Monday, March 14, 2011

Missing Dairy and Learning to Like Fish

Breakfast pho
So, I enjoy the occasional bowl of phở, but my taste buds are wired for Western food. I love cereal with milk for breakfast, I'm used to corn as a major grain (I live in the US, after all), and I come from a very steak and potatoes kind of family. As a (soon to be former) San Diegan, Mexican food is pretty much just "food" to me. Growing up, the only fish I ate was tuna, and while I have expanded my seafood appreciation to include ceviche and the occasional sushi dinner, I am not a seafood person.

I knew going into our trip to Vietnam that it would be a long two weeks for my tongue and stomach, and used our breakfasts at the hotels as a reprieve from Vietnamese food. At the same time, we wanted to try as many legit places (the kind with Vietnamese patrons) as possible while also trying some famous dishes, because sometimes things make it into every guidebook for a reason, right? I could fill a lengthy tome describing our culinary experiences, but I'm going to limit it to a few of my favorite dishes.

In Hanoi, we decided that regardless of my feelings for fish, we had to try the famed cha ca. It's a dish of bite-size pieces of monkfish that has been marinaded in galangal, turmeric and some other stuff, and then it's cooked at your table with dill and other herbs and served with rice noodles. There are a number of restaurants that serve it; in fact, there's a whole street called Cha Ca that you can visit to get your fill. For our first dinner in Hanoi, we chose Cha Ca La Vong, a generations-old family business that claims to be the origin of the dish and where the only menu item is cha ca.

They are prepared for tourists.

It was a-mazing. For me, it was all about the dill. The turmeric marinade was delicious as well. I got seconds. OF FISH. That never happens. Probably the second favorite thing I ate in the country (the favorite will be divulged in another post).

Just before entering our bellies.
In Hội An, in addition to our fantastic and tasty cooking class, Matt and I ventured into the market for food and drink. During an afternoon walk we stopped for some extremely delicious fresh juice, which I later realized was an extremely big mistake on my part. I ordered lime juice, which was almost certainly watered down with tap water to make the tartness palatable. I am nearly positive that this is what lead to me getting "holiday tummy," which was the only tolerable euphemism I can find to describe it.

My cursed lime juice and Matt's smart choice of carrot juice.

We had better luck that day for dinner, when we decided to try Hội An's most famous dish, cao lầu. Our meal wasn't obtained without a little searching though, because while we had visited several local markets at that point, we still weren't what you'd call savvy so we didn't realize how early many of the vendors close shop. Fortunately, we could never take too many steps in Vietnam without being solicited to try food or buy wares, so a pair women welcomed us as their last customer's of the day.

I could never find it again in a million years.

The legend about this dish is that the noodles are made with water drawn from a secret Cham well. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's a nice story. We watched them plate our food (as we did nearly everywhere), starting with the noodles, then adding greens, marinated pork, and at last, the delicious crispy toppings (some sources tell me it's fried dough, some say pig skin). Were the noodles good? Yes. But I enjoyed the tender pork and delicious mystery crisps far more.

The noodles.

"Tourist Pork," according to our cooking instructor,
is the lean pork that the Vietnamese don't want.

The masterpiece.
In Ho Chi Minh City (you may know it as Saigon), the standout dish was our first meal there. Our flight was late and so we arrived in the first sweltering hot city on our itinerary with an empty stomach. While our traveling companions headed off to find air conditioning, we found a street vendor selling banh mi (complete with dodgy mayonnaise).

Stumbling distance from our hotel.

This is probably the one Vietnamese dish I'd tried the most before my visit, and probably the single best thing to come out of French occupation of Vietnam. The French contributed the tasty, crusty bread, and the Vietnamese contributed the delicious fillings. In the US, I usually order BBQ pork, and it's served with cucumber, carrot, jicama, cilantro, jalapenos, and mayo. In HCMC, we took two of whatever they were making, which included like three different meats/meat products (including one pate) and all of the usual veggies except the jalapeno. Instead, it was smothered with hot sauce. We took our sandwiches to the park across the street and ate what turned out to be one of my favorite meals.

Whew, okay, so despite my intentions this turned out to be quite lengthy. But honestly, the food was like, 50% of my experience there so it's hard not to gush about it!

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