Annie Bananie en Europe

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Eating in Southeast Asia, part 3: Street food in Hanoi

Street food is an essential experience in many Asian countries, Vietnam included. As someone who is fervently passionate about food, when my travel planner offered the option of a guided street food tour in Hanoi, it was an instant YES! In addition to the many Vietnamese noodle-based dishes that my friend and I have eaten throughout these travels, we were on our way to unravel the hidden secrets of the capital of Vietnam with the help of our cute local Vietnamese guide, Chili (sneak peek in the Southeast Asia highlights post). I noted down the Vietnamese names of everything (courtesy of Chili), although I’d have a lot of trouble pronouncing them correctly 😛 Let’s get started!

Bánh mì – First up was the legendary bánh mì, perhaps the most famous Vietnamese sandwich. I gotta admit that I was never a huge fan of bánh mì when I had it in Toronto…until I had it in Hanoi, many many years after I ate the last one! I almost missed it too. If it weren’t for a travel companion for pointing out Bánh Mì 25 (probably the most popular bánh mì joint in Hanoi), I would have left Hanoi without trying it. On the night of my street food tour, which was my final day in Vietnam, I mentioned it to my guide and she gladly took me to the joint as our first stop. And oh my, the real authentic thing was so delicious! I think what put me off before was the pâté in the sandwich, but this one had the perfect proportion of fillings and even the pâté tasted so good. I shared one with my friend (as we had an array of food lined up so a full one would be too much) and I wanted more! No wonder Bánh Mì 25 is so popular – it deserves the fame!

Other than bánh mì, I felt like our initial stops were for dessert, but no bother! Xôi chè bà thìn is the joint where we went for the next three items, and it certainly seemed like a very popular street-side spot as locals and tourists alike were lining up to get their goodies. As we ordered the desserts, we were able to see exactly how they were made.

Trôi tàu (top left) – Trôi tàu is a Vietnamese dessert consisting of warm dumplings with black sesame and peanuts. It was quite sweet and kind of reminiscent of the Chinese tang yuan, and rather gingery too – perfect for a cold evening! Xôi chè (bottom left) – This one is a little difficult to explain because I don’t remember much about it (it’s been almost a year!) but to the best of my memory, it was a bowl of thick, syrup-like sauce/soup/jam topped with some sort of sticky rice. I think I wasn’t a huge fan of this mainly because it was too sweet, but clearly the Vietnamese locals loved it because almost everyone was holding a bowl of it in their hands! Chè hạt sen (right) – Finally, we end our visit at Xôi chè bà thìn with a refreshing sweet tea (or soup?) consisting of lotus seeds.

Bánh tráng trộn – This is a funky one. According to my Vietnamese friend in Canada, the bánh tráng trộn (consisting of quail eggs, rice paper strips, dried meat, and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t name) is the newest fad in Vietnam. Teenagers are crazy about it while adults might not even know about it, ha! It seemed like Chili certainly knew what she was doing. I wonder if this random mix would do well in North America…

Phở gà trộn – The largest portion of food for the night was the soupless version of the classic phở, with chicken instead of beef. SO GOOD. The “booth” selling this amazing dish was located in a back alley in Hanoi, literally. We sat (or more like squatted) on small plastic stools around a small wooden table. Without a specialized food tour guide, my friend and I would definitely not have found this place…I mean who would venture into a shady-looking alley, right? Yet this was a great find – perhaps my favourite of the night!

The next location was one of the most “hole-in-the-wall” places that could possibly be found (if you could even find it) in Hanoi, and it actually felt like we were eating someone’s home – it couldn’t be more local. If I were just passing by I wouldn’t even have thought that we could order any food here. It just looked like someone’s household meal was happening right then and there!

Bánh cuốn – So here was where we got the bánh cuốn, or Vietnamese rice noodle rolls. If I remember correctly, the fillings consisted of wood ear mushrooms and the rolls were topped with dried minced garlic with a side of Vietnamese sausages and a savoury dip. Mmmmm the authentic taste of the streets – I like it! Not sure if I’d know how to find this place if I ever go back to Hanoi though…!

Toward the end of the tour, Chili brought us into a shop that was so inconspicuous that the narrow corridor leading to it seemed like a secret entrance to a sketchy spot. However, apparently Cafe Giang is somewhat of a legend in Hanoi and specializes in what we were about to get next, which was…

Cafe trứng …AKA egg coffee! As the name implies, the coffee is made with, you guessed it, a whipped egg yolk! I was a bit skeptical about getting coffee so late in the evening since it always makes me unable to fall asleep, but it was my final night in Vietnam, and I wasn’t about to regret missing anything. It was a good cup of coffee and not like your typical Starbucks – at least that was what I, who is not a coffee aficionado, thought.

Iced mixed fruits – We come to the final item of the night, which is a bowl of fresh mixed fruits on a bed of ice. My friend was unfortunately unable to have this because she was allergic to jackfruit, so I had this all by myself. This was a perfect way to wash down all of the goodies that I had eaten all night and quite a memorable conclusion to my Southeast Asia trip.

