Putting the char into bun cha
bun cha is a blunt instrument. For all the subtlety engendered by Vietnamese cuisine, bun cha acts as a counterpoint: blackened rissoles of pork teamed with charred slices of pork belly in a thin fish sauce, vinegar and sugar stock with sides of bun noodles and assorted greens. Depending on season, either slices of green papaya or chayote (choko) are set afloat upon the stock.
The emphasis however is on the barbecued meat. After mixing components, loose charcoal from the pork is suffused through and suspended in the stock, leaving a thin black ring of charred detritus around the bowl and clinging to every slurp of noodles. The dish is omnipresent at lunchtime in the north of Vietnam, tough to find in the south, practically impossible to stumble upon overseas without guidance or a moment of serendipity. The above bowl was from Bun Cha Dac Kim on Hang Manh Street, Hanoi, not quite “utter bollocks” as one of my favourite food writers denounced them but certainly not the best bowl. The bun cha at 20 Ta Hien St is a much better bet – their fish sauce is punchy and lively, and leaves Dac Kim in its fragrant wake.
I’m beginning to suspect that the quality of food in Vietnam is inversely proportional to the height of the plastic chairs at the restaurant or stall. If a restaurant has stools short enough for your elbows to knock into your knees each time you slurp at your bun then it’s a good find; if plastic chairs are absent then all the better. I’m not sure how folding metal tables work into this equation but they’re somehow vital to it functioning at all.
What Dac Kim lacks in vim, it compensates with bulk. The greens are plated a foot high, the damp bun noodles weighing in at about two pounds, and a spare bowl of stock and papaya is at hand just in case your bowl runs dry. I noticed a trend down south in Veitnam for pho joints to list that “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls” on the door, regardless of whether he ate there at all. I’m hoping that Dac Kim will follow the trend and list “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls, then lapsed into a food-related coma”.
Location: Bun Cha Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh St., Hanoi. A better bowl can be found at Bun Cha, 20 Ta Hien St. hanoi.
Price: 35000 VND with a plate of spring rolls for good measure.
Guess where I am. I’ll be running a pool in the comments.
I generally don’t fail when I’m hunting for street food. I take wrong turns, missteps into blind alleys, but for the most part I find something worth eating.
Hue in central Vietnam defeated me.
My schooling in Vietnamese cuisine is more weighted towards the South than the North, due to the flow of southern refugees to Australia after the American War. My idea of central Vietnamese food tends to stretch as far as the occasional bowl of bun bo hue, although I had heard rumours of an Imperial cuisine, of sticky rice cakes in multitude variations, of a spicier and rich Vietnamese food. I still don’t know where that is located but I doubt that it is in Hue. The last vestiges of local restaurants that I could find seem to have been rendered bland by the constant stream of uncritical tourists; my efforts to find anything out in the ‘burbs fruitless and futile. Imperial cuisine seems to only exist as part of a day tour.
My small moment of success was on Truong Dinh St at Ba Hoa, a smallish street restaurant that sells nought but Hue regional specialties.
Ba Hoa trades in what I’d describe as a Hue Rice Cake Happy Meal. Banh beo, circles of rice cake topped with minced dried prawn and pork, corralled by gelatinous banh bot loc, rectangles of steamed tapioca flour each containing a chilli coated and slightly crispy whole dried prawn. The banh bot loc are are steamed in a rectangle of banana leaf and served cold and topped with a few strips of pork crackling. The plating reminded me of an upturned jellyfish, who prior to their beaching had a predilection for pork and fried onion. It seemed like a minor victory.
Location: Ba Hoa, 7 Truong Dinh St, Hue, Vietnam. Opposite is an identical restaurant; further down the street is a stand doing a roaring trade in sweet iced drinkche and local shellfish specialty, com hen.
Did I miss something in Hue? Is there a street food secret there waiting to be uncovered?
Hội An in Vietnam openly pimps out its regional specialties with flagrant disregard to public taste, be it inferior tailoring, Vina-Franco-Sino-Japanese architecture or local food. The tourist-focussed restaurants that don’t offer bland facsimiles of hoanh thanh (wantons, generally fried), banh beo/banh vac (a steamed rice-flour wonton) and cao lau as an incongruous and brazen set menu are thin on the ground; the 60,000 dong carte du jour de rigueur.
Good cao lau is a pork battleground with slices of char siu-style roast pork, lard-heavy croutons and noodles, and a thin porcine stock fending off the intrusion of bitter fishwort and cress. Like Hoi An’s rich architectural heritage, it is hard to pick which influence came from where and whence. Unlike the buildings, it’s hard to find an exemplar; an edible equivalent of Tan Ky House.
The above cao lau was flaunted from a specialist stall on the eastern edge of Hoi An’s central market for the hours from early breakfast through late brunch alongside banh khoai, a miniature crispy omelette of egg, rice flour and turmeric filled with prawn and bean shoots. The banh khoai are rolled in a square of rice paper with a sliver of starfruit and some more fishwort, served with a peanut and sesame sauce. Their soggier cousin banh xeo is a different, but equally tasty beast.
The cao lau couldn’t be more local: every ingredient is on sale within twenty metres of the vendor, noodles for bun alongside the fatty yellow cao lau noodles. The dish’s official history dictates that the water used in the dish must be drawn from a single well in town.
Slices of crouton in their pre-deep-fried state
Price: bowl of cao lau, 10,000VND; banh khoai, 5,000VND per roll.
See Also: Noodlepie’s Cau Lau recipe
Vietnam’s hill resort of Dalat is a horticultural wonderland. The cool tropical microclimate endows its market with the best of both worlds: tropical fruits from the lower hillsides combined with more European fare from the cooler climes. Fresh strawberries sit alongside avocadoes, artichokes, beetroot and dragonfruit; with vendors keen to foist strawberry jam, cashews and the grim local grape wine upon me. Where local markets tend to be the feature that orient me in any town, Dalat’s apparent lack of clear equatorial seasonality is bewildering.
Selling a more meagre array of vegetables in the stairwell.
Originally located on the top of Dalat’s central hill, the market’s earlier wooden structure burnt down in the late 1930s. In the late 50s, it was moved downhill with the market now stretching between two concrete buildings in the bottom of a steep ravine; a walkway linking the top of the hill to the second level of the market.
Globe artichokes arrive at the market fresh or dried as artichoke tea.
Not exactly the section for which I’m aiming but I welcome you with open arms nonetheless.
Vietnam is one of the few places on earth that you can eat a sandwich whose prime ingredient is roasted pork skin and feel virtuous for doing so. Banh mi bi must rate as one of the world’s perfect sandwiches: crispy pork skin with a luscious hint of creamy fat, perfectly balanced with a tart pickle, streetside mayonnaise, shredded spring onions and red hot chilli; all contained within an hours-old mini-baguette. It’s a world ahead of your average pâté-packed banh mi, if only because the meat tastes like it came from a very happy swine. To double the meat pleasure, Tiem Banh Gia Phat on Phan Dinh Phung street in Da Lat topped it off with pork floss, a meat condiment that is in my estimate, second only to bacon.
The only reason that I picked Tiem Banh Gia Phat was for their surgically clean banh cart. It looked like somewhere that with a tray of scalpels could double as a roadside operating theatre. The bakery out the back also seemed to do a vigorous trade in Vietnamese simulations of French patisserie.
Price: 8000VND (US$0.50)
Spotted at Binh Tay Market in Saigon, Vietnam. Any help would be much appreciated.