Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hanoi 2007: Got Pho?

You can't do Vietnam without having a go at its most famous dish, the pho (rhymes with 'duh'). In fact, it was the first thing on our mind the minute we touched down in Hanoi. As soon as we were done checking into the hotel, the four of us set out into the busy streets of the Old Quarter to hunt for pho.

It's basically narrow strips of rice noodles doused in a hot broth made of stock, charred onion and ginger, and garnished with spring onions, cilantro and basil. In some restaurants, bean sprouts, parsley, lime and other ingredients are added to enhance the flavour. One can have either pho bo (beef) or pho ga (chicken) or even pho lon (pork). Better yet, have all three.

Fai opted for the fried version of the noodles and that too was equally delicious albeit a little too salty for my liking. Down it with some ice cold Bia (local beer) and it's as close to gourmet heaven as one can get.

Quite frankly, the Vietnamese have come up with quite a range of rice based delicacies, such as this: the (equally famous) Vietnamese Springroll or Cha Gio. Its filling is made of fresh raw veggies and minced fresh herbs, along with cooked shrimp, pork, and fried tofu; all neatly packaged up in a deliciously chewy-soft, pliable rice paper wrapping. There is also the crispy deep fried version, but personally I prefer the fresh version.

Then there is Cha Ca. It's grilled fish cutlets served on a small sizzling wok and eaten with a generous dose of (what else) rice noodles topped with various kinds of vegetables, herbs and peanuts. It's a communal affair, as everyone tucks in using their chopsticks to stir the pieces of fish and chopped vegetable around so as to avoid them from getting charred by the sizzling hot wok.

It was a little chilly in the evenings, and it was indeed a welcome sight to see steaming hot pots beckoning us to savour of its immersed treasures. 'Lau' as it is locally known, is a hot pot (or steamboat) filled with a soupy concoction of chicken, herbs, and fish sauce that is constantly being heated up by a gas stove underneath it. All kinds of ingredients are dropped into it, left to boil and then strained out to be savoured piping hot, only to have the next batch of raw goodies tossed into the broth to be simmered. The best part is when all the meat, seafood and vegetables have been simmered and cooked, the resulting 'soup' is an extremely rich, sweet and aromatic broth that is almost a meal all by itself. Of course, there is also the prerequisite rice noodles to go with all this as well.

The weekend street market straddles the entire length of Dong Xuan street, snaking through the heart of Old Quarter, making it a must-do event for all visitors to Hanoi. Anything and everything is sold here, including all types of street food. There are probably a hundred stalls just selling a variety of local and 'imported' fare. Like this one (above), which sells pastries and puffs filled with any kind of filling one can think of; from pork floss to spicy tuna, blueberry jam to vanilla custard, and lotus seed to green bean paste, it's all here and so cheap you could end up buying the whole stall if you 're not careful.

Ohh, just looking at this pix makes my mouth water. I can just remember the taste of the smoky yet tender pork slices melting in my mouth. And the crunchy and sweet raw vegetables complements the aromatic meat well. All of this is wrapped up in a toasted kebab bread and topped with a generous helping of mayonaise and chilli sauce. Heavenly.

In the mornings, one only has to walk down a side street or two to find a multitude of breakfast choices. My favourite has to be this: an egg baguette. Take a fresh baguette, fill its centre with a freshly fried omelette filled with chopped onions, cucumber and minced pork and garnished with spring onion and a dash of pepper. Bon apetit!

Fresh fruits are everywhere, and the aroma as we walked past these stalls is so mouth watering. Mangoes, dragonfruit, mandarin oranges, apples, mangosteens.... the list goes on and on. Even my hotel room is regularly replenished with plates of fresh mangoes, bananas and peaches. Now if only they provided a paring knife....

Even the lovely ladies know that we all fall weak in the knees when they saunter by with their fruity ware on oversized scales. But beware! Some of them will actually offer you a photo-op with you carrying their scales and when you're done, insist that you pay them exhorbitant amounts for their fruit. I had to pay US5 for two bananas, a few pieces of pineapple and an orange!


sbanboy said...

Wah looks yummy ..... when are you going again ??? Pack some for me :D

OiNK!! said...

i guessed as much the fruit peddling girls were up to something when they keep insisting on placing those beam balance scales on my shoulders.

Bossie said...

WOW! My mouth also started to water after reading this! :-) Definitly one of my future holiday destinations!