Thursday, 11 September 2014

A beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food 'Pt.2' - #TheNextSteps

In ‘Part 1’ (see here) of this, my ‘A beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food’ I focused on the crowd pleasing favourites such as bánh mì, phở and gỏi cuốn (summer rolls); plus a few other dishes that should not be missed when visiting Vietnam.

In Part 2, I’ll cover ‘The Next Steps’ – dishes that may not appeal to the majority of Western palates. The final entry will be about Cẩy tơ (dog meat). I understand that breaking this “taboo” may be a step too far for many so I’ll warn you before you scroll down and accidentally see some pics of cooked pooch!

Starting reasonably “safely”, the first dish is just some humble Phở from the log established popular Pho joint Phở Hòa.

Phở Đặc Biệt tự thứ @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 5)
For 70,000 VND (about £2), a little more expensive that the standard one, you can get the fully loaded Phở Đặc Biệt tự thứ (mixed beef). This comes with such goodies as bò gân (beef tendon), tái (raw beef), gầu (fatty brisket) bò viên (meatballs) nạm (flank) and sách (tripe). All this meat, broth and noodles make for a hearty feed.

Bánh Mì Xíu Mại @ Bánh mì (6 Nguyễn Siêu, Quận 1)
Another safe dish ingredients wise but worthy of “The Next Steps” as it’s slightly less common is the Bánh Mì Xíu Mại – basically a meatball version of the traditional Bánh Mì – think of the Meatball Marinara from Subway but better! (If you’re wondering how it’s better… for a start, the meatballs actually had the texture of meat!)

What I particularly like about this place is the fact that the owners have cut a whole into the wall of a bedroom / living space and they’re serving their Bánh mì from there. If you look at the location on Google Maps from March 2014 there is no window… now there is a shutter from where mother and daughter delight passers by with their Bánh mì selection… a real window into Vietnamese life and culture.

Miến lươn (eel) @ Cát Tường (61 Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
Getting a little riskier, we have Miến lươn from the centrally located Cát Tường; their version is made with a rather skimpy serving of dried eel but I’ve read that some places make it with fresh ones. I reckon there has to be better versions available in the city but I didn’t get a chance to seek them out.

Ốc mỡ xào me @ Quán Ốc Quang Anh (189 Tô Hiến Thành,
 Quận 1)
Until I had walked the streets and markets of Ho Chi Minh, I didn’t realise how many wonderful varieties of snails existed. Having seen them in the markets, I took to the Eating Saigon website to find somewhere that specialised in said gastropods – it seemed the place to go was Quán Ốc Quang Anh. With screen shot saved onto my phone I headed off to District 10, found the restaurant and pointed at the snail dish that I desired (much easier than trying to decode the menus with my limited Vietnamese vocabulary and dodgy pronunciation). I was soon eating a fab plate of Common Periwinkle (ốc mỡ) covered in a sticky sweet garlic (tỏi) and tamarind (me) sauce.

Hột vịt lộn xào me @ Quán Ốc Quang Anh
Whilst waiting for my snails, I noticed that Quán Ốc Quang Anh also served Hột vịt lộn – more commonly known as ‘balut’ in some parts of the world, Hột vịt lộn are fertilised duck embryos. The fact that they are cooked “alive” puts some people off. If you can get over the mental image of a cute little duckling, I recommend you try them like this, swimming in a sweet tamarind sauce with roasted peanuts and served with Muối tiêu chanh – a dipping ‘sauce’ made by mixing lime with salt, pepper and chilli.

Cật Gan Vịt (duck kidney & liver) @ Mì Vịt Tiềm (3 Hoàng Diệu, Quận 4)
In Vietnam not all ducks (vịt) are eaten before they are born. Some are allowed to grow up, lead happy lives swimming and quacking before they are dispatched to be made into delicious broths. Sometimes their kidneys (cật) and (gan) livers are added to these broths – when that happens it's a very special thing!   

Lẩu cá kèo (hotpot with goby fish) @ Lẩu cá kèo (87 Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Quận 3)
Lẩu refers to the hot pot that are communally kept bubbling at the centre of the table. These restaurants are highly sociable places, mainly serving large families or groups of friends. Cá kèo refers to the ‘live’ Vietnamese Goby fish that are popped into broth.

