Archive for the 'Banh Nam' Category

Cơm Hến: Second Best Thing to Come Out of Huế

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When I found out The Gastronomer and I were going to be traveling to Da Nang for work, I felt it essential that we stop by Hue as well. After all, even though its population might be 1/20 of HCMC’s, everyone knows that Hue is the food capital of Vietnam. The imperial city’s cuisine dominates the restaurant scene here in Saigon: bun bo, banh beo, banh nam, … the list goes on and on. I couldn’t wait to taste the food at the source. We set aside two nights for the trip—plenty of time for a lot of deliciousness.

Upon arriving in Hue, both of us were a bit taken aback. The place is a tourist hot spot, worse than anywhere else we’ve been in Vietnam. As a result of all the Caucasians wandering around, the locals have become a bit obnoxious; cyclo drivers pester you incessantly as you walk down the street, food prices are dramatically higher for foreigners, and very few vendors seem to approach conversations with genuine good will and a smile. Furthermore, the southern part of town (where most of the hotels are) is full of “tourist-friendly” restaurants offering hamburgers, spaghetti, and perhaps a bit of Vietnamese food for show. As The Gastronomer and I strolled along the river looking for lunch, genuine Hue cuisine was nowhere to be found.

We walked further and further from our hotel, slowly becoming hungrier and a bit depressed by the state of things. Fortunately, after about twenty minutes we unexpectedly ran into a man wearing an East meets West hat. Small world. As it turned out, he didn’t actually work for our organization, but rather for a construction company we had hired to build a hospital. Nevertheless, he had some excellent food advice. He pointed us to a street a few blocks away specializing in com hen, a spicy rice dish topped with little clams, peanuts, sesame seeds, crispy noodles, basil, pig’s skin, and a plethora of greens. A delicious hot clam broth is served on the side for sipping. We eagerly ducked into the first restaurant we saw at 28 Truong Dinh (Phone: 054825317).

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We had failed to notice before ordering that our chosen establishment was empty while the nearly identical place across the street was relatively packed. However, we needn’t have worried. It was rather late for lunch, and as we discovered in the coming days, both places were extremely popular with the locals. Learning from our one previous experience with com hen (at Nha Hang Mon Hue in Saigon), The Gastronomer asked for the hot chili paste to be left out. The result was superb. It’s hard to describe why I liked the com hen so much: it didn’t taste strongly of clams, and neither nuoc mam nor soy sauce were featured, but the subtle flavors meshed perfectly with the texture of the rice to create an extremely satisfying treat. At only 5,000 dong for a bowl, it was also quite a deal.

We finished our meal with an order of banh nam. It was good, but nothing we couldn’t have gotten in Saigon. As it turned out, despite all my anticipation, com hen was only dish that really amazed me in Hue. I blame this primarily on the fact that most other Hue dishes have made their way to Saigon without losing their essential characteristics, but for some reason good com hen is hard to find.

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The next morning we biked around the city and explored the citadel. Even with rapid transportation at our disposal and all the avenues in Hue to choose from, we couldn’t resist returning to the same street for some more hen. This time we went to the place across the street at 7 Truong Dinh (Phone: 833043) and ordered bun hen—a similar dish with vermicelli noodles instead of rice. The owner instructed that we refrain from pouring the clam broth on the noodles. I gave this a try, but felt it was an inferior way to eat hen dishes. Even though we requested no chilis, the bun hen was still a bit spicy, and I felt that this overwhelmed the other flavors and diminished the experience somewhat. However, it was still a treat.

We decided we’d better give this woman a fair shake by trying her com hen as well. To complete the trifecta, we also ordered a bowl of the third form of hen: chao (porridge). The com hen was amazing—one of the owners asked if it was better than the one across the street (there was definitely a bit of a rivalry), and I had to honestly tell her that I couldn’t decide. As for the chao hen, it was an interesting dish in its own right—quite different from the other two. I’m rarely in the mood for porridge, especially in the oppressive Hue heat, but I’m glad we tried it. Bun hen and com hen are both special, but in the final analysis I think the texture of rice better suits the dish.

On our third and final day in Hue, we returned to our original hen restaurant yet again. It was just irresistible. I’m not sure how many days in a row I would have to eat com hen before I got bored, but it’d be a while.

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A few days after we returned to Saigon, I noticed a Hue restaurant advertising com hen on our way to work. I was ecstatic. On the first available opportunity, we walked over to 26 CMT8 (Phone: 9304132) to give it a try. Unfortunately, the food didn’t measure up. While Hue’s com hen was subtle, this one was just bland. I was disappointed, but in a way I’m kind of glad that there’s a regional dish that Saigon’s chefs haven’t mastered. It will give visitors to Hue something to look forward to.

Continue reading ‘Cơm Hến: Second Best Thing to Come Out of Huế’

Vietnam Village Resort – Khu Du Lịch Làng Quê

Staff retreats stateside and in Vietnam have two things in common—ridiculous amounts of food and not so much productivity.

On the road from Da Nang to Hoi An, the site of the retreat, the entire East Meets West staff (80+ people) stopped at the Vietnam Village Resort for a cultural experience and lunch.

