A blog about food in Thailand
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Monthly Archives: August 2009

Hồng Hạnh

Posted at 5am on 8/1/09 | read on
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Banh da, deep-fried rice cracker, served here with tiny snails stir-fried with fresh herbs, Hong Hanh, Saigon, Vietnam

As mentioned previously, this is a bit of a whirlwind trip, which leaves me relatively little time to explore dining options on my own. Knowing I’d be in Saigon I went directly to EatingAsia’s Vietnam archives and found I wasn’t staying very far from Hồng Hạnh, a restaurant specialising in Hue-style cuisine they appeared to have much praise for. I jotted down a couple dishes that looked interesting and headed over one evening.

Even before your bottom hits the chair at Hồng Hạnh you’re presented with two side dishes:

Hue-style side-dishes including banh cong chien, a deep-fried meat-filled bun, nem and gio, Vietnamese-style sausages, Hong Hanh, Saigon, Vietnam

On the left is bản công thành chiến, a deep-fried, meat-filled bun. On the right and wrapped in banana leaves are two different kinds of Vietnamese sausage: giờ, a pepper-studded piece of steamed minced pork, and nem chua, raw fermented pork with plenty of garlic. Both were wonderful, particularly the giờ, and I could have ordered a beer and called it a meal.

But following EatingAsia’s tips I ordered bún thịt nướng (no pic) and the dish pictured at the top of this post, bánh đa, a deep-fried rice cracker served with tiny freshwater snails fried with fresh herbs. The former takes the form of thin rice noodles and shredded herbs topped with thin slices of grilled pork. the dish was sweet from the ubiquitous nước chấm, a syrup and fish sauce condiment, and could have used a few more fresh herbs, but instantly reminded me of the fresh Vietnamese flavours I’d been missing since my last visit to the country. I really enjoyed the latter, which was as simple as it was rich and herbal.

Coming back the next day, I arrived just before lunchtime. Business was slow, and after a couple minutes one of the employees came over and sat with me:

A friendly employee at Hong Hanh restaurant, Saigon, Vietnam

She couldn’t speak much English, and compensated by helping me order, and eventually, taking it upon herself to season my dishes with copious chili (luckily I like spicy). With her help, I ordered bánh ít trần:

Banh it tran,

a dish described in the English-language menu as “round patty stuffed with green peas paste and meat taken with taro cake stuffed with meat.” The two patties, one of which was fried and crispy, the other steamed and sticky, were stuck together, were served with shredded daikon and carrots, and two types of Vietnamese sausage. Unusual, but tasty.

We also decided on a bowl of bánh canh cua:

Banh canh cua, a soup of crab, pork and tapioca noodles, Hong Hanh, Saigon, Vietnam

a thick crab-based broth with pork and, according to EatingAsia, tapioca starch noodles. The crab wasn’t the pleasantest I’ve ever encountered, but I really enjoyed the fishy heartiness of the soup, the clear slippery noodles and the fact that the Vietnamese will put crushed black pepper on just about anything.

Two excellent meals, and if for some reason I had to head back to Saigon again on this trip, I’d eat there again.

Hồng Hạnh
17A Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Saigon
08 3827 4252
Lunch & dinner

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Posted at 9pm on 8/1/09 | read on
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A bowl of mì trứng, wheat and egg noodles, Saigon, Vietnam

I had nearly forgotten about the Vietnamese obsession with noodles. Virtually every dish you encounter in this country contains some sort of doughy strand. There are so many noodle options I’ve yet to even consume a single dish of phở, arguably Vietnam’s most recognized noodle dish.

Vietnamese noodles usually take the traditional form, such as the dish shown above, mì trứng, wheat and egg noodles with chicken.

Another standard is bún bò Huế, thick udon-like rice noodles served with slices of tender beef:

A bowl of bún bò Huế, Saigon, Vietnam

But often things verge towards the unfamiliar, such as câu lầu, Hoi An’s signature dish:

A bowl of câu lầu, Hoi An, Vietnam

A mixture of light brown and slightly grainy noodles, shredded herbs and slices of pork. The dish is served without broth and is garnished with squares of the noodle that have been deep-fried until crispy.

This noodle dish, also taken in Hoi An, employed short, squiggly lengths of a clear noodle and was served with a small baguette:

Unidentified bowl of noodles served with bread, Hoi An, Vietnam

And Vietnamese noodles don’t even have to be noodle-like, as is the case with bánh bèo:

A dish of vánh bèo, Saigon, Vietnam

round disks concealed under a shrimp-based dressing, clear shrimp-filled dumplings and Vietnamese sausage.