When the Cá kèo stop wriggling, they are ready to eat; along with the complex broth that has sweet and sour flavours coming in the main from me (tamarind) and lá giang (river leaf); the broth also and bitterness from rau đắng (water hyssop) and lots of lemongrass (sả). The fish are eaten whole; but be warned, they have some pretty crunchy bones, especially in the head.

Cá kèo nướng & Tôm sú hấp @ Lẩu cá kèo
As well as cá kèo in the hot pot, we also ordered some that had been grilled on sticks, along with prawns served in the same way.  These were served with a Muối tiêu chanh – a dipping ‘sauce’ made by mixing lime with salt, pepper and chilli.

Canh khổ qua @ Cơm Tâm 390 (390 Cách mạng tháng Tám,
 Quận 3)
As a lover of bitter and sour flavours, Canh khổ qua (bitter melon soup) is right up my alley. Stuffed with pork and wood ear mushrooms there are no ‘unusual’ ingredients here but the bitterness of the vegetable may be too much for many people… especially those with a sweeter tooth.

Hột vịt lộn xào me @ Cútchiêneo (In front of 368 Cách mạng tháng Tám, Quận 3)
Walking along the street after visiting Cơm Tâm 390 we stumbled across a smiling street food vendor who had set up a tiny table and two small plastic stools. I noticed that she sold Hột vịt lộn. Having enjoyed them before I ordered some cooked and served with tamarind as well a couple in their shells.

Hột vịt lộn @ Cútchiêneo
I’d not yet tried the Hột vịt lộn presented in their shells, so the woman on the stall kindly gave me some tips on how to eat. First a hole is made in the top and the liquid content then sucked out. After enlarging the hole, the ‘yolk’ and hard chewy white can be eaten with the accompanying herbs and muối tiêu chanh. This leaves the final delicacy of the duck foetus.

Cút chiên bơ (quail) @ Cútchiêneo
Getting up to pay, I was instructed by the stall owner to sit again. It seemed she wanted me to try her other speciality, Cút chiên bơ. Coated in five spices and butter. This came with more eating instructions: I was encouraged to twist the head off at the base of neck and eat it whole, eyes, bones, brains and beak. For 3 eggs, 2 summer rolls and a whole butter fried quail I paid 40,000 VND, about £1!

Phao câu gà nướng (BBQ chicken anus) @ Cơm Gà Nướng Than (Hẻm 292, Cách Mạng Tháng 8, Quận 3)
Further along Cách Mạng Tháng 8 (probably my favourite street to eat in Ho Chi Minh) we noticed a small group of women up an alley (Hẻm 292) grilling bits of chickens over hot coals.

Chân gà nướng (grilled chicken feet) and a skewer of Phao câu gà nướng (barbequed chicken anus) seemed popular with the locals, so I went with that. It’s surprising what a bit of chilli, salt, lime, herbs and a few slices of đậu bắp (okra) can do to make a chicken bum appetising.

Vú Dê Nướng (BBQ goat udder) @ Lẩu Dê (105 Trương Định, Quận 3)
I fear going from BBQ chicken anus to writing about goat udders could make me look a little strange and I promise that I haven’t got a fetish for animals’ “private parts” but I am always keen to try something that I haven’t had before. As you’d imagine they were somewhat rubbery – a little more so than squid but not as much as a finger from a Marigold glove.

The sauce had deep fermented flavours and a good but not overpowering chilli kick. The accompanying greenery included đậu bắp (okra) chuối chát (thin slices of small green unripe banana) and khế (star fruit) – take a few herbs, wrap in bánh tráng (rice paper wrappers), dip and enjoy!

Gà ác (black chicken) @ Quán 94 (94 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Quận 1)
I’ve wanted to try black chicken ever since seeing Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang make a traditional medicinal broth from one on a TV show. The breed in question is called a Silkie – Google them and you’ll see that they are cute with their fluffy black (or white) feathers. As well as black feathers, they also have black skin, dark meat, black bones and even black internal organs.

