Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lunchtime on Tran Quoc Toan

Don't let the kebab stall at the start of Tran Quoc Toan's street eats section put you off, it's just another wonderful Hanoian incongruity. Perhaps its a talisman put there by the food gods to throw off track those of little faith in their search for Hanoi’s famous street food. Though more semi-industrial than atmospherically beautiful in that classic Hanoi way, Tran Quoc Toan’s food zone contains almost every Hanoian street food speciality, so it’s easy to create your own lunchtime street food tour.
  Many visitors to and residents of Asia are street food obsessives. After living here for 18 months I’ve realized that the best way to find good street food in Hanoi is to find an area packed with offices, and visit during Hanoi's strictly observed lunch hour of noon to 1pm. Tran Quoc Toan’s location in the busy business area of Hai Ba Trung is the perfect place for this, providing a high enough turnover to ensure a large variety of fresh food is available. Alongside the more established cafes and restaurants, there are stalls that suddenly appear at lunchtime to feed the army of hungry workers. Stallholders frantically set up, dish up, then just as quickly pack up, clean up and disappear. By mid-afternoon you wonder if they were actually ever there. Although Tran Quoc Toan stretches between Yet Kieu and Hang Bai, the main area for street food starts at Ba Trieu - the start of street food heaven marked by the rather greasy looking kebab stall. It finishes around Tran Binh Trong, where the fried tofu with fresh noodles and herbs (bun dau) stall resides. Starting from the Ba Trieu end, just next to the kebab stall there's snail soup, or 'women's food', a bit further up on the north side at 50b there's sticky rice (xoi), then a few doors up, a banh mi omelette stall (omelette sandwich). Com bin danh businesses: mini buffets that usually include a few vegetable dishes, a tofu variant, and a braised pork belly or chicken dish, also come and go from here.
  From Truong Han Sieu street up to Quang Trung, on the south side of Tran Quoc Toan is what I call the Noodle Heaven section, established stall after stall selling different kinds of noodles, in soup, dry, fried and in Hanoi’s favourite barbecue dish, bun cha. This section is classic street food – office workers sit on tiny plastic stools, at tables covered with containers of chopsticks and spoons, dipping sauces, limes and paper napkins. The ground is everyone’s garbage bin, the refuse to be swept up afterwards by stallholders or eaten by a couple of scrawny chickens wandering among the tables. My favourite dish is a kind of everything noodle soup - fried wontons, fresh wontons, prawns and pork, all resting on a bed of egg noodles in a prawn stock. A few doors up, there’s excellent ‘bun bo nam bo’ - dry fresh rice noodles, a little sauce at the bottom to be mixed through with herbs, peanuts, fried shallots, and a great favourite with westerners.
  After Noodle Heaven ends, cross Quang Trung to get to the street’s busiest restaurant, a classic one dish place that only serves duck and bamboo noodle soup (bun mang vit). An elderly lady is the stalls’ matriarch, standing behind a pile of freshly cooked ducks wielding a chopper, while her staff load noodles, bamboo and soup into bowls and push them forward to be topped with piles of her delicious duck. Eating alone in Vietnam is considering pitiful, but here it works in your favour, as solo eaters here get particularly large portions, presumably to cheer them up. Opposite the duck soup stall is La Petit Tonkinoise, not a street food place but a restored colonial villa and worth mentioning for it’s charming courtyard, a place to relax with a coffee or a cold drink after a meal, just don’t eat the very ordinary food they offer. The next street food place is a little way up the street, after some cafes, which also seem to be packed with workers at lunchtime, and some fruit sellers. The final street food stall is on the corner of Tran Binh Trong. This fried tofu (bun dau) stall is a favourite because of this dish, as it provides a variety of dipping sauces, not just the usual very pungent shrimp sauce (mam tom). Mam tom is an acquired taste that even many Vietnamese find difficult to stomach. Instead, this stall offers a light citrusy sauce made from cumquat juice and sugar that seems a strange choice with fried tofu, but is actually quite refreshing.
  At two o’clock the frenetic energy of the street food vendors has gone, the pavements are bare and patrons back in their airconditioned offices. Until the dinner rush starts, Tran Quoc Toan looks like just another drab inner city street.

