Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beyond Pho Bo and Ga

Before I left on my RTW trip in April, everyone told me that food was one of the true highlights when travelling through Vietnam. While I did believe that the food would be great, I was fairly ignorant of Vietnamese cuisine and assumed that the range of dishes would be limited. Before my travels, I had tried pho, salad rolls, spring rolls, brochettes, and canh sour soup. I definitely did not expect the range of regional specialties (from Hoi An's cao lau to Hue's banh khoai), and there are many more snacks/street food options than spring and salad rolls.

I ate pho every two or three days. With its comfort food elements and $1.00 price tag, it is very hard to resist. Most people have heard of pho, but even this ubiquitous noodle soup can vary a great deal when considering spices and ingredients. The good pho shops offer you a bowl containing rice noodles, thin slices of beef (bo) or chicken (ga), chives, Thai basil and a zesty broth...but they also provide you with a side dish containing bean sprouts, kaffir leaves, thin savoury doughnuts, and more basil. You can further customize your soup with the soya, chili sauce, pepper and hoisin sauce on offer. 

I actively sought unfamiliar dishes to avoid getting stuck in a delicious pho rut, and while this did result in the accidental consumption of chien, it also led to some wonderful culinary experiences:

Chao Tom 
I started seeing this dish on menus beginning in Hue. I completed a South-to-North route in Vietnam, and did not see chao tom in restaurants or on streetside barbecues until I reached the country's half-way point. Chao tom consists of a sweet, seasoned shrimp surimi formed around sugarcane spears. The spears are then grilled or barbecued, and often served with a sumptuous selection of accompaniments to be rolled within banh trang (rice paper). These additional ingredients often include julienned carrots, bean sprouts, basil, fried onion, peanuts, and vinegary fish sauce. You remove the shrimp mousse from the sugarcane as you compose your roll and can customize each one.

Hanoi Cha Ca

Cha Ca
This dish originated in Hanoi and was made famous by the Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant. It is so famous in the city that there is even a Cha Ca Street! I went to Cha Ca La Vong but was not impressed by the decor or the staff so opted to dine at the New Day Restaurant on Ma May. This entree is based around grilled pieces of dense, fresh-water catfish (hemibargus) that are served with an aromatic fish broth created using turmeric, saffron, ginger and dill. A plate of ground peanuts, vermicelli noodles, basil, dill and fried onion is usually served with the dish. Like many Vietnamese entrees, cha ca enables the diner to customize their meal. I didn't want my sizzling, spicy fish dish to be transformed into a soup, so I just drizzled some broth over the fish and noodles. The texture of the fish was addictive, and the addition of the peanuts and fried onion created a wonderful contrast with the soft noodles. I'm going to try to make this one at home!     

Cao Lau 
Hoi An prides itself on its colonial connections and its insular ethos. This small, quaint city is a World Heritage Site that is full of tailors, artist workshops, and dainty restaurants. Food is also important to the cultural identity of Hoi An, and there are specific dishes that you will be hard-pressed to find outside of the city. In addition to White Rose Dumplings and Garlic Morning Glory, Cao Lau is a dish that is inextricably connected to Hoi An. Similar to cha ca (above), contrasting textures is key to this noodle dish. It contains broad browned wheat noodles (vermicelli can be used as well), thinly-sliced pork, delicate fried croutons, bean sprouts, mint and cilantro. It is simple but completely satisfying and fun to eat. While the ingredients are pretty much universal, the sauce that coats the noodles can differ a great deal. Some sauces are dark, meaty and salty while other sauces are light, spicy and tangy.

In terms of Vancouver restaurants that offer some unconventional Vietnamese options, My Chau and Green Lemongrass on Kingsway are solid options. While both restaurants promote their pho (yawn), they do offer some tempting alternatives.