Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When I Was in 'Nam: Take Nine: FOOD!

If you've made it this far into my very belated blogging about my trip to Vietnam, you're probably wondering why there have been next to no pictures, elaborate retellings, or elongated descriptions of the culinary delights Vietnam had to offer. After all, probably half of my blogs in the past have been about food. Fear not my fellow food connoisseurs, for I had so much to say that I decided to dedicate an entire post to it. Also, it gives those who are slightly less obsessed than I in the "all things edible" arena the option of totally bypassing it.

So, without further adieu, here are some of the Vietnamese culinary delights I had the opportunity of experiencing.

Fueling up after our walk through Cat Tien: a standard for all meals is rice (known as the 'staff of life') and a few fish sauces to choose from. LP refers to fish sauce as being the "one ingredient that is quintessentially Vietnamese and it lends a distinctive character to Vietnamese cooking" (46). Distinctive, indeed. The sides were a beef and water spinach stir fry and an incredibly tasty lemongrass sauteed chicken dish.
Lunch at Cat Tien: rice, and a side of cucumber, pineapple, squid and tomatoes heavily moistened and sauteed, fried shrimp, and pork and water spinach.

The most famous dish in Vietnam is pho (rice noodle soup). It's served everywhere and is a filling and balanced meal that can be bought for less than a buck! It's most commonly eaten for breakfast, but can be eaten any time.

Below is a pic of Pho 2000, famous because President Clinton ate there on a visit while he was president.

We decided to go to the more highly recommended chain, Pho 24, for my first pho experience. The basics of pho are simple and delicious, and you can always add more greens or reds for more taste or heat. Pho for everyone!

Our host Momma served us up another steaming bowl of pho the following morning for breakfast. Like chicken soup in the States, it's clear that every chef makes their broth different. I gotta say, Mother knows best in any country!

Christmas pre-dinner dinner we ate at a little noodle shop. This time, the noodles were more ramen-esque though. My vote goes to pho for the noodle dish that reigns supreme.

Christmas FEAST: consisting of a very hearty rice porridge, processed meat chunks (probably a more eloquent name for that), a 'full bodied' chicken salad, and coke and beer to wash it all down with.

Yep, full bodied chicken.

Probably my favorite meal of the entire trip made for breakfast one morning by our host Mom: Banh cuon, which is rice flour rolls stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushroom, topped with greens, bean sprouts and peanuts. With the exception of the processed meat chunks on the top, this dish was perfection. AND, I even enjoyed the tea! I don't know what it was about it, but it in no way resembled dirty water - an attribute all tea I've ever tried by before exhibits.

Dinners at the outdoor restaurants next to the Ben Thanh market became a staple for us in Saigon, as the menu was extensive, and the food was fresh, delicious, and cheap.

That night I ordered: ground beef salad rolls, fresh shrimp spring rolls, and banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe made out of rice flour with turmeric, shrimp, slivers of fatty pork, sliced onions, and button mushrooms, fried, served with lettuce and other greens and a dipping sauce).

A fish and vegetable hot pot with a side of rice. Oh my gosh, the fish just dissolved in my mouth. So good, and so filling.

Back to the restaurants near Ben Tham. This night I ordered: fresh shrimp spring rolls (sooooo good!), clear noodle soup with chicken, and chao tom (grilled sugar cane rolled in spiced shrimp paste). I was unaware that you are not supposed to eat the entire sugar cane and are only supposed to kind of suckle off of it. I had sugar cane strands in my teeth for ages.

You can eat the chao tom solo, or wrap it up in a lettuce leaf with mint, rice vermicelli and dipping sauce. A fantastic trio of tastes and a playful way to reinvent a chicken drumstick.

This meal was sooo good, for each of us. It was definitely worth the hour wait. I think I got the fresh seafood salad that had a kick I kept coming back for more of, Kristine got an awesome tomato marinated fish dish, and Brooke's vegetable and noodle soup reigned supreme. Note to Brooke: let's reinvent that recipe, somehow, someway.

Back in Ho Chi Minh, there was a festival going on that brought out some more interesting choices, in addition to the usual street food fair.
Grilled chicken feet, anyone?

Our last meal in Vietnam, getting seconds and thirds of the absolutely magnificent fresh fruit shakes. My favorites were custard apple and sapodilla.

Grilled corn from a street vendor.
Enjoying a culture's food is not only an enjoyable, but an important part of anyone's travels, I think. If you ever get the privilege of making it to Vietnam, you will not be disappointed in this experience. Indulge and enjoy!

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