The gà ác (which translates as: evil chicken / cruel chicken) is cooked overnight in a broth with thuốc bắc (the collective name for medicinal herbs, berries and roots). These include such things as: kỷ tử (gogi berries) củ sâm (ginseng) thục địa (Chinese foxglove) ngưu tất (ox knee) đảng sâm (poor man’s ginseng) đương qui (Chinese angelica) táo tầu (jujube / Chinese date) and bạch truật (atractylodes / bai zhu).

I didn’t really know what half these things were but apparently I am now guaranteed never to have a cold, backache, toothache or have problems with my spleen. To be honest, chicken aside, which was quite gamey, the whole dish lacked a little favour… maybe a seasoning issue? ;-)

(Don’t scroll down unless you want to read about a real dog’s dinner!)

A couple of points to make about the Vietnamese and the eating of dogs: firstly, although common enough to mean that it’s readily available, the eating of dogs is not something that all Vietnamese people do. It is more popular in the north and among the elder generations.

The other thing to consider is that dog meat is expensive compared to most meats. Some visitors worry that they may be served dog “by mistake” – this would be like asking for prawns and accidentally being served lobster. One of the reasons many places keep live dogs is so that customers can be assured that they are not being palmed off with a cheaper animal like goat. For this, they are commonly dispatched and prepared in font of the diner. At the place I visited I didn’t have to worry about this – the tail end was hanging on a butcher’s hook.

Cẩy tơ @ Quán Cẩy tơ (660A Cách Mạng Tháng 8, Quận 3)
The dish came with the meat served three ways: thịt chó nướng (grilled dog meat) thịt chó hấp (boiled / steamed dog meat) and as dồi dhó (dog sausage). To me there was no direct comparison of flavour with other meats I have had – texturally the grilled meat was similar to pieces of lamb and the steamed dog akin to duck. 

The sausage, made with the offal and nuts (when I say nuts, I mean cashew, not the dog’s bollocks) and a little spice. Like most Vietnamese dishes, this dish has it’s own special mix of accompaniments, these include: riềng (galangal), and the unglamorously named ‘Stink Vine’ leaves (lá mơ lông).

My next post on Vietnam will focus on Coffee Shops.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food 'Pt.1' – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

When visiting a city for the first time I typically spend many hours researching what and where to eat. Planning my eating itinerary in Ho Chi Minh, I quickly came to the realisation that my usual attention to detail would not be necessary.

Aside from a few suggestions from the Eating Saigon blog and the excellent Eat Saigon by Elly Thuy Nguyen, my plan was simple… avoid the usual touristy recommendations in the published guides and stick to places that specialise in one or two dishes and seem popular with the local crowd. This strategy served me well.

In ‘Part 1’ of this, my ‘Beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food’, I focus on the usual crowd pleasing favourites of bánh mì, phở and gỏi cuốn (summer rolls); plus a few other dishes that should not be missed when visiting Vietnam.

In ‘Part 2’ (see here), I cover “less safe” options, those which may not suit all Western palates – we’re talking offal and specialities such as duck foetus, goat udder and dog meat.

Where possible, I have included the Vietnamese words for dishes and ingredients – in some cases, I found printing off information about places with pictures and words (and pointing) made ordering a stress free experience.

First, let’s talk phở. For those that don’t know, phở is a Vietnamese dish of noodles in bone rich broth made from (chicken) or (beef). Phở 24 and Phở 2000 are two of the better known and commonly recommended places (largely because of their central locations and English menus) but for phở bò, I liked the long established Phở Lệ and Phở Hòa. These places are used to tourists but are also very popular with the locals.

Phở Lệ was by far the more generous of the two when it came to the amount of beef in the broth but I preferred the flavour and ambience of Phở Hòa. I visited Phở Hòa a total of three occasions and tried their phở tái (with raw minced beef), phở nạm vè giòn (with ‘crunchy’ beef flank) and phở đặc biệt tự thứ (mixed beef, including tripe – which I’ll write about in Part 2).

