Thursday, 14 March 2013

Where The Eats Have No Name

So far on this trip we've played things pretty safe food-wise. We've eaten Thai, Cambodian and Laotian dishes, but we've done it in nice looking restaurants some of which I assume tailor the food to the tastes of tourists like ourselves. Tonight though, we're throwing ourselves into the street food experience, which in Hanoi (and most other places in this part of the world) is how the locals dine out. But rather than just nip down the first alleyway we find, point at something dead and unidentifiable and ask for it to be barbecued for our enjoyment by a craggy-faced local who hasn't washed his hands in...well...ever, we're engaging the services of Thanh, a young tour guide who lives and eats in this city.

We were a little apprehensive about what was in store as we'd heard plenty of tales from local people we'd met so far about some of the food they had eaten - worms, crickets, spiders, snake (and snake blood wine) etc. And given Justine's arachnophobia, her worst nightmare would be to come face to face with something she had so far only seen in a recipe book in Phnom Penh - deep fried tarantulas. The recipe went something like "first take 12 tarantulas, hit them with a frying pan to kill them" (I'm not making this up) "then remove the fangs, marinate in herbs and spices, deep fry, serve on skewers" (perhaps with a peppery side salad?) I'm trying to visualise the flirtatious Nigella Lawson smouldering her way through this, and I just don't see it. Then again it seems relatively quick (once you've found your tarantulas) so maybe it could find a place on Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals. "Pahkker, laaahvley, look at these bad boys, whack em in the pan, bosh... deep fried tarantulas - great idea for school dinners too". Anyway, we're hoping spiders aren't on the menu.

First stop is a little stall serving tofu. We sit on the pavement on the standard street food furniture which consists of plastic chairs and a little plastic table, the sort of size that primary school kids would use. Now I'm not the tallest person I know by a long shot, but sitting down to eat with my knees touching my chin isn't something I'm used to. The tofu arrives but its not what I expected. I assumed it would be cubes of stuff, but this was liquid and looked a bit like a glass of milk which had been left out in the sun for a few days. Lumps of slime floated to the top, it didn't taste of much, but the texture of it was enough to make Justine's face contort into an expression that suggested she wasn't a huge fan. Not a great start. I ate most of mine (I'm English and don't like to seem rude to strangers, even if they have just given me a cup of sick to eat), and we moved on for the next course.

Here's where having a local guide pays off. If we'd have gone past the next place we'd have seen the insects climbing the walls and the old broken furniture and the cats rummaging through the bins in the kitchen area and kept going, but no, here's where we're going to eat Pho. Pho is a broth made from chicken or pork or beef or shrimp or "other things" with noodles and some meaty bits and lots of herbs like lemongrass and coriander and basil and its extremely popular. In fact it's what locals have for breakfast, sitting out on the pavement on their tiny chairs before going to work. We'd been pronouncing it "foe", but it turns out that in Hanoi it should be pronounced as if you're from Hull - "fur". We subsequently will learn that in Saigon it's pronounced differently again, and we are ridiculed for our Northern (Vietnamese) accents by the more sophisticated metropolitan Southerners - just like at home then! The Pho was delicious although eating noodle soup with chopsticks takes some doing - Thanh showed me the proper way to hold them (not how I'd been doing it) and it was marginally better, but we still had to resort to spoons near the end. So a glass of vomit and soup cooked in a kitchen that would probably get closed down by the council at home - what's next?

Well next is right up my street. Thanh asks if I like beer! Is the new Pope a Catholic? (He is, I've checked). So we're going to a place where they brew their own in steel barrels and serve it right on the street. We sit down on tiny plastic chairs again, but we're getting quite used to it by now and they kind of make sense - everyone huddles round a little table and watches the scooters whizz past just millimetres away and there's a real buzz about the place, it's very sociable. The beer is served and I'm hoping for something to contrast the endless stream of local lager which has been served everywhere we've been. There's been nothing particularly wrong with it but it has all been a bit "same same" (as they say round these parts). So perhaps a pint of something dark and brooding, a double chocolate stout perhaps, or a malty ale with bits of old barrel and hop husks floating in it? Unfortunately it just looked and tasted like everything had so far...same same. Didn't stop me accepting a refill mind. The food at this place sounded interesting - fermented pork skewers. I would never have considered fermenting pork (that just sounds like leaving it out for a long time until it goes off...really off) but they love it here. It was a bit like the middles of sausage rolls, uncooked and on a stick. It was OK but I'm not sure I'd order it again.

So on to our final stop where, having sat down on the obligatory plastic primary school chairs we receive a little hob with a griddle pan on top and we get to fry up our own food. Beef, pork, mushrooms, okra and various other bits were brought out to our prime position, right on the edge of the pavement on the corner of a busy crossroads.

Now this course was actually delicious and as we sat cooking and eating we completely forgot where we were. Over the course of the evening we'd become completely at home eating from places we'd never had tried, sitting in places we'd never have dared. The old part of Hanoi really started to make sense - even the traffic became a fascinating piece of dinner entertainment rather than a barrier to crossing the street. Thanh said that he loved eating in the old town because it was never dull, there's always something going on and I'd agree - you've never people watched until you've people watched from a vantage point 6 inches from the ground in the middle of a pavement. I doubt very much it will catch on at home though, can't imagine it working on Fox Corner in Shipley!

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