Posts

Indian Bus Ride – Agra to Jaipur

This is a true story and one of many from my travels in India over a decade ago. There is a loose food connection.

The word nightmare by definition is a stressful, anxious or other emotionally painful dream during sleep. Change the night for day and the dream for reality and the definition would have been apt for my first real test as a traveller in India.

I was in Agra, a city 4½ hours by bus south of Delhi and more famously known as the home of the wondrous Taj Mahal and the magnificent Red Fort.

 

Red Fort at Agra

Red Fort at Agra

 

I had spent the last two days there, sightseeing amongst the infinite number of tourists that there seemed to be. Agra, apart from the obvious, had little to offer other than dark, dank hotels, poison laced food (as was reported in the Lonely planet – more perception than fact) and a real knack for squeezing that ever dwindling rupee from one’s back pocket. Based on this, I was ready to head for brighter horizons.

“So, if I arrive at this place tomorrow morning I will catch the bus to Jaipur?”

“Oh yes sir!” was the agent’s reply.

“And how long does the bus take to reach Jaipur?”

“Only five hours sir” was the confident yet decidedly unconvincing reply.

The agent also doubled up as a gem retailer, and I was therefore unsure of where his area of expertise lay – in bus timetables or precious stones? The bus, I was told, departed from the other end of town on Fatehpur Sikri Road. Having only ever spent two days of my whole life in Agra I was in no position to argue the toss. So, with this in mind and an indecipherable ticket in hand I headed back to my hotel in order to pack for the next day’s exciting journey. To Rajahstan, to Jaipur, to the Indian desert…to a calamitous day!

The day had started well; I was up at seven, had taken a cold yet refreshing shower (not by choice), and put on my other set of clean clothes. They were clean in so much that the fume particles from Calcutta’s environmentally friendly oil and diesel works (also known as transport) had left their mark on my Woodland pants and the ‘genuine’ 60 rupee Calvin Hilfiger T-shirt I had bought there. The morning was cool and crisp as I consumed a hearty breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and coffee on the outside porch of the ‘hotel’ I was staying in. My aim was to be at the bus stop by 8.30am. So, at eight o’clock I decided to head out towards the main road to catch an auto-rickshaw. My approximation was that an auto would take about twenty minutes to reach the bus stop. Now, my experience of India to this point was of a continuous flux of auto-rickshaws with drivers desperately vying for your business. Bearing this in mind, then why, when I really needed one, when I would have paid double the reasonable rate for one were there absolutely none in sight – Sod’s Law? I was beginning to think that when, like a shining light from the abyss of darkness I saw one on the road’s horizon and it was coming my way. Five minutes later it was still heading my way, and as the silhouette became more focused a black mop of greased curly hair came into view, then a David Soul type patterned brown shirt, jeans that were more hole than denim and then…a bicycle – No! Not a bicycle rickshaw!

Immediately I knew that this would probably mean a forty-minute hike to the bus stop. By now it was ten past eight and I was beginning to feel decidedly uneasy about the whole situation. I was in a dilemma as to whether to take the cycle rickshaw or chance it that an auto would come by. Given the immense velocity at which the cyclist had reached me from the horizon, waiting for an auto was starting to look the favourite.

“Lubbly jubbly mista, where you go?”

“Ermm, yes, umm to Fatehpur Sikri Road”

“Ohh to catch bus! Ohh lubbly jubbly – I take you mista, 30 rupees”

“How long will it take?” I said, expecting the answer to depict his cycle as one that could travel supersonic.

“15 minutes, lubbly jubbly” was the reply. I was right.

“15 rupees if you put your foot on it”

“Lubbly jubbly, 20 rupees”.

 

Attribution: Marcin Białek - Cycle Rickshaw in India

Attribution: Marcin Białek – Cycle Rickshaw in India

 

The price was eventually settled at fifteen rupees with the condition that we made it before nine o’clock – a.m. that was. As you probably would be aware at this point I was none too confident of catching the bus to Jaipur. In response to this I had started to make alternative plans in my mind for such an eventuality when something hit me. I was immediately distracted from the panic laden thoughts as to whether we would make our destination in time, and hence the possibility of spending another night in Agra. What hit me was how on this Earth did the Indian cyclist, from the midst of nowhere, know the term ‘lubbly jubbly’? For those unaware, there was a BBC comedy series that ran for fifteen years or so based upon two cockney ‘independent traders’ i.e. no box, no receipt. Del Boy the main character would say “lovely jubbly” in a fit of exhilaration if a deal had been successful, or similarly if he was faced with a large English fry-up.

“What is your good country sir?”

“England” I hesitantly replied.

“Ohh, England lubbly jubbly – are you married dear sir?”

“No”

“Ohh no wife, big life, lubbly jubbly – you like cricket?”

“Yes, do you?”

“Ohh cricket lubbly jubbly, Tendulkar lubbly jubbly, Dravid lubbly jubbly…”

I interjected.

“Excuse me, why do you keep saying lovely jubbly?”

“Ohh England lubbly jubbly, Only Fool and Horse lubbly jubbly”

We arrived at 8.50am, lubbly jubbly.

I entered the travel agent’s small office. Inside was an old rickety wooden chair and matching desk, another dubious looking chair adorned in flaked red paint, a heavy grinding fan obviously from the colonial days, and a few randomly scattered papers. It was 8.50am and by the process of elimination and the ingenuity of maths I had calculated a ten-minute wait until the bus arrived. Maybe other travellers would turn up soon I thought.

“Can I help you dear sir?” said the agent from behind his desk. He was a slight man dressed in a faded blue striped cotton shirt and longhi. I showed him my ticket.

“Yes, I’m here to catch the nine o’clock bus to Jaipur – shall I wait here?”

“Ohh dear sir, I’m telling you that the bus leaves at 8-30 but I can get you on another for eleven”.

Now, in situations like this it is very easy to lose ones self-control, especially when you have followed to the letter of the law another person’s instructions and you have consequently been tricked or misinformed. However, in this situation the wrong man would have been accused and whatsmore I was quickly learning that chaos was the Indian way. Start to worry if things look as if they are going right because somewhere something is wrong. I showed the agent my ticket and with a sideways nod and expressionless smile he asked me to take a seat – the red flaky one – and he disappeared outside.

