Tourists at a local eatery
Tourists at a local eatery

Hungry in Hanoi

The French left a profound impact on the country’s cuisine, particularly its thriving coffee culture.

Colonialism has indeed earned a bad name, but it had a good side, too; fusion influences that enriched cultures. For example, since 1888 French flavours of Vietnam have been on the menu of La Maison, the first restaurant to open in Central Vietnam. Posh food aside, a food tour in Hanoi is where the action is. Weave in and out of the Old Quarter’s narrow streets tasting bun ca (fish noodle soup), fish rolls, steamed rice pancake rolls and sticky rice doughnuts. Talk of pho, the national dish made with flat rice noodles in a meat-based broth of thin cuts of meat and plenty of fresh herbs, and Hanoi’s Old Quarter is pho heaven. The French left a profound impact on the country’s cuisine, particularly its thriving coffee culture. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is made in a drip filter called phin (similar to the South Indian filter coffeemaker). Try the suachua ca phe—a creamy yoghurt coffee—or the famous ca phetrung, black coffee topped with an airy froth of egg yolk whipped with condensed milk.

bun ca
bun ca

The French who occupied the country in the 19th century introduced the baguette, which was reinterpreted in the 20th century as banh mi—a short baguette with a crisp crust and light crumb, split lengthwise and stuffed with meats or vegetables. While banh mi started life in Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City, its also a Hanoi favourite. Another culinary celebrity is bun cha—pork patties and pork belly slices in a flavourful broth served along with rice vermicelli noodles, vegetables and herbs. The late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Vietnam episode has him and Barack Obama gorging on bun chas at Bun Cha Huong Lien, Hanoi. Then there is the fish. The cha ca, a combo of grilled or fried fish, vermicelli, fresh vegetables, herbs and peanuts, all rolled up in thin rice paper and dipped in a piquant sauce sets off an explosion of flavours in your mouth. Vegetarians don’t need to go hungry in Hanoi; look for the word ‘chay’ in restaurant names or on menus and your leafy cravings will be rewarded.

Spring rolls; egg coffee
Spring rolls; egg coffee

Vietnamese brew is no small beer. In Vietnamese it is called bia, which comes from French biére. The bia hoi, a fresh, straw-coloured rice beer is possibly the cheapest in the world. But this light and airy drink must be drunk within 24 hours of opening the cap because it contains no preservatives. Only Vietnamese cuisine has preserved its best of both worlds.

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The New Indian Express
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