HANOI & NORTHERN VIETNAM
Because of Northern Vietnam’s colder climate, spice production in the region is limited. As a result, North Vietnamese food tends to be less spicy and more neutral in flavor compared to food from Central or Southern Vietnam. However, this hasn’t stopped the north from producing some of the country’s most iconic dishes. Nationwide favorites like phở, and bánh cuốn all hail from the north.
bún chả, one of Northern Vietnam’s most beloved dishes and the reason why bún thịt nướng is served everywhere in the country except Hanoi
. Like bún thịt nướng, bún chả is a charcoal-grilled pork dish served with cold vermicelli noodles (bún) and fresh greens like lettuce, perilla, coriander, and mint. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is in the preparation of the meat. The pork comes in meatball patty form, along with some grilled pork belly, and served in a soupy bowl of pickled vegetables that impart acidity to the dish. Unlike the ingredients of bún thịt nướng which are served together in one bowl, the components of bún chả – pork, noodles, greens, and nước chấm – are presented separately. Like phở and bánh mì, it’s one ò the best example of Vietnamese food and a must-try when in Hanoi.
Cà Phê Trứng (Egg Coffe)
Like bún chả, cà phê trứng or egg coffee is quintessentially Hanoi. As its name suggests, it’s a type of Vietnamese coffee made with egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk. Invented in Hanoi in the 1940s due to a shortage in milk, it’s prepared by vigorously beating egg yolks with condensed milk and coffee until frothy. Pour half a cup of freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee then top it with this fluffy egg mixture. What you wind up with is a frothy cup of joe that’s sweet, strong, eggy, and very rich.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng
This is one of Hanoi’s most beloved dishes. Named after the restaurant that popularized it over a hundred years ago, chả cá Lã Vọng is a classic Hanoi specialty of grilled turmeric-marinated catfish served with a forest of fresh dill.
Catfish caught from the rivers of Northern Vietnam are cut into matchbox-sized nuggets that are marinated in galangal, turmeric, and other spices. They’re grilled on charcoal before being brought out to pan fry on your table with heaping amounts of fresh dill and spring onions. Once ready, the nuggets of fish are served with rice vermicelli, roasted peanuts, and coriander, along with a dipping sauce made with nước chấm (fish sauce), vinegar, and garlic. If you like, you can also add a bit of Vietnamese shrimp paste (mắm tôm) mixed with lime juice. Smokey and aromatic, the fish is tender and flaky on the inside with a delicate, crisp caramelized coating. It’s seriously delicious and one of the best things we ate in Vietnam. In fact, so good is this dish that it was once included in a list of 1,000 things you must eat before you die.
This was another dish I was very excited to try in Vietnam. Lươn refers to any dish made with eel. Unlike Japanese unagi where the eel is grilled, eel in Vietnamese food is dried then deep-fried so it’s crispy like dried anchovies.
There are many places that serve lươn dishes in Hanoi but we had it at highly regarded Miến Lươn Đông Thịnh in the Old Quarter. They have their eel transported daily from Nghe An Province which is about 300 km south of the capital city. Nghe An is said to be home to the best eel (and best eel dishes) in Vietnam. At Miến Lươn Đông Thịnh, there are a few eel dishes you can choose from. We ordered two – mien xiao lươn and miến lươn trộn. They’re similar dishes using virtually the same set of ingredients – glass noodles (mien), fried garlic and shallots, cucumber slices, chopped peanuts, and fresh herbs and greens. The main difference is that the mien xiao lươn is served dry and the noodles are fried. The miến lươn trộn, on the other hand, is served with a shallow layer of broth made from eel bones and ginger. Both are delicious.
Nem Cua Bể
Nem cua bể is a type of chả giò or deep-fried spring roll made with crab meat. It’s a specialty of Hai Phong, a coastal province east of Hanoi. Aside from crab meat, the deep-fried rolls also contain pork, egg white, kohlrabi (cabbage), carrot, wood ear mushroom, bean sprouts, and vermicelli. As previously described, it’s often eaten as a side dish together with bún chả.