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Food glorious food
We humans love to structure our lives around food. Back at the office, the slow tick of the clock towards lunchtime and a quick sandwich grabbed at the desk, or that all important cup of tea and Hobnob at 3pm are key milestones in the day. When you’re travelling, food becomes even more significant. When you have no meeting to attend, no dishes to wash, no birthday drinks after work, no gym to go to and no TV to watch, what else can you structure your days around but eating? Of course you eat strange food, and at odd times of the day, but that comforting ritual of deciding when, where and what to eat becomes even more significant. Food can be the highlight of your trip, and gives you more of an insight into a country than any amount of museum wandering and temple gazing will ever do.The real heart of an Asian city beats in its markets, where you see all of life unfolding around you. Plus, in a country where you can’ t speak the language. buying and eating food is the best way to interact with people. Pointing, smiles and gestures are much easier to understand when explaining what meat you want in your noodles than in attempting an in-depth discussion of Vietnam’s socio-economic policies. Plus, the ritual of eating together forms an automatic human connection when your language skills fail you.
Vietnam is awash with delicious street food, and if you venture away into the backstreets, chances are you’ll find places where you’ll be the only foreigner there, which – as long as you can cope with amused glances at your substandard chopstick technique – can only be a good thing. Plus, if you want to put your money where your mouth is, these are the people who will most benefit. So. without further ado, these are my gastronomic highlights of the last fortnight.
Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup
Our staple diet. You never have to look hard to find a Pho Bo place. The clear, aromatic, spicy broth filled with thin slivers of beef, rice noodles and generous handfuls of herbs – usually served with fresh lime and chillies for you to add at your discretion (mistake number 1 – getting over ambitious with the chillies!). Usually eaten in Vietnam for breakfast, but we could have eaten this for every meal of the day – cures hangovers, settles a bad stomach and picks you up if you’re tired – this is a miracle food.
Banh Mi – Vietnamese Sandwich
A good sandwich – usually the holy grail of the backpacker. Even the most committed traveller occasionally tires of noodles in South East Asia. Luckily, the Vietnamese have got sandwich making down to a fine art. One of the happier hangovers from French colonial days is the Vietnamese baguette – so light and slightly sweet, it literally dissolves in your mouth. An entire baguette can vanish in two minutes flat. Although bread + Laughing Cow cheese is a good bet for long train journeys, until you’ve tried a proper filled Vietnamese baguette, you can’t know the meaning of a truly great sandwich. In Hoi An, as we awoke to torrential rain every day, we had to fortify ourselves with a visit to our new Vietnamese grandma. A wonderful old lady who seemed managed to appear kindly and slightly scolding at the same time, we crouched under her porch drinking lukewarm tea from plastic cups, listening to the rain hammer on the tarpaulin above whilst she made us hot baguettes with eggs, herbs and a secret recipe of chilli and spices. Regular devotees to this blog may notice that this is the second occasion I have been pictured in a purple plastic rain mac. Please don’t laugh, everyone wears them here. Honest.
Banh Xeo – Savoury Pancakes
Fried pancakes with tiny prawns , packed with lettuce and beansprouts, rolled up in rice paper and dipped in a spicy sauce. The lady who ran the stall took a great delight in showing us how to put these together, after watching us end up with half of it on our laps.
Banh Ran Ngot – Sesame Balls
Often the context of the food can be as important as the food itself. In Hue, when we’d been driving around in the rain on our moto for five hours, we stumbled across these – and although I’ve eaten them again since, they’ve never tasted quite as delicious as when we were standing in the rain tucking into these hot, sweet, sticky sesame balls – fresh from the deep fryer and supremely unhealthy. We bought four, then liked them so much we drove back and bought another ten – much to the amusement of the lady selling them. We’re beginning to realise why the Vietnamese are half the size of us…
Ca Phe Sua Da – Vietnamese Coffee with Ice and Condensed Milk
This coffee is not for the faint hearted – if you normally stick to the peppermint tea, approach with extreme caution! A few minutes after finishing one of these, we’d find ourselves frantically tapping our feet, talking over each other, and suddenly compelled to embark on an energetic sight seeing.
Nuoc Mia – Sugar Cane Drink
We only discovered this during our last couple of days in Vietnam, but happily they seem to sell it in Cambodia too. Look for the man with a load of sticks on the front of his food cart. birth control pills and antibiotics Order one, and he’ll crush the sugar cane through an old school mangle several times to produce a glass of sugary goodness served in a plastic bag with ice and a straw.
We’ve only been in Cambodia a couple of days, but already its tasting promising. Yesterday’s lunch was fresh grilled squid on sticks served with cucumber and sweet chilli sauce, whilst dinner was BBQ’d chicken legs and two bags of boiled rice, eaten with our fingers sitting on an upturned box in the market.