This article originally appeared in the July edition of Vietnam Heritage magazine.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Eating in Hanoi

After nearly a year in Hanoi, I'm finally getting into street food. I know, I know, everyone tells me you come here for the street food, it's the only way to try the 'real' local food. However after a lifetime of food and drink-related illnesses - including typhoid, salmonella and numerous bouts of giardia - I've become pretty cautious and have been training my gut to process the local bacteria. Plus there are some fantastic Vietnamese restaurants that serve sanitised but still delicious versions of street food including Quan An Ngon, Nha Hang Ngon, Dieu's Cuisine and the higher end Madame Hien. Oh and did I mention we have a cook that makes the most wonderful bun cha (barbecued meat served with fresh herbs and rice noodles), nem (spring rolls) and pho cuon (stuffed rice noodle rolls)?

The street food I've most been dying to try has been at the bia hois, basic beer cafes that serve beer from kegs and either a few or many different dishes. The one we chose was packed on Saturday night - large, bright with little plastic stools and tables and even an English menu, great for a beginner like me. We ordered our favourite vegetable dish rau muong (Vietnamese spinach) fried with garlic as well as the local classic fried steak and chips called bo bit tet, roast pigeon, and the ubiquitous nem. All were really tasty, not exactly light and healthy, but perfect with a couple of beers. Next up I will be going to a bia hoi that only does a couple of dishes and has no menu, then onto some of the food vendors selling specialised dishes like bun cha and pho cuon. Let the street food journey begin...

The bia hoi we went to was Cua Hang Bia Hoi, 2 Duong Thanh, Hanoi. For more information on places to eat in Hanoi and contact details for the above mentioned restaurants, go to the expat UGC site The New Hanoian or The Word, an excellent Time Out-style website and magazine, or the most famous Vietnam food blog Sticky Rice. Bia hois can be found all over Hanoi, perhaps keep the beer intake at a minimum as the toilets are fairly foul.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Guacamole recipe

This recipe is a guide - you have to keep tasting (without eating everything) as you go... it's a very easy recipe, the most complicated bit is preparing the tomatoes. If you're making multiple quantities (this recipe makes enough for 4-6 people) take out a tomato or two. Please do not use mushy tomatoes, they have to be firm and fresh. The secret to the flavour is the Worcestershire sauce and a bit of Tabasco or Cayenne pepper. The secret to a good consistency is not to mash the avocados too much - there's quite a bit of liquid in this recipe so unless you want a very runny guacamole, keep the avocado quite chunky.

2 x large avocados (or 3 small), roughly mashed
1 x firm fresh tomato, skin and seeds removed, finely chopped
2 x garlic cloves, crushed
100ml light sour cream (then add to taste)
a few splashes Worcestershire sauce
one splash soy sauce
one splash Tabasco sauce (if don't have, add one shake Cayenne pepper instead)
one shake ground cumin (optional)
one shake ground coriander (optional)
juice from half a lemon, plus extra juice to stop top from browning
a good shake or three of salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 onion, finely chopped (optional - I never add this)

Mix all ingredients together to desired consistency, taste and add anything you feel it should have more of. Then squeeze lemon juice on top and refrigerate.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hellenic Republic - restaurant review

It’s not often I come home from a restaurant puzzling over the receipt in order to figure out why it was all so affordable; a real mystery when the food is as inspiring as the food we had at Hellenic Republic last night. If this is the less expensive, populist taverna-style version of George Calombaris’ Greek food, then I’m ready to sell all of B and my Christmas presents plus a few bits of furniture to finance a trip to try the upmarket, gourmet version found at Press Club. It gets better than this?

