Archive for the 'Kem' Category

Hanoi Highlights II

Whereas our first couple of days in Hanoi were spent leisurely walking around town and eating in the Old Quarter, our final day in the capital city was crammed with a bevy of tourist activities. We started our day with a bowl of wonton noodles (mi hoang thanh) on Mai Hac De Street, which was touted by Rough Guide as having excellent local fare. The street had a handful of restaurants, but I definitely wouldn’t classify it as a culinary hot spot. In addition to wontons and noodles, the soup contained slices of barbecued pork, fried wonton skins, chives and a quarter of a hard boiled egg. Overall, a good soup, but it lacked the oomph of its southern counterpart. I say, more fish sauce and more black pepper.

Unsatisfied with our bland bowl of wontons, we headed a few doors down to a bun rieu establishment. Our zesty bowl of vermicelli noodles with tomatoes and crab was solid, and dare I say, nearly as good as Saigon’s beloved Thanh Hai. Fried tofu is the greatest flavor soaker there ever was.

After lunch, we hopped on our rented motorbike and went on a drive by greeting (similar to a drive by shooting, but more peaceful) to Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. One of these days I’m gonna wait in line and see Ho’s mummified body.

The Hanoi Opera House.

After site seeing on the motorbike for twenty minutes, The Astronomer and I were ready for a snack, so we stopped at a shack near the Opera House that sold ice cream and small bites. I ordered sweet sticky rice topped with French vanilla ice cream and toasted coconut (kem xoi). I give it three snaps in “Z” formation.

The always-savory Astronomer ordered a portion of nem ngot ran—slightly spicy meat that’s breaded and fried.

Properly fueled, we zoomed to check out the One Pillar Pagoda—Chùa Một Cột—an iconic Buddhist temple.

While in the neighborhood, we briefly considered going to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Pros—air conditioning, cons—shame. The Astronomer was shaking in his boots posing outside the museum. After deliberating, we decided to put our dong to good use elsewhere.

Although the Ethnography Museum was not air conditioned, it was definitely an educationally stimulating and guilt-free way to spend the afternoon.

The multi-story museum contained all sorts of colorful and interactive displays featuring Vietnamese minorities. Exploring all of the exhibits got me really excited about heading to the mountainous town of Sapa. Plaid neon-colored do-rags are awesome.

We also saw a plethora of ancient carvings. One part Home Alone, one part The Thinker.

Outside the museum are a number of life-sized models of minority dwellings.

This one was our favorite.

Here’s another shot of the ancient Mccaulley Caulkin / Auguste Rodin hybrid.

After a couple hours in the museum, we headed back to the Old Quarter.

A trip to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without a water puppet performance.

A water fairy prancing about.

The cast and crew take their bows. Farewell, Hanoi!

I'm Just Not That Into You

When I first started gas•tron•o•my, I blogged each meal and recipe in chronological order. Although I’m not a scientist, I admittedly like things neat and orderly—just take a look at my CD rack. I kept up this ‘eat then write’ routine for quite a while, but it all came to an end when I began penning food reviews for a magazine and couldn’t publish on gas•tron•o•my until the piece was published in hard copy form. Now that posts are completely out of order, to decide what to write about each day, I scan my pictures and pick out something that strikes my fancy.

This post is dedicated to all the foods that I have neglected and passed over for months on end. The one quality that all of these foods share is that they’re not great. In a sea of amazing Saigon eats, it’s tough being only so-so.

First up, xoi chien—this late night bite dates back to February. Xoi chien, which goes for 1,000 VND a piece, is comprised of rounds of sticky rice (xoi) fried (chien) to a crisp and stuffed with a beef and mushroom mixture. If this sounds like your kinda thing, check out CMT8 after the sun has gone down.

I don’t remember what the exact name of this dessert is, but it had the words “che” and “dau hu” (tofu) in it. I am mad for sweet tofu with ginger, but this stuff tasted like chunky sweetened soy milk with way too much ice. The copious amount of ice really ruined a fabulous soy party. Binh Thanh District was the site of this soy mess.

