Still digesting. It’s been almost a month but the other worldliness of the streetfood in Hanoi’s Old Quarter takes some processing. Four nights and nearly forty dishes later I think the surface has been scratched, just need any slight excuse now to go back and dig deeper. I’ve been cooking at home trying to understand, recalibrate my palate so I can communicate and reinterpret with the ingredients I have available in the UK. Underlying everything is one simple concept, freshness. Vibrancy is an oft used term in describing food. The dishes and produce in Hanoi will make me think twice about using “vibrant” again for anything less!
Hanoian dishes are refined and delicate. What is offered to you whether it’s Pho Tai Nan (beef brisket and raw fillet noodle soup) or Bun Cha (chargrilled pork noodle) is just the most polished example of what the cook could do with the ingredients and equipment. Perfectly balanced, dishes are presented so that the customer can customise to their taste with fish sauce, chilli, vinegar, sugar, limes, fresh herbs and vegetables. I’m resigned to accept that I’ll never be able to recreate exactly the flavours. Especially without calamansi limes, a totally different taste to regular limes, sweeter more fragrant and less aggressive. We tried so many dishes that to describe every one would be tedious. Here are three that make me happy just thinking about them.
Nom Bo Gia
Beef jerky papaya salad. Sounds simple doesn’t it? In a way it is, but there are so many layers of flavour and texture in this dish. The beef jerky was semi dry but soft enough to eat with little chewing, a sprinkling of of peanuts and whole sweet small cloves of fudgey deep fried garlic over a crisp papaya salad packed with herbs, lemon balm being dominant. If that wasn’t enough, it’s all sitting in a pool of dressing so delicately fragrant with fresh turmeric, galangal and I think grachai too. Did I mention vibrant earlier?
The bigger the fan the hotter the coals, the faster you can grill the slithers of pork neck to succulence whilst getting the all important char on the outside. This was the biggest fan and best bun cha we tried, wonderfully charred and juicy. With extra pork patties wrapped in betel leaves and crispy nem spring rolls for good measure. The pork sits in a light dressing with pickled jicama. Springy almost fluffy rice noodles and a bouquet of fresh herbs such as perilla, sweet basil, coriander are dunked into the bowl and devoured greedily.
Hanoi being so far from the sea is not known for seafood but these freshwater crabs are an exception. A simple dipping sauce of calamansi juice, chilli and salt is just about the perfect accompaniment to the sweet crabmeat.
Does this resemble any of the Vietnamese food you’ve had before in the UK? Because it certainly didn’t to me, that’s why at the moment I’m trying to recreate as much as I can at home because I’m sure we’re being short-changed this amazing cuisine, especially in Birmingham. The motivation is simple, it’s delicious.
A word of warning, don’t eat in the Old Quarter if you’re a fussy diner. The ingredients could not be any fresher but if you’re concerned about squatting on a low stool with your knees around your ears and a grubby floor covered in used tissues then you may not enjoy the beauty of the food. Here’s how I understood the dining hierarchy in the Old Quarter of Hanoi:
Walking – the only portable food I saw was the local Bahn Mi (pork pate baguette). In general Hanoians never eat on the hoof.
Standing – food bought from a shoulder pole vendor, like a quick omelette or a fertilised duck egg eaten from a flimsy plastic plate.
Bamboo mats – you are a local and are enjoying a pavement picnic. You’ve got beer and containers of meaty rice and fruit for your supper.
Small plastic stool – usually red in colour outside on the pavement with another red plastic stool as a makeshift table. Two stools make a bigger table. Generally food you can eat with one hand or from a bowl with one hand.
Small plastic stool with a back – we only found these in the bia hoi pubs. A good excuse to kick back and drink the afternoon away.
Plastic stool with a low table – in or outside, the food possibilities are now endless.
Proper chair and table – you’re probably not in the Old Quarter anymore!