I LOVE looking at our pictures from Southeast Asia, perhaps it's a bit self-absorbed, but the memories seem almost surreal and the photo reflections are proof that it did indeed happen and it was indeed wonderful. We certainly have our fair share of smiles interspersed through the digital "rolls" of film, and they stand out alongside the food shots and the landscapes. So that you have a better idea of this remarkable place, I'd be happy to share our Hoi An travels in a three part series; the edible, the visual, and the human connectivity - and of course along with that, their joie de vivre.
I had a theory about the way Vietnamese food was going to be before I arrived. Aside for copious amounts of pho soup, I envisioned endless basil and mint leaves, chewy rice paper and main plates of green, orange, shades of brown and red peppers. As we rolled along the railways, we passed the chartreuse yellow and green rice fields lending to the most important staple food, rice. And while it was present, I was swooned by many more multiplicities of taste and food stuffs.
Sinh tố xoài"The best things in life come in a cup," you can quote me on that, and for that reason this all-in-one fruit cocktail was without a doubt one of the most memorable and repeated meals of our trip, because, well it just was that good. We were indefatigable in our attempt to express our content with our sinh to makers, two adorable Vietnamese women - one pregnant and still working all day on her feet - who memorized our orders, and meticulously and patiently cracked coconuts when I asked for a to-go bag. More on why I am grateful for sinh to and believe all travelers should be.
Che Me Den
What might look like nefarious black sludge is actually a sweet black sesame dessert, known as che me den. Baby food-like in texture, but much more complex flavor wise, and apparently very healthy for the body and skin.
Rice flour, coconut milk, dried shrimp, saffron cooked over a hot skillet and served with fresh greens, primarily basil, lettuce, shiso and a funny smelling one which I am not a fan (but Antonio was). As well as the accompaniment of peanut sauce with fish sauce.
Flanked by water, Hoi An, Vietnam offered a ride range of options for omnivores and pescatarians. One afternoon cruising the countryside on our rented motorbike found us at 'The End of the World', which I should note almost didn't find us there, since you'll likely feel that you are very far from your destination and may even consider turning around - but don't, continue on the "straight and narrow" until you reach the beach.
By far the largest shrimp I've ever tried (served with a pepper lime sauce) and a peanut and onion stuffed squid - both well worth the trip.
Lunch at The End of the World Restaurant in the outskirts of Hoi An, Vietnam in Phuoc Hai Fishing Village.
I can't say whether it was the sodium or the sentiment that came along with eating pho, the warming and deep flavors that dance on your tongue and the back of your throat like a pleasant run-in with gingerbread, but we had trouble having anything but pho for breakfast the entire time we were in Vietnam. Even the gesture of toast and butter from our home-stay hosts was dreadful, and authentic was ultimately where we wanted to be and what we wanted to experience. So, that meant rolling out of bed to rise and shine with the locals as they double-parked their motorbikes and scooters and hurried hot sips of soup and beef into their children's mouths before school or work. This is clearly the breakfast of champions.
Pho, Hoi An, Vietnam
The omnipresent sandwich becomes that much cooler when fusion collides. That's what happened with báhn mi, where French bread and paté meets Eastern goodness and freshness. I can not claim the fame of the invention, but I can certainly vouch for my compulsive desire to munch on a noon or 2pm snack, justifying a 3 mile round trip for one incredible bite.
French bread mini baguettes stay hot and crisp (while moist inside) at a street vendor's stall, Hoi An, Vietnam.
Báhn mi opla (egg) at Phuong Báhn Mi, the now famous (thanks to Mr. Anthony Bourdain) to-go only food stand in tailor laden Hoi An. Egg or no egg, either will whet the appetite of even the Grinch in your family.
Shipbuilders take a midday break for a bountiful bowl of rice noodles, egg, pork, lime, bean sprouts, shrimp, cilantro, chili sauce and peanuts, and not to be missed, fish sauce.
- Bakeries also exist with gussied up versions of Western birthday cakes and kaleidoscope mooncakes.
- Find the wet markets and take in the ambrosial scents, bearing the pho star anise, cardamon, ripe mangos and bananas and the more exotic soursops, as well as toasted coconut.
Now I dare you to go home, back to your home country, your standard diet...