Eating the city: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

There’s really no such thing as bad food in Saigon, but there were definitely favourites that were done exceptionally well. Here’s what to look out for when you eat your way around the city…

 

Pandan waffles.
Soft and hot and chewy and ridiculously delicious, this is the street corner dessert dreams are made of. Don’t let the weird green colour put you off; look for it like a beacon if happiness when you pass the ladies on the streets manning their little carts.

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Banh mi.
Preferably pork. Don’t screw your nose up at the slathering of patê, because it’s magic mixed in with the pork and fresh herbs. The fresh baguettes have a shell like glass covering the cloud-soft inner. This was breakfast for us every morning in Saigon, and at under AUD$2.00 each, you’d be crazy not to!

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Fresh spring rolls.
If you see spring rolls on a menu, and you have the option for fresh and fried, try the fresh ones occasionally. When you’re hot and sweaty from walking around the city, sometimes a fresh prawn rice paper roll with a cold iced tea is exactly what you need without even realising it.

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Bun cha.
Again, preferably pork. Because a big bowl of vermicelli topped with juicy pork and fresh herbs and pickled veggies is the ultimate night market meal at the end of a big day. And out of Hoi An, Hanoi and Saigon, I liked the Saigon version best!

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Eat here: Miss Ly Cafe 22, Hoi An

Miss Ly Cafe 22
22 Nguyen Hue St

Once we worked out half way through our stay in Hoi An that cao lau is a dish unique to the city, we ate as much of it as we could – at one stage, I believe we had three bowls in 24 hours, with one of our stops being at the beautiful Miss Ly’s restaurant.

Cao lau’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Some say it came from Chinese traders, others say it was the Japanese. Other legends claim that the unique flavour comes from the water used to make it, taken from a certain well of an undisclosed location. The noodles are traditionally made from the ash of firewood, with several different stories claiming as many different types of wood to be the proper one to use. And, of course, every family has their own recipe to make their broth. There’s no definitive answer for the one way to make it, but that doesn’t matter – we tried a half dozen different cao laus, and they were all delicious! And the basics, just so you know, are noodles, broth, pork and fresh herbs/greens, topped with deep fried pieces of noodle.

Miss Ly’s in Hoi An is a popular place to get good cao lau if you need a bit of an air conditioned break from the street vendors. And when it’s as hot as it was when we visited, you’re gonna need a break at some stage. Order a bowl of cao lau and an ice cold beer or green tea, and sit back and relax. People poured in and out non-stop while we were in there, and they were almost all ordering the same thing – for good reason. Soft, chewy noodles and a seriously flavourful broth make this one bowl of cao lau you should add to your “to eat” list in Hoi An! And when you get there, this is the shop front you’re looking for:

Eat here: Shinjuku Asia-yokochō (rooftop street food), Tokyo

Shinjuku Asia-yokochō
Rooftop of Dai 2 Towa Kaikan, 1-21-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku district, Tokyo

Time to throw it back to Tokyo for the day! Because I was scrolling through photos of the trip on my phone and I’d like to go back now. I found this place in the pages of my mini Pocket Tokyo Lonely Planet book, and loved the sound of a street food market set up on the rooftop in the middle of the city!

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It wasn’t the easiest to find – we had to stop into a few convenience stores to ask for help, so if you’re going to visit, I’d suggest saving the details (name, address, etc) in your phone so you can show that to someone in the area if you get lost like I did. When you finally find the right building, expect some dodgy looking guys offering to escort you up the elevator to the roof; they’re nice enough, but they’ll then try to steer you to their mates’ food stalls so you spend your cash there. A polite “thank you but we’d like to look around first” should suffice.

Once you’re finally on the rooftop, you’ll find all sorts of Asian food – Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Malaysian… the works. And they’re all licensed, too, so it’s a pretty popular place for the kids to meet up and hang out at.

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We chose a Singaporean place, where we were served by an absolutely lovely Nepalese guy who was a heap of fun to chat to! Multi coloured prawn crackers to get us started…

Along with some fresh salmon and avocado + garlic bread…

Followed by absolutely amazing Singaporean dumplings (actual flavour bombs)…

And the most phenomenal bacon dish in the world – little sausages and veggies with thick, greasy, absurdly tasty and salty bacon pieces. I’d go back just to eat this.

It was cheap and tasty, the service was unreal, the atmosphere was SO much fun, and when they started rolling back the roof tarps and I realised I was eating this incredible food under the stars on a rooftop in Tokyo, well… I mean, get better than that!

Eat here: Suzume no Oyado, Tokyo

Suzume no Oyado
Maruyamacho 9-3, Shibuya
Open from 5pm

 

We’ve all been there; an idea lodges itself within you, just a little side thought to start off with, and before you know it, that idea has taken on a life of its own and holds you hostage until you find a way to bring it to life, come hell or high water.

This category of ideas combined with my insurmountable stubbornness has been responsible for some of my bigger achievements in life, like self-publishing a cookbook, saving $10,000 in a year to use on travel while never missing a mortgage repayment, earning my taekwondo black belt, and having a new house built/getting engaged/getting married in the space of 12 months. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows though; that same volatile mix has also been the source of tears, heart break and a lot frustration on numerous occasions.