This is another one of Binh Thanh’s meh offerings. The green layers of the cake are made of sticky pandan flavored tapioca that’s similar to banh da lon, while the yellow layers are plain cake. The entire creation is sprinkled with coconut flakes. There was nothing intrinsically terrible about this dessert, it just struck me as dry and not very flavorful. Yawn-city.

We purchased these Japanese Imagawa-yaki in District 3. Unlike the ones we tried in Thailand that were filled with custard and taro paste, these ones were filled mostly with shredded coconut. Once again, too many dry ingredients paired together, and not enough oomph!


I bought this little ice cream cone impulsively on a super-hot day in District 4 on Ton That Thuyet Street. It tasted sweet, funny and not much else. Although I like having funny friends, I cannot appreciate funny ice cream in the same way. For really super fantastic ice cream, visit Cong Truong for their kem trai dua.

After gorging on dozens of delicious egg tarts in Hong Kong, The Astronomer was curious if the ones in Vietnam were any good. While picking up a couple of pastries for himself at Pham Nguyen Bakery, he grabbed an egg tart for me to try. The verdict? Lame crust, lamer filling. B+ for effort.

This is xoi vi. Cubular portions of sweet xoi sold at bakeries and by street vendors who go through a middle man to procure it. Other than its somewhat interesting shape, there’s nothing really special about xoi vi. My chief beef with xoi vi is that it costs twice as much as regular xoi. Boooo. Gimme back my dong.

While I love bo bia (fresh spring rolls stuffed with a jicama and carrot slaw, sweet Chinese sausages and scrabled eggs that’s dipped in hoisin sauce), I ain’t got no love for bo bia ngot—a sweet spin on the original comprised of coconut shavings, sugar sticks and sesame seeds. Bo bia ngot is too dry and could really benefit from a sauce. A sweet and salty coconut milk sauce would spruce bo bia ngot up nicely.

Examined alone, bun ca (vermicelli rice noodles in a tamarind and fish broth) is pretty darn awesome. The broth is tangy, while the hunks of fish are hearty and moist. But pitted against rock star noodle/broth combinations like bo kho, bun bo and mi ga tiem, it just pales in comparison. That’s pretty much the story with all of the above dishes—they’re good, but not great. And who wants good when you can have GR8? Not me.

Keep Your Cool

kem sma

It’s bloody hot in Saigon.

The dry-season is in full swing and the days of motorbiking in the rain while donning ponchos are now a distant memory.

Unlike most foreigners, I love the heat. It’s probably the product of my Saigon genes and SoCal upbringing. And even though it’s already suitably warm right now, temperatures will likely continue to soar until June. I hope I don’t melt.

On those occasions when a cool wet-nap just isn’t enough to keep the heat at bay, here are ten truly local delights to keep from going bananas during the long months before the rains return:

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1. Sinh To is Vietnam’s take on the western smoothie. Fresh fruits such as mangoes (xoai), soursops (mang cau xiem), papayas (du du), pineapples (thom) and avocados (bo) are blended with sugar, crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk until smooth and frothy. A serving of sinh to is an easy way to get a healthy dose of fruit while sipping the afternoon away. Depending on the market price of raw materials, a glass of sinh to ranges from 8,000-15,000 VND.

2. Che Nhan is made from nhan (dried longans) and suong sa (agar jelly) and served in a tall glass over ice. Although not the prettiest che on the block, it certainly has its merits. Che nhan‘s cool liquid tastes like a soda-less cream soda with hints of vanilla, while the jelly’s playful crinkly texture reminds one to take it easy or risk a stroke. Che nhan can be purchased from most che vendors for 2,000-6,000 VND per serving.


