Feeding frenzy in Saigon, Vietnam

Yes yes i know i am late by almost  month to write this food blog but life happened and my blogging got relegated to ‘i should do this some day’.

I took my ‘not-so-solo’ trip to Vietnam last month and i had a blast – to say the least. My friend accompanied me for a couple of days in HCMC city and then i continued staying in that vibrant city and taking in the sights, smells, sounds and most importantly the FOOD!

HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) or Saigon like most people (and me) lovingly call it is the culinary CAPITAL of Vietnam, like a melting pot of cuisines from all over Vietnam and possibly the region – including Cambodia and Laos. Just like Mumbai, this city is one of migrants and with that comes the various kinds of cuisines and influences from around the world. So you have the hot pot restaurants from China, grilled street food from Cambodia, Korean stir fried food, the authentic Vietnamese pho (pronounced as ‘fuh’) – all nestled in the lanes and bylanes of Saigon city.

Vietnam itself boasts of several kinds of cuisine. North Vietnamese food is mostly less spicy and high on black pepper use because of the cooler climates they experience and the South is usually vibrant and flavourful with a lot of fresh produce used with a higher preference to sugar and more use of coconut milk. I was particularly intrigued by the Hue food (central Vietnam) which had a lot of interesting use of sea food. I particularly was interested in the manner they used baby clams in their meals, it also had a lot of broken rice.

While my stay allowed me to experience almost all kinds of Vietnamese cuisine, this blog post is about a night food trail i went to, that I booked through Air Bnb, hosted by Shirley (her English name) or better known as Nguyễn Gia Các. This is essentially a scooter tour to some of the city’s favourite (and sometimes hidden) food spots which are open till the wee hours of the night. My wonderful host took me to some of these food spots in HCMC city while engaging me with interesting and hilarious conversation.

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First Stop : Eating the Banh Uot Cuon.

Banh essentially means that it is made out of rice flour. I ate these first at Bali but the experience in this small hole in the wall food store was amazing. Banh Uot Cuon are Vietnamese rice crepe rolls. There are stuffed with boiled, fried, BBQ pork sausages served with fish sauce and minced pork sauce, served with herbs: shredded green mango, Thai basil, cucumber and pickled mustard green. The process of making the Banh Uot Cuon making the whole experience of eating the crepe roll interesting. People actually have contests on who eats the most crepe rolls by stacking multiple plates!

What fascinated me, was the manner in which these thin rice crepes were made. You can view the video here. It reminded me of the neer dosa we make back home in India. My experience with the rice crepe in Vietnam opened an entire range of possibilities that i could explore on how to eat the humble neer dosa! Probably i and wrap some chicken and lettuce in the neer dosa next!

Second Stop: Devouring the Goi Du Du Bo.

Better known in other parts of the world as papaya salad, and made by a street vendor who has been selling the Du Du for over 30 years. Goi Du Du is not only easy on the stomach but also healthy! But don’t think it is too easy to make at home because the lady has a secret sauce that makes this particular Goi Du Du Bo better than any other you have eaten across Saigon.

The green papaya salad is a healthy combination of shredded green papaya, prawn crackers made from wheat flour, dried beef liver, Thai basil, peanuts and dressing sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, sugar mixed with some of the vendor’s family secret ingredients. My host even made me believe that this lady has a Ferrari to her name thanks to the money she makes selling this salad! And how do you eat the salad? Sitting across the street in the rain sitting on stools of course while sipping on bubble tea! Point to note is even though this is street food, they use steel plates and no disposables.

Third Stop: The Obama noodle or Bun Cha.

This meal was eaten by legends (and me too). When I was eating this noodle soup, Shirley told me about the fact that this was the meal that Obama had in Hanoi along with a few Saigon beers which led to the Bun Cha being renamed as the Obama noodle in Hanoi.

Little did i know that Obama had this meal in a Hanoi restaurant with my favourite celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. This realization dawned on me when I recognised the picture Shirley shared with me as having the same setting that was going viral after the sad demise of Bourdain.

The meal appears pretty bland for an average Indian palate. But when the herbs and sauces are added to this, it takes on a different persona itself.

The hearty meal of vermicelli noodles is served with BBQ pork and sweet fish sauce and a selection of herbs such as shredded morning glory (family of water spinach), Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, Japanese shiso, Vietnamese balm, lettuce and fish mint. Oh yes, fish mint tastes and smells like fish. And the beer isn’t such a bad idea to have with this broth!

Fourth Stop: Experimenting!

This stop was a bit of a challenge. While I was scheduled to have only Banh Khot, i was challenged to eat the Ba Lut (seasoned duck embryo). Of course i fell short of the challenge but my lovely host ( and the camera guy) ate the embryo without even batting an eyelid!

The Banh Khot on the other hand was brilliant. These are mini pancakes – the pancakes made from rice flour, water, soy milk, a bit salt, served with a selection of herbs such as shredded green papaya, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, Japanese shiso, mustard green, lettuce and fish mint. These are topped with mildly spiced prawns and eaten by wrapped in a lettuce leaf. The Banh Khot has a dash of turmeric – as Shirley said – inspired from Indian settlers!

All of this food was downed with grades of local wine – starting with grape wine (10%), black sticky spirit (12%), white sticky spirit (15%) and rice wine (40%). Shirley’s mum can down

Last stop : Dessert!  The best part of this food trail. We went to a place where the owner was around 99 years old! The Vietnamese have master the art of making dessert using natural sweetening. I had Che Khuc Bach – lychee and milk jelly sweet soup,  Che Hat Sen – lotus seeds and water chestnut sweet soup,  Banh Flan – caramelized egg pudding and Rau Cau Dua – coconut jelly. I loved the coconut jelly the best. Since it was hot and muggy in Vietnam – Rau Cau Dua is the best thing to have in such weather. This is coconut water infused with gelatin and refrigerated to make something you can easily call heaven on a hot and humid day. It is also amazing to note how lychee and milk is used so creatively to make a wholly enjoyable dessert – again using no artificial flavours!

This extensive food trail was quite a lot for a small eater like me but i had the gumption to want to continue and keep tasting, i ate in small quantities and was helped a lot by my host and the camera guy 😉 To be honest i did experience what food coma actually means (so much food you feel high!). What helped me along the way through the tour and kept my appetite up was the Saigon beer and the ubiquitous Saigon tea – sometimes infused with jasmine. The Saigonese have tea with everything including dessert!

The entire experience more enjoyable was the depth of information that the host – Shirley had and the sheer enthusiasm with which took me around and LOVE for food we both shared. Her conversation made me more interested in not only the tour and the food, but also the country and its people.

If you ever want to experience this food extravaganza get in touch with Saigon Extravaganza and get in touch with Jake! Drop me a note if you want me to direct them to you 🙂

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