Phở bò @ Phở Lệ (415 Nguyễn Trãi,
 Quận 5)
 As well as the most generous serving of meat I encountered, Phở Lệ also served a plentiful array of the usual herbs and garnishes: giá (been sprouts) hành (spring onions) bắp chuối (banana blossom) ớt (chillies) tương ớt (chilli sauce / Sriracha) tương ăn phở (a hoi sin type sauce) chanh (lime wedges) rau quế (basil) ngò (coriander) and ngò gai (sawtooth or Mexican / long coriander).

Phở Tái @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 3)
How and what you add to “pimp your phở” is entirely down to personal preference – I experimented and came to the conclusion that I like: a handful of giá, hành and rau quế, with a quick squirt of tương ớt and tương ăn phở, a few ớt and lots of chanh for sour notes and plenty of the ngò gai for a strong coriander like flavour... in other words, a little bit of each with lots of lime and sawtooth herb. 

Phở Nạm Vè Giòn @ Phở Hòa
Another good thing about Phở Hòa is the ready availability of various sides – I particularly liked the fried dough sticks of Chinese origin called quẩy. Also look out for the dinky coconut leaf boxes, containing the gelatinous bánh xu xê / phu thê (husband & wife cake / wedding cake) – the sticky tapioca starch outer supposedly signifies the sticking together of the marriage vows, whilst the golden mung bean ‘heart’ represents loyalty and faithfulness.    

Phở gà @ Phở Hương Bình (148 Võ Thị Sá, Quận 3)
If beef isn’t your thing, also look out for phở gà. Most, pho places usually specialise in either bò or gà, as a lot of time and effort goes into making the large vat of stock. Phở Hương Bình (just around the corner from Phở Hòa) is one of the few places that serve both types. Theirs was the best chicken pho I tasted.

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Phở gà @ Cát Tường (61 Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
Cát Tường is another popular place for phở gà. It’s main plus point is it’s location, a short walk the central location of Bến Thành Market.

The other biggie when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine is the ubiquitous Bánh mì – a throwback from the French colonial period. Made with a varying mix of rice and wheat flours, the Vietnamese baguettes are lighter than their crusty colonial counterparts but still maintain a crispness. My three favourite places were as follows:

Bánh mì @ Huỳnh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng, Quận 1)
With a central location, Huỳnh Hoa is a popular place. At 25000 VND (about 70p), it was also the most “expensive” of the Bánh mì I ate – but for that extra 10p, the fillings were abundantly apportioned. The meats included: chả lụa (pork roll) thịt nguội (a fatty pork) giò thú (head cheese) xa xíu (a Chinese style barbequed pork) and, of course, paté. Also, plenty of đồ chua - which translates as “pickled stuff” but usually means pickled daikon and carrot. One downside being, is does not open until mid afternoon.

Bánh mì @ Như Lan (64 Hàm Nghi, Quận 1)
Open from early and selling their bánh mì for 20000 VND (less than 60p), Như Lan is actually a bakery so they make their own breads. As it was just around the corner from our hotel, we ended up with several from here; thy also specialise in ‘bánh trung thu’ (Mid Autumn  / Mooncakes) which are worth trying if you are there during the right season.

Bánh mì @ Đỗ Quỳnh (93 Nguyễn Thái Học, Quận 1)
At 17000 VND (just under 50p) the bánh mì from Đỗ Quỳnh was amongst the cheapest I encountered; it may not have been the most liberally filled but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Salad or summer rolls, aka Gỏi Cuốn, complete the trio of Vietnamese foods that are most popular in the UK. As well as bún (rice vermicelli) and vegetables, they traditionally contain both prawns and pork. I must admit, I didn’t go out of the way to seek out “the best” but ordered some on the side when I saw that they were available. Here’s the pics of those I had:

Gỏi cuốn @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 5)

Gỏi cuốn @ Quán Bánh Xèo 46A (46 Đinh Công Tráng, Quận 1)

Gỏi cuốn @ Cútchiêneo (In front of 368 Cách mạng tháng 8, Quận 3)

War Remnants Museum

Gỏi Đu Đủ (papaya salad) @ entrance to Lê Văn Tám park (corner of Võ Thị Sáu & Hai Bà Trưng, Quận 3)
One of my most enduring eating experiences of this trip with undoubtedly prove to be eating gỏi đu đu at the entrance to Lê Văn Tám Park. Having spent the morning walking around the War Remnants Museum and across the river to the Bình Thạnh District, by the time I had strolled back through Lê Văn Tám Park I was in dire need of a drink and a sit down.