Bánh Xèo 46A

Posted at 9am on 8/3/09 | read on

The banh xeo at Banh Xeo 46A, a restaurant in Saigon, Vietnam

Lonely Planet’s Vietnam reckons that Bánh Xèo 46A makes the best bánh xèo in Saigon. I’m certainly no authority on the dish, a type of Vietnamese filled crepe, but I reckon Bánh Xèo 46A do the best version of the dish I’ve had.

Unlike the bánh xèo served in Laos and Thailand (where it’s known as khanom beuang yuan), where the crepe is often paper-thin and crispy, the dish here is pleasantly eggy, hearty and relatively thick. The filling was also slightly different than bánh xèo I’ve had previously, and in addition to the usual shrimp, sliced shallots and bean sprouts, included thin slices of fatty pork belly. Watching the locals eat I also learned the definitive way to attack a dish of bánh xèo: roll a hearty hunk of the crepe up in an entire lettuce leaf until you have something the size and shape of a spring roll, and using your hand, dip it in the dipping sauce.

Bánh Xèo 46A
46A  Đ Đinh Công Tráng
03 824 1110
Breakfast, lunch & dinner

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Bánh bèo nhân tôm

Posted at 12am on 8/5/09 | read on

Bánh bèo nhân tôm, steamed noodle topped with shrimp and croutons, Hoi An

I didn’t really take to Hoi An. Don’t get me wrong, the city’s famed Chinese and French-colonial-style buildings were beautiful, and the setting was pleasant. But virtually every single structure seemed dedicated to selling t-shirts or overpriced food to tourists, and there seemed to be more of the latter than locals. And on top of all this, when I was in town, the town’s central market was in the process of being rebuilt, which apparently caused many of the local vendors I had read about at EatingAsia to stay at home. That’s why, after having walked around in search of a meal on my first day, I was happy to discover the scene below:

Eating bánh bèo nhân tôm, steamed noodle topped with shrimp and croutons, Hoi An

This street vendor was feeding a steady stream of satisfied locals, and was one of the few eating options in Hoi An’s old town that didn’t seem to be aimed specifically at Western tourists.

A closer look, not to mention help from a friendly local, revealed that she was making bánh bèo nhân tôm (pictured above), a round noodle steamed in a ceramic cup. At each order the woman tops the noodle with a creamy orange mixture made from shrimp, and a sprinkling of crispy croutons:

Serving bánh bèo nhân tôm, steamed noodle topped with shrimp and croutons, Hoi An

The dish had a lot in common with cao lầu, another of Hoi An’s signature dishes, both in the slightly dark colour of the noodle and in the use of croutons. The result was equal parts soft, salty, creamy and crunchy — a perfect example of the disparate ingredients, flavours and textures the Vietnamese are so absolutely brilliant at combining.

Bánh bèo nhân tôm
Hội An

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Posted at 6am on 8/10/09 | read on

Bánh mì at Phương, a stall in Hoi An, Vietnam

I must admit that of the reasons I was most excited to visit Vietnam was because I knew I’d be able to consume bánh mì, Vietnamese-style baguette sandwiches, on a daily basis. This dish is virtually non-existent in Bangkok, and is in my opinion, the perfect sandwich. Unfortunately, other than coincidentally stumbling across the same delicious bánh mì in Saigon that was mentioned at EatingAsia, most bánh mì I encountered during my week in Vietnam were hastily put together and not entirely delicious.

This was until I arrived in Hoi An and came across Phương. Judging by the throng of impatient customers alone, I knew this would be the bánh mì I had been expecting:

Phương, a bánh mì stall in Hoi An, Vietnam

I ordered bánh mì pâté, a crispy submarine of bread filled, assembly line-style, with peppery pork liver pâté, slices of barbecued pork, thin slices of cucumber and tomato, a few sprigs of cilantro, hot pepper sauce and a final sprinkling of Maggi:

Making bánh mì at Phương, a stall in Hoi An, Vietnam

The result was crispy, meaty, oily, spicy and veggie; essentially everything a sandwich should be.

Near corner of Bạch Đằng and Nguyễn Duy Hiệu, Hội An

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Bánh Canh Cá Lóc

Posted at 7am on 8/16/09 | read on

Bánh canh cá lóc, a fish and noodle dish, Hue, Vietnam

Often it’s little more than an atmospheric locale that draws me a to a particular vendor or restaurant:

At a stall selling bánh canh cá lóc, a fish and noodle dish, Hue, Vietnam

Such was the case with the ancient dining room of this streetside stall in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. Practically before I really even knew what was being served, I’d taken a seat and placed an order.

