Archive for the 'Vietnamese' Category

Bột Chiên

While the children in America chomp down on Trix and Pop Tarts for breakfast, the kids in Vietnam dig into plates of savory bột chiên.

Every morning on Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4, there’s a small herd of uniform-clad school children huddled around the bột chiên lady waiting for their portions to be dished out.

“Fried dough” is the literal translation of bột chiên, but the dish is actually much more interesting (and not the least bit doughnut like).

Little pieces of fried dough made of rice flour form the base of the dish. The doughy squares, along with a generous amount of oil, turn golden and crispy on the hot skillet.

Once an order is placed, the vendor cracks an egg (or two) and a sprinkling of scallions over the dough. The fried dough, egg and scallion omelet is garnished with shredded carrots and daikon or green papaya and dressed with a spicy nuoc tuong (soy-based sauce with chilies) sauce.

Each ingredient in this simple dish plays an essential part in the overall flavor. The eggs enhance the dough with texture and body. The fresh vegetables cut the dough’s oiliness. And the nuoc tuong provides a deep saltiness that ties all the ingredients together.

According to my aunt Phung who resides in HCMC, bột chiên is more of a light snack than a traditional breakfast food. Perhaps the West’s egg-intensive breakfast ideal has influenced Saigon, or at least District 4.


Ngự Viên

Ngự Viên—take three.

Slowly, but surely, we’re gonna eat our way through Ngự Viên’s extensive, Hue-inspired menu. Read about our first account here and our second one here.

Cathy’s mom was in town a few weeks back for the Tet holiday and desired traditional Vietnamese rice dishes for lunch. After little debate, Zach, The Astronomer and I decided that Ngự Viên would be the perfect place to satisfy her craving.

We ordered two of our standbys (ca hu kho and goi mit) and tried four new dishes—clockwise from top left: hen xao (54,000 VND), chao tom (30,000 VND each), bo xoi xao toi (21,000 VND), and canh chua tien (48,000 VND).

Like all standbys ought to be, the ca kho and goi mit were superb. By the way, the best way to distinguish a good ca kho from a great one is the uncontrollable desire to sop up every last bit of caramelized goodness with rice once the fish has disappeared. Mmm, boy!

Of the new dishes, the canh chua tien was a true standout. While the most common version of canh chua (sour soup) is mildly tangy and heavy on pineapples, this version was spicy and contained thin slices of rough bamboo shoots. The soup’s fiery hotness came courtesy of some strong chili powder that really hit the back of my throat.

The hen xao—small clams sauteed with glass noodles and herbs—were served with sesame rice crackers as an appetizer. Perhaps a little too similar to goi mit to be eaten side-by-side, the hen xao was tasty nevertheless.

The chao tom—grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane—took a good 45 minutes to arrive because Ngự Viên makes them from scratch.  Fair enough, but our waiter insisted on coursing the meal with the slowpoke dish second.  As a result, we spent over half an hour staring at an empty table after polishing off our appetizers. Timing aside, the chao tom were definitely good. However, at 30,000 each, they were not worth the price or wait.

Cathy desired some greenery and ordered the bo xoi xao toi. None of us knew what bo xoi was and our waiter could not provide any insight. The leafy greens tasted like a cross between morning glory, spinach, and bok choy and were slightly bitter. Sauteed in copious cloves of garlic and oil, the mysterious bo xoi served its purpose well.

Bánh Cuốn

January 31, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

Nguyen Khoai Street
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Bánh Cuốn (10,000 VND)

Due to the tropical heat in Saigon, it seems as though life actually happens during the edges of the day. And by life, I mean food. The best (i.e. freshest and most varied) stuff is sold either early in the morning or after the sun sets. Lunchtime equals nap time in these here parts.

Now that I’ve properly quit my day job, I’ve started to venture out at night to try the evening offerings. One of my favorites thus far has been bánh cuốn.

