Now here's land I can sink my teeth into. Việt Nam is a country that knows how to keep a grubster happy. Ladies in Pajamas boil beef bones with lemongrass in mammoth vats outside their houses to create flavorful broths ladled over chewy fresh rice noodles. Sweet, marinated pork chops are grilled over lump charcoal at 7 in the morning. Purchase a frog at the market and watch it get skinned alive. Dine on a plate of sauteed razor clams for .60 cents on the side of the street while sipping Bia Saigon and watching hundreds of thousands of scooters zip by. You get the picture.
From Nước Mắm to Rau Muống to cà phê sữa đá to Mì Quảng- I'll fill you in on all the culinary samplings this country has to offer. There are many.
First, lets do a little overview of what Vietnamese food is all about. The staples:
Phở. (pronounced Fuh). This is Vietnam's national dish. Beef bones are boiled with aromatics for several hours, then the resulting stock is poured over rice noodles. Usually the soup contains beef (Phở Bò) but you can also find a chicken variety (Phở Gà). Each bowl of Phở is served with a huge plate of lettuce, basil and mint for you to add to your soup as you please.
You can't have Vietnamese food without Nước Mắm (fish sauce). This stuff is absolutely liquid gold. I've had fish sauce back in the states, but nothing compares to the Vietnamese variety. The sauce is made from sun-dried fish that are left to ferment with salt in barrels for a couple months. The salt draws out the flavor from the fish and the resulting liquid pressed out is Nước Mắm. It's main purpose is to flavor foods, but it's also combined with sugar, chili and lime to provide a dipping sauce called Nước Chấm that can be spooned over rice or meats. I'm hooked.
Cơm (pronounced Kerm) or rice is eaten at all hours of the day in Viet Nam, especially lunchtime. Many casual eateries serve cơm with a variety of accompaniments such as fried chicken, grilled pork chops, hard-boiled eggs or stuffed tofu. Most Cơm shops also provide a small vegetable soup with your rice plate. Of course it's also served with fish sauce! Shouldn't cost you much more than a dollar.
It rains a lot in most of Vietnam for 7 to 8 months out of the year. Greens are abundant. The usually suspects in Vietnamese meals include cucumber, water spinach, cabbage, green onion, mint, basil and coriander.
Many fruits benefit from the wet and wild tropical weather, including the above Jackfruit. Other popular fruits include durian, dragon fruit, mango, mangosteen, rambutan and coconut. Eat 'em from the street or toss 'em in smoothies. Delish.
Bánh Mì. This is a bread sandwich that is found on almost every corner in Ho Chi Minh City. You can't miss it. Each Bánh Mì station has a variety of fillings for you to choose from. Pork pate and a variety of meats give the Bánh Mì it's body while cucumber slices, shredded carrot and daikon radish and coriander give the sandwich a cooling/crunchy factor. They can be amazing or just average, depending on how stale or fresh the bread is. The going price is 5,000 VND (about .30 cents).
cà phê sữa đá (cà phê- coffee, sữa- milk, đá- ice). A standard in the early mornings for Saigonese residents. Ultra rich sweetened, condensed milk is combined with a splash of freshly brewed coffee and ice. Borderline gluttonous- but addictive.
The Vietnamese do quite a bit with rice, and this is one of the more popular cơm-based creations: Bánh Xèo. It's a rice flour crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Break off a bit of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce leaves (or rice paper) and dip in Nước Chấm. A rice-revelation!
Did you really think almost two thousands miles of coastline didn't produce any temping oceanic treats? Think again. Shrimp (tôm), squid (mực) and crab (cua) are standards. Red snapper, mussels, lobster and oysters also find their way from the sea to your plate for dirt cheap. I noshed on 24 of the above grilled scallops (sò điệp nướng) in Mũi Né for less than $1.25. That's just not fair.
So there's a sweetened-condensed summary of edible Viet Nam. I'll be residing in Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn) for a bit so expect many posts to follow. In the meantime I'll continue to nosh my way through this succulent country.
Stay Global People.