Hanoi’s culinary delights are streets ahead
THE HUNGRY TOURIST
THE sensitive Western palate may baulk at some of the more exotic Asian dishes and eating from street stalls can be risky, but in Hanoi many of the best light meals can be found at holes in the wall where the quick turnover means the food is fresh. And, of course, it’s cheap. Delicious meals served on banana leaves cost as little as $2.
Vietnamese cooking is famous for its fresh ingredients, a point emphasised by former Melbourne chef and author Tracey Lister, who has lived in Hanoi for 11 years, as she guides us through Chau Long market, five minutes’ walk from the Hanoi Cooking Centre she started in 2009.
‘‘Families shop twice a day, so everything is fresh,’’ Lister says as we wind our way past trestle tables groaning with meat, a staggering variety of vegetables and fruit, tanks of fish, chickens in cages and barrels of noodles only hours old. If a stallholder runs out of, say, pork they simply ring an abattoir, which kills and delivers right away.
Back at Lister’s school I continue this fascinating half-day market visit and cooking course with a dozen other tourists. We learn to make pho bo (beef noodle soup), West Lake prawn cakes, pho cuon (beef in rice noodle wraps), nuoc cham (a fishy dipping sauce) and nom xoai xanh (green papaya salad).
Not everyone gets the hang of it first go and
MICHAEL FOUNTOULAKIS there is much hilarity, but we get to eat everything we have made in Lister’s popular cafe upstairs. Beverages are included — a local brew, Hanoi Beer, goes down a treat.
Lister fell in love with Vietnam on a holiday and nowdivides her time between running the cooking school and helping with Koto, a notfor-profit vocational training program for street and disadvantaged youth. Established in 1999 with a small sandwich shop, it has trained more than 500 people, all of whom have gone on to full-time jobs in restaurants and hotels.
For lunch, head to Koto on Van Mieu, opposite Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. It’s spotlessly clean and a relief from the hustle and bustle. The young staff love to practise their English and are keen to discuss the menu, which changes every four months. Today, lunch includes vegetable and rare beef salad with lotus root, carrot, onion, cucumber, bean sprouts and Vietnamese mint in a sweet and sour dressing; poached prawn and glass noodle salad with carrot, red onion, cucumber, chilli, tomato and fresh herbs; and banana flower salad with pork, prawns and mixed herbs in a crispy tofu skin. The cost is about $5.
Lister has suggested we also try dinner at the program’s other success story, Pots ’n’ Pans, run by Koto graduates with support from Australian investment company Small Giants. In a converted old terrace house, it has a contemporary bar downstairs and a spacious and stylish restaurant upstairs with minimalist decor and French doors leading to a veranda overlooking a busy street.
The menu’s innovative cuisine is so tantalising that we decide to share a range of dishes, including crispy-skin sea bass with prawn and ginger boudin, house-made sesame noodles, chilli jam, tamarind and coconut sauce and crispy shallot and herb salad. Lime leaf and lotus seed coconut creme brulee with pistachio and strawberry jelly makes for an irresistible dessert. A bottle of Chateau La Gamaye merlot cabernet sauvignon ($28) brings the bill to $88 for two.
The food is superb and the young staff professional and charming. We return to our hotel with an armful of brochures and insist the concierge recommends Pots ’n’ Pans to guests. Lyndall Crisp attended Hanoi Cooking Centre as a guest of Buffalo Tours.
Former Melbourne chef Tracey Lister