HOI AN & CENTRAL VIETNAM
Central Vietnam’s cuisine to be the most unique and interesting of the three. Many of the dishes we tried like cao lầu and bánh bèo seem to be available only in that region. Central Vietnam’s abundance of spices is said to produce a spicier cuisine. Being home to Huế, the capital of Vietnam’s last dynasty, the region also features highly decorative and colorful food which is a vestige of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine.
This dish was interesting. Bánh bèo means “water fern cake” and refers to a variety of small steamed rice cakes popular in Central Vietnam. They’re white in color and topped with savory ingredients like dried or fresh shrimp, scallions, roasted peanuts, mung bean paste, fried shallots, and fish sauce. I was very excited to try these because they sounded similar to a Singaporean snack we enjoyed called chwee kueh. The dish is originally from Huế though it’s also widely available in Hoi An.
There are many street food vendors in the Ancient Town selling bánh bèo, It’s delicious – soft and silky and loaded with umami flavor. It really is similar to Singaporean chwee kueh though it isn’t as intensely flavorful.
It isn’t certain how bánh bèo got its name but it may be because of its shape, which is said to resemble a duckweed (bèo). Round or oblong-ish I guess? Interestingly, the term bánh bèo is used as slang in modern Vietnamese to describe girls who are perceived as being too feminine, weak-willed. At least they’re delicious.
This was another interesting dish. Bánh Đập is a specialty of Cẩm Nam Island in Hoi An. It means “smashing rice paper” and it gets its name from the way its prepared. Sandwiched between two sheets of supremely crisp rice cracker is a sticky, steamed rice pancake. To bind the layers together, you need to press down on them with an open palm. Doing so makes a loud cracking sound, hence the dish’s name. The cracker is wonderful to eat on its own – its crunchy, gummy, and mildly sweet.
Like bánh đập, hen tron is also a specialty of Cẩm Nam Island in Hoi An
. It’s a minced baby clam salad made with fresh clams that are boiled then fried with different ingredients like onion, pepper, spring onion, chili, ginger, mint, and peanuts. It’s served with a rice cracker to be used as a vessel to scoop up the clams, as well as a trio of sauces – nước chấm (fish sauce), chili, and I think soy sauce. The rice cracker is great but I suggest getting bánh dập as well. The chewiness and mild sweetness of the steamed rice pancake goes really well with the salty, briny flavor of the clams. Drizzle with some chili and fish sauce and you’re good to go.
This rice noodle dish is perhaps the single most important Hoi An food. If you were to have just one dish in Hoi An, then this should be it. Called cao lầu, it’s a dry noodle dish made with rice flour noodles topped with cha siu pork, fresh greens, herbs, rice crackers, and fried pork rinds. Like bánh bao bánh vạc, what makes this dish so quintessentially Hoi An is that authentic cao lầu noodles need to be made with water sourced from a specific local well.
People claim that the water needed to make the noodles must be drawn from a local Cham well. The alkaline water from this well is said to be the secret to the chewier texture of cao lầu noodles. Wood ash from trees that grow on Cham Island is mixed with the well’s alkaline water to create a lye solution used to pre-soak the noodles. This is what gives them their distinctively yellow tinge. After soaking in the lye solution, the noodles are then smoked over an ash-burning furnace to give them a smoky flavor.
It sounds like a lot of work just to prepare noodles but the results speak for themselves. Smokey and chewy, these noodles are delicious and an absolute must-try in Hoi An.
Like cao lầu, mì quảng is a specialty of Quảng Nam Province in Central Vietnam. A quintessential Da Nang
dish, what cao lầu is to Hoi An, mì quảng is to Da Nang. Equal parts soup and salad, mì quảng is a rice noodle dish made with chicken (or pork) broth topped with a host of proteins from chicken to shrimp to snakehead fish. It’s served with a bowl of fresh greens and herbs along with a few condiments.
Unlike cao lầu that’s served dry, mì quảng is a slightly soupier dish made with a wider type of rice noodle. Its stock is made by simmering meat (typically chicken or pork) in water or bone broth before seasoning with black pepper, fish sauce, shallots, and cu nen – a pungent, garlic-type vegetable. This creates a concentrated broth that’s more intense in flavor than a traditional noodle soup. The broth is then ladled about 1-2 cm deep into a bowl of noodles topped with different proteins like pork, shrimp, and hard-boiled quail eggs. It’s typically garnished with crushed peanuts, green onions, and chili, and served with fresh herbs, a rice cracker, whole green chilis, and lime.