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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Saturday, April 9, 2011

How Now Cau Lau?: Foods of Vietnam

Hello, Andy and Tara's World readers! Long time listener, first time caller. I'm Julie, college friend of Tara and Andy and their traveling companion in Vietnam. I'm honored to bring you the foods of Vietnam!

Ironically, this post actually begins with foods of Pennsylvania: a Reester Bunny, a bag of smoked almonds, and those cardamom sandwich cookies that I know Tara likes because I read it on this blog! I was excited when I found them at Rice and Spice in Emmaus, PA, but it turns out they make my throat itch. (TMI?) So I brought the unopened package for Tara.

These foodstuffs were gone in about no time flat, so it was on to the native victuals. Vietnam has this great passionfruit-peach-kiwi yogurt in cups. 5500 dong = 25 cents.

Day one in Ho Chi Minh city, and I was hellbent on trying pho, the beef (and sometimes chicken) noodle soup that is more or less the national dish of Vietnam. They eat it for breakfast, so we did too. Nom nom nom.

After pho, we walked around HCMC, which was the only place in Vietnam we experienced warmth. Happily, with that warmth comes fun fruity drinks. This one has all kinds of jazz - jelly bits and beans and coconut milk. I couldn't quite bring myself to try it.

But here I am, quite content with my sugarcane juice with strawberry. My bliss was only slightly diminished when Andy pointed out that this and many juices of Vietnam contain sweetened condensed milk.

Our first lunch in HCMC was at a restaurant hugely hyped in Lonely Planet. I found the food kind of meh. On the left below, we have various porky meat products with a pile of noodles and herbs. The dark bit on the right was like a brain teaser - Tara and Andy kept nibbling and debating whether it was fruit or meat. When you can't tell the difference, that's not good. I was invited to try, but I declined. On the right is my papaya salad, which was nasty. NASTY. It had an herb on top we came to revile. I have since learned it is called "fish mint." I believe it. Gross. The papaya itself was hard and flavorless. Fail.

The bright spot for me was the nem ran, fried pork spring rolls that you wrap up in lettuce, stuff in some herbs, and dunk it in nuoc cham, delicious fish sauce dip.

Andy got this grilled pork, which he says was yum.

Andy and I shared these banana-based desserts we found for sale from a street vendor. I am nowhere near the fried banana expert that Andy is, but I was impressed. If it was for sale on my block, I would eat this every morning.

Welcome to the foods of Hoi An! Introducing cau lau, the signature noodle dish of the city. The noodles must be made with water from one specific well in town, so you can't get this anywhere else. (I have an eyebrow arched at this idea, but let's suspend disbelief.) Cau lau is chewy noodles with herbs, roast pork slices, crunchy noodles fried in pork fat, and magic secret sauce. Highly enjoyable.

I love all the herbs for sale in Southeast Asia. These ladies are selling their greens at the central market in Hoi An.

Our first evening's meal was at Cafe 43, a restaurant beloved by peoples on the internet. This is some pork dish called something like "fried salted pork"

Vietnam is home to bia hoi, a freshly made beer that is crazy cheap. I think this was maybe 15 cents. I don't drink beer, but Tara took one for the team in the name of food research:

On the left is another Hoi An well water specialty, "white rose," which is shrimpy filling inside rice paper noodles. Not bad, but nothing to "Dear mom" about. On the right is chicken with lemongrass and chili. Now that was pretty slammin. Enough to make us want to return the next day for a cooking class! More on that later. First we must eat more.

Tara also got a stuffed squid.

Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of reverence for the next dish. (Dramatic pause.) We sat down by little tables next to the river and ordered the two most delicious things we ate in Vietnam. The first, below, is pork freshly grilled on hot coals. You take one of those rice papers, put in a piece of pork, some herbs, maybe a squeeze of lime, make a little wrap, and dunk it into the mystery sauce. So good. So worth $2.50.

These are won tons, or as they are spelled in Hoi An, huyanh thanhs. (Or something like that.) It's probably shrimp, pork, veg, and brown sauce on a fried chip. My theory on unidentified foods that look delicious - don't ask too many questions.