It was now five past nine and apparent that no bus was going to turn up. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky and the day was turning hot and sticky. A cockroach scurried from beneath my chair and diminished into a crevice of the cracked plaster wall. As I sat in daydream I was called in a frantic manner.

“Dear sir, dear sir please come with me!”

He had hailed an auto-rickshaw and advised me that a bus to Jaipur was leaving at ten thirty from another part of town. Hesitantly, I followed him wondering at the back of my mind: where am I going? How much extra am I going to be stung for? And will I ever leave Agra? I only had four months left on my visa! We arrived at yet another agent, but this time there were a number of people seemingly waiting for a bus. A positive sign I thought. A burly man, in stark contrast to the agent I was with, approached us and there followed some Hindi dialogue. The agent showed him my ticket and I was then directed to sit on a concrete ledge and wait for the ten thirty bus to Jaipur. OK, an hour to wait and finally I would head for Jaipur. I could handle that I thought. I asked the agent how much the driver of the auto wanted. Inside I was kicking myself because in my confusion I had forgotten rule number one – always barter and set the price before travelling. I was expecting to be squeezed dry, but surprisingly the agent side nodded, gave a warming smile and then left in the auto. Always be prepared to be surprised.

By now I was in some discomfort from the heat. With me I had my backpack and a smaller rucksack. I did not want to lose my place on the concrete ledge neither did I want to leave my possessions unattended. However, I was at the point of forfeiting one of the two so that I could go and purchase a cold glass bottle of Coke or Sprite. My throat was like a rasp. And then, suddenly, amidst a deluge of black diesel fumes a bus emerged. I looked at my watch and to my surprise it was only ten o’clock. The bus was early! I eagerly picked up my belongings and pushed my way to the luggage hold at the side of the bus. The eagerness was firstly in expectation of leaving Agra, and secondly to avoid the dreaded back seat. Unlike the school days I remember where it was ‘cool’ to be the first to the back seat on a school trip, India turns you full circle so much so that the back seat must be avoided at all costs. This time, unfortunately, there was not even to be a back seat.

“No sir, no sir, no Jaipur, sit down!” screamed the burly Indian as he ran from within the agents office.

The queue of vociferous Indians immediately muted and they all turned and watched me desolately and embarrassingly walk back to the concrete ledge before they all boarded the bus.  So, the bus was not going to Jaipur, and was therefore certainly not early. As I reclaimed my place on the concrete ledge very disheartened I realised that I was alone. All those that had been waiting had gone. A dark cloud of panic once again enveloped me. Maybe there was no bus to Jaipur; maybe there was no Jaipur. How would I contact my family to let them know that I was to be stuck in Agra indefinitely? For months, years, forever. Help!

“Good morning I am Sajid what is your dear name sir?”

Sat next to me was a young Indian man, no more than 18 years of age. He had a dark complexion, a wave of thick black hair and was dressed in leather sandals, faded jeans and a loose cotton shirt.

“Hi, yes, umm I’m Nick”. There was a slight pause “Are you here to catch the bus?” I continued.

He gave a side nod and smiled. I was not yet expert enough to understand whether this meant ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was an infuriating part of the Indian culture, but that was more down to my lack of education then a problem of India’s.

“Yes, my family and I are to travel to Jaipur on the bus that is next”.

Internally my panic transformed into relief and then adulation. It was as if I had been imprisoned and against all the odds had made parole for good behaviour. Eventually Agra was to be just a distant memory.

“Me too!” I replied. The beaming smile on my face must have been apparent to all.

“My family are buying Coca-Cola, would you like a Coca-Cola?”

The adulation was complete. Not only was Jaipur becoming a reality but that deep throated yearning for a cold Coke was to end. Sajid handed to me a cold bottle of Coke and as I took a ten-rupee note from my pocket he gave a side nod and a huge smile. This time I knew that he was indicating ‘no’.

I was introduced to Sajid’s family and was to learn that their dark complexions were native to the Southern regions of India and in particular Kerala. Sajid was the elder of three siblings, the other two being brother and sister. Sajid’s father had brought the family, including aunts and uncles, on a tour of Delhi, Agra, Rajahstan and Gujarat before finally heading back to Kerala. These were the first people I had ever met from the south of India and it amazed me as to how different they were in their looks, mannerisms and attitude to life. Having survived the intense chaos of Northern India’s Delhi and Calcutta, here I was witnessing the calming presence of a family that would have made even the most laid back of people look as if they were on the pulse. My travelling itinerary would now include Kerala.

The bus arrived. It was 11-30 and an hour late. I hadn’t noticed.

The interior of the bus was shabby. What would have once been a white imitation leather trim was now greyish in appearance. The front half of the bus was full, mainly of smartly presented Indian travellers. The men were in black or brown scuffed leather shoes or thongs, wearing matching pants and the now famous cotton shirts. The women on the other hand were adorned in an array of brightly coloured saris accompanied by eye catching gold and silver accessories. The jewellery that they wore was painted with a kaleidoscope of intricately cut gemstones. The ambience on the bus was jovial, made more so as the festival of light, Diwali, had reached a crescendo the previous night. Sajid led me to the rear of the bus. It was the second to last seat, the seat that I did not want to endure for a five-hour journey. Reluctantly I took my place by the window, not wanting to rescind the kindness that had already been shown to me. Fortunately the window could be opened and, therefore, I would be able to dry the sweat on my brow with the ensuing breeze once the journey was underway. At eleven forty five the bus departed and we were on our way to Jaipur!

