Friday, April 16, 2010

Memorable Meals: Hoi An

It's sad to say, but even with all the great tourist reasons to visit Hoi An, food is not high on that list. Most of the cafes, restaurants and bars that occupy the cute colonial buildings in the old quarter are too westernize and average.

There is a large food court of outdoor vendors occupying a large section of one streets near the river, but all those vendors sell the exact same famous Hoi An dishes and taste exactly the same, but the prices can't be beat and they do sell a great rendition of fried wontons, served with shrimp ceviche that consisted of tomatoes, onion and mangos. Tangy delicious and refreshing.

Knowing from experience, we stayed away from the restaurants along the main road and all the restaurants in the old quarter area, except for the french bakeries that served the most decadent desserts, pastries and pastas and for pennies compared to the costs of the same food at home. But one can't live off of sweets, so the best place to get an incredible meal in Hoi An is the cute wet market.

We were desparate for the amazing Vietnamese banh mi baguette sandwiches, but the vendor was not there - d'oh. Hopefully just enjoying their Tet New Year holiday. We simply moved deeper into the market and pulled up a plastic chair at our favorite Cau Lau vendor.

Cau Lau is a regional noodle dish that gets is distinctive flavor from an ancient well dug out by the Cham people. Rumor also has it that the noodles are made from a special rice grain and lye solution made from trees grown on a nearby Cham island.

Who knows about all the mythical rumors of the noodles, all we can say is it is tasty! The thick chewy noodles are unlike any other noodles you'll find in Vietnam. The noodles are texture and soul warming comfort food more than anything, but goes well with the thick juicy slices of pork, which tasted of five-spice and oily fat, the main flavor of this dish. Amazingly light and refreshing while still being satifyingly filling. Along with earthy peppery greens that gives the whole dish pop. Add in some chilis and crispy fried pork rinds and the whole dish provides everything from flavor, texture and taste. Divine.

Our favorite vendor also sold a fantastic bowl of Mi Quang. Unlike the bowl of Mi Quang we had in DaNang, the noodles were tumeric'd and perfectly added color and flavor. The same five-spice pork used in the Cau Lau topped the dry noodle dish. Add in some shrimp, peanuts and a hard boiled egg along with chopped minced pork from the broth and crispy fried wonton - delicious.

Vietnamese open markets are a collaborative effort. Our hostess vendor asked if we wanted something to drink. A beer? Sure - shouts to the beverage lady two stalls down. Don't those mini savory Vietnamese crepes my neighbor vendor making look inticing? Yes, they do and another reason we came and sat at your stall - BANH KHOI!!!

In the south parts of Vietnam these crepes are HUGE and called Banh Xeo for the sizzling noise the batter makes when it hits the wok. Central Vietnam's version are smaller and come wrapped in rice paper for a sizzling crepe roll. Incredibly delicious. Being able to sit and see the vendors' outdoor kitchens and how our fantastic meal is pre-formed and ready to go for the next customer was priceless. We learned a few new tricks that's for sure!

We were feeling generous and decided to try another vendor's Bun Bo Hue, a spicy central beef soup that my dad rocks back home. Spicy looking oily broth - ok; nice slices of beef shank - ok; small rice noodles - ok; but tastewise - terrible. Can't have it all I guess.

We left the market happy and full and continued our day with errands of tailor shop fittings and going for the shopping kill after pricing out souvenirs and must have items. Then dinner time came and knowing the market closed in the evenings we were left wandering around hoping to spot something good.

If all else we could manage another night of boring westernized food in a nice cafe. That is until we fortuitously stumbled upon an authentic Indian restaurant. We've said it before and we'll say it again Indian Food found in SE Asia is phenomenial and we found in Vietnam that is particularly true.

The availability of all the fresh ingredients found in Indian food makes for a dynamic melting of cultures and we thoroughly enjoyed our final dinner in Hoi An.

Buttery crispy garlic naan and incredibly fragrant chutneys

Lamb vindiloo was fantastically spicy. So much so that after each bite of the tender lamb, we'd have to take a few bites of basmati rice to cool it all down a bit. Now that's how vindiloo should be!

And a spicy mustard seed potato dish that rivaled the spiciness of the vindiloo lamb.

Definitely a memorable meal to mark the end of our time in Hoi An.

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