Anyway, it happened again while I was away; I had to find some good okonomiyaki in Tokyo.

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Unbeknownst to me, okonomiyaki isn’t really a Tokyo thing; it’s a lot more popular in Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. But I love the stuff, and Tokyo is a lot closer to Kyoto than Melbourne is, so I resolved to find a place that specialised in it. Easier said than done. After much Googling, one place kept popping up – Suzume no Oyado. And, unlike a lot of other places, it wasn’t far away from my Shinjuku hotel – located in Shibuya. My Googling said it opened at 11am, and I was already planning on revisiting Shibuya the next morning, so I added the address into my nifty little Tripomatic app and went to sleep, dreaming of Japanese pancakes…

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The next day, after a good morning out, I eventually made my way in the direction of the promised land at around 12pm. For someone with no sense of direction at home, I navigated my way there like a pro, though some dicey looking back alleys and past a string of night/strip clubs. I made it to the front door, according to the blue dot, but couldn’t see anything that even remotely resembled an eatery. I was stuck between a high gate and a small, rundown apartment block. I walked to the end of the street and showed the address I had on my phone to a guy watering his garden – yup, back the way you came from, it’s right there!

On the next pass, I noticed a small, neatly typed sign in kanji (Japanese letting) with only a few numbers wedged in between – 17:00 (more kanji) 23:00. I garnered that meant Google had led me slightly astray and hoped that it would re-open at 5pm. I left disappointed by not deterred.

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After a day of solo travel, my travel buddy and I decided to catch up for dinner. “I think I found an okonomiyaki place… we have to go through some dodgy-looking alleys and strip clubs to get there, but I reckon I can find it again. Keen?” My friends are idiots, and have blind faith in me when I say I know somewhere to eat, regardless of how dicey an area it may be in – off we went!

If the are looked a bit off during the day, it was text-book “what are you doing here?!” by night. And yet, the idea of getting okonomiyaki had me by the throat and wasn’t letting go. We pushed on, me leading like I knew what I was doing, my friend following only slightly apprehensively. Much to our relief, I actually found the place again without a problem, and this time, the gate had been slid open, lights on and red flag out. Thank goodness.

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Through the giant red curtain we went, ending up in what looked like someone’s (immaculately beautiful) front yard on the other side. We made our way up the path and through the front door, into the most vibrant, red foyer. A lady rushed to meet us before we crossed the threshold; despite not sharing a common language with which to communicate, she very clearly indicated that we were to go no further until our shoes had been removed and placed into one of the lockers provided.

Once that formality was observed, we were led up a staircase into a beautiful dining room, laid out with tatami mats and floor cushions. My travel buddy, quite a tall guy by their standards, promptly smacked his head on a low roof beam, starting the evening with a light concussion. Bloody foreigners…

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After lowering ourselves onto the floor and trying to fold our long legs under ourselves in a manner that would make a caravan of camels look graceful, our patient waitress handed over our menus. In Japanese. English? Her shaking head and pointing back to the menus we already held indicated not.

With no idea what the menus said, we waited a few minutes, then pressed the little bell on our table for service. The only part of the menu in English was the wine list, so I pointed to a glass of the house white; my friend used the one word he knew in Japanese, birru. And two okonomiyaki please, pork and prawn. We thought she understood, but it was anyone’s guess what we were going to get. She fired up the grill which took up most off the table and left us again.

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A few minutes later we had a bowl each of prawns, and another bowl with everything else, including the batter and egg. Having watched the girls sitting nearby, we mixed of all up, threw it on the grill, and cooked up dinner!

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While my favourite accompaniment, mayo, was missing, we had plenty of others to choose from – a rich BBQ sauce, bonito flakes (my other favourite), chili oil.., the works. And once they were cooked up and dressed, they were some of the best okonomiyaki we’d ever had!

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After committing the embarrassing faux pas of putting our shoes back on outside of the designated area and apologising profusely on our way out, we agreed it was easily one of the best dining experiences either of us has had – the fun of DIY, the danger of essentially using a hot grill as your dinner table, the deliciousness of the food and the process of actually finding the place makes for one hell of a night!

Eat here: Yummy Yummy Dim Sum, San Francisco

Yummy Yummy
758 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, USA

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Our first day in San Francisco was a pretty big one; Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Ghiradelli, Lombard Street.. There was a lot going on. Except for food.

We’d had a bit of a situation the night before at the airport, flying to the city from LAX, which necessitated dinner being a bag of Bugles just before boarding. Breaky was provided by the hotel and eaten on the run in transit to Alcatraz, and lunch was a quick seafood cocktail at Fisherman’s Wharf. Come dinner time, it was decided that a proper sit down meal was needed, and we figured the best place to find something delicious and at a decent price would be Chinatown – that’s always the place to check first in these situations!