Agra itself has in recent years had to re-invent itself, especially when all power was lost to Delhi. It has funnelled a proportion of the income from tourists into a smoggy industrial development. Covering an area of approximately 25 square kilometres it is much smaller in size than say Delhi or Calcutta. However, when I was told that it was only “five hours sir” to Jaipur I was beginning to wonder whether the two hours it took to get out of this harsh and tightly knit city was included or not. Even the softly spoken words of Sajid could not distract me from the frustration of still being in Agra. The acrid diesel fumes and sweltering heat was beginning to take its toll on my now fragile body. My only comfort was a bottle of tepid water and the fact that the bus was not full to the rafters. At least there were no goats or chickens on there, yet. I continued to converse with Sajid. He was curious to know in an excited way how many rupees equivalent I was earning in England before I left to travel. This was something I felt uncomfortable in sharing. Firstly, it was all relative. And secondly, it would have been far greater than any of these poor people could have earned in India. I did work it out in the quiet of my mind and estimated that after tax I would have earned 1.4million rupees in a year. Sajid told me that he earned 350 rupees per month. Even though I was prepared for an answer like that it still hit me hard. However, in the same instance it seemed wholly irrelevant. Why? Because although I was struggling with the current situation of the bus journey I had started to feel free inside. My travels through India and Nepal had somehow tossed aside the daily concerns of money and possessions and I was now aware that living each day to the full was paramount.

I could sense that we were now reaching the outskirts of Agra and ready to make some serious inroads into the highway to Jaipur. Again, the bus stopped, surely for the last time in Agra? Before this stop there were two empty seats on the opposite side of the aisle to Sajid and me, and the whole length of the back seat. Sajid’s family was located in the midst of the bus. A young couple hopped aboard, dressed in similar attire to the majority of the travellers on the bus. Obviously from a mid-caste, if such a phrase exists. Following the couple were a family that looked as if they were from the lower echelons of Indian society. The couple seated themselves, as expected, in the two empty seats and the family to the back. Sajid was still chatting away, but my attention had now focused on the family on the back seat.

There were four men, one of which looked to be a grandfather or older uncle, accompanied by two women in tatty looking saris and also two children. One of the children was approximately six years old, a boy. He wore a long white tunic and thongs but what really struck me though were the thick black charcoal highlights around his eyes. During Diwali prayers are said to the image Devi, the mother goddess. From the images that I had previously seen it was apparent that the boy had been celebrating Devi’s fanatic popularity as part of the previous night’s celebration. It is said that Devi adopts two forms; Durga her benevolent form and Kali, the one to be dreaded. I was overcome with uneasiness as to how sinister this probably innocent little boy looked. I could see why Indian people succumb to such fear and awe regarding these powerful images. In contrast the younger child, who I assumed to be the boys little sister, was a very cute looking little Indian girl.

 

Ok, not quite as bad as this!

Attribution: Biswarup Ganguly – Ok, not quite as bad as this!

 

I could feel that the bus was gathering speed and this meant one thing; we were eventually heading for Jaipur. At last the breeze began to fill the bus, the tepid water was beginning to taste sweet, and the industrial Indian architecture was being replaced with greenery and wooden shacks. India, again, was a wonderful place to travel in. I reclined my seat slightly, closed my eyes and started to dream of horizons new. I took in a deep breath of air. And then, like a bullet in the chest it hit me. My nostrils started to flare and contort. A pang of nausea overcame me. The rancid and putrid odours shook the depth of my being. The nightmares that I had previously had about the back seat and Indian buses had suddenly emerged as reality – somebody was throwing up. And it was Devi’s little follower!

I turned to Sajid and already he was covering his nose and mouth with a shabby looking handkerchief. I turned backwards to peer through the gap between the back of our seats. I could see the little boy retching into his father’s handkerchief. He had already been de-robed down to a pair of white underpants. My whole body began to convulse so I quickly faced forwards and then, with the risk of being hit by oncoming traffic, I stuck my head out of the window. A minute’s respite. Or so I thought. As I looked backward one of the women had her head out of the window and was regurgitating breakfast. I pulled my head back in and noticed that at the opposite end of the back seat the other woman was throwing up…and then the little girl was. It was almost orchestrated. I covered my face with the front neck rim of my T-shirt as my nose hunted for the scent of the deodorant that I was wearing. Although this by now was unpleasant in its own right it seemed as refreshing as fields of lavender in comparison. Through all this commotion the four men on the back seat remained calm, chatty and were still smiling, almost oblivious to what was happening. The extent of their worries was a mop here and a wipe there. In contrast, I thought that I was going to die. Once more I turned to Sajid. He had removed his handkerchief and was laid back in his seat, eyes closed, gently sleeping. I had no escape.

Ten minutes or so later, the vomiting stopped and those fetid odours began to dissipate. I convinced myself to relax. Slowly, I began to return to the contented soul that I had been. Twenty minutes later the retching once again started and this was promptly followed by the sweet smelling hedonics. This time it was just the little boy and the same sequence of events would happen until the bus stopped four and a half hours after leaving the agent’s office in Agra. Completely exhausted by the day so far I asked the driver as we alighted from the bus how far we had to go before reaching Jaipur. In broken English he replied. In broken English he broke my heart “We half way sir!”

I was in the middle of nowhere bar a few shacks and wandering cows, and of course people. There are people wherever you go in India. The short of it was I had to continue with the journey. The bus had stopped outside what would be India’s equivalent of a roadside café. It consisted of a large suspended tarpaulin under which were a series of flimsy looking wooden tables supporting metal trays of food, metal utensils and jugs of water. Behind each table stood two or three servers each dressed in the hygienic and customary uniform of vest, shorts and thongs. Sajid and his family had seated themselves at a long table with attached benches. I was invited to join them. Sajid’s father welcomed me with an open gesture, and even though not hungry I thought that out of courtesy I would join them. As a traveller in India you have to be very careful as to where and what you eat. As a consequence I had avoided any outside eateries in favour of classier looking restaurants. In Calcutta I had seen what a sick backpacker looked like and believe me it was not a pretty sight. Couple this with my already fragile stomach and disposition I was in no mood to be eating. Imagine then, to my horror, when put before me was a metal plate piled high with rice, dhal (lentil soup), watery curry, pickles and greasy roti bread. What made it worse was that the whole family had stopped talking, had turned towards me and was staring at me with expectant smiles. It felt as if the whole world had stopped. I had visions of a king waiting for the taster to give the approval that the food was worthy of consumption. In reality this was genuine Indian kindness and friendship. I had to brace myself and take a mouthful. If I were to die from parasitic ridden food then at least it would have been in respect to those that had shown me endearing kindness. I clenched the muscles in my stomach. With my right hand I scooped a ball of cold rice, dipped it into the dhal and curry and moved it towards my mouth. Their eyes were now even more transfixed. I could feel my throat congealing. I opened my mouth and with a push of the thumb the rice mixture left my fingertips and landed on my tongue. I chewed and then swallowed. With a nervous smile I waited for the food to be thrown back on to the table. Instead, my body craved for more. In fact, I even thought that it tasted good. I repeated the process and realised that this food was great. My energy levels started to increase and my stomach was saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I hadn’t even noticed that Sajid’s family’s eyes were no longer on me. They had side nodded in approval and continued on with their meal. Even the retching that was still emanating from the bus could not dissuade me from finishing my meal. Another one of those surprises. Afterwards I pulled a few rupees from my pocket and Sajid’s father looked at me and said “No! We are your friends!”

