The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Monday, 11 April 2016

Street food in Hanoi Part 1: banh cuon, xoi xeo and banh xeo

I believe that the best way to experience the culture and cuisine of a foreign place is to explore the streets. Our hotel concierge in Hanoi was a wealth of information on good street food in the Old Quarter and nearby, and we were not disappointed with any of his suggestions. Here are some of the eats we enjoyed during our short stay in Hanoi last summer.

Banh cuon

Banh cuon reminded me of the Malaysian chee cheong fun and the Hong Kong cheong fun - thin rolled rice crêpe-like sheet filled with pork, chicken or shrimps, and other ingredients. It is a light dish, usually eaten for breakfast in Vietnam, but we enjoyed it for a late supper. We liked banh cuon, and enjoyed both the chicken and pork versions (but we agreed the pork one was more tasty out of the two). Though this is traditionally a breakfast item, the banh cuon shop was doing a roaring business at 8pm.

The shop front:

The English menu:

Banh cuon with the dipping sauce:

Generous topping of fried shallots and leafy green herbs:

Banh Cuon Gia Truyen Thanh Van
14 Hang Ga
Hoan Kiem, Old Quarter
Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel. +84 4 38 28 01 68

Xoi xeo

Our hotel guy noted down 'sticky rice' on the map at this location, which had a large banner that said Xoi Cat Lam. I am familiar with many Asian glutinous rice dishes, both sweet and savoury, but this was unlike any I've encountered. We had no idea what or how to order, but a guy who could speak a bit of English understood when I said "sticky rice", and gave us a bowl of xoi xeo, a yellow dish made of glutinous rice cooked with turmeric and topped with yellow mung bean that had been steamed whole, ground, shaped into balls and then sliced. Fried shallots was the final garnish. The ingredients and flavour of xoi xeo may be simple, but it was a textural delight: soft sticky rice with the slightly gritty mung bean paste and crunchy shallots. Great on its own, or accompanied by one of the meat dishes also available at the shop.

Xoi xeo:

Xoi Cat Lam
24 Duong Thanh
Cua Dong, Hoan Kiem
Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: +84 4 62 61 99 55

Banh xeo

Banh xeo is one of our favourite things to order at Vietnamese restaurants, so I was quite happy to see this recommendation on the map. I could finally try this dish in its homeland! The shop was tiny, and we could smell the delicious greasy aroma before we could see where it originated from. There's one cook hard at work in her tiny workspace at the front of the shop, doling out banh xeo after banh xeo to satisfy the hungry hordes of customers in her shop. Service was quick and efficient, and we got our crispy pancakes in no time at all.

This lady had 9 stoves going all at once!

The food served on our table, with rice paper, leafy herbs and a dipping sauce:

Delicious and hot, fresh from the pan:

Banh Xeo shop
22 Hang Bo
Hoan Kiem, Old Quarter
Hanoi, Vietnam

Miscellaneous snacks

This vendor operated out of a tiny shop space on the same street as our hotel. Plenty of colourful snacks to entice one particular pregnant lady in search for street snacks. They were amazingly cheap so I bought a few to bring back to the hotel room where hubby was keeping an energetic 6-year-old quiet while his toddler sister napped.

Clockwise from the green-topped layer cake on the left: banh chin tang may ('cloud 9 cake'), banh xu xe (tapioca and mung bean cake), che con ong (glutinous rice cooked with sugar), and banh xoai dua (coconut and black sesame dumpling). The coconut and black sesame ball that looked very similar to Japanese mochi was our favourite):

This was wrapped in banana leaf, likely to be banh tet - glutinous rice log with a mung bean filling. This was not sweet, but neither was it very savoury, quite bland flavour, so it was our least favourite out of the five:

This post covers only half of our street eats, so stay tuned for more.

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