Saturday, April 2, 2011

Kem: Ice Cream in Vietnam

At Công Trường
So I haven't posted about it much, but the fact is I am an ice cream monster. Matt likes to joke about my "ice cream stomach," which is how I find room for ice cream even though I am otherwise full (the best part of being a grown up is that I don't have to finish my dinner to get dessert!). Naturally, before going to Vietnam I did a little research on ice cream and sweets. Most of what I read suggested that the Vietnamese don't really do dessert the way we do here, or that they usually have fruit for dessert. That may be true, but it was not hard to find sweets there. I learned to spot kem, the Vietnamese word for ice cream, very quickly.

In Hanoi, we went to Kem Tràng Tiền, which we read described as a "motorbike drive-in." I can honestly think of no better way to describe it.

Teenagers dig this joint, based on what we saw. Many of them seemed to be on dates. It was really quite cute. They apparently do sell cones, but they were out. We tried their popsicles instead, and honestly, I found the flavor to be just okay and the texture to be grainy and completely disappointing. At least the atmosphere was good.

Kem NZ was a place I read about quite a bit before our trip. As near as I can tell, it's a New Zealand chain, so I wasn't planning on trying it because it wasn't actually Vietnamese. However, our hotel in Hue had a Kem NZ at the hotel, so we had some. I tried the sticky rice flavor, which was interesting. I don't remember what Matt had, but I remember his dad had the durian flavor so I tried a bite and learned that WOW, durian is not for me (his dad loved it though; durian is nothing if not polarizing). Overall though, the ice cream was pretty good, with an atmosphere more like what I would expect to see in the States (bright colors, trendy design).

Note the sign is even in English
On our second night in Hue we had some really good sorbet at the restaurant where we had dinner. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the place but the "lemon" sorbet was wonderfully refreshing with an intense flavor. Notably, everywhere we went in Vietnam limes were referred to as lemons. I don't remember if we ever saw what I would call a lemon there. So it was really lime sorbet. I need to try to make lime sorbet sometime, because I do love it.

In Ho Chi Minh City, it was hot so Matt and I shared a scoop from a street vendor selling cones from the back of his bicycle. As with many of our street food experiences, we just held up a finger (as we were just getting one) and took whatever they guy gave us. It appeared to be chocolate, which I tried to stay away from, because I'm sorry but Vietnam just doesn't seem to have quality chocolate. When I tasted it, I was glad we only ordered one cone because it was chocolate with durian swirl. Fortunately, Matt likes durian.

Moments before discovering the flavor.
The best ice cream we had though, and my favorite eating experience in all of Vietnam, was at Công Trường. In researching places to eat, I discovered the Gastronomer, who has a food blog that was incredibly useful for our trip. Based on her reviews of San Diego restaurants, I felt pretty confident she was a reliable source so we took her advice on a few dishes and places. One such place was Công Trường. I found nothing about it anywhere else, but after reading her review I made Matt hunt it down with me. It was not near our hotel but we walked to find it. We ordered the kem dua, which was recommended by the Gastronomer. It's coconut ice cream, served in a coconut, with the juice on the side, and with bits of fruit and nuts on top. It is amazing.

The consistency of the ice cream itself was wonderfully smooth; the addition of the nuts and dried fruit and the fresh coconut from the bowl adds a textural element that complements the ice cream perfectly. The flavor was intense and sweet. The whole experience was made better by the hot weather, which made the ice cream doubly refreshing. I recommend checking out the Gastronomer's post for a better description, as she puts the experience into words very well.

Flushed from walking in the heat but happy.

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