Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hanoi Street Food

Ok so I think that this topic deserves a post all to itself: Hanoi street food. Simply put, Hanoi is a foodie's paradise. And I, being the food lover that I am, quickly set out on a one-woman mission of trying as many different types of Vietnamese dishes during my quick stint in the city. While street dining seems tempting and adventurous to tourists, it can be very intimidating once faced with the fact that you actually have no idea of what is going to be served to you. However, I quickly learned the trick to navigating the different food stalls: shut up, don't ask questions, and eat! And eat I did.

In this post I'm going to talk about some of my favorite vietnamese dishes that are easily found on almost every street in Hanoi: Bun cha, Pho bo, Bun bo nam bo, and Banh mi.

The thing with most street restaurants in Hanoi is that they have a very limited menu, usually consisting of just one or two dishes. So once you take your place on one of the mini plastic red and blue chairs, it is a signal that you are ready to eat, and a vietnamese woman will begin bringing you food - without even having to order a thing. So that is exactly what I did. Walking down the streets of Doi Can street, I found a teeny little restaurant wedged in the alley between two buildings. The sign on the stall said "Bún chả". Having no idea what I was in store for, and it being my first experience with street food in Hanoi, I took a seat and anxiously waited to be served. I think the food gods were on my side that day, because what appeared in front of me two minutes later was the most glorious dish, which soon became my absolute favorite. Bún chả is a delicious bowl of grilled pork balls (chả) served over white rice noodles (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. 

My first taste of Hanoi Street food: Bún chả on Doi Can street
Bún chả from Doi Can street - unbeatable. A basket of noodles, a steaming bowl of pork patties soaked in nuoc mam cham, and a side of greens to add in to taste. 

Next up is everybody's favorite: Pho Bo (beef noodle soup), which will put you back on average between 20,000-40,000 VND (approx. US$1-2). One Vietnamese chef and food writer once said "Pho is life, love and all things that matter" - and I couldn't agree more. Pho is probably the most emblematic of vietnamese cuisine, and the most widely recognized worldwide. This popular soup consists of rice noodles (thin or thick), paper thin slices of beef which are cooked by the steaming beef broth, and topped off with onions, coriander, and chili to taste. This traditional soup is primarily served with either beef (bo) or chicken (ga). 

Perfect bowl of Pho Bo
Pho Bo with a side of Nem

 Giving in to a little late-night pho craving

Another dish that you absolutely must have when visiting the city is an extremely popular street food which originated in Hanoi: Bun bo nam bo. Bun noodles (thin, spaghetti-like rice noodle) are served in a bowl on top of a bed of fresh lettuce and topped with a stir-fry of beef and bean sprouts. Then, a broth is poured over the mixture and chopped peanuts and shallots are sprinkled over the top. Sometimes, fresh mint leaves are also added in for some extra taste (not that it needs any more). When you get the plate, give the noodles a good stir to mix them in with all the broth that has seeped to the bottom, and enjoy! 

Bun Bo Nam Bo on Ta Hien
Bun Bo Nam bo on Hang Dieu

Another must-try street food find that I have discovered in Hanoi is Banh mi (or banh my), which is considered to be more of a snack as it is probably not filling enough for most to be an entire meal. Banh mi is pretty much as close to fast food as it gets in Hanoi (no wonder the Vietnamese are all so thin...North American's should take a hint!). 

So what is it? Banh mi is a sandwich - the product of French colonialism in Indochina - which combines ingredients from the French (baguette, pâté and mayonnaise) with native Vietnamese ingredients such as cilantro, chili peppers and pickled carrots. But don't be fooled by the use of the term "baguette"! Although they borrowed the term from the French, it is nothing like your traditional French baguette. This special kind of bread is baked a certain way, making it crispy on the outside and soft on the inside! (Are you drooling yet?) What also makes it very different than our sandwiches in the western world is the fact that the banh mi bread is made with half wheat and half rice flour. The result is a bread with a light and airy feel, not as filling as a traditional baguette - making it the perfect on-the-go snack! 

The toppings of the famous street food can vary according to the different stalls and according to your preference. The most common toppings are pâté, cold cuts, or grilled pork. Another option is the breakfast version of the banh mi, which replaces the meat stuffing with an egg sunny-side-up and onions. Any way you choose to have it, it is absolute perfection. 

Banh mi stalls in Hanoi 
Banh mi with grilled pork
Breakfast version of the famous Banh mi sandwich with egg

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