Since I arrived in this beautiful, complex, stimulating country three weeks ago I have been overwhelmed by its culinary offerings. So much so that I’ve rarely stopped to snap pictures of the amazing plates and bowls and banana leaves full of food placed in front of me. So I apologize in advance for the lack of beautiful imagery in this post. But I just haven’t been in the mood to frame a picture “just so” to get the perfect. shot. The food is just too damn good. So much so that I had a hard time figuring out how to capture all the delights – so I decided to focus on just one dish from each city/town I visited for this post. Let’s dig in…
I had the good fortune to go on a wonderous food tour with an Australian Ex Pat named Mark (who runs Street Eats Hanoi) who whisked us around Hanoi’s Old Quarter – stopping only in the most authentic joints in town. Which meant sitting on tiny plastic stools in narrow, open-air stalls and hovering over steaming plates of food I’d never seen nor heard of. My favorite bite on this tour didn’t even take place sitting down … Mark marched us up to a woman cooking away at a small cart, motioned to her our order and walked back with a small plastic bag. Then he unveiled a glistening piece of pork belly wrapped in paper – held it aloft and encouraged us to dig in. No plates, no utensils. So I selected a small piece of the pork and, at his encouraging, grabbed a tiny pale shallot and shoved it all in my mouth. And I sighed audibly. The pork (which had been roasting on a makeshift grill all day) was salty and a bit sweet and soft and covered with a crunchy layer of skin that was pleasantly charred. The small shallot was delightfully pickled, its briny, al dente bite the perfect foil to the richness of the succulent meat. We picked every piece of meat and shallots out of that paper-lined plastic bag. The pork belly didn’t have a chance…
As I sweated and struggled through the mountains of Sapa, my kind and engaging guide Cuong attempted to take my mind off the steep inclines by peppering me with questions. And at one point the conversation turned to food – and I was temporarily distracted from the brutal terrain. We talked of my food experiences in his beautiful country and I mentioned that I really wanted to try green papaya salad. I was about to tell him that I made a mean version at home in America when I noticed his face light up – so I paused. “I will make this for you tonight!” he exclaimed. I thought I was hearing things so I smiled and kept trudging. But a few hours later when we arrived at the homestay – he pointed to a tree laden with weighty green orbs and grinned. A beautiful papaya tree stood in the yard. And not an hour later, as we sat around a table filled with other intrepid trekkers and a handful of guides, Cuong placed a bowl of homemade green papaya salad in front of me. He had carefully shredded the hard fruit (that he picked himself) into delicate, pale green threads and mixed it with tart lime juice, sweet cane sugar, salty fish sauce and the perfect amount of thinly sliced, bright red peppers (also picked from the local garden). It was sheer perfection. His balance of flavors and textures and the welcoming chill of the salad … let’s just say his version made mine pale in comparison.
Anthony Bourdain doesn’t mess around. I’d read about his beloved Banh Mi Phuong in countless reviews so I was eager to see if these sandwiches I so love were as good as reported. Tony don’t lie. A crusty yet soft roll. A slather of rich, almost-sweet pate. A few slices of tender roasted pork. A few more thin slices of cucumber. Some shards of carrot. Perhaps a bit of homemade mayonnaise? And just the right amount of bright, hot pepper sauce. Heaven. Oh – and only 25,000 dong ($1.11). (Sidenote – though these were amazing … the best Banh Mi I had in Vietnam was further south in HCMC … at a tiny, not-well-known shop called Huynh Hoa. They bake their own bread, make their own pate, roast their own meat – and have been doing it for something like 40 years. It’s no joke.)
On my last night in this insane city – I just wanted to crawl into bed and order “spaghetti with tomato sauce” from room service to eat in the safety of my comfortable bed. I was just spent. Thankfully I decided instead to dust myself off and take the advice of both Hanoi food tour dude Mark and my local guide T and navigate my way to a restaurant called The Secret Garden. It took me a while to find it – I walked back and forth on the dark sidewalk several times before gingerly entering the designated address on Pasteur Street. Which was a motorbike parking lot. Through which was the entry to an old building. Which didn’t smell all that great. Then up four flights of stairs. Which were hot and definitely seemed residential as opposed to the kind of stairs that one would imagine would lead to a much talked-about restaurant. And then … I came upon a landing adorned with a tiny altarupon which a round, happy buddha grinned at me. As if welcoming me home. Several smiling waiters motioned me in – encouraging me to walk past the kitchen and then into the sparkling, open-air, rooftop restaurant. It was like Shangri-La. Lanterns glowed. Enormous towers shined nearby. Even bolts of lightning lit the sky from time to time. A tiny kitten even launched itself into my lap when I sat down. I was completely smitten and I hadn’t even looked at the menu yet.
And the menu! Page after page of tantalizing dishes. Honestly – I was flummoxed. What to order?!? I started with a cool bottle of ginger/lemongrass water (all those stairs in that humidity? whoa!). Then somehow I decided on seared beef with morning glory and crispy sticky rice with pork and shrimp. And I wasn’t disappointed. The thin slices of beef had been marinated and grilled – resulting in tender yet slightly crisped pieces of meat that, when dipped into the fish sauce/lemongrass/pepper concoction in the tiny little bowl and cradled into a mouthful of soft, grassy morning glory (similar to spinach but better) … I’m shaking my head just thinking of that chopstick-full of food. And the little disks of lightly fried sticky rice upon which briny shrimp-spiked ground pork was piled – with a small dollop of bright red chili sauce and a single leaf of cilantro? I’ve always heard about the Vietnamese focus on balance – combining salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. And their insistence of using only the freshest ingredients. And these mouthfuls – well, they were everything Vietnamese food is meant to be.
There were countless other meals and bites along the way. But I’m afraid I’m out of time … I’m off to hunt down another one of my favorite delights … a cup of properly made Vietnamese coffee (dripped slowly into a cup) with a swirl of thick, sweet condensed milk. God, I’m going to miss Vietnam…