I am feasting on vegetarian Banh Mi
, a salad of radish and carrot, inside a soft baguette with chilli sauce and mayonnaise. Food has been an omnipresent companion in my two-week sojourn through this country packed with a rich history and culture.
Street food culture is big in Vietnam. Bia Hoi
or pavement pubs have men sipping cold beer over boiled quail’s eggs. Every corner is a portable restaurant with plastic stools, and people bent over bowls of the national comfort food — Pho
(pronounced fuh). Pho
is a fragrant broth of rice noodles with beef or chicken, spring onions, bean sprouts, and a garnish of fresh herbs. You have to eat Pho
with a chopstick and a soup spoon and slurping is de rigueur.
Hue, in central Vietnam, used to be the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty for more than 70 years and we enjoy our time in this city of Pagodas, Citadels and Tombs of emperors. But Hue is also known for its imperial cuisine, which developed because the finicky emperors would refuse to eat the same dish twice in a year. These are visually-arresting dishes carved like dragons and tortoises, using a variety of ingredients.
These days you can opt for a royal style set meal with dishes carved out of fruits and vegetables. Local favourites are Banh Beo — tiny plates of gelatinous rice with dried shrimps and Banh Khoai — an egg and rice pancake stuffed with meat and bean sprouts. Being a major Buddhist centre, Hue has attractive options for vegetarians, with meals of Fake Meats made out of Tofu and Gluten. We have an interesting set meal with fake shrimp cakes, jackfruit salad and grilled Deer with lemon grass.
Dried chillies and spicy chilli sauces are tabletop staples in most eateries. Fermented seafood sauces are an integral part of the cuisine. The Vietnamese widely use the crackly rice paper, which is used to wrap up almost anything; the enjoyable deep fried spring rolls called Nem is just one of the examples. Vietnamese recipes also make use of a range of herbs, including lemongrass, mint and long coriander.
Hoi An, in Central Vietnam with a wealth of architecture on the UNESCO list is the place to taste Cao Lau — a rough, thick noodle which had its origins in Japanese soba noodles brought by Japanese traders to this town long ago. In the Mekong Delta, we sail through a mosaic of mangroves, rice paddies, fruit orchards and shrimp farms and visit floating markets vending succulent fruit and fresh vegetables. Lunch is at Mr. Kiet’s Historical Home, a restored house, built in 1838. With orchards, ponds, exquisite bonsai and trees bursting with star fruits, jackfruits and pomellos around, the setting is wondrous.
The local speciality is Elephant Ear Fish, wrapped in small rolls of rice paper with mint and lettuce, and dipped in pungent fish sauce. Our Aha moment is a dish of vegetarian rice in a clay pot with curry made of lotus root and Bok Choy — simple when you look at it, but delve deeper and a myriad flavours astound you, much like the country itself.
Don’t miss thisn Vietnam is a paradise for fruit lovers. Feast on pink guavas, juicy mangosteen, passion fruit, jackfruit and longans as well as ice cold smoothies.To those with a sweet tooth, don’t miss out on Che, which is like a sweet soup with an eclectic mix of tapioca pearls, ice shavings, coconut milk and bits of jelly and corn.
Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world. Get addicted to the vanilla-ish taste of ice-cold coffee served with a shot of condensed milk.