The bus eventually arrived in Jaipur at 7-30pm, eight hours after departing from Agra. The three and a half hours after the meal stop seemed to fly past. The poor little boy did not stop retching for the whole journey and in the end I was feeling sympathetic rather than thinking of my own needs. India does that to you. At one point during the journey I listened to my personal CD player, which eventually ended up being listened to by the sick boy’s father. As he listened he seemed mesmerised by the dance music and wore a smile that would have extended from Mumbai to Chennai. At the journey’s end I said farewell to Sajid and his family. I felt as if I had known them for many years and felt quite emotional as we went our separate ways. They will probably never know the comfort that they brought to me that day. Sajid’s final words were:

“Hopefully we see you in Kerala my friend”

“Lubbly jubbly” I replied.

Chocolate Mousse

Introduction:

Creative writing is all about connecting dots. Creative cooking is all about connecting dots. The dots are the experiences and the things we learn. And the dots may be light years apart in relevance to each other, initially at least. But as one thinks outside of the proverbial box and starts to see rare but valid commonalities the dots suddenly start connecting with each other. Very much like flavour pairings; take white chocolate and caviar, salmon and liquorice, banana and parsley, and oyster and passion fruit to name a few . On the surface very different and unlikely pairings, but as one delves deeper we see commonalities in chemical components with each that gives reason, both in theory and practice, as to why some very unlikely food pairings work together. This is an area I will explore more, but for today I am desperately trying to connect those dots to create a story about chocolate mousse.

OK, I don’t have any epiphany in my life where chocolate has been life-changing. Chocolate to me has always been a commodity that has been available when required; it has never been a friend to go to when in need. Maybe because I’m a bloke I don’t have this affinity with chocolate, and that could be down to the chemicals contained within, but regardless I enjoy eating it from time to time.

I have a travel memory with chocolate, a pretty hairy one too. It was in the depths of the steamy backwaters of Kerala in South India; the year was 1999, British colonialism was well past its sell by date on this wonderful land, but evidence of its existence was still abound in the buildings, and in particular the old style English journalistic reporting that could be read in the Hindustan Times.

We had embarked on an eight hour cruise, and as the boat ambled along the inland veins of rivers I sat with legs dangling over the side, mulling on a glass of sweet Indian rum and dragging on a Gold Flake, whilst watching the endless passing of palm trees, fishing rigs, and children splashing and screeching playfully under the midday sun.

At noon we disembarked for lunch, which presented itself as fried fish, sambals, lentil curries and coconut rice presented on a green and luscious banana leaf.

After a refreshing and cleansing tea after lunch, I then ambled around the local village, twenty minutes before being due to re-embark to finish the boat cruise. I stumbled across a purveyor of fine chocolate bars and procured one as a tasty snack. Yes, chocolate would finish off the lunch majestically. Like Charlie and his Wonka bar I opened the packaging in expectation. All seemed in fine shape and I proceeded thus to take a bite. Next I remember running twenty metres to a side grass verge and removing, with cacophany, the aforementioned chocolate. On inspecting the inside of that fine chocolate bar I found a colony of ants. Being rather disgruntled I revisited that fine purveyor and requested another bar – amazingly I was still in the mood for chocolate. This is when the trouble started. It was apparent that the ants had nothing to do with him, which was the antithesis of my view point. After verbally toing and froing that purveyor started to become quite aggressive, which was a little like a red rag to a bull, and therefore I reciprocated. Before we knew it a full blazing altercation was in swing, and unbeknownst to me the total population of 300 villagers had surrounded us and were getting real value for money. The local police arrived and decided to stop this cavalcade of entertainment before it descended into something a little more serious. I threw the chocolate covered ants down in disgust as I was gently escorted to the awaiting boat. The look on the faces of those fellow travellers as I arrived was priceless. The cruise continued, where the rum continued to flow and the story was told, retold and then embellished; my story of chocolate.

Back to present day and the chocolate dots have been linked, maybe not in the most appetising of manners, but such is the power of chocolate that it has never detracted me from eating it since. So why chocolate mousse? It was my wife’s birthday yesterday and I said that anything she wanted me to make I would. Her request was chocolate mousse, because to her it had memories; good memories of childhood. The dots again being connected (and not an ant in sight).

 

Serves: 4-6   |   Preparation:  20-30 minutes   |   Cooking: 4 hours setting time

 

Ingredients:

150g Dark couverture chocolate | My preference here is 70% cocoa solids. Great chocolate is a must.
15g Butter | I use French Lescure butter, but any good quality butter will be fine.
1 large Egg | Beaten. Free range.
1 tbsp. Calvados | Adds a great subtle apple brandy note which for me just lifts this mousse to a more decadent level.
From 2 large eggs Egg whites | Free range.
45g Castor sugar |
250g Single cream (whipping) | Single cream contains about 35% milk fat.

 

 

How To:

Over a pan of simmering water place a metallic or glass bowl ensuring that the bowl does not touch the water. Break up the chocolate in to small pieces and add to the bowl. Let the chocolate soften before stirring.

