Clean bowled in Vietnam (Part 1): Where to hide when breakfast tastes like lunch
Hole-in-the-wall roadside stalls flanked by low stools and lower tables. Stainless steel stockpots the size of gas cylinders. A plastic bowl of food and a basket full of greens. A quick in and out experience for a meagre Rs 200. If you were to choose where to eat your next meal in Vietnam, don’t go too far from this setting. What looks unhygienic and too close to tarmac is really the most authentic and scrupulous bowl of food that your money can buy.
A bowl of rice noodles complemented by chunks of pork, quail eggs, turmeric-infused broth that blankets the edibles like waves on a beach during low tide, and fresh herbs that if consumed in excess will surely make you sick – that’s my numero uno amidst a boundless variety of dishes this country is home to. Mì quảng is a central Vietnamese dish not very hard to find no matter where you are in the country. It doesn’t really symbolise Vietnam’s culinary identity but its credibility as a healthier and socially acceptable version of Maggi noodles puts it right up there.
Before I reveal more about Vietnam’s calorie expenditures, I’d like to apologise to vegetarian readers, for there’s nothing much here that could possibly tease your taste buds. Sure, you can read on for a mildly arousing literary experience, but I’m afraid that’s all there is on offer. It’s not that I didn’t try looking for vegetarian dishes, I did. The easiest way to find vegetarian spots in Vietnam is to search for hàng chay (vegetarian food) on Google and hope it leads you to tofu, spinach, beetroot and more tofu. To consolidate the foregone opportunity cost of vegetarian options, my last meal in the country was a buffet in a vegetarian diner, but now that I’ve confessed so thoroughly to you, I can safely say that buffet was no different than one you can enjoy in any restaurant fighting for a piece of gastronomic turf in your city.
The math in food
A simple approach to identify a good spot to eat in Vietnam is to check for low stools. Now, I can’t put down the exact stool to food quality equation, but on average, meals eaten on low stools got the owner a thumbs up from me on most occasions. Not that my validation is of much value, but in deserted restaurants where I was the only patron, I would like to assume it was a day-maker. Realistically, the food may be the same elsewhere, but the low stools and plastic chairs elevate the dining experience. Where else have you spent upwards of a thousand bucks for a meal served to you on a footpath?
Another intriguing choice of seating are the three-legged steel stools you find at the doctor’s. Here, my math holds true – the satisfaction derived at restaurants with steel stools falls in the same set as the pain and discomfort you walk into a hospital with.
Clean bowled in Vietnam
Can a bowl ever be used to symbolise the culinary identity of a region? If the kind of seating sets the standard, surely a bowl qualifies, given that after cutlery, it’s the most intimate non-edible component of a meal you come into contact with. The Vietnamese people love a piping hot bowl of noodle soup, which is the most common kind of dish you can expect to find in the country. Some of the noodle soups that never miss the mark are banh canh, cau lau, hu tieu, bun bo, and the aforementioned mi quang. Sometimes, cooks take this affinity for bowls too far and serve rice dishes in a bowl, like com hen (clam rice) and com ga (beef rice).
For most travellers and locals alike, banh mi (local take on a baguette) and pho (beef noodle soup) are the go-to meals. They‘re the most readily available and popular dishes in the country. I found pho to be deficient in memory-making quality. Not by any fault of the dish, but because of its popularity. When a dish becomes synonymous with a nation’s culinary character, cooks with no credibility take to the streets and unknowingly ruin the experience so highly touted on the internet. If the broth is served boiling, the meat is promoted from its rare status, the greens aren’t from the day before, and the chopsticks don’t smell – be assured you don’t need to spend more than Rs 100 on pho.
In the big cities, it wasn’t unusual to spot tourists lined up outside banh mi outlets in queues longer than eighteen limos put together. It was understandable for one to miss food that wasn’t breathing for air in an ocean of broth. Surprise came when I was asked by a group of fellow Indians if I knew where they could get butter chicken. Delusioned by the variety of food that I was yet to try, I had momentarily forgotten that regardless of the destination, even the most experienced traveller packs the desire of butter chicken in their suitcase.
How Anthony did it
A crucial source of information on what to try and what to skip were episodes shot in Vietnam from ‘No Reservations’ and ‘Parts Unknown’, two of the late Anthony Bourdain’s genre defining travel and food television programs. To name a few, they led me to a seriously appetising fixed meal at The Lunch Lady in Saigon, a foolproof serving of the iconic bun bo Hue (rice vermicelli and beef) and delicious servings of clam rice in dubious alleys of Hue where the primary occupation had to be bounty hunting, and bun oc (snail soup) and bun cha (a seductive grilled pork and noodle dish the north swears by) in Hanoi. I’m no food critic or gourmand, but when Bourdain states that Vietnam feels like a second home for its people and food, it’s hard not to join the bandwagon and pledge allegiance to what could have been his post-retirement plans.
While all endorsed dishes checked all boxes of tasty, there were others that fell in the same bracket of delicious as toe jam and egg shells. Rice pizzas, fertilised duck eggs, fried banana crepes and everything else served at central and night markets. The country’s greatest con artists must have been inspired by vendors of these dishes, which look highly appetising but the consumption of which presents you with a one-way ticket to a dark space hard to escape from. Halfway through the country, I’d reached a stage where just the smell of cilantro and barbeque glaze would propel me to hide under my bed and reinvigorate my olfactory system for the next 36 hours. If eggs cooked to appease the international traveller are accompanied by a basket of cilantro and the smell of fresh broth, consider your morning ruined. Noodle broth dominates the spirit on the street all through the day, so when the aromas of lunch or dinner poke you at 7.00 am, you can imagine how rebellious one might feel.
I won’t lie, four weeks of mostly eating meat did get to me. Yes, meat is highly appetising and one of the few substances I don’t mind being shaped into a cloud by. But how much is too much? Consuming poultry, beef and pork for thirty days straight is rather convenient in a land where vegetarians are as common as seasonal plants in the winter. With succulent bites of crispy pork and grilled beef come ghastly visuals when you least expect them. Walking past chickens being pulled out upside down from a cage of five in Hue, watching a butcher slice a skinned cow in half in Hanoi and looking away as a duck held by the legs was sold in a wet market in Sapa – how can you bring yourself to eat when vivid images of butchery refuse to depart?
Now that you’ve reached the end…
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