We took the same approach we usually take – if it looks super busy with heaps of locals, it’s probably good. This place seemed pretty popular, and not another backpack or tourist in sight. Looked a bit sketchy from the outside, sure, but the food…

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For around USD$30 (including tip) we feasted on BBQ pork, pot stickers and the most insanely oversized pile of house fried noodles I have EVER seen in my life! Having unwittingly yet comfortable ordered enough food for 3, we nommed our way through some of the best Chinese either of us have had in a very long time. Oh, and we got complimentary fortune cookies at the end of the meal, too! Not sure how accurate mine was though..

Looks can be deceiving; if you’re in San Francisco and looking for something other than burgers and fries, hit up Yummy Yummy!

Eat here: N. Lee Bakery, Melbourne

N. Lee Bakery, Collingwood, Melbourne
220 Smith St, Fitzroy

I fell in love with the humble banh mi after eating a few in Vietnam; when they’re done freshly and properly, they’re just about the best sandwich you could possibly ask for. Traditionally, you’re looking at a super fresh, slightly crunchy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside roll, filled with pate, butter, grilled pork, cucumber, carrot, chilli and coriander. They’re the ultimate Vietnamese street food – super cheap (I can’t remember paying more than the equivalent of AUD $1.20 for one in Vietnam), hand held, and fresh (read: not deep fried).

Despite Melbourne’s huge Vietnamese population, I’ve been a little hesitant to start my banh mi hunt back at home, because I know what they’re meant to taste like now. What if my very high expectations are dashed? I can’t be wasting valuable calories and stomach space on crap food! But, alas, I had a craving for one, and cravings must be met. A quick fact finding mission led me to N. Lee Bakery. I was already familiar with the name, given the one on Collins St near the post office that I pass every now and then while I’m out running work errands. The one husband and I visited was the Smith St store. We rolled up just before 12pm on a sunny Saturday, and found ourselves around 8 deep in the already growing line. By the time we’d ordered and sat down to unwrap our sandwiches, we looked up and saw this line out the door. It was crazy!

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I was pretty excited to see in the window the sign advertising the day’ special – crackling pork! My favourite! Husband got the grilled pork. First up – insanely, unbelievably cheap! Mine cost $6.80, and husband’s $4.50 – I actually asked the lady to repeat herself when she asked for the total, because it sounded too cheap, especially considering how big the sandwiches actually were! No wonder the line was out the door! And check out the nice, crispy bits of pork in mine..

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The banh mi themselves – all reservations I had were instantly dashed on the first bite. It was easily as good as the stuff I ate in Vietnam, and made the same way, even down the the pate and butter smears to start the process. I had a few bites of husband’s sandwich too, and the pork in both was fantastic, really tasty and perfectly cooked. And stacked full, as you can see!

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Honestly, there’s nothing more I can say about the banh mi from N. Lee other than they’re making the best stuff I’ve had out of Vietnam, and I plan to make myself a regular visitor at the CBD one on lunch breaks!

Cook this: Easy pork bun cha

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I decided to make a version of my favourite Vietnamese dish for dinner the other night – bun cha. I grabbed out my very trusty cook book that I got at the Morning Glory Cooking School for some inspiration from Ms Vy’s version, which calls for minced pork patties.

Because I’m giving this whole low FODMAPs thing a go, it sadly lacked the shallots and garlic I’d have usually used, otherwise I really didn’t change a lot! After glancing quickly at the picture in the cook book for a little inspiration, I made up a quick and easy version that will be super easy to re-create for dinner even on the nights I’m in a bit of a hurry.

To make this quick and healthy bun cha for 2, you’re going to need:
– 300g minced pork
– finely grated zest of 1 lemon
– 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
– 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves
– 1 small shallot, finely diced, as well as 1 crushed clove of garlic (leave these out if you need it low FODMAPs!)

– rice noodles, as much as you want, cooked as per packet instructions
– 1 carrot, peeled and grated
– 1 cucumber, halved lengthways and thinly sliced
– fresh coriander and chives, to serve

To make the pork patties, combine all of the ingredients and mush them together with your hands. Roll them into balls and flatten slightly, cooking them for a few minutes on each side on a hot pan sprayed with cooking oil. Or, if your very Aussie husband is cooking them while you’re preparing the rest of the meal, cook them up on the BBQ. We are coming into BBQ weather, after all.

To serve, pop your noodles in a bowl. Add the carrot and cucumber, then the pork patties. Sprinkle some fresh coriander and chives over the top, and spoon some sweet and sour chilli sauce over it, too (recipe below). How easy is that?! It’s also highly advisable to double the quantities so you can have the leftovers for lunch the day after!

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SWEET CHILLI SAUCE – if you’re keen and want to make your own (which I’d recommend, it’s actually really easy!):
– 3 tbsp lemon juice
– 3 tbsp fish sauce
– 1 tbsp caster sugar
– 2 tbsp cold water
– 1 small shallot, diced and crushed a little
– 1 small red chilli, sliced

To make your chilli sauce, just combine everything in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. To be perfectly honest, this is not a perfect science; the taste can easily vary depending on your lemon and type of fish sauce, so it is absolutely imperative that you taste it and just adjust accordingly! Once it’s all done, just set it aside – left over sauce also keeps really well in the fridge for a week or so in an air-proof container or jar.