If there is a country that knows how to make the most of fresh rice noodles undeniably that would be Vietnam. I never thought that so many alternatives were possible. In soups or dry, hot or cold, fried or steamed… the variations we have discovered in Vietnam are just endless. I would go as far as saying that rice noodles are to Vietnamese what pasta is to Italy.
Before arriving to Vietnam we were completely blind to the wonders of the Vietnamese cuisine but from now on we will be big advocates of these incredible flavours. Not just because it’s super healthy or because fresh ingredients are the core to any recipe… but mainly because it is so delicious!
Pho Bo is probably the star of the show and the better known of the Vietnamese soups. But its relatives Hu Tieu and Bun Bo are equally impressive and shouldn’t be forgotten. Beef, tofu or pork are the main ingredients of these soups but the broth is the heart and what gives them their unique personality.
Pho Bo – Flat rice noodles in a clear beef broth with chunks of beef swimming in it. Flank or brisket, well done or raw that’s up to you! Basil, mint leaves, bean sprouts and lime put the final touch. What can I say… delicious!
Hu Tieu – Replace the beef of the Pho Bo with pork and shrimps and you have a tasty Hu Tieu. A southern Vietnamese favourite.
Bun bo – This is the more fishy of the three soups. Rice vermicelli are used instead of flat rice noodles and the beef and lemongrass broth is flavoured with fermented shrimp paste and sugar. Beef, chunks of oxtail, pig knuckles, mint and a splash of spicy oil finish the soup. This wasn’t our favourite though we only tried it once.
Probably the best part of the day was getting to one of the local cho (market) in search of new dishes to try and fill our stomachs. We had a month to explore the markets and we never got bored or disappointed. The mains as the soups are aromatic, full of fresh ingredients and always have multidimensional textures that make your taste spuds go crazy.
The nuoc cham, dipping sauce translated to English, is the key ingredient in most noodle mains. Nuoc mam pha is the one that is more widely used all over Vietnam and will be served to you either as a condiment of the dish or just on the side. The secret of a good nuoc mam pha is a good balance between its ingredients: lime, fish sauce, sugar and water.
Now, let me make you hungry with a few of the dishes we tried.
Bun Nem Noung – Cold vermicelli noodles with BBQed pork paties, cucumber, peanuts and lettuce dressed with nuoc mam pha. A very satisfying salad and one of Isma’s favourites.
Cao Lau – This is the only dish in this post that doesn’t have rice noodles within its ingredients, but it has wheat noodles instead. The bed of noodles is topped with pork shoulder or leg, rich dark broth and crunchy croûtons (made from the same dough as the noodles). A must try if you ever go to Hoi An!
Bun cha – A common lunch time dish from the north. A bowl of broth with grilled pork meat balls and a bowl of rice vermicelli is what you get. On the side a plate of fresh herbs, papaya and carrot pickles and nuoc cham. Simple? Yes, but sometimes the simplest things are the tastier!
Banh bao vac – Also known as white rose, this is a Hoi An’s delicacy. Delicate translucent shrimp dumplings served with crunchy garlic and a sweet dipping sauce. The recipe of this dumplings is meant to be a secret held by one family in Hoi An. Superb!
Banh Cuon – My absolute favourite! These are the Vietnamese raviolis. The fermented rice batter is steamed to create a thin and delicate roll that it is filled with pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots. The raviolis are served with cucumber, bean sprouts and a dipping sauce. A delicate glory!
Banh tam bi – A mixture of pork and pork skin is piled atop a bed of round worm like noodles. Served with a concoction of coconut milk and nuoc mam pha. Green onion, bean sprouts, cucumber, peanuts and basil add the finishing touches. A crunchy and delicious mess!
Bun bo nam bo – I know, this dish doesn’t look too appetizing just by looking at the picture right? wait until you try it… You won’t have enough with just one bowl! Vermicelli noodles, grilled marinated beef, fresh veg and nuoc cham form the base of the dish. Pickled carrots and papaya, toasted peanuts, crispy shallots add the extra texture. And the sweet beef broth is what brings it all together. YUMMY!!
Banh beo – These are steamed rice cakes stuffed with minced shrimp, crispy pork, mung bean paste… Unusual combination of textures that it is worth a try.
Too much goodness coming from the same ingredients. I think I’ll have to learn how to make fresh rice noodles… or If I can’t I’m afraid I’ll have to move to Vietnam!