

6. Sweets: I like Vietnamese sweets because they're not as heavy as the treats that we're used to. We really love tapioca drinks, and one of my favorites is the Che ba Mau (3 color drink). Che is a generic word for anything that is a sweet/tapioca/starch type of sweet. Che ba Mau has three different components of different colors, hence the name. I love the coconut milk mixed with the black beans and tapioca. YUM. I also had one of the best flans EVER in the beach town of Nha Trang. It had a nice coffee flavor to it and yes, we like to eat our flan with ice. Try it, it's amazing.

{L: Che ba mau. R: flan with a hint of coffee}

7. Banh bot loc/banh beo: These two dishes can be separate, but I always group them together because when I was growing up in San Jose, we would go to a place that makes the best banh bot loc and banh beo and we would always eat the two dishes together. The same fish sauce is served with both, so it only makes sense. These two things are at the top of my list because of the texture, the flavor, and the overall complexity yet ease of the dish. I also love eating this because it's not something I can easily make at home. I've made banh bot loc, since that's fairly easy to make, but banh beo is best eaten in those little saucers and I don't have the patience to steam 30+ saucers to quench my appetite.

{L: a Hue version of banh beo. R: banh bot loc}

{breakfast of champions: banh beo AND banh bot loc! The cute lady making the dish in Nha Trang}

8. Hu tieu nam vang: Dry noodle dish with the broth on the side - which is perfect since it's hard for me to eat a hot bowl of anything when I'm drenched in sweat.

{my sis obviously loves hu tieu nam vang as well}

9. Drinks: Vietnamese people love their coffee - it's also one of the leading export items in the country - and there is at least one coffee stall/cart on every block. The thick coffee is ladled on top of the sweetened condensed milk and stirred vigorously, topped with ice (hopefully clean), and it's a great pick-me-up in the middle of the day.
I also love the sugar cane [nuoc mia] drinks. The raw sugar cane is pushed through a presser with half a lime and it's a natural sweet drink that is less than 25cents!

{cafe sua da from a coffee shop near my grandma's house}

{sugar cane being pressed and made into a frothy satisfying drink}

10. Family meals: I've said it before, but food always tastes better when you can share it with your family. The best part of Vietnam is being able to reconnect with family members that I rarely get to see. I enjoy the fact that I can watch them cook and even be allowed to cook for them; doing so allows me the Vietnamese food tradition alive... which is what food is all about. I want to be able to recreate dishes that my mom makes, that her mom has made, and generations before her. These dishes are what keeps me true to who I am and makes me who I am. It is my soul food. One of the best meals I had when I was in Vietnam was this simple chicken porridge my dad's family made for us when we visited. The dish is so unbelievably simple, but the 'yard bird' gave the porridge this lovely natural yellow tint and flavor that I can never recreate here. Maybe it was part food, part family time that made that dish so amazing?

{L: mom's family prepping for a birthday dinner. R: finished product!}

{L: the chicken cooking on the 'still-wood-fired-stove'. R: Chicken porridge}

{sharing a delicious country-style meal with my dad's family}