Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Saigon, Vietnam - Foodie Tour

We all know how Vietnam is famous for their street foods. Knowing what's what could be challenging due to the language barrier; the squiggles don’t give much away. More importantly, given the variety I simply didn’t know where to start. So I signed up to a foodie tour with Saigon on Bikes. Partly because I wanted to sample the best of the lot, and also because I wanted to experience the scooter traffic in this city of 8 million bikes.

Saigon on Bikes employ university students as guides. We were picked up at the hotel promptly at 5:55pm by our bikers in their uniform – super friendly Frank and Thanh - both speak excellent English. Thanh even understood Cantonese, which put Papa Chan at ease. Our 3hr food adventure begins…

Stop 1: Nibbles
Banh Trang Nuong Grilled Rice Paper with toppings
We were told this was Vietnamese pizza. The toppings were an exciting mix of shredded dried fish, meats, Chinese sausage, mayo and chilli sauce. The flavours exploded in mouth together with the thin brittle base that was cooked over charcoal. I imagined this is how a good tostada should be – take note all those fake Mexican / South American restaurants in London.

Banh Deo Grilled chewy Rice Paper Rolling style
This was a rolled up version of the pizza above, except the base was mixed with another type of flour, leaving it with a stretchy and playful mouthfeel. I couldn’t decide which version I liked more.

Ca Vien Chien – Bo Vien Chien Fried Fish or Beef balls
These were relatively less thrilling, though still very moreish as they were served piping hot and super succulent.

Stop 2: Appetizers
Before our food arrived, our guide was urging us to sample the array of fresh herbs: a naturally fishy tasting mint, mint, basil and shiso. We could then pick and choose the ones we like to pair with our appetizers.

Banh Hoi Thit Nuong Net Cake with Grilled Pork and Fresh Vegetables
The ‘net cake’ is made from thin rice noodles, weaved into a fluffy sponge cake that added bounce and lightness when wrapped with the tender strips of pork. It also absorbed the meat juice and piggy grease to accentuate the flavours. The ensemble started with one slice of net cake with a pork filet on a large lettuce leaf, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and a thai basil leave, all wrapped up plus a dip in the nuoc cham (fish sauce) –incredible layers of flavours and textures. So good.

Banh Mi Hap Steamed Baguette with Stir Fried Minced Beef and Fresh Vegetables
This was very new to me; something inspired by the French. The slices of French baguettes were topped with minced beef and chopped onions and steamed to soften the crusty bread, which soaked up the bovine juice but not overly soggy. I wrapped it with fishy mint and cucumber for extra crunch. Delicious.

Cha Gio Summer Rolls
We usually refer summer rolls to the chilled appetizer of prawns and thin slice of pork stuffed with shredded vermicelli wrapped in a shiso leave and rice paper. These were deep fried with taro mash, minced pork and prawn, not dissimilar to the spring rolls we sometimes get in London. Though good, it was short on the surprise / unique factor.

Stop 3: Seafood
This back alleyway make-shift spot was my favourite stop of the evening.

So Diep Nuong Grilled Scallops
Queen scallops topped with ‘laughing cow’ soft cheese and parsley and crushed peanuts. The morsel was quite small, but luckily the lump of cheese added the creaminess and worked well with the smoky char fragrance.

Tom Nuong Grilled Prawns
The prawns were still jumping and flipping in the plastic buckets next to the kitchen. These were grilled with chili oil and finished with a sweet glaze. We were told to suck on the prawn head for the full, rich roe before tucking into the bouncy flesh, which the heat penetrated. One of Papa Chan’s highlights.

Cang Ghe Xao Me Sea Crab Claws stir fried with Tamarind
In a way, it was good we got the meatiest part of the crab. However it usually means the crab claws aren’t fresh and these are likely to be the bits that were broken off in transit. So whenever possible, always have a full crab. The tamarind sauce was very strong, which somewhat drowned the natural taste of the crab. These claws were also fairly small; compared to the huge chili crabs I have been spoilt with in Singapore, this was comparatively less impressive. Still tasty stuff.

Hot Vit Lon: Balut  Baby Duck Egg
This was our first real challenge. I have heard all kinds of weird and uncivilized things about Vietnamese baby duck eggs, like mouthful of feathers with a small beak sticking out, or a moving little duckling struggling for its survival as someone wolves it down. It was nothing like that. First of all, the eggs were boiled, so everything is cooked. The fertilized egg (yes, it is a baby duck in the making) was 18 days old, compared to the 25-day old ones in the Philippines. Maybe some very soft feathers and soft bones, but definitely no beak.

Our guide taught us to gently break off the top shell to pour the ‘soup’ into the egg cup. The broth was like concentrated duck soup, so savoury and so clean. It was delicious, as long as you don’t think about what it really was. Then we were asked to scoop out the yolk, which was slightly richer and smaller than the regular chicken egg yolk but not dissimilar in taste. Followed by the duck meat, which Papa Chan gave up as he couldn’t quite get his head around it. I charged on like a proper food soldier! The duck was so soft that it melt in mouth, no sign of bones or feathers – I really enjoyed it. There was a large, rocky lump which the guide said was quite chewy and people don’t usually eat it. So I left it, there’s usually a good reason why people don’t eat it.

Apparently people usually have balut to flip their luck. Given I have been feeling quite lucky, I finished Papa Chan’s share to make sure it brings me back to a full circle.

This was a lot of fun. The raw oysters on ice were served with a generous lump of wasabi mixed with soy sauce, and I mean a sizeable lump; the mixture looked very green. Our guide challenged us to try the nose-attacking, tear-inducing and brain-numbing dip with the plump oyster. Boy it was strong, my eyes started welling up in no time. Yet the creamy oyster came through and the mineral umami slowly neutralized the sharp wasabi. We were offered sticks of spring onion, which were supposed to ease off the pungency. I didn’t take up the offer – I like that watery-eyes-effect:)

Stop 4: China Town
Sui Cao Dumplings with hot Soup and Vegetables
We were taken to the edge of Chinatown for some Vietnam-influenced dumplings. These were naturally less exciting for us as I have had all kinds of dumplings growing up. But we weren’t fussed given we were really very full from the seafood fiesta in the previous stop. Not bad dumplings with a good prawn: pork: lard ratio, only the skin was a bit thicker than how I like it, hence a tad too doughy.

Stop 5: Desserts

Our last stop was a side street dessert place for some traditional Vietnamese sweet soup. We sampled some black sesame veloute, sweetcorn / mung bean / black eyed pea with coconut milk, taro puree and coffee French flan. Needless to say most of these were heavily influenced by the Chinese and we have had variations of them before. I particularly enjoyed the flan, which was eggy and custardy; Papa Chan thought the black sesame was particular good mixed with coconut milk. Sweet finish.

We had a fantastic time – from whizzing around the city at night and being in the crazy traffic on the back a scooter, to snooping around unassuming alleys to find the most authentic local eats. It was a delightful evening packed with lip-smacking food and some great laughs. Our guides were brilliant; these students were energetic, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the city, culture and customs, not to mention great humour. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

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