It was a few seconds later that I learned that I’d be eating  bánh canh cá lóc:

At a stall selling bánh canh cá lóc, a fish and noodle dish, Hue, Vietnam

Not knowing exactly what this was, I watched with wonder how patties of a pasty white dough were rolled onto PVC pipes:

The ingredients to make the noodles for bánh canh cá lóc, Hue, Vietnam

Thin slices of the dough were chopped off directly into the broth:

At a stall selling bánh canh cá lóc, a fish and noodle dish, Hue, Vietnam

forming the noodles of the dish (shown at the top of this post). I found them a bit chalky, but liked the broth and other ingredients, which included fillets of snakehead fish (the epynomous cá lóc), oily and orange from having been fried with turmeric, chunks of giờ, a type of Vietnamese sausage, a single quail’s egg and heaps of green onion.

The sides, present on every table, included banana leaf packages of delicious giờ and nem (fermented pork sausage), and tiny hard-boiled quail’s eggs, which were meant to be dipped in a salt and chili mixture. I grew to love these sides in Vietnam, and they made every meal a fun experience.

And if, like me, you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of bánh in Vietnam, have a look at this handy online Banh Guide.

Bánh Canh Cá Lóc
Hùng Vương, Hue

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Hàng Me

Posted at 9pm on 8/21/09 | read on
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 Bánh bèo at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

How many different dishes can one make with some form of carbohydrate, shrimp and the occasional pork rind? Leave it to the Vietnamese to have created a fantastic number of dishes using these relatively limited ingredients, all of them creative and delicious.

I became aware of this at a restaurant called Hàng Me in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. Although located steps from the backpacker strip, the place was filled with locals and littered with the banana leaves used to steam the various dishes — both signs of good eats.

I started with the dish above, bánh bèo. Mentioned previously, the dish takes the form of a noodle steamed in a ceramic cup and topped with a savoury shrimp mixture and pork rinds. I enjoyed this one even more than the one in Hoi An: the noodle at Hàng Me was soft and slightly salty, and pork rinds make just about anything taste better.

Another variant on the noodle-and-shrimp theme was bánh nam:

Bánh nam at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

This was my favourite item of the meal. The noodle, steamed in a banana leaf:

Making bánh nam at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

was again incredibly tender and savoury, and the shrimp topping was deliciously meaty, fatty and rich.

Bánh ram ít were almost identical to bánh bèo, except that the noodle here is perched on a crispy round of pork rind:

Bánh ram ít at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

Bánh loc, another combination of carb and shrimp, was steamed in what I assume was a bamboo leaf:

Bánh loc at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

The noodle element was apparently made from tapioca flour and is supplemented with two shrimps and a piece of fatty pork belly. The slightly rubbery texture of the noodle and the fact that the shrimp weren’t shelled made this my least favourite item of the meal.

As I was about to leave, they brought out a few slices of freshly-made chả tôm, steamed ‘cake’ of prawns:

Chả  tôm at Hàng Me, a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

Eggy, meaty, and, at that point at least, graciously lacking a noodle element, it was a perfect end to my most memorable meal in Vietnam.

Hàng Me
45 Võ Thị Sáu, Hue
054 383 7341

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Media roundup

Posted at 3am on 8/24/09 | read on

Heaps of exposure this month: in addition to pieces in about four different in-flight mags, if you rush to your local bookist you can find two pieces I did in this this month’s Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, including a roundup of the best places to get your khao soi on in Chiang Mai. I contributed a short piece on Bangkok eats to this month’s Saveur (there’s also a link on their website, courtesy of Bangkok-based scribe, Jarrett Wrisely). And finally, the 13th edition of Lonely Planet’s Thailand is now in shops. I did the Bangkok and Northern Thailand chapters, and am particularly proud of my work on the latter, having made the most significant changes to that chapter in a decade (I still have my copy of Thailand from my first visit in 1997).

Back in the MHS

Posted at 12am on 8/28/09 | read on
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Sunset outside Mae Hong Son, Thailand

If you’ll recall, back in February I spent a month in the northern Thai city of Mae Hong Son. Cool weather, great scenery, great food and ample opportunity to explore combined to make the month one of the most pleasant of my life, and ever since then I’ve dreaming, virtually on a daily basis, of going back.

In mid-August I finally got my chance, and this time was accompanied by Chef Andy of Pok Pok fame, Chef Hock and for two brief days, Maytel (herself more a Restaurant Manager than a Chef). We spent a week in Mae Hong Son, and as Maytel describes here, there was a great deal cooking and eating, although unfortunately not as much exploring as I’d like to have done. I’ve never previously been to Mae Hong Son during the wet season, and found it to be very… wet. Due to the rain, we were largely housebound the first two days and a couple days after that, I came down with a flu and was housebound again for a few more days… Needless to say, this was something of a disappointment after so many months of wanting to come back, but in the end it was worth it simply for the moments of health and clear weather and scenes such as the above.

A couple food-related blogs to follow.