Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A Taste of Vietnam

My meals in Vietnam didn't just consist of noodles and Huế-style small plates, so in this post, I'm going to share with you some of my other favourites. Not all of these dishes are readily available in the UK, so do shout out if you spot them at your local Vietnamese eatery.

Bánh cuốn
I'm one of those tiresome inverted food snobs who prefer street food to fayn daynin. This isn't just posturing on my part. For instance, I'd like to see a Michelin-starred chef rustle up anything that looks and tastes as good as bánh cuốn. These steamed rice noodle rolls are filled with finely ground pork and wood ear mushroom, and topped with fried shallots. There are some similarities to Cantonese cheung fun but bánh cuốn is smaller and more delicate. Moreover, it's served with a bowl of nước chấm (fish sauce based dip) with giò lụa (Vietnamese sausage) rather than a sweet soy based sauce.

Table for 4
Lots of other stuff is served with bánh cuốn such as chillies, lime, ginger and various herbs. I didn't have a clue what to do, but the locals came to my rescue. One fellow diner picked off some of the herbs and added them to my plate, while another pointed at the bowl of chillies then at my bowl of nước chấm. Tutorial over, I quickly devoured my breakfast, whereupon the stallholder and the other diners gave me a collective thumbs up. The feeling was mutual.

If you want to track down this particular bánh cuốn stall, it can be found in the side streets round the back of the Hotel de L'Opera in Hanoi. Closer to home, Café East in Surrey Quays also serves this dish.

Cơm hến
Cơm hến was the first dish that made me go 'wow' on this particular visit to Vietnam. It's a bit of a theatrical dish, as it comes in four bowls and is prepared at the table. The main bowl consists of rice topped with baby clams, crispy pork rinds, peanuts, sesame, greens and herbs. Some sauce (I have no idea what) is mixed into the rice before a bowl of clam soup is added. After a big old stir, the cơm hến is portioned up into individual bowls. Oh, and it comes with a small bowl of (optional) chilli sauce, too.

I just loved the contrasting flavours and textures of this dish: briny, crispy, crunchy, soft and herby all in the same mouthful. My tip is to eat cơm hến relatively quickly because 1) you don't want the crispy pork rinds to soften too much, and 2) you might score seconds if you finish first. There's also a version of this dish served with rice vermicelli in place of the rice called bún hến. Both dishes originate from Huế, and are widely available in restaurants that specialise in the exquisite cuisine of that city.

Bánh căn cooker
On previous trips to Vietnam, I've tried pancake-style dishes such as bánh xèo, but I've never tried bánh căn before. These mini-pancakes, made out of egg, water and rice flour, are cooked in tiny clay dishes over charcoal.

Bánh căn
On their own, they're pretty plain but flavour comes from wrapping the bánh căn with herbs in lettuce, then dipping the wrap in one of the sauces on the side. My favourite sauce was the chilli to which unripe julienned mango was added to give it a slightly sour tang.

Bánh mì is taking London by storm at the moment, although this means that the likes of EAT and Pret are getting in on the act. Obviously, you should steer clear of these chain impostors, and instead pay a visit to the likes of Bánhmì11 and City Càphê to sample these Vietnamese baguettes.

Bánh mì
Anyway, public service announcement over, back in Hanoi, I bought a random breakfast bánh mì filled with freshly made omelette, fried marinated pork, salad, pickles, herbs and some pork floss. The baguette was super light and airy, but what I loved about it most was the addictive pork floss. Is there anything that pork floss doesn't improve?

The seafood
The Japanese call it shabu-shabu; it's known as huo guo in Mandarin; while the Cantonese call it daa bin lou; and in English it's variously known as steamboat and hot pot. I'm not sure what the Vietnamese call it, but cooking food in a bubbling pot of broth is always a winner in my eyes. So I was madly excited when I was taken out for a seafood hotpot.

