Holidays, I've heard, are meant to be relaxing but quite frankly, I feel like I need a holiday just to recover from this one!
Holidays in our household tend to be pretty action packed. A desire to experience all aspects of a culture means that our holidays are non-stop affairs and although my friends and family know that I am rarely found sitting still and can't stand a lie in, I'm honestly quite looking forward to some chill time over the next few days and a chance to catch up on my summer plans in the kitchen- not to mention tackling the produce from a fairly overgrown vegetable patch!
However, before I start creating chaos in the kitchen with a glut of courgette and mangetout recipes, I thought I'd shared some insights into our travels in Vietnam and the vibrant Vietnamese food.
Vietnam is hot- in fact, that's an understatement- it's boiling. That kinda heat that once you've stepped outside and walked halfway down the road, you already need to turn back again to shelter in air conditioning and to shower again!
Yes, we were mad to go there at this time of year but then again my mum also chose to book us a holiday to Dubai in AUGUST a few years ago- (she says she never sweats!)
Normally in this kind of wet blanket heat, the last thing I want to do is eat, but that's impossible here. The food is just too inviting to refuse.
I definitely ate well in Vietnam.
I felt like I was giving my body a break from stodgy Western food- the food here is so different and tasty and really healthy (well apart from the odd hotel breakfast sneaked in along the way!).
What I really like about Vietnamese food is the way that it is eaten.
Everybody opens up their houses and sits in the street, huddled on little plastic stools around a pot of bubbling clam soup, pho or golden fried pork patties and beef. Everything is shared and passed around and mealtimes are a time for communication and laughter. The vietnamese proverb says it brilliantly : "In food, as in death,we feel the essential brotherhood of man."
What I've discovered from eating like the Vietnamese is that I really am messy. From a young age, I've been a fan of mud pies and throwing flour around the kitchen, but give me a pair of chopsticks and a bowl full of noodles and I'm on another level.
So it's definitely not the most elegant way of eating - but there's something great about picking up a hot and crispy deep fried spring roll with your fingers and dipping it in a sweet and sour chilli sauce before demolishing!
The first leg of our journey (after a long plane journey where I resorted to watching Frozen!) was into the Vietnamese countryside, slightly west of the capital, Hanoi. As it's low season here, we were the only people staying in the homestay, and so were treated like royals with a big dining table centered in the middle of a beautiful restored church with lanterns hanging from the ceiling and our meals followed by hot herbal foot baths and hand massages.
Some of the best food I ate on the whole trip was served to us at this homestay- bowls of steaming hot pho for breakfast, prepared early on by the women of the household. This is a typical vietnamese breakfast dish made with a clear flavourful broth with chicken or beef, tender rice noodles and fresh herbs. Served with bean sprouts and lime, it is a simple dish that when made well is bursting with flavour, surprisingly refreshing in the morning and full of nutrients.
We were also served dishes such as duck with lotus seeds, fried okra in tomato sauce along with fresh fish that we caught earlier on that day- deep fried and coated in crispy rice.
We also had crispy deep fried and fresh spring rolls made with rolled rice paper stuffed with a mixture of fresh mint, coriander, shredded vegetables, pork, beef or chicken - these were really delicious - a crispy, oily exterior with soft and spicy filling and dipped into a sweet and sour sauce. Vietnamese cuisine is all about mixing the sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy.
One afternoon, we were shown how to prepare the dishes for ourselves. Here we learned how to make flowers out of vegetables - much harder than it looks, and how to prepare dishes such as beef wrapped and fried in a variety of beetle leaf with Vietnamese mushrooms and vermicelli "glass" noodles.
I was also in fruit heaven whilst we were out there- we were served so many exotic and exciting looking fruits such as this pink dragonfruit.
Whilst in the countryside, we also took a tour on bikes and visited the local village and pagoda. Here, there were huddles of women shelling basketfuls of peanuts ready to be sold on the market. The main crops in Vietnam are rice and peanuts. I'm still to get my perfect picture of a lady working in the rice fields, dressed in the typical bamboo hats. It's amazing to see the contrast between the old farming methods in the country where they still use buffalo to plough the rice paddies, and the technology-fuelled development of the bustling cities- all within about an hour of each other!
From the countryside, we ventured back into the centre of Hanoi. Jeez the traffic there is crazy- they will not stop for ANYBODY!! Dodging between the crowds of honking mopeds is terrifying and yet slightly exhilarating- it took a good few days to grow accustomed to just walking steadily across the road and having confidence that the oncoming mopeds would weave their way around you- the instinctive desire to scream and run doesn't turn out so well!
Hanoi is known for certain speciality dishes, one of which includes bun bo nam bo, a dish of rice noodles topped with fried beef, peanuts, crispy shallots and served with a mix of greens including Thai basil, mint and coriander. This became my favourite dish, along with banana flower salad, made with thinly sliced vegetables, banana flower, chilli, lime and peanuts.
Having read the guidebooks, we set out on a very committed mission to find banana bread. Cafe 252 is known for its super- bananary banana bread and when we finally found it ( after a hot and sticky walk that was worth more than a piece of banana bread) we were pleasantly surprised. With the advantage of small and sweet exotic bananas, its the perfect opportunity for banana centered desserts- whether it be banana bread, fritters, sautéed with rum or made into homemade banana ice cream.
Whilst in Hanoi, we also visited Quan An Ngon - a restaurant set up with stools and tables in the middle and then street food-like stalls around the outside, each offering their own specialities. I tried to write down the Vietnamese names for the dishes we had:
Pho Xao- deep fried noodles with beef and morning glory( not what you're imagining!-) this is a type of green stalky vegetable grown in the fields that is sautéed with garlic, a bit like spinach.
Banh Hoi Nem Nuong Cuon Banh Trang- grilled pork with rice vermicelli
Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit another Hanoi institution, KOTO. This is a street food cafe staffed by ex-street children. I've heard the menu is amazing so if I ever have a chance, I'll be there in a flash.
Phewwwww, sorry, that's a lot of weird names and ingredients to take in. Next we were off to Halong Bay and Hue so stay tuned for the next post, sure to leave you even hungrier than this one!