Like twisting ivy this place is growing around me and encapsulating my soul. It is a place of extremities from its peaceful nature and subtle flavours to it energetic and entropic stream of motorbikes and its people’s intensity for life. Perambulating around this wonderful city brings new things to take in; new sights, smells, tastes, sounds and sensations. And although this is starting to sound like Lonely Planet, I cannot talk about the excitement that the existence of food brings here without providing a little insight in to the surroundings around that food.
Hanoi has a number of areas, with the heart of the city being centred around Lake Hoan Kiem, a beautiful jade coloured lake (when the sun is out) that is the home to a sacred turtle, one that some locals believe to be hundreds of years old. To the north of the lake is the Old Quarters, the hub of trade in Hanoi, and home to the most incredible street food. As I walk around the Old Quarters it is apparent that every street is home to a particular trade, and the street names indicate such. For example there is a street for silk, one for hardware, sunglasses, shoes, hair, mats, coffee, fruit, noodles, clothing, bags – the list goes on. And on every one of these streets someone is eating or cooking.
One of the discoveries I made earlier in the week was a café with a stunning view over the lake. To enter this café you first have to walk through a purveyors of silk, and then through an antique courtyard before climbing three sets of winding and rickety steps. Once there I had a treat – Vietnamese coffee with egg-white. At first this does not induce a real desire to partake, but having taken the plunge to try this speciality I was taken by this wonderfully whipped sweet meringue like head on the strong and intense Vietnamese coffee.
Having been only mildly impressed with the first Pho I had eaten here in Hanoi, it was time to venture in to the real street food areas of the Old Quarters, where I stumbled upon a typically spit and sawdust eatery; plastic chairs, imbalanced laminate tables, greying ‘white’ tiles and a kitchen that looked as if it had just been excavated from the earth.
Having travelled around Asia before, I have a good feeling for whether a place is safe to eat or not, and although there was a little trepidation, I thought that it was good for us all to eat there. I had pho bo and was quite simply blown away – this was what I had longed for in Hanoi. The simplicity of the dish was married with a harmonious balance of flavour. There seemed to be cassia (seems more readily available here than cinnamon, and gives a more intense flavour), star anise, black pepper, garlic, ginger and onion coming through in the beef based broth. The salt came from fish sauce. The broth had brisket (beef cut from the breast or lower chest), rice noodles and spring onions and was served a side of bean shoots, perilla leaves, Vietnamese mint, sliced red birds-eye chilli, and miniature limes. It felt like eating something very homely that would then burst to life with explosions of herby and spicy fireworks on the palate. Apparently there is another place that serves the ‘best’ pho in Hanoi, but surely this one has to be up there. Hanoians eat pho from 7am and so our Pho sessions are getting earlier and earlier.
A couple of days ago we all ventured to HOM market, an old Hanoi market that as well as a selling a seemingly infinite range of fabrics from around the world is brimming with vegetables, fruit, delicacies, meat and live fish and seafood – my kind of heaven. And given this market is only a 3 minute walk from our Hanoi apartment it’s a great source of fresh ingredients for my cooking exploits. On the last trip there I couldn’t go past the vat of live black tiger prawns, which were just crying to be wok fried with garlic, fish sauce, chilli, bamboo, coriander and served with perilla leaves (a Vietnamese herb from the mint family) and lime; a dish inspired purely by the produce and the classic chilli-mint combination. I can tell you that I have never eaten prawns that fresh; literally 30 minutes from swimming around in the kitchen sink in the apartment they were being served, and the difference in texture and clarity of flavour was immense.