The hotpot
It didn't disappoint, as a varied mix of seafood (and some token water spinach) was added to a tom yum-esque hot and sour broth (if anything it was even more sweat inducing than the famous Thai soup). And there were noodles too, but instead of bunging the bún (rice vermicelli) in the pot, clumps of bún were put in a bowl, and soup was ladled over it.

Phở cuốn
There are a multitude of cuốn or rolls in Vietnamese cuisine, and it is easy to get them mixed up. So when I suggested that the pictured phở cuốn were similar to cuốn Huế, my hosts immediately set me straight! I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the various rolls each have their own characteristics with different skins, fillings and dips.

In this case, phở cuốn is made with a rice noodle sheet that can also be used to make phở noodles, and the filling consists of beef, greens and herbs. I liked these, but not as much as the more delicate bánh cuốn or the ubiquitous gỏi cuốn (summer rolls).

And so ends my round-up of my favourite (non-noodle) dishes of Vietnam. But what about you guys out there? Did I miss out your favourite? And what about your favourite places in Vietnam? I'd love to hear from you.


  1. Wow this is such a good post. It has made me want a Vietnamese feast before 9am.

    I may have to go to Cafe East to try the Bánh cuốn - would be great to know if anywhere served the Cơm hến as it sounds magnificent.

    Thanks Mr. N - as always!

  2. A noodle dish, but nonetheless, how about the Hoi An speciality Cao Lau? Not necessarily a favourite but tasty and quite interesting.

    The noodles are particularly to Hoi An - they are rice noodles made only with water from a local well (allegedly!) mixed with some kind of ash from a local tree (which sounds horrid, but just gives it quite a nice distinctive chewy, smokey taste and texture), and it's served with herbs, a kind of char suit pork, porky stock and pieces of thick deep fried rice paper (which seems like deep fried pork rind but isn't)

    Did you get to try it?

  3. I agree with you - street food all the way! The problem with trying to blog about it though is you end up writing ridiculous thins like the stall three stalls in from the second market entrance (well I do anyway).

  4. Amazing stuff - I love Banh Cuon, especially Cafe East's version topped with luncheon meat :) Do let us know if you find a London purveyor for the rest. Or perhaps get Cafe East to do 'em!

  5. Nice post again!

    Let me digest it in details soon to learn more about Vietnamese food : )

  6. Hey, the bánh cuốn is available at Loong Kee Cafe as well which is on Kingsland road (134 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, London, E2 8DY). I usually go there for my Vietnamese cravings instead of the much talked about Song Que next door. They have good food!!

  7. Frank - my eyes are peeled for sightings of cơm hến!

    Anon - alas not, but it sounds intriguing. Check out my noodle post for the noodles I did try.

    Cara - it can get like that but in this case, there's only one bánh cuốn stall near the Hotel De L'Opera.

    Lizzie - so have you booked your flight to Hanoi yet?

    HK Epicurus - my pleasure.

    Chrissy - good shout. I need to broaden my Pho Mile experience, as I tend to just go to Song Que.

  8. Great informative post on Vietnamese food. I love street food and I think it's the best way to savour different cuisine at their best and most humble form. And they are always prepared fresh before your very eyes and by people who are truly passionate and knowledgeable about what they do.
    Thanks for sharing all the photos of the yummy looking food!

    1. J - no worries! The blog is here so that I don't forget what I've actually eaten!

  9. Oh, it all looks so so so good. Very jealous of my brother who's there right now!

    1. I'm jealous, too. I have to say of the countries I've visited, Vietnam is up there as my fave foodie destination.

  10. ooh hotpot is such a very asian thing. many countries seem to have some variation of it. what's not to like about a big bubbling pot of soup, a circle of family and friends, and a range ofyummies to dip into the soup and share. love it, except during cny, when it becomes just a bit too often for my liking.

    and totally for street food. ftw. cheap, honest good food cooked by people who have a flair but are too unpretentious to think of themselves as chefs.

    1. Shu Han - I love hotpot, too! In London, I think Mien Tay (branches in Battersea and Shoreditch) serve Vietnamese hotpot although I've not tried it.