When completely melted add the butter and stir into the chocolate until melted. Remove the bowl from the pan of water and allow to cool for a few minutes. Now add the beaten egg and Calvados and whisk until smooth.

Now whisk the egg whites, whilst gradually adding the sugar. The whites need to be whisked until they become ‘peaky’ i.e. nice and firm. We want to get them nicely aerated as this is what will give the mousse its lovely light texture.

Once the egg whites are done add about one third of them to the chocolate mixture and whisk. This is a classic technique that loosens the mixture so it’s then easy to do the next bit. Now add the rest of the egg whites to the chocolate and gently fold until the ‘mousse’ is a consistent colour. Try and treat this with kid gloves as it’s really important to maintain the airy nature of the egg whites.

Whip the cream until ‘peaky’. Now add it to the chocolate mixture, again gently folding until the ‘mousse’ is consistent in appearance and texture. Spoon the mix into your desired containers – I use glasses – and cover with cling film. Put the mousse in the fridge for 4 hours or more to set. Bon appetite!

Thai Green Curry Paste

The light penetrated the tiny apertures, known to me as eyes. Sensations began to return to my toes, feet, legs, body, head… and brain. The surroundings became focused in contrast to the Gaussian blur from a few hours previous. The land I was in was an unknown, an eastern paradise that had magnetised this wet behind the ears traveller. For 48 hours I had been consumed by this city; but what happened? Ten years before movies with a group of blokes forgetting themselves in Vegas and Bangkok were in vogue, this happened:

It started off with a green curry. The highest expectation I had of this land was the promise of the magical chicken green curry, a dish that I first experienced at an establishment next door to the Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. When I say next door it was opposite Windsor Castle, the Thai Castle as it was known. But now I was in Khao San Road and the dish was exquisite, as was the Singha beer, which I believe with the single malt whisky that my newly found Swedish travelling partner had procured was the start of 48 hours in Bangkok.

After socialising with the world’s travelling fraternity in this most famous of backpacking roads my Swedish friend and I were accosted by the most painfully boring Englishman (this is an anomaly, please believe me) that caused us to decide to either a) go back to the ‘hotel’ and call it a night, or b) carry on. There wouldn’t be much story if I told you that we chose ‘a’, so ‘b’ it was. Wouldn’t it be cool to grab a tuk-tuk at 3am in the morning and tour Bangkok? With Chang beer in tow, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and for two hours had the most incredible guided tour – down back alleys, traversing roads of neon lights, past beautifully lit temples and pagodas; a city that never seemed to sleep.

On our return to Khao San two hours later we seamlessly joined back with the party until day broke. Then it was straight to breakfast were we met a fantastic American dude who had just spent 5 years doing time in a high security penitentiary, part of which he was cooking for some mafia boss. You couldn’t write about it could you?

We spent the rest of the 48 hours with this guy which from the hazy recollections involved playing cards with motorcyclists; walking through the back door of some building down a back alley only to end up walking through the kitchen of a major hotel restaurant; the Englishman, the Swede and the American whistling some anthem whilst casually smiling at the head chef and giving an ‘a-ok’ to the presentation; arm wrestling with locals for baht, playing darts with some Norwegians, drinking local whisky with some dodgy dudes from somewhere in the world, boating down the river with some Danes, eating street food ranging from bugs (come on you have to try it once) to coconut and banana fritters, and eventually arriving back at the hotel 48 hours later; stupefied, exhausted, exhilarated and slightly worse for wear.

Of all that I did in those wonderful times travelling the memories of the food has always stuck with me, and in particular that Thai green curry has. I can’t promise you 48 hours in Bangkok but what I can promise is that my version of Thai green curry paste has been through as many adventures to arrive at its present form, and I am sure you’ll love it. By the way I didn’t end up with a Mike Tyson tattoo or a missing tooth.

 

Serves: 8 Servings   |   Preparation:  20-30 minutes   |   Cooking: 2-3 minutes

 

Ingredients:

3 Stalks  Lemongrass | Use the heart only. Remove the outer layer and then finely chop the white part.
6 Green Chilli | Use chillies with medium heat. Use 3 seeded and 3 deseeded. Finely chop.
2 cloves Garlic | Peeled and sliced.
40g (when peeled) Galangal | Peeled and chopped.
1 bunch Coriander plus roots | Clean the roots and finely chop. Chop the leaves.
½ tbsp. Cumin seeds | Toast in a hot pan until fragrant and then grind.
1 tbsp. Coriander seeds | Toast in a hot pan until fragrant and then grind.
½ tsp. Black peppercorns | Toast in a hot pan until fragrant and then grind.
1 lime Lime zest | Grated.
1 lime Lime juice | Use the same lime that was zested (above).
20g Shrimp paste (belacan) | Wrap in foil and heat under a hot grill for about 2 minutes. Unwrap from the oil.
3 tbsp. Nam pla (fish sauce) |  
50g Asian shallots | Finely chopped. Asian shallots have a purplish skin.
1 large Kaffir lime leaf | Or two small. Remove the central vein and finely chop.
2 tbsp. Peanut oil |

 

 

How To:

Prepare the ingredients as per their relevant notes. Put all ingredients in to a food processor and blitz until smooth. I find that a food processor doesn’t produce a paste as smooth as I like, so after processing I then blitz the paste with a hand blender, which really does the job quite superbly.

Another way is to put all the ingredients in a large mortar and pestle and to pound and then grind. This takes a bit of muscle power and energy, but the final paste is excellent.

You can store this in sterilised jars in the fridge for a few weeks. For a curry for four people I usually use half of the total amount of curry paste produced in this recipe.

Notes:

  • I will post recipes using this paste in future blogs.

Vietnam – The Conclude

Physically I am back in Melbourne. The rest of me is still twisting and turning, smelling and eating, listening and chatting, and sipping Vietnamese ca phe at my local.

 

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

 

Hanoi has been an eye opening time that has left me both saddened and inspired. I have loved the simplicity and camaraderie of the Hanoians, and therefore have returned to the ‘routine’ of life, saddened. However, having removed myself from routine and having had the honour and pleasure to ‘live’ in such an exhilarating environment for a month has left me feeling inspired and with a fire in my belly to achieve anything I desire, especially with reference to cooking.