Perhaps Hellenic Republic exceeded all expectations as the location of this restaurant didn’t thrill me – on the upper end of Lygon Street in a strip of shops which, though improving, don’t hold a lot of excitement. The restaurant itself is open and modern like a lot of the groovy cafes in the area, with a European-style bar where one can eat or have a drink and an open kitchen showcasing the chefs (presided over by George C himself on the evening we went). Although it was a near-capacity crowd and the d├ęcor, as I said, was trendy modern with hard surfaces, our group of eight could all actually hear each other talk and weren’t oppressed by the loud din so characteristic of many similarly designed places. The army of waiting staff were very professional and efficient with just the right amount of chatty friendliness and attentiveness; they really made us feel very welcome and well looked after.

The menu is made up of a large selection of ‘plates’, small portions of food such as you’ll find in tapas - I think in Greece they are called ‘mezze’ – plus main-size dishes and grills. We were lucky enough to have a Greek person who loves food in our party, who ordered for us and very well I thought. She chose a number of small plates and three grills which may have been enough, except we loved two of the plates so much we had to order more immediately. These stand-out plates were a very competent spanakopita ($9.50) and the dish of the evening, graviera saganaki ($11.50), the traditional fried salty saganaki cheese, this time topped with a sweet spicy fig relish (which I know as Syrian spiced figs). We agreed we could probably just eat these two dishes all night and go home happy. Other very satisfying plates we ordered were melizanosalata ($9.50), an eggplant dip, gemista ($12.50) vegetables stuffed with rice and the wonderfully named gigantes (giant beans) $7.50. These beans tasted slightly of rosewater to me which was confusing but not entirely unpleasant.

There was a bit of a wait after this for the grills, uncomfortable to no-one except me with my current pregnant wolfish appetite. We had kalamari ($16.00), lamb spit ($22.00) and grilled vegetables ($18.00). The kalamari was simple, delicious and not at all chewy or rubbery, the vegetables beautifully firm, fresh and naturally delicious, prompting a discussion about how none of our party could ever manage to coerce our grilled vegetables to such a state. Our resident Greek was disappointed with the lamb as she didn’t like the flavouring they’d used on it. I couldn’t identify this flavouring but found the lamb flavour quite strong which I liked but others may not and the lamb slightly overcooked. One of our party ordered her own main, pastitsio ($24.00) which she enjoyed; it seemed to be a hearty sized portion, more like the taverna food I’ve had before.

The dessert menu was full of the almost-sickly sweet traditional treats we all know and love, so we shared four between us – baklava ($12.50), galatktoboureko ($13.50), a hard semolina custard with cherries, loukamades ($12.50), fried round donuts with a honey syrup and kataifi ($14.50), a vermicelli dessert served with ice cream. A fifth, risogalo ($12.50), was quickly added by a rice-pudding lover. All were extremely sweet, as expected, but very well done. For drinks the others had wine served in karafaki ($20) and a sparkling water was $5. Many of us had tea and coffee which were decently priced ($3.50 for coffee and $4.50 for a small plunger of tea).

I must mention what seems to be the big issue facing Hellenic Republic. We were asked by the staff many times if we felt the portions were adequate as other diners have apparently complained they are too small; we replied we felt they were adequate. I’ll qualify this by saying we’d had a bit of bread before starting eating and it was an all-female table – perhaps a large hungry bloke used to big slabs of food found at the traditional Greek taverna might find otherwise. But with food that’s light but extremely flavoursome we generally found the portions fine and in the ones we didn’t, ordered more without it breaking the bank.

The wonderful surprise of the evening came with the bill, $335.50 for eight. We hadn’t held back in ordering extra dishes we particularly loved and quailed at some of the prices (I’d wondered about the $12.50 desserts until I realised there was no way even I could eat a whole one) so were expecting to pay $80 or more a head… and this was less than $50 each including a tip.