The sight of two ladies selling a cool, crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy papaya salad topped with bánh giòn giòn (crispy crackers), đậu phộng (peanuts) and khô bò (a kind of beef jerky) was just what the doctor ordered. Joining the locals, I took a ‘seat’ on raised concrete bed at the base of a tree and enjoyed.

Prior to travelling to Vietnam, a couple of Vietnamese friends told me that if I wanted to truly eat like a local, I had to try Bánh Xèo – crispy pancakes that are a favourite amongst the Saigonese locals.

Bánh Xèo @ Quán Bánh Xèo 46A (46 Đinh Công Tráng, Quận 1)
With a name that translates as ‘sizzling cake’ bánh xèo (pronounced bahn say-oh) are made in skillets set over flames. The crêpes are made with rice flour with coconut milk and turmeric and filled with pork, prawns and beansprouts. The pancakes at Bánh Xèo 46A were larger and lighter than those at Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải.

Bánh Xèo @ Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải (1 Bắc Hải, Quận 10 - on the corner of Cách mạng tháng 8)
Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải’s also came with bánh tráng (rice paper wrappers) as well as a variety of herbs, including: lá cải (mustard leaf), húng quế (Thai basil), tía tô Việt (Vietnamese perilla / shiso), lá lốt (betal leaf) and rau chua (French sorrel). To eat, a piece of pancake is wrapped in herbs and rice paper before being dipped in a chilli laden nước chấm.

Bánh Bao @ Ba Chúc (near 64 Hàm Nghi, Quận 1)
A little smaller than the Cantonese ‘baozi’ from which they originate, the Vietnamese streamed buns, Bánh Bao, most commonly contain pork, mushrooms and a boiled quail’s egg. They are cheap and filling.

Bún thịt nướng (pork & rice noodles) @ I.D. Café (34D Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
I.D. Café (behind Bến Thành Market) is a cool, comfortable, modern café that has Wi-Fi, good coffee and refined versions of Vietnamese favourites. Their bún thịt nướng was good but didn’t come close to the example I had at Chị Thông

Bún thịt nướng @ Chị Thông (195 Cô Giang, Quận 1)
The bún thịt nướng at Chị Thông was one of my favourite dishes on my trip. A seemingly perfect synergy of ingredients: a bowl of shredded fresh greenery, including dua leo (cucumber), tiá tô (shiso), rau thơm (mint) and lemon scented kinh giới (Vietnamese balm) topped with cool vermicelli noodles (bún), beautifully moist and charred, sticky BBQ pork (thịt nướng), hot chả giò (crispy fried Vietnamese egg rolls) and a garnish of đậu phộng (peanuts), mở hành (spring onions made with oil) and fiery tương ớt (chilli chutney).

Cơm Tâm translates and “broken rice” – in poorer times, after sending their good stuff (the whole grains) to market, all the rice farmers could afford to eat themselves was the rice damaged by harvesting or processing. Nowadays, everyone loves to eat Cơm Tâm.

Cơm Tâm Gà Nường (broken rice with chicken) @ Cơm Tâm 390 (390 Cách mạng tháng 8, Quận 3)
Cơm Tâm is typically served with grilled / barbequed pork (thịt nường) but some places, such as Cơm Tâm 390, also sell Cơm Tâm Gà Nường. Whether you order pork or chicken your plate is also likely to include chả trứng; which is a steamed ‘meatloaf’ made with pork, eggs, mushroom and crab. Chả trứng is great stuff, so ask for some if your cơm tâm doesn't come with a slice.