I hold true to what I said in a previous post and that is you can only truly experience cooking Vietnamese when you have cooked in Vietnam. I will also say that you have only truly eaten Vietnamese when you have eaten it in Vietnam.

 

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

 

In Melbourne there is an area called Little Vietnam, or Little Saigon. Before I went to Hanoi I would rave about the food here – real Vietnamese food. Recently there was a festival there celebrating the lunar New Year; it was just after we had arrived back in Melbourne. Feeling ‘home’ sick for Hanoi we were in a frenzy to get down there and drown ourselves in pho. But this time it was different. Don’t get me wrong it was still good, but it just wasn’t a patch on those grubby little street stalls in the Old Quarters. It was almost as if it had been commercialised to suit a broader palate.

I am a great lover of the Melbourne food scene, and the ingredients you can get here are fantastic, so this is no blight on Melbourne, or indeed Little Saigon. It’s just that I have experienced how simple food can be simply perfect if it is made perfectly. This is something I hope that I will carry forward in my culinary adventure, wherever it takes me.

Over the next few weeks I will be testing out recipes gleaned from various sources in Hanoi, and will be putting them on this blog.

When I travelled in India, which was one of the most inspirational periods of my life, there was a saying that went:

Journeys are forever. People come and go,

And the eternal fascination of India endures.

And when it’s difficult to say goodbye,

India has a popular saying that translates to mean

“I go, so I may return”.

…and this is my ‘conclude’ dedicated to Vietnam.

 

Beautiful Sapa

Beautiful Sapa

Vietnam – The best Pho in Hanoi is…

…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:

1)      For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.

2)      The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).

Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked.  The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.

 

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

 

Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.

 

Pho Ga - Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga – Chicken Noodle Soup

 

3)      The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.

4)      Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.

I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).

We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.

We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.

We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.

But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.

I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.

 

Number 10 -  Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

Number 10 – Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

 

As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’

Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.

 

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

 

The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.

Vietnam – Sing for your Sapa

I was talking to some other traveller about taking a cook class in Sapa, and she replied that she cooked Vietnamese already as she had two Vietnamese cookbooks back at home. I thought about this and retorted that I don’t believe anybody has ever cooked Vietnamese until they have cooked it in Vietnam. I likened it to learning a language. You can learn a language from a teacher or textbook, but it is not until you speak to people in their native language, usually in the country of origin of the language you are learning, that you can truly speak the language. Why? Because most of language is about culture – something you cannot pick up through study but by practical application. And so I told the traveller that I believed that cooking was the same – there is a culture about it, as well as the variations in availability and quality of ingredients. With this is mind, and given that I already have two Vietnamese cookbooks thus making me a Vietnamese chef, it was time to take a cooking class, and Sapa was the perfect place to do it. The traveller I was talking to also decided she was going to take a class before leaving Sapa!

The place that offered the cooking courses was a hotel/ café (Sapa Rooms) in the main drag of Sapa, 30 metres away from the food market. The inside was best described as contemporary hippie, and at the end of a long wooden table was a feisty but personable and well-dressed Vietnamese girl – with an Apple Mac, bookkeeping ledgers, a large diary and a credit card reader – a very good set-up for a remote hill station in north-west Vietnam. The cooking classes were for a minimum of two people, and as this is winter in Vietnam, there were no other takers, so my wife and I decided to do the cooking course together, with kids in tow.

 

Road Coming in to Sapa

Road Coming in to Sapa

 

We arrived early next morning at Sapa Rooms, and met Cường, the chef who was to be our guide and mentor for the day. He was a young man in his early twenties from a town called Haiphong (a sea port), who had studied to be a chef at the famous KOTO (Know One Teach One) restaurant school in Hanoi – KOTO was set up by its founder Jimmy Pham, whose mission was, and is, to train disadvantaged kids and street kids in areas of hospitality in order to give them a chance to have a career and live their dreams. It’s a similar concept to Jamie Oliver’s 15 restaurants. Cường had moved around in chef jobs since graduating from KOTO and had ended up in Sapa. His dream is to work as a chef in Dubai.

Our first port of call was the market where Cường showed us around and answered any culinary questions we had. It was a real education to understand what the different herbs and the green leaf vegetables were and how they formed a major part of life for the residents of Sapa and more importantly to the nearby hill tribes of the region. He pointed out some green tea, something I had only ever seen in its dried form, and bought a bunch and said “I will make you some later”.  The market at Sapa is fairly compact, but it offers a wonderful range of local produce: from oranges, sour apples, mangosteens, rambutan, strawberries, mangoes and green papaya to green tea, wood-ear mushrooms, corn, a variety of green leaves and lettuce, perilla leaves, Vietnamese mint, garlic chives, bean shoots, mung beans, coriander and Asian basil.

 

Produce at Sapa Market

Produce at Sapa Market

 

Rambutan in Sapa Market

Rambutan at Sapa Market

 

Greens at Sapa Market

Greens at Sapa Market

 

Mushrooms at Sapa Market

Mushrooms at Sapa Market

 

Fresh Fruit at Sapa Market

Fresh Fruit at Sapa Market

 

Then there are the varieties of rice such as sticky rice, wild red rice and the common local long grain rice, dried mushrooms, buffalo meat, shrimp, beans and pulses, and cuttlefish (which was probably the only non-local product).

 

Dried Shrimp at Sapa Market

Dried Shrimp at Sapa Market

 

Dried Buffalo Hanging at Sapa Market

Dried Buffalo Hanging at Sapa Market

 

Chickens on Display at Sapa Market

Chickens on Display at Sapa Market

 

Finally, we went through the meat market where laid out on huge wooden tables was buffalo, wild pig and cow(beef) meat. In fact every part of each animal was laid out on the tables. On another table there was large container of plucked chickens, all with their feet in the air, including the legendary blue chicken – with its blue feet and legs.

