Noodling Around in Vietnam

Yes, Italians have their pasta shaped like butterflies, ears and angel’s hair – but on my recent trip to Vietnam, I saw noodles in the most unusual forms I’ve ever encountered. You can grab a hearty bowl of pho at almost any street corner (BTW, don’t call it “foe” – it’s pronounced “fur” in north Vietnam and “far” in south Vietnam.) Pho’s basic, fettuccine-shaped rice noodles are just the beginning of the Vietnamese noodle empire. In Hanoi, I sampled wonderful steamed rice-noodle crepes, wrapped around minced mushrooms and topped with fried onions… It was mesmerizing to watch the store-front chef pour the batter into her cloth-lined steamer then, a few minutes later, peel the slightly gummy translucent crepe off (all while holding her baby) and hand it to her husband, who added the filling, rolled it and snipped it into four floppy sections with a pair of scissors. You can see the whole process on this video: In Hue, the last imperial capital, all sorts of dishes were invented to coddle the whims of Emperor Tu Duc, a legendary picky eater. His 50-course banquets were a parade of winsome little morsels, including some descendents you can sample today. (You can also visit his sprawling tomb and imagine him lounging in the pavilion by his artificial lake while reciting poetry to a few of his 1,000 or so concubines.) I was surprised when one Hue noodle dish, called banh beo, appeared as a collection of 14 little bowls, the size you might use for soy sauce. A pool of rice batter had been ladled into each one and then steamed. They were topped with dried shrimp and a crispy curl of fried pork rind… The proprietress demonstrated how to spoon a bit of fish sauce on top and peel the disks out of their bowls… The same humble café served rice noodle batter bundled into banana-leaf packets and stir-fried. Each one was a flat envelope, a gift to unfold and taste how the earthy-green flavor of the leaf infused the pasta… In Hoi An, noodle dumplings are shaped around shrimp, ending up looking somewhat like a flower. Supposedly only one family has the recipe for these “white roses” (Banh Bao Vac) – and the water to make them must come only from ancient Ba Le well. You’ll find the well down a narrow alley, where someone will likely be pulling up buckets of water to fill jerry cans that fuel production of this hors d’oeuvre that graces most local restaurant menus… Cao lau, also a Hoi An specialty, may reflect the Chinese and Japanese influence on the cuisine of this old trading town. It features thick, chewy noodles, which are also supposed to be made with water from the legendary well. At its best (my favorite version was this one, at the elegant Brother Café), the pork broth at the bottom of the bowl is reduced to a rich, savory umami bomb… Be sure to stir it all up, so you get bits of sliced pork, bean spouts, noodles and one of the crispy little pillows of fried dough that top the dish, in every bite. Of course, there’s more, like wads of cold rice vermicelli that you tuck into rice paper with basil, mint, young bananas and grilled pork. Or the heftier rice noodles they slam onto the table at Cha Ca La Vong, the grubby Hanoi joint that serves addictive cubes of fish that you fry in a skillet on your own little brazier. And I’m sure there are oodles and oodles I didn’t even try!

2 Responses to Noodling Around in Vietnam

  1. Kei April 28, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    Wow, that looks SO SO delicious. Holy crap. I’m totally jealous. Hey, did you happen upon a dish called Dac Biet Bunh Bo Hue?

    • Gayle June 17, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

      I don’t think so. But then, I ate a lot of stuff I didn’t know the name of!

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