I fell in love with Vietnamese food as a young uni student in Sydney. One of my besties introduced me to Pho Bo (rare beef rice noodle soup) and I was hooked. A couple of years ago the same friend and I went on a food tour of Cabramatta – Sydney’s Little Vietnam – with Jennifer Lam of ‘I ate my way through’ food tours. It was loads of fun and so tasty! I recently was fortunate enough to go on a holiday to Vietnam with my mum. I had wanted to do both of these things for a long time – to travel somewhere overseas with my mum and to visit Vietnam to eat, eat and eat!
We started in the south and worked our way north. From Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An, then up to Hanoi for a few days, a side trip to Ha Long Bay and then returned to Hanoi to finish off our trip. It was a really interesting holiday. I learnt so much about Vietnamese culture and the impact that the war had, and continues to have, on so many Vietnamese people. The food was brilliant – there were lots of different foods that I had never seen on the menus of Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, and all of it offering such great value.
In the picturesque coastal town of Hoi An, we went on a street food tour with Neville, an expat Aussie with an incredible passion for sharing all he has learnt about Vietnamese street food and culture. We started out with a Sinh to trai cay (a delicious fruit, crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk drink) opposite a locals produce market. We then meandered through the market where Neville talked us through a great variety of different vegetables, fruits, seafood and noodles. We then walked up laneways and down narrow streets, exploring Hoi An, all the time eating like kings. We tried foods from street vendors, tiny ‘locals’ restaurants, and ate at three proper restaurants. At each of the restaurants mouthful size portions were provided to each of us of a huge variety of traditional foods – allowing us to taste them all (but ensuring we had room enough to squeeze in every last morsel of the more than 40 foods we tried that day!). We slurped down Dau Hu (hot silken tofu with sweet ginger syrup), crunched through delicious Banh mi (Vietnam’s baguette filled with all sorts of delights), delighted in Banh xeo (regional specialty rice flour crepe with pork and shrimp wrapped in rice paper), reveled in a complex Pho bo (rare beef noodle soup), and enjoyed the regional specialty dish of Cau lau (local noodles with pork, salad greens, crunchy croutons and a flavoursome stock).
The food in Vietnam is not only delicious, exciting, healthy and laden with textures. It is also very diverse, with distinct differences between northern and southern style foods. Vietnamese food offers unbeatable value – for often much less than $1 US we enjoyed steaming bowls of noodle soup, banh mi exploding with flavour, and delicious Vietnamese iced coffee. Restaurant food was a touch more expensive – we usually spent around $2-5 per person for a filling meal including alcohol or a fresh fruit drink.
The street food tour in Hoi An is a must-do for anyone interested in learning more about Vietnamese cuisine. Other culinary highlights were Bun Bo (beef with rice noodles) at Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi, Nem cua da in Hanoi and an incredible fancy meal at an off-the-tourist track restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City named Dat Ban Truoc (for around $15 US per person including alcohol).
I’ll leave you today with a Vietnamese-inspired tofu and rice noodle salad that is a staple in my house. I often make a big bowl of this salad, minus the tofu, to take to barbeques and there are never leftovers. The Nuoc cham dressing recipe was given to me by Jennifer Lam on my street food tour of Cabramatta. I’ve tried loads of different versions since then, but I keep coming back to this one (I like it more than most I try in restaurants!)
Vietnamese-inspired tofu noodle salad
Nuoc Cham Dressing
Makes 1 ½ cups dressing
Leftovers will keep for 2 weeks in a sealed jar in the fridge
¼ cup caster sugar
½ cup warm water
¼ cup good quality fish sauce (Megachef™ or Three Crabs™ are my preferred brands)
¼ cup white vinegar
2-4 red birdseye chillies, finely chopped (test for heat 1st)
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½-1 lime, juiced (depends on the amount of juice you get out of it)
In a jar large enough to hold all the ingredients, dissolve sugar in warm water by shaking well. Add fish sauce, vinegar, chillies, garlic and juice of ½ lime only to start. Replace lid and shake well. Taste –it should taste salty, sweet, sour and spicy. It may need more lime or fish sauce. Adjust to taste. This keeps in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or so and is delicious on all sorts of salads.
Makes enough for 4 individual size bowls of noodles
350 g firm tofu
1 cm piece of fresh turmeric, finely grated/minced (or ½ tsp powdered turmeric)
1 birds-eye chilli, finely diced
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp peanut oil
See below in salad method
Makes a big bowl! Serves 4-5 as part of a meal.
250 g rice vermicelli (bean thread) noodles
1 spring onion (shallot), very finely sliced
1 Lebanese cucumber, grated (using an Asian-style peeler if possible) and excess liquid squeezed out
1 carrot, grated (using an Asian-style peeler if possible)
½ punnet cherry tomatoes, quartered
¼ red cabbage, very finely sliced on a mandolin
Handful of snow peas or super-fresh green beans, finely sliced on the diagonal into thin strips
½ cup coriander leaves, picked
½ cup dill leaves, picked
¼ cup red shiso leaves, picked
Small handful of mint leaves
Generous handful of roasted, unsalted peanuts, roughly crushed in a mortar and pestle (or chopped with a knife)
- Dice a block of firm tofu into 1.5 cm cubes. Place in a bowl and add all the marinade ingredients. Set aside to allow flavours to infuse.
- Prepare dressing following the method above.
- Prepare noodles. Place dry noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Set aside for 5 minutes. Test a noodle – you want it to be al dente. When ready, drain in a strainer and refresh under cold water. Allow to sit in strainer to drain all the water. You can add a sprinkle of sesame oil to toss through the noodles to prevent them from sticking together. Set aside.
- In a large bowl assemble salad. Start with the noodles, and add vegetables, tossing them through the noodles to distribute evenly throughout the dish.
- To cook the tofu, heat a non-stick fry pan or wok to medium-high heat and add half the oil. In two batches, cook the tofu cubes. Cooking in two batches prevents over-crowding in the pan, and gives a much better result. You want them to brown up evenly on the edges and become a little crisp and caramelized, so toss them occasionally. Set aside to complete the salad.
- Add most of the picked dill and coriander leaves. Add shiso, tearing large leaves into smaller pieces.
- Finely slice or tear mint leaves (I always leave this to the last moment to prevent too much discolouration).
- Add a few tablespoons of the dressing (to moisten but not drown). Toss salad gently.
- To serve, scatter remaining dill and coriander on top, sprinkle with crushed peanuts and top with a teaspoon of the finely sliced spring onion.
- Add a few extra spoons of dressing on to finish or leave dressing on the side for everyone to choose their desired flavour level! Serve immediately.