On the final table was the most confronting; dog meat, including the skinned head, with its gnashers(teeth) showing. Although I am not in any hurry to try dog meat I fully appreciate, having been in Hanoi for nearly a month, the importance end even prestige that it has in northern Vietnamese culture. These dogs, just like cattle, are bred specifically for consumption and so in that sense are clean and hygienic.

After such an insightful visit around the market, the next stop was 7km from Sapa, down in the valley, to a mountain retreat for the cooking lesson. This particular day was quite chilly and when we arrived we realised that we were cooking outdoors. To be honest it was a beautifully constructed wooden shelter, complete with kitchen and portable coal fires. For all those famous chefs that have done their on location cooking in far and exotic places, I am sure that very few would have had such a peaceful, picturesque and ‘fresh’ environment like this to cook in. As we looked out we could see, through the mist, the stepped rice fields wending their way in to the valley. Simply put it was stunning.

View of Rice Fields from Sapa Cooking Class

View of Rice Fields from Sapa Cooking Class

 

So what were we going to cook? The menu was simple, but the balance of flavours and wonderful local produce made it very special: rice paper rolls with chicken and shrimp; green papaya salad; chicken fried with lemongrass and chilli; and finally for desert, sweet potato and tapioca with sweet coconut chips.

 

Fresh Ingredients for Sapa Cooking Class

Fresh Ingredients for Sapa Cooking Class

 

Spices and Sauces for Sapa Cooking Class

Spices and Sauces for Sapa Cooking Class

 

I will put the recipes on here, so won’t go into the details of each dish in this post, but suffice to say that Cường took us through the dishes with simplicity and precision, explaining what each ingredient was and how it was contributing to the dish.

Our lunch was what we had cooked/ prepared. Vietnamese, like a lot of South East Asian food, is about the balance between salt (fish sauce or soy sauce), sweet (refined sugar or palm sugar), and sour (rice vinegar and citrus fruit juice such as lime).  So from the dipping sauce for the spring rolls to the salad dressing for the papaya salad I had never had such a wonderful balance of flavours; flavours that were enhanced with the freshness and intensity from the likes of the pungent garlic, the tart mango and papaya and, in the salad, the quite incredible dried beef which had a wonderful sweetness to it.

 

Spring Rolls in Sapa Cooking Class

Spring Rolls in Sapa Cooking Class

 

Spring Rolls and Green Papaya Salad from Sapa Cooking Class

Spring Rolls and Green Papaya Salad from Sapa Cooking Class

The fried chicken dish exuded the majestic flavour and smell of lemongrass with that impish kick of chilli. Finally, the sweet potato desert, that only worked when you ate it with the coconut chips, finished off a memorable experience. And of course we were treated to the fresh green tea, which seemed to have a digestive power about it, as well as it cleaning the palate.

After the meal we sat for an hour on a very cold day around hot coals warming our hands and feet, and reflected on a perfect day, whilst looking out on perfect country.

Panoramic View from Sapa Cooking Class

Panoramic View from Sapa Cooking Class

Vietnam – In Sapa

We disembarked from the overnight train in Lao Cai, after a 9 hour overnight, truly Vietnamese, truly bumpy, truly noisy but truly exciting journey. It was nonetheless an incredible experience travelling through the North Vietnamese country in the dead of night. The children slept for 8 of the 9 hours. My wife and I sat mesmerised looking out of the window picking out silhouettes of shacks, hills, trees, rivers and small villages. Ever so often we would pass a tarpaulin propped up with sticks under which people would be sat around a fire at the side of the track. A far cry from downtown Melbourne.

It was 5.30am and wearily in the cold morning air we grabbed our backpacks and found our minibus amongst the hustle and bustle of the melting point of global travellers, hotel operators, taxi drivers, playing card sales ladies, hot chestnut purveyors, Lao Cai locals and government officials. The next part of the journey was a 35km passage to Sapa, along an ever climbing, curvaceous and undulating road, which involved being thrown left, right, up and down for over an hour. We hoped Sapa would be worth it.What seemed like a lifetime soon ended and we were driving through a built up and bustling town literally carved into the side of a mountain.

It is quite amazing to think that this hill station had been built by the French in 1922, but had been inhabited many, many years before by the tribes’ people of Northern Vietnam. Here we were in 2013 parked outside our hotel.

 

The Train to Lao Cai

The Train to Lao Cai

 

Was Sapa worth it? If I had travelled this journey only for one view of this earthly wonder then it would have been more than worth it. As we dumped our backpacks in our room and then stepped outside, the cold mist had lifted and we were presented with the most breathtaking panorama imaginable, which included on our doorstep mount Fansipan – the highest point in Vietnam.

 

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

Panorama of Mount Fansipan

 

From our vantage point we could also see the bustling market place only 200 metres away and of course for me the most important aspect of that was the array of fruit, green leaves, herbs, meat, fish and noodles I could see. I was itching just to be let loose in Sapa, to smell, see and consume.

Our hotel, Cat Cat View, overlooked a village, named Cat Cat, 3 km away. We had heard reports before arriving in Sapa that the weather was cold and very misty and therefore visibility was low. On our arrival the mist had lifted the sun had broken through and all of a sudden there was a mass of blue sky. This meant we could clearly see Cat Cat and the incredible giant steps that cascaded down the hill sides; the rice fields. You could also see banana plants, paddocks of lettuce, greens and herbs, and roaming animals such as ducks, roosters, wild pigs and buffalo – a truly self-sufficient environment.

 

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

The Rice Fields in Sapa near Cat Cat

 

By now it was about 7.30 and with a ravenous family in tow breakfast was beckoning, so we ate breakfast at the hotel with other travellers that were staying there. The first thing that struck me on the menu, which I am afraid to say was very un-Vietnamese, was a full English breakfast. After the journey we had just had I chose this over the Pho. The idea for the ‘English’ breakfast on the menu became apparent when we met an English chap in the restaurant. He was married to the Vietnamese hotel owner and had a great story of how he arrived in Vietnam.

