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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The 10 Best Things I Ate & Drank in Vietnam

The month of December always puts me in the mood to ponder my year in review.  Today, I’m thinking about the many pleasures I had during 2014 in Vietnam.  In particular, I’m remembering the glorious culinary delectables of this exotic country.  Some of my favorite meals of this entire year were in Vietnam.  Here’s a recap of what floated to the top of my Vietnamese best:

                                                      Chicken egg rolls with a crunch

1. Numero uno has to be the panko-crusted egg rolls we made during a cooking demo at one of my favorite restaurants.  I’ve made these several times since I’ve returned and I always hear the exact same words from my guests:  “This is the best egg roll I have ever eaten!”

                            Exquisitely delicate tea leaf flowers decorate the middle

2.  A close second is the salad made with tea leaf flowers that we had in the home of one of Saigon’s master fruit carvers.  The salad was delicate but had an amazing depth of flavors and textures. 
                                  BBQ beetle nut leaves filled with a gorgeous melange of beef

3.  Jockeying for top honors with the two above is the minced beef cooked in a beetle nut leaf.  While it looked like a stuffed Armenian grape leaf from the outside, the beetle nut version was much more complex.  Adding to the complexity, no doubt, was the fact that it had been grilled over wood.  Definitely a winner.

                                       Dried snow mushrooms for my over-flowing suitcase

 4.  Stir fry vegetables with wild “snow” mushrooms had me at hello.  I was so taken by the taste of these exquisite mushrooms that I immediately had our driver transport me to the nearest market where I purchased a suitcase full of the dried version to bring home.  Let it snow, let it snow!

                  I ordered "the works," a melange of meat pâté, duck, and super fresh veggies

5.  I’m not necessarily an Anthony Bourdain fan, but when I watched his television show on his best “banh mui” in Vietnam I was intrigued as my Vietnamese friend in America had always spoken so fondly of these street sandwiches made on a baguette.  Bourdain nailed this one.  I ate one 2 days in a row at the place he recommended.  It was exquisite.

                     Banh xeo is always eaten in small bites wrapped in accompanying fresh greens

6.  While we ate at some of Vietnam’s noted culinary shrines, we also ate with a local foodie on a tour of her favorite street foods.   This place was only reachable by foot as the streets are too narrow for cars.  We sat in the middle of the street on plastic chairs at small tables that could have easily been in a kindergarten classroom.  Their specialty was banh xeo, a fusion of the French crepe with an Chinese egg fu yung.   

                                   Royal duck was served in this palatial restaurant

7.  Royal duck is one of the most famous dishes of Hue, the former capital of Vietnam during the time it was ruled by Emperors.  It is so named because it was created by the Emperor’s chef for one of the many royal feasts.  The only way to get the recipe was to bring a group here and have a cooking class, so that is exactly what I am doing in 2016.


                           Lotus flowers are used in many food dishes in Vietnam, as well as tea

8.   My Vietnamese friend from Los Angeles often speaks fondly of lotus tea…it’s apparently one of the few things she can't find imported into the US.   Although I didn’t know what it was when it was served to me in a very upscale restaurant, but after my first sip I knew it was special.  Upon inquiring, I found out it was lotus tea.  I bought a year’s supply to bring home.

                                            Think of it as the world's most decadent cappucino

9.  Our foodie guide in Hanoi insisted on taking us for the city’s famous egg-cream-coffee.  It sounded hideous to me and I asked for other options.  Luckily, she wouldn’t budge.  This could have been served in France in a Michelin three star restaurant and everyone would have raved.  Definitely rock-star status, and it will definitely be on the 2016 tour.

                             Coffee is very popular in Vietnam thanks to the French occupation

10.  Last but not least is Vietnamese coffee in general.  I was stunned on the first morning of arrival in the country when I found my group in the breakfast room totally enamored with their coffee.  It took one sip to win me over.  And, yes, I brought home 5 pounds of it but it didn’t last long.  Luckily, because of the huge Vietnamese population in California, there are several stores that I can buy it.  (BTW…every morning I start the day with a cappuccino made from Vietnamese coffee.)

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