Before I’d discovered George Calombaris’ Greek food, I’d gone off this cuisine after having too many stodgy, overcooked meals in fusty old tavernas. Hellenic Republic breathes new life into a cuisine which sorely needs it and will hopefully do for Greek food in this country what Movida did for tapas. I’m heading over to The Press Club as soon as I can afford to, and definitely back to Hellenic Republic soon.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Interview with D who knows a lot about food, in so many ways

I decided it was time to give my long-suffering partner a rest from my pregnancy whims and fancies, and at the same time visit an old friend D and his partner in Launceston, Tasmania. I first visited Tassie, as it’s known here in Australia, 10 years ago and have been back 3 times now. It’s one of the most beautiful and dramatic places on earth, without being too rugged or inaccessible, and it has what I think is the best produce in Australia. Its cheese, wines, oysters, berries, and apples are wonderful and plentiful.
D and I met at university many years ago and have stayed in touch; partly I think because of our common interest in all things food - its production, recipes and the anthropological and social role it plays in our lives. We also both grew up with mothers who shunned processed food, making their own yoghurt, bread, sweets and cheese, ensuring our palates crave simplicity, freshness and authenticity in food.
I love to discuss food with D as I know he will always have interesting and sometimes provocative opinions on it. He initially studied biology at university, which means his production of food is incredibly well informed. He is very environmentally conscious and wastes little. D’s arts studies as a mature-age student means he’s also trained to look at life from a sociological and anthropological viewpoint.
D’s current lifestyle involves a home with a large kitchen garden in Tasmania, most recently combined with a job which enabled him to travel, sampling many different food cultures. D takes none of this for granted as you will see from this interview-which is a little dated now as it was done in mid-winter. It’s a long interview, but so rich in content and interesting I have really struggled to edit it at all (hence the late publication).
If you like what D has to say, check out his blog at

What have you been making lately?
Yoghurt, bread, cottage cheese, labneh (middle-eastern yoghurt cheese), curing olives, sprouts, my partner makes amazing green tea ice-cream and wonderful quince paste. None of these things are difficult at all, yet all require patience.

What food are you growing at the moment?
We’re very fortunate to have a large suburban veggie garden in Launceston and are revelling in it after our smaller inner-urban garden beds in Melbourne. Broadbeans are a regular in our winter veggie garden. They help replenish the soil’s nitrogen content and they taste brilliant. When you grow your own you can enjoy the young bean pods whole as well as the more traditional mature bean seeds. I’ve planted out the bed that had tomatoes in it over summer as tomatoes are heavy feeders and the soil will benefit from the nitrogen. We’ve got an enormous amount of self seeded coriander and dill, as well as two rhubarb plants that are doing famously. Our artichokes are getting bigger and better every time I see them, and I can’t wait to see the first flower buds forming in spring. We’ve got silverbeet (always) and rainbow chard, as well as two varieties of broccoli, the early variety was just forming heads when I left home. I also recently planted out about 25 cloves of local organic garlic I bought from the green grocer – splendid tightly held purple cloves. I hope mine grow as well as the heads I’ve torn them from – I’m hopeful as their stalks were about 15 cm high at the time I departed. We’ve also got a few celery plants, and they’ve been a revelation. They’ve been really easy to grow and the stems are incredibly delicious: crispy and brightly flavoured. A huge favourite, especially used alongside the celery for hearty ribolitta over winter, are our cavelo nero (black Tuscan Kale) plants. Not only do they taste brilliant, rich and loamy like I hope our soil will be one day, they look brilliant. Radish, chervil, various lettuce, sorrel and Italian parsley fills some of the gaps. I haven’t had much luck with chervil to date, but am pleased that the seeds have germinated this time, so I’m hopeful we’ll be adding it to our winter salads soon. I’ve also planted some horseradish in a large pot as an experiment. It can be a terrible weed, hence the pot, but I’m curious to see if I can make some horseradish from its roots.
Outside the veggie garden we’ve also got two young grape vines and some young fruit trees: two apples, two pears, nectarine, quince, peach, apricot, orange, kaffir lime, a black fig, lemon and apple.