The Vietnam Village Resort is a Vietnamese version of Colonial Williamsburg, but instead of observing butter churning demonstrations and visiting the shoemaker, we saw silk being spun from cocoons (!) and learned the art of making banh chung. Although I usually shun tourist traps, the exhibits were so interesting that I couldn’t help being a fan. I was particularly fascinated by the sugaring demo, which transformed sugar cane into raw sugar. The Astronomer had a more hands-on experience and learned how to make banh cuon. We had a blast.

After perusing the food and craft stalls for an hour or so, we sat down for a multi-course lunch prepared by the Village staff. We started off with three appetizers: banh dap, banh beo, and banh nam.

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This was my first time trying banh dap, which is banh cuon (tender rice flour crepes) laid atop a crispy rice cracker, broken in half, and eaten with fish sauce. Dap means to hit/slap in Vietnamese, which is what one does to break the banh in half. I found banh dap a little bland, but enjoyed the texture. A little Internet research has revealed that some versions of banh dap are made with scallions and meats; I’m sure those preparations are much more desirable.

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The banh beo was very unique in that it was portioned in a small dish, topped with a salty shrimp paste, and eaten with a wooden stick. The banh beo I’m familiar with is arranged overlapping on a plate, topped with mung bean paste, sautéed scallions, dried shrimp, and sweet fish sauce, and eaten with chopsticks. The Village’s version was alright, but I prefer the one I’m used to.

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The banh nam was very well prepared; everything tastes better wrapped up in banana leaves!

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Next came an intermezzo course of my quang, which was far from amazing. The dish tasted like it was thrown together and the flavors didn’t meld at all. Preparing a meal for a large group is tough and the noodles really suffered as a result. Following the my quang, we enjoyed a number of dishes with rice.

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I didn’t have any of the chicken, but my table ate it up.

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The braised fish was wonderfully marinated and my favorite course of the afternoon.

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The water spinach and shrimp soup provided a good source of greens, but was nothing special.

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For dessert we were served sweet tofu in a ginger syrup, which rocked my world so much that I ate three bowls. There’s just something about the tofu’s delicate texture mixed with the sweet and spicy syrup that I clearly can’t resist.

Vietnam Village Resort ([email protected])
Cam Nam, Hoi An
Phone: 0510936089

Bunches of Lunches: Cơm Trưa

One of the luxuries of Vietnam is being able to dine out for nearly every meal due to the low cost of food. On average, The Astronomer and I each spend approximately $1-$1.50 per meal depending on the eatery and what we order. Although a part of me misses cooking up a storm, it’s easier and far more delicious to frequent restaurants and street stalls rather than bargaining, buying, and preparing raw ingredients in Saigon.

For the most part, The Astronomer and I have avoided eating out for breakfast because we prefer chomping on cereal and PowerBars in our apartment to eating hot soups street-side. However, lunch is a completely different story.

Here are some snapshots from lunchtime outings during the past few weeks:

August 3, 2007—While exploring our ‘hood during a rainy Saturday morning, we stumbled upon a friendly man dishing up goi du du kho bo (green papaya salad with beef jerky, basil, and fish sauce vinaigrette – 5,000 VND) and goi coun (spring rolls with pork, vermicelli noodles, herbs, lettuce, and mam nem dipping sauce – 6,000 VND). The green papaya salad was spectacular, especially the spicy jerky. The spring rolls, on the other hand, contained a bitter herb that was overwhelming. We also weren’t fans of the potent anchovy and pineapple dipping sauce.

August 6, 2007—A mechanic pointed The Astronomer and I to the Banh Canh Cua eatery. We shared a bowl of the restaurant’s siganature dish, banh canh cua (13,000 VND), and a sampler plate of the restaurant’s offerings that included banh beo, banh nam, banh bot loc, and banh ram it (10,000 VND). The banh canh was very different from my family’s version due to the employment of fresh noodles, which contributed to a thicker and starchier broth. The sampler platter was terrific!

August 9, 2007—Around the corner from our office is an outdoor restaurant serving worker’s lunches. We’ve eaten here twice mainly due to proximity. The rice is often too dry and the flies buzzing around quickly kill an appetite. On our first visit, The Astronomer had the braised fish and a fish patty, while I had tofu stuffed with ground pork and an omelet. Our lunch plates include a small bowl of soup with mustard greens, which The Astronomer hates but I rather like. The food here isn’t stellar, but it’s definitely decent and inexpensive at 15,000 VND per person.

August 11, 2007—My grandma’s younger sister, Ba Sao, invited The Astronomer and me to her house for lunch the other weekend. She prepared her famous egg rolls, thit kho, braised fish with tomatoes and turnips, and bi coun (spring rolls with shredded pork and lettuce). Everything was delicious! The Astronomer probably ate twenty egg rolls and the braised fish rocked my world. I hope to learn a few recipes from her during my year in Vietnam.

August 12, 2007—There’s no such thing as a bad bowl of pho in this country! This random pho joint called Pho Bac Ha is located off the uber-busy CMT 8. The Astronomer ordered the pho ga (15,000 VND), while I had the pho bo (12,000 VND). Nothing super special here, just a solid bowl of pho.

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