Since my return I’ve had the difficult task of sifting through hundreds of photos (yes, most of them are of food) and selecting the best ones to share with you. The food tour had six major stops in Vietnam and this is an overview of my first stop in the north, Hanoi. This is a follow up to the snapshot from when I was there.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has a population of over six million. During the day the city streets are lined with people, motorbikes and bicycles and everyone seems to be selling something. Hanoi is the most traditional of the places I visited and I would have loved to spend more time exploring areas of the city like the Old Quarter, the Temple of Literature, the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution and the French Quarter.
On my first day I couldn’t help but take photos of the women selling fresh food on the street. To me these seemed like images from a travel brochure so I was thrilled to see that this really is Vietnam. It’s not staged or styled for a photo shoot – this is real life. And yes, even I had a go at donning a conical hat and carrying pineapple.
On my second day in Hanoi, and the first day of the food tour, we meet Tracy Lister who takes us to the Cho Chau Long fresh food market and for a taste of some street eats. Tracy, chef from KOTO (Know One, Teach One) and Hanoi Cooking Centre and co-author of books KOTO – A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam and Vietnamese Street Food is an Australian who lives in Vietnam with her family.
We meet Tracy for breakfast at a pho restaurant near the market. Out front a girl stands by a large woven basket overflowing with fresh rice noodles. When made the noodles have a life span of three hours and as the supply runs out, the restaurant will call and order another batch of fresh noodles from the farm. While the rest of the group each enjoy a breakfast of pho, I had a fabulous and very simple bowl of soft, warm noodles with soy sauce, fried shallots, crunchy peanuts and fresh herbs. There are fresh lime quarters at the table so I squeeze in some juice before I start. I’m first struck by the combination of textures, an important part of Vietnamese cuisine. I also notice the soy sauce is not like the salty Japanese version I’m used to, it seems thicker and sweeter. A delicious dish and a healthy way to start the day.
With full bellies we make our way to the market and visit a jam-packed grocery shop offering fresh grains, beans, noodles, sauces and just-delivered eggs. I’m particularly interested in the rice flour which Tracy says is used a lot in vegetarian dishes.
We then head inside the market and surprisingly, there is no smell. It’s not meaty or fishy – it just smells fresh. Of course there are many things I DON’T want to look at, so I turn my back and focus on all the fresh fruit and veg around me. Some of my favourites are the vibrant eggplants and the fresh turmeric that makes a loud snap, releasing its strong mustardy aroma and displaying its bright orange insides.
For lunch we visit a shop that makes fresh rice pancakes. Over a big pot covered in fabric, a woman pours a thin layer of a rice flour and water mixture onto the fabric. She covers the pot for about 30 seconds then removes the lid and gently lifts the pancake onto a bench where another woman adds ingredients, rolls up the pancake, cuts it into sections and serves it on a plate. Mine comes with fried shallots, fresh herbs and a soy sauce for dipping. Nothing packaged, nothing processed – everything is made right in front of your eyes.
While walking the streets we come across a woman selling sticky rice. Tracy tells us sticky rice can be used as a binding ingredient or as a replacement for breadcrumbs. This yellow sticky rice has been beaten with pandan and wrapped in a big leaf helps it remain fresh. This is made fresh twice a year in Hanoi.
Later we head out for dessert in the narrow lane ways of the Old Quarter and sit down in front of big bowls of interesting ingredients like red beans, corn, black sticky rice – how can this possibly be sweets? Our guide places an order and the stall holder pours spoonfuls of bright blobs into dessert bowls. It’s then covered with a white liquid – coconut milk perhaps? I must admit it didn’t look appealing but oh my it was GOOD!! My favourite was the glutinous tapioca balls with pieces of crunchy coconut flesh inside.
I get a little free time one afternoon and visit a restaurant not far from the hotel. Over a Hanoi beer I look through the veg options on the menu and ask the waiter (who has pretty good English) which dish she recommends. She tells me the eggplant clay pot is a speciality in Hanoi and so the decision is made. The bubbling clay pot arrives and smells of a light curry. The dish includes sliced eggplant, spinach, lots of ginger and peanuts for crunch. This is the one of many eggplant dishes I enjoyed in Vietnam and even though I already loved eggplant, I fell in love with it just a little bit more while I was away.
Phew, that was way longer than I expected! More holiday eats to come folks, next up is the cooking class I attended in Hanoi.