I know you also like the work of Michael Pollan. Tell me about your general attitude towards food.
I guess I share with Michael Pollan a distrust of processed food, a belief that good nutrition naturally grows from a strong and sensitive relationship with food rather than obsessing about specific ingredients and nutrients, a barely suppressed despair about the way we interact with our environment and what this may mean for the future, and a distrust of the line that is so often drawn between nature and culture. Food is one of life’s necessities and as it’s at the heart of life and the nature/culture debate it’s unsurprising that we both give it special significance. I’m not the pedant he is when it comes to investigating all aspects of it – even though I love to read the results of such pedantry. What I truly believe is that if you keep it simple, and play an active role in the production and/or preparation of the food you eat you’re in for a rich, and I suspect healthy and ethically sound, life.

Has a training in biology influenced the way you produce and eat food?
While I don’t often think about it, my excitement about making vinegar, yoghurt and bread – which is really enjoying the actions of bacteria and fungi - or observing the biological processes at play in the garden are clearly linked to my early interest in science and nature. Nevertheless, I’d have to say my interest in food, gardens and the poetry of domestic life is equally influenced by my humanities studies (in cultural studies, art history, and studies in religion)

Are there any plants that we don't use as food that you think should or could be eaten? if so, how should they be prepared?
There are a huge number of people/cultures and academics around the world that can answer this question for me. As multicultural as Australia is, the number of plant varieties that it eats is quite small – both in comparison to many other parts of the world and what has been consumed in the past. We can thank industrial agriculture for that as much as our British heritage. Just open a seed catalogue from someone like Eden Seeds, Diggers or the Lost Seed Company and marvel at the variety, despair at what we’ve lost and then act.

Your current job involves a lot of travel. What interesting food or ways of cooking have you discovered on your travels?
I always favour the low-end of the food market, although I find this less easy in China due to language difficulties. Thankfully I usually travel with a Chinese colleague who is a great food-lover and this makes things very very enjoyable. The huge array of foods in China has been a revelation – each province, even each city in a province, offers different, often vastly different, food.

Some of the best food I’ve eaten was in Xian – and, more than anywhere else, I was awakened to the fact that eating food is eating a place’s history. At the end of the Silk Road you’re eating the legacy of the Muslim traders who traveled that route: cumin and chilli encrusted breads, dense, drizzled with oil and grilled over hot coals. Delicately spiced lamb dumplings, steamed and, somehow miraculously, filled with a light broth. Glutinous rice dessert with red bean paste, drenched in a rose-water infused syrup. You can’t beat it – inexpensive, unpretentious and exquisite. Likewise the firey food of Sichuan, or the lovely simple food of Shandong province: steamed fish with a little chilli and spring onion; roughly chopped tomatoes braised with beaten eggs and broccoli steamed and served with a touch of salt and garlic – almost Mediterranean in its simplicity.

Do you think we have much to learn from the food culture of other countries?
Nearly everywhere I’ve traveled has a lively street food culture with the exception of Singapore and parts of the Middle East, both of which still sell street-style food, but rarely if ever on the street. I get so enthralled, and jealous, when walking through the streets of Malaysia and China in particular. There is such a wide range of very inexpensive and fresh foods available. Furthermore it provides the opportunity for those with very limited capital to establish a small business. The globalization of fast food culture is quite depressing – seeing the same bland processed food products around the world. Especially despairing is seeing these brands being positioned as luxury restaurants, when the quality and nutritional value is so lacking, especially in comparison to the marvellous, inexpensive and often far more healthy local food on offer.

Australia can seem so terribly dull upon returning – I have a beautiful life at home, and I’m sure many others do to, but I am sometimes saddened by the British and American influence of staying in. Europe, the Middle East and all of Asia have such a vibrant and accessible public life, and food has such a big part to play in this.

I also admire the way these cultures use absolutely everything from the animals they slaughter. While I can’t abide offal, eyes, duckheads, and more, I think that it’s great that others do. On the flipside, I am concerned about the huge waste that occurs too – hospitality is such a big part of business and community. To show hospitality means putting on a great meal – a really great meal, far bigger than anyone could hope to eat. To eat all your food is an insult, as it suggests you weren’t given enough. To compensate people put on enormous banquets, and so much food is wasted. I have to say I prefer the “eat your broccoli or you won’t get dessert” approach.