He was a teacher, teaching in Southern England when he came out to Vietnam as a traveller and on arrival in Sapa did some volunteer teaching in the local school. It was here that he met his sweetheart, but after his visa expired he had to return to England. Realising that the long distance relationship could not work, and being tired of the same routine in England, he tried to find a way to move closer to Vietnam. He managed to secure a teaching post in Hong Kong, which although not ideal, meant he could be closer to his loved one. He spent some time commuting between Hong Kong and Sapa, which over time was draining. A decision had to be made as even though they loved each other very much the distance between Honk Kong and Sapa was still too much. His loved one was running the hotel in Sapa, and as it was (and still is) a family business, it was just not possible for her to move. As fortune would have it a teaching post opened up in Hanoi at an international school and so he was able to move to Vietnam, with the commute now an overnight process. And this is where they are right now. He manages to go to Sapa every month or two, which is still not ideal as he now has a young daughter in Sapa who misses him terribly when he’s not there, but I am sure in the very near future the family will all be together permanently.

Back to the breakfast – it was great. Imagine, it consisted of wild pork (bacon) grown and cured in Sapa, duck eggs, locally grown tomato and cucumber, freshly baked French bread, a frankfurter-like sausage which we have seen lots of around Hanoi, and fried potatoes. This was a full ‘Vietnamese’ not ‘English’.

 

Vietnam – 10 Must Eat Street Food Experiences

As I walk around Hanoi there is always somebody cooking or eating; breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and more often than not in between. Within every 10 or 15 metres there is some degree of socialising around food; whether co-workers, friends, family or strangers, food induces a camaraderie I have not seen in Australia or England.

 

Ladies Cooking Bun Cha on a Hanoi Street Corner

Ladies Cooking Bun Cha on a Hanoi Street Corner

 

Even on a satisfyingly full belly I walk through a balloon of smoke that has wafted in to my path and the appetite-inducing aroma that I now know as bún chả – char-grilled pork patties – draws me closer. It’s just one of the incredible street food experiences in Hanoi.

Finding specific street food stalls can be quite tricky though as, in particular the Old Quarter, Hanoi is a rabbit warren of roads, little alleyways and hidden away eateries that sometimes look so basic that you can walk straight past them without knowing. Having 4 weeks here gives us plenty of time to discover. However, having walked up and down the same stretch of road trying to find a particular stall I have gone back to our old friend the Lonely Planet, in which there is listed the top 10 street food experiences, each one a different take on the Hanoi food experience. What I will do is list the places as we try them out, and try to convey how brilliant and tasty they were through the vehicle of this blog – which to be honest is going to be a near impossible task. Of course, our time here is also about discovery, so interspersed in the 10 will probably be 10s more places that have, like sirens, drawn us to their charm.

 

Number 1 - Xoi Yen

Number 1 – Xoi Yen

 

The first of the listed ten we tried was in the Old Quarter called Xoi Yen. The four of us weaved and wended our way up some tight spiral steps to the second floor, in which we were plonked down in a busy open room looking out over the street, on chairs that were barely big enough for our five year old daughter. We spent 5 minutes trying to decipher the menu in Vietnamese, and when a chirpy waitress came to serve, we attempted with our best charades to try and convey what we wanted, using our neighbours’ meals as reference and the very little Vietnamese we knew. It was after 5 minutes the waitress politely smiled, and then gave us a menu in English. The speciality here is sticky rice (glutinous rice as it is also known as) which is topped with maize that has a mashed potato like consistency.

 

Chinese Sausage on Sticky Rice

Chinese Sausage on Sticky Rice

 

On top of this we had finely sliced sweet Chinese sausage and a real Hanoi classic, thinly sliced chả lụa – a pork terrine that is incredibly smooth and I think slightly salted with fish sauce. We left with enormous smiles on our faces – it really felt like we had participated and consumed a real part of Northern Vietnam.

The second one we tried was today, a stone throw away from an incredibly Gothic looking and almost intimidating cathedral, St Jospeh’s.

 

St Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi

St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi

 

Around the corner, nestled under a banyan tree was Banh Goi, an eatery very typical of Hanoi. The speciality here was deep-fried food and we had two varieties; a fried sweet cake, bánh rán ngọt, and sea crab spring rolls, nem cua bể.

 

Number 2 - Banh Goi

Number 2 – Banh Goi

 

The sweet cakes were a real treat, probably Hanoi’s equivalent to doughnuts, but containing a sweet paste and rolled in sesame seeds. After some research, which is quite amusing when the researcher is using one language and the source of the research is using another, I found that the paste is made from chickpea, possibly mung bean, coconut and sugar. I could be wrong though.

The sea crab spring rolls were the best spring rolls we have had in Hanoi, and we have had a few believe me. The delicate crispiness of the rice paper skin with the unctuous crab, vermicelli and vegetable filling, all deep fried to add calories and flavour, was the food highlight of the day.

 

 

Can’t wait to do the next eight. Final Eight can now be seen here.

Vietnam – On the Way

Most food has a story around it. It may be a very small story indeed, but nevertheless it is a story. I have given the story about why I cook in the Rolling the Culinary Ball page, but mostly the recipes I write on here have a story. In similar fashion there will be lots of story around our sojourn to Hanoi, mostly about food, but I’ll throw in some random stuff as well. Like now. Today at the most comfortable times of 1am, we left Melbourne for Singapore, and for my young 4 year old daughter Lyla (who’s nearly 5 I keep being reminded) this was her first ever flight. Kalam my 7 year old son is a seasoned traveller having breezed through the long-haul flight to England last year, but Lyla was an enigma. Would there be panic, tears, giggles, fear, or the most natural tendency for my kids, impatience for the next feed. I am writing this from Changi as we wait for the connecting flight to Hanoi, and I can say that she giggled as the plane sped down the runway, giggled even more when the plane took off and then said ‘I’m hungry’. And that in a nutshell was pretty much it; it was as if she had done this many times before. And that was my ‘very small story indeed’.

We are now very ‘up’ for Hanoi, arriving at midday later today. Just another three hours on the plane and we will be in this amazing city, which is regarded as the cultural, and probably food, capital of Vietnam.  I think it will be settle in to the apartment, catch up on sleep and then go Pho Bo hunting.