Lest you think the Vietnamese don't eat dessert (although it doesn't seem like they eat a lot of dessert), we bring you che bap. This industrious lady carries her restaurant on her back, plunking down wherever customers happen to be. Che bap is a sweet soup with corn and rice and gloopiness.

I think Andy saw this next dessert and took its size as a challenge. The ingredients are rice, sugar, and sesame seeds for garnish. Full stop. It's the densest thing you can imagine. I think it weighed two pounds. Someone told us you can keep this thing for ages and eat it a little at a time, which is good because you would not want to eat a lot at a time. I did not want to eat beyond the first bite.

No discussion of Vietnamese food would be complete without mention of ca phe sua da, delicious Vietnamese iced coffee. It's like a shot of espresso with sweetened condensed milk. Here it is, posing with my passionfruit mousse cake and radioactive cherry.

Here's me looking peevish while chopping lemongrass at our Cafe 43 cooking class. For $7.50 each, we got a private cooking lesson and an enormous lunch, made up of everything we cooked.

This is the chicken with chili and lemongrass, cooked by our own elfin hands. I have since made it at home, but my 99 cent lemongrass from the Asian grocery tasted like nothing. I guess I will be resigned to good memories!

Our curry chicken is made with milk and curry powder. Cow's milk in Asia?! Weird.

The owner of Cafe 43 thought it was hysterical that we wanted to learn how to make pineapple shakes. "So simple," she laughed. It's pineapple, sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. Yes sir, may we please have another?

Goodbye, Hoi An. Hello, Hanoi. These are what I call "street rolls." Got em on the street. Don't know what's in em. The protein was kind of chewy. We elected not to think about it, but I am guessing it was jellyfish. Oh well. Dunk it in enough fish sauce and you won't have to think about it...

This next dish was from a restaurant that specialized in exotic animals. I don't remember what it was, because it was Andy's and I didn't want to eat it. Maybe water buffalo or elk or gnu... Ok let's say gnu, because gnu is a funny word.

Tara had some kind of ribs with garlic.

We also went to a posh little ice cream shop where every dish was presented just so. At my insistence, we shared the giant 20 flavors plate. What an experience! There was hardly a flavor that wasn't amazing. We oohed and ahhed our way through the plate. I enjoyed pistachio, chili chocolate, cinnamon, and also all of it. I don't think you could find a more expensive ice cream entree in all of Vietnam. It was $10. I would like another one right now.

Here again is pork wrap stuff, but this time you dunk it in a brothy stuff and eat it with noodles. Pretty good.

I kept waking up at 6am, at least three hours before Tara and Andy. Stupid roosters. One day I ventured out and got this noodle soup for breakfast. It had funky chicken in it, which I picked out. I added a great chili sauce and some lime.

I kind of grimace when I see this next photo. I wanted to see what corn gummy candy tasted like. Andy tried it first and said, "Kind of tastes like buttered popcorn jelly bellies." That's when I knew I wouldn't like it. And I didn't. It started out as My Quynh, but quickly became Andy's Quynh.

This is fried corn, which may not come as a surprise to you. I don't remember anything else about it.

I leave you with photos of food that was purchased after I left Vietnam. So I am going to make up fantastical facts about it. This is ribbons of pure bliss, topped with nirvana herb, spice of delight, eggs of paradise, and just to class up the joint, it is served in a plastic bag.

This food looks like it was pre-digested. Mmmm yummy.

Our time together on the blog has drawn to a close. It was a fun trip, and like you, I miss these guys. Looking forward to seeing them soon in the U.S.!


  1. photo number three and four were my lunch today :-)

    and we call the "street rolls" rice paper rolls here. am so hungry reading this. luckily we have kick arse vietnamese food here in melbourne, except it's $8 for pho, not 50c. i even have a t-shirt from my favourite pho joint that says I <3 Pho.

    keep travelling safe guys. becxoxo

  2. Just got back from Hanoi and saw that fried corn everywhere! It's pretty tasty actually, and really improved my chopstick skills picking it up kernel by kernel.