Cơm Tâm Thịt Nường @ Cơm Tâm 390
Not open until mid to late afternoon, Cơm Tâm 390 is a great place. Although they have a roadside stand, their main kitchen and tarpaulin covered seating area is hidden up the ‘hem’ (alley) behind. The main road of Cách mạng tháng Tám (8) is a wonderfully vibrant and non-touristy place to walk of an evening; taking in the culture and trying the full range of street foods.

Cơm Tâm Thịt Nường @ Cơm Tâm Nguyễn Văn Cừ (167 Nguyễn Văn Cừ, Quận 5)
Another good place I found for cơm tâm was Cơm Tâm Nguyễn Văn Cừ - walking past, I caught sight of the curbside oil drum barbeque having its embers wafted by an electric fan. Inside I was served some of the excellent pork with fried eggs (ốp la), shredded pork (), chả trứng and bowls of prepared nước chấm containing đồ chua (pickled stuff). 

Bánh Canh Cua (crab soup with thick noodles) @ Quán 48 (48 Ngô Đức Kế, Quận 1)
Taking an early morning stroll, Quán 48 is another place I discovered by chance; a stone’s throw from the impressive Bitexco Financial Tower. In Vietnam, is seems you can always tell how good a place is by how many motorbikes are stopped outside; with all the roadside seats taken, I found a seat inside and without ordering was promptly served a steaming bowl of Bánh Canh Cua.

Bánh canh cua comprises of a hearty broth and thick udon like noodles made from rice and tapioca flours. Generously tipped with crab meat (cua), chả cua (crab loaf), tôm (prawn) and huyết heo (a cube of congealed pork blood). Sadly this was on our last day otherwise I would have returned.  

Mì Vịt Tiềm (duck noodle soup) @ Mì Vịt Tiềm (3 Hoàng Diệu, District 4)
A beautiful tasting broth – loaded with a big meaty duck leg that just fell from the bone and topped with wilted rau muống (water spinach). My wife had hers as it was served, which was delicious. I made use of the tương ớt and ớt sa te chilli dipping sauces.

Huế was once the Imperial Capital of Vietnam and home to the Nguyễn lords. Huế cuisine if is regarded as Vietnam’s most gastronomic – one of the signature dishes of the ancient capital is Bún Bò Huế.

Bún Bò Huế (rice vermicelli with beef) @ Đông Ba (110A Nguyễn Du, Quận 1)
I only got around to trying two versions of bún bò huế - although it had less meat, the one from Đông Ba was my favourite. The nước leo (broth) had a striking scent of sả (lemongrass) and deep fermented flavours of mắm ruốc húe (fish paste).

Bún Bò Huế @ O Xuân (18-20 Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, Quận 1)
At O Xuân there was a choice to have “bún bò đầy đủ có giò”, which as far as I’m aware translated as something that essentially meant “the works” – meats included: thịt đùi (pork), chả lụa (Vietnamese sausage), huyết (congealed pig’s blood), chả cua (crab loaf) bắp bò (beef shank), and gân bò (beef tendon). I also had a side of Nem Chua Nướng – a charred fermented pork sausage, which is sweet and sticky with sour notes and spice from embedded bird’s eye chillies… great stuff, I wish I had more.

To conclude ‘Part 1’ of my ‘Beginners guide to Saigon’s Street Food’, we have Quán 94 – a place that specialises in crabs. We liked the food here so much we returned on our final night and ordered the same again. 

Súp cua (crab soup) @ Quán 94
A peppery crab broth – so simple, so delicious.

Cua lột chiên bột (soft shell crab) @ Quán 94 (94 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Quận 1)
The soft shell crabs (cua lột) here are kept alive until cooking; the result is ridiculously sweet, snow white crabmeat – inside a crisp batter.

Miến xào cua (crab vermicelli) @ Quán 94
A dish of glass noodles, stir fried a little spring onion, fish sauce with a bounteous supply of mud crabmeat (cua). Perfect.  

Chả giò cua biển (deep fried crab spring rolls) @ Quán 94
Wonderful crisp crab filled spring rolls; eaten wrapped in herbs and dipped in a chilli infused nước chấm sauce.

If you are off to Hoi Chi Minh soon, I hope this post will “stand you in good stead” – if you still want more, check put ‘Part 2’ – ‘The Next Steps’.

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