I think I have a bit of a love/hate relationship going with Vietnamese food. Food here is a symphony of fresh bright herbs, crisp greens, addictively salty savory umami, subtle sweetness and spice. It’s complex, satisfying, yet refreshing. It’s also why I’ve gained about ten pounds since we got here!
Y’all know I love trying new foods, and I’m game for trying pretty much anything, so Vietnam is a playground for my curious taste buds. I love experiencing a culture and people through the food.
In our travels through Nepal, India and a little of Thailand, my curiosity had not led me astray, but alas, my winning streak comes to an end here in Vietnam. Even with a few food fails, I’d say I still came out on top.
Build it yourself spring rolls of heaven! I don’t even want to admit to how many of these I’ve eaten. They bring them out by the plate and count your empty dishes and skewers to calculate the bill.
Bo Taye Chahn
Like a cross between beef carpacio and ceviche but with Vietnamese flavors. Thin sliced steak that is marinated in lime juice to cook it a little. Then topped with a slightly sweet, spicy, garlicy vinegarette, green onions and cilantro. So good!
Tasting Menu of Vietnamese Tapas style dishes
One of the highlights was getting to go out to a very locals spot with our friends’ Vietnamese tutor. She and her husband just kept ordering and delicious small plates kept coming.
Banana Blossom Salad
It’s awesome flower power. I’ll leave it at that.
Have you heard of the magical creature that is the Mantis Shrimp?!? It is one of the coolest animals on the planet – The Oatmeal does a pretty great job explaining it.
It’s a specialty of Ha Long Bay but it was a fail because I didn’t get to try it. And we kept meaning to get it, but it was either too expensive, or the place would run out of it, or we wouldn’t have time to sit and enjoy the meal. Check out these bad boys though!
Crazy dessert drink, there are dozens of varieties, but most include some form of sweet bean custard. The green bean custard is more mild, red bean is more fibrous and beany, think flan meets kidney beans cooked like refried beans. Then layered on are these cubes of “jelly” made from seaweed and flavored with black sesame or coconut; while they’re called “jelly” I would say it’s close to the result of that time you tried to make Jello but only added half of the amount of water called for. Then you might get these little things that look like tiny pink and yellow caviar. You might get some fruit pieces in there. And it’s finished off with coconut milk. You mix it all together and switch off between spoon and straw to get all of the delicious sweetness. I’m a bigger fan than Rick is, something about “if it’s a vegetable, it’s a vegetable. If it’s a dessert, it’s a dessert. No playing both sides.”
Unlike our French friends, the Vietnamese don’t mask the snail flavor with a butter bath and the results are equally, if not more delicious.
Sort of a fondue style experience. A burner and pot of broth come to your table, along with a big plate of fresh veggies, raw shrimp and squid and a packet of dry noodles. You make it yourself. Fun experience and some of the freshest most flavorful shrimp I’ve ever had.
Sour Fish Soup
I asked the owner of the restaurant what he recommended and this is was I got. It was sheer will that I ate it. The fish that came in it (as you can see the gray lump of ick) had been cut into sections like you would cut a summer sausage, so you got pieces of spine surrounded by cartilidge, bone, organs, vessels and buried in between a smidge of meat. But the broth was the really special part. You know when you pour off the water that’s in the can with your canned tuna? Well they took that water, made it about three times as strong, then they somehow extracted the sour flavor from Sour Patch Kids and Warheads and added that to it. And then maybe let it sit out for a day or two. I think there were veggies in it to, I can’t remember though, my memory and taste buds were seared with the lingering flavor of the fishy-foulness of the broth.
Fresh Grilled Squid
I had no idea how good squid could be. Super fresh, right off the boat, on to a skewer and over some charcoal — it just melted in your mouth. Makes for some entertaining photos as well.
It’s not just for breakfast… ok, maybe it mostly is because it’s near impossible to find good Pho any other time of day! But we did get some very delicious pho that puts anything I’ve had in the U.S. to shame.
The Jars of Doom
Filled with potent rice liquor and a whole bunch of dead animals – lizards, snakes, starfish, scorpions, birds and more. They are supposed to help your sexual potency. I was feeling pretty confident in that area on that particular day, so I opted out of these. I did try the Honey Rice Whiskey though, mostly because it was offered to us as a gift of appreciation by a local restaurant owner after we had dined with him a few days in a row. It was strong, it burned, it made Jack Honey look good (shout out to Will Jacobus!), but we got it down.
The variety of sauces was awesome. We had at least three different kinds of fish sauce with every meal. We also learned from some locals that took us out that you do not mix and match sauces. Each sauce is meant for a specific dish, get it right or be shunned. The sauces were even better when I started putting them with the right stuff.
This one is particularly sad for me because I had been wanting to try this from the day we got into Vietnam. It sounds so exciting, light, delicious! And a break from the rice, rice noodle, rice cake, rice dumpling, rice noodle of a different size, rice noodle #3, rice diet. It came to the table as a beautiful tangle of translucent, almost iridescent jellyfish pieces on top of fresh greens, sprinkled with peanuts and a bright acidic dressing. I dug in, big piece of jellyfish, the initial flavor was light, almost lacking in any strong flavor, just picking up a little of the dressing… but then it was time to chew. And oh the texture of the jellyfish…
<<shutter, mild gag>>
Each time you bite into a piece it feels EXACTLY like when you bite down on the inside of your cheek really hard, like really hard, and your tooth goes through and breaks the skin. There’s a softness, then a pop, and you break through, and it’s squishy. It’s truly uncanny. It’s disturbing. I kept trying to eat it, thinking “oh I’ll get over that”, nope, no getting over it. To the point that I could almost taste blood because it felt so much like I was biting through my cheek or tongue. I tried smaller pieces. I tried smaller nibbling action. Nothing helped. I’m sad to say I finally, after gagging down every piece I could, gave up and we left most of the jellyfish there. UGH even just writing about it I have goose bumps from the sensation of biting it. Ick ick ick.
Verdict: FAIL! FAIL! FAIL!
Half noodle soup, half salad. All delicious.
Crazy varieties of fruits here that I’ve never seen or heard of. Chom choms were my favorites. Followed by Green Dragon Fruit. Oh and Jackfruit, it tastes just like Juicy Fruit gum – it’s super sweet, and the fruit is gigantic, I heard it can be up to 60 lbs per piece of fruit! We ate our fill of Dragon’s Eyes too, dabbled in Custard Apples (or as they call it here Milk from Mother’s Breast, a bit creepy) and enjoyed the usual tropical suspects like mango, papaya, mandarin oranges, watermelon. And I think I drank coconut water from couple dozen coconuts.
Thịt chó – Dog
Well that’s just another post all together. I’m sorry, Ruger, I swear we didn’t know what we were eating.