3. Rau Ma (pennywort juice) is definitely not for everyone (myself included), but word on the street is that this green chlorophyll-intensive liquid is like coolant for the soul. At 2,000 VND a glass, everyone should take a swig at least once.

4. Unlike its ugly stepsister rau ma, Nuoc Mia (sugarcane juice) is not an acquired taste. Made from freshly pressed sugarcane with a squeeze of trai hanh (sour citrus fruit), nuoc mia is the next best thing to a headfirst plunge into a swimming pool. A cup (or bag) of nuoc mia on ice can be procured at numerous roadside stands around town for 2,500 VND.

5. There’s nothing like chilled Trai Cay (fresh fruit) on a hot day. Saigon’s proximity to the fertile Mekong Delta makes it possible for city residents to enjoy an abundance of wonderfully delicious and inexpensive fruits year round. From mangoes to custard apples to papayas and bananas, the possibilities are endlessly satisfying. Fruit vendors on every other block makes it possible to indulge in a plethora of trai cay without having to bother with slicing and dicing. For a little kick, try dipping tart fruits in a little chili salt.

6. Kem Trai Dua is served at a number of ice cream parlors around the city, but the best rendition is at Con Truong, located on the corner of Vo Van Tan Street and Pham Ngoc Thach Street in District 1. Sorbet-like coconut ice cream is served inside a fresh young coconut and adorned with crushed peanuts, dried bananas, pineapple preserves, and topped with a dried plum “cherry.” Chilled coconut juice is served on the side. Kem dua brings a taste of the tropics to a bustling and chaotic city. Priced at 24,000VND a pop, this “pricey” frozen treat is worth every dong.


7. After bia (beer), Ca Phe Sua Da is probably Vietnam’s next most popular beverage. This classic Vietnamese drink is comprised of freshly brewed Robusta coffee sweetened with condensed milk and served on ice. The end result is a cold and creamy caffeine jolt. Pull up a stool at any of the beverage carts strewn around town for a cup of ca phe sua da and expect to pay somewhere between 5,000-6,000VND.

8. Nuoc Ep is a general term for fruit and vegetable juice. My two favorite drinks in this genre are winter melon (bi dao) and passion fruit (chanh day). While winter melons are a gorgeous mint green, their juice is strangely black. Served over ice, this dark liquid is a unique thirst quencher. Passion fruit juice is made to order, bright tangerine in color, and sweet and tart in all the right places. Winter melon juice goes for 2,000VND a glass, while passion fruit costs 6,000VND.

9. Hacked to order, Trai Dua (fresh young coconut) is a self-contained drink and snack in one. First, sip the cool coconut juice through a straw. Then ask the vendor to chop off the top, and eat the white flesh with a spoon.


10. I often refer to Thach as Vietnamese JELLO due to its similar texture. The light dessert is made from water, sugar, agar agar and a variety of flavorings including coconut milk, coffee and pandan leaves. Thach oftentimes contains a number of different layers and flavors, but when eaten together, I find it impossible to differentiate pandan from coffee from coconut. To me, it just tastes sweet, refreshing and gelatin-y. Thach can be purchased from ladies pushing glass cases filled with small bowls on giant blocks of ice for 2,000-3000VND a serving.

Sweet Treats in Đà Nẵng

Dessert highlights in Da Nang included nouc mia (sugarcane juice with a dash of lime juice) and che troi nouc (sweet glutinous rice balls with coconut milk). The Astronomer bought a tall glass of nouc mia from roadside vendors to cool off during hot afternoons, while I was a che-fiend at every opportunity.

Kem nho (grape ice cream) was the lone lowlight in Da Nang. Since when did grapes taste like bubblegum flavored fluoride treatment?

I am developing a theory about Vietnamese interpretations of American/Western foods—I hypothesize that the people cooking up this cuisine in Vietnam have never tasted the actual food they are making and as a result, their product resembles the food on the outside, but tastes far from the real thing. Thus far, this theory rings true for hamburgers and ice cream sundaes.

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