Making bánh cuốn requires a delicate touch. A rice flour batter is spread thinly over a hotplate to cook for a few scorching seconds. Removing the ever-so-thin crepe from the steaming plate takes precision and patience. If the process is rushed, one ends up with a ball of rice flour rather than a dainty crepe. Next, the crepe is stuffed with a prefabbed mixture of ground pork and woodear mushrooms seasoned with ground black pepper and fish sauce. The crepe is then folded up like an egg roll.

The six rolls of bánh cuốn on my plate were topped with blanched bean sprouts, basil, fried shallots, cha (pork forcemeat), nem chua (fermented pork forcemeat), banh dau (deep-fried mung bean cake), and a healthy dousing of nuoc cham.

The bánh cuốn were so fresh that the heat from the griddle were still with them. Ahh… The crepe was light and held the meaty contents well. The nem chua was decent as far as sour salami goes, but I much preferred the plain ‘ol cha. The banh dau was a spongy doughnut that soaked up the nuoc cham nicely.

Bún Chả Hà Nội

Firstly, hats off to Wandering Chopsticks for pointing me to this awesome bun cha joint on Ly Tu Trong Street. I hardly ever eat in District 1 unless its fancy or sushi and would have never found this place otherwise.

A group of new (Olivia) and old friends (The Astronomer, Zach and Tom) headed here for lunch right before the Lunar New Year shutdown, which is unfortunately still going on. The Vietnamese sure do know how to relax after a year of hard work! I hope my xoi vendors start dishing out the goods soon.

During our visit, the eatery was sold out of the cha gio cua be (crab eggrolls) WC raved about, but the manager promised me a complimentary one the next time I stopped in.

Our group ordered five portions of bun cha at 25,000 VND each. Generally, I find that bun cha portions veer toward meager, especially in the bun (vermicelli rice noodles) department. The Astronomer usually has to request two extra plates of bun to round out his meal. This restaurant served up the perfect amount of food.

The flame-grilled pork patties with bacon bits (not Bacos) were dunked in a mild fish sauce vinaigrette with thin slices of pickled daikon. The smoky patties were packed loosely, contained a satisfying ratio of meat to fat and took on the sauce’s sour flavors well. Truly, excellent. I can’t wait to compare and contrast bun cha Saigon with bun cha Hanoi when I visit later this year.

Since I’m in the south, I assembled my bun cha in a southern fashion—small bowl + herbs + greens + meat + sauce. Definitely the best I’ve had so far.

8 Ly Tu Trong Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

One Broth, Two Dishes

January 29, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

193 Ly Chinh Thang Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Canh Bun (8,000 VND)

Bun Rieu (8,000 VND)

Chao Muc (5,000 VND)

Ca Phe Sua Da (5,000 VND)

Another day, another new noodle soup to try!

The Astronomer, our pal Cathy and I lunched at a not-so-pretty eatery on Ly Chinh Thang Street advertising canh bun, bun rieu and chao muc. We ordered one of each for variety’s sake, but I was particularly interested in the canh bun because I have never tried it before.

Canh is a light Vietnamese soup eaten with rice, while bun are vermicelli rice noodles. Surprisingly, canh bun is not a combination of the two. Tricky, huh?

It turns out that canh bun is exactly the same as bun rieu (vermicelli noodles in a sour crab-based broth) with the addition of blanched spinach served alongside the essential herbs and greens. Not the most innovative dish, but I can find no fault in extra nutrients and fiber. Anything for 5-a-day.

The bun rieu here was very good. Unlike my family’s version or the one at Thanh Hai, this one came with spongy squares of deep-fried tofu that soaked up the sour broth nicely and contained cubes of blood jello that are much tastier than they look.

The chao muc was my personal favorite of the meal. The smoky squid porridge was topped with ground black pepper, chopped scallions and pieces of fried dough. Similar to the tofu in the bun rieu, the fried dough soaked up the porridge with its oily goodness. There were several pieces of actual squid, but they blended in with the hot porridge.

After three steamy dishes, we headed to a drink vendor several blocks down for some ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk on ice). Although I usually passed on this stuff back home, I am officially a huge fan. What’s there not to like about drinking melted coffee ice cream? I have seen the light.