And that was the end of what turned out to be a fun, adventure-filled food tour, thanks to Chili on the far left! Keep in mind that my friend and I each had one of each of these mentioned food items, except for the bánh mì, which we shared, and the fruits, which my friend skipped. So in a nutshell…that was A LOT OF FOOD and I was so (happily) full by the end of the night. At least it was a walking tour, and we did a fair bit of walking to offset the food intake! Favourites of the night: bánh mì, phở gà trộn, and bánh cuốn! Then I left Vietnam the next morning missing all that food and wondering what else remains hidden in those narrow alleys of Hanoi. One could only imagine…or go back to Hanoi for another visit!


Street food in Taiwan

Part III of my “The places I called home” series, part of which was about the time I spent in Taiwan, inspired me to write a post about street food in Taiwan. It’s been eight and a half years since I lived and worked in Taiwan but I could never forget the one thing that defined the unique experience – STREET FOOD. From stinky tofu to salted fried popcorn chicken, shredded chicken cold noodles to fruit on shaved ice…I’m hungry just thinking about it. Let’s just get right down to it!

First on the list has got to be the (in)famous stinky tofu, which gets its reputation from its strong odour. It may not be suitable for the faint-hearted, though it’s rather addictive once you get over the original shock and you get used to it. Stinky tofu comes in a variety of forms: deep-fried, grilled, steamed, boiled, etc. It was so popular in Taiwan that you could almost find a stinky tofu shop in every corner, but my favourites stinky tofu joint was the one in Hsinchu (where I stayed for my internship) that served it in smaller cubes, deep-fried, salted and spiced, and accompanied by Taiwanese-style kimchi. Delicacy? Maybe not, but delicious for sure!

Next up we’ve got the “xiao long bao”, which literally translates to “little caged buns”. These mouth-watering soup-filled pork buns are good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even as a midnight snack! There was a shop five minutes away from where I lived that always seemed to be open, and sometimes I would have the hugest craving for xiao long bao at night that I would go and grab a cage with my then-boyfriend…in addition to some radish cake, egg pancakes, chive dumplings, and soy milk too, perhaps. Oh, what indulgence!

I really wanted to post a good photo of the salted fried popcorn chicken because it is my favourite Taiwanese street food ever, but to my surprise, I have not one single photo of it from my 4-month stay in Taiwan. Shame on me! Well, I do have a photo of a street booth that sells it, in addition to a bunch of other goodies like fried squid, fish cake, radish cake, squid balls, and…chicken butt?! Anyway…back to the salted fried chicken. Greasy? Yes! Salty? Yes, considering it’s got “salty” in its name. Delicious? Hell yeah – why else is it my favourite!?

For something simple, here’s a plate of dried tofu with chili sauce, garlic, and Chinese sauerkraut. At this joint, you serve yourself and in the end you pay for whatever is on the plate. The bright colours certainly stimulate the appetite, don’t they? 😉

There used to be a small shop (I wouldn’t even call it a restaurant) nearby where I lived in Hsinchu that served chicken rice for 30 NTD, which was approximately 1 Canadian dollar in 2008. Deal! Often after work I’d drop by and have a bowl, and it’d be the simplest dinner ever, just some rice with shredded chicken and some sauce with the taste of home. But oh man, simple things are often the best!

Speaking of shredded chicken, it also goes very well with cold noodles! The special thing about this bowl of chicken cold noodles was the sauce – it was so ridiculously tasty, but I couldn’t put my finger on what type of sauce it was exactly. In hindsight, it must have been sesame sauce. I tried to make this dish at home many years later (this year, in fact) with sesame sauce, and the taste came right back. Success!

This photo is blurry because I didn’t realize that my phone’s camera was set to “infinity” mode as I was taking the photo, but please use your imagination and believe that the food was delicious! Oh, you couldn’t even tell what this is? Well, the literal translation of this “hong you chao shou” is “red oil wontons”, which is essentially wontons with hot oil on noodles. Hot (spicy) oil is one of the most heavenly things to be invented in the art of cooking…if you enjoy spicy food, that is!

On a hot summer day, a gigantic bowl of shaved ice topped with a variety of fruits is the best way to cool down and recharge. This one portion was enough for five people!

We now come to teppanyaki, which is really just food served on a fiery hot sizzling iron plate. Teppanyaki is also quite popular in night markets and there’s an abundance of teppanyaki booths everywhere. Here’s a combination of a lovely steak, done medium-rare, and a huge grilled prawn accompanying udon on the plate. In addition to the sight of the food, the sound of the sizzling grill approaching the table warns my stomache to get ready for a fantastic treat!

Another teppanyaki meal, this time with grilled steak, grilled chicken, and a fried egg. Simply irresistible meaty goodness for an evening out. My stomach and my taste buds thanked me but with this much good food, my waistline certainly didn’t!

Finally, here’s one that I regret only having once: soup noodle with spare ribs. For some reason this didn’t catch my attention earlier at night markets, and I skipped it again and again. The one time I had a bowl of this soup noodle, I fell in love, and I wasn’t even the one who wanted to order it! The soup was so warm and most importantly, the spare rib was tender and flavourful! I totally missed out all those times – but at least I got a taste of it before I left Taiwan 😛

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the street food of Taiwan! Of course, this is only a very small sample of the things that I’ve had the chance to try, and there were more noodle dishes than I had expected (I do prefer rice over noodle most of the time!) If you ever do visit Taiwan, don’t miss out on the chance to indulge in the delicacies on the streets. Whether it’s a bustling night market, an inconspicuous shop at the corner, or a simple breakfast joint, surprises are hidden everywhere and are yours to discover!

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