South China Morning Post: Three Vietnamese Dishes You Don’t Want to Miss

The South China Morning Post has just introduced three dishes from Vietnam which you don't want to miss.

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The South China Morning Post has just introduced three dishes from Vietnam, which are Cao lau in Hoi An, bun ca in Hanoi and Phu Quoc’s bun quay (stirring noodles).

SCMP: 3 Vietnamese Dishes You Don't Want to Miss
Cao lau highlights tasty broth, flat pieces of fried pork, attracting both locals and foreigners who taste it.

According to the top news channel of Hong Kong (China), if, like the late Anthony Bourdain, you were ‘put on earth’ to eat Vietnamese noodles, the country has a plethora of regional noodle dishes to try

In Hanoi they eat bun ca (rice noodles with fish); in Hoi An cao lau thick noodles; and in Phu Quoc bun quay, fresh-cut noodles with a sauce you mix yourself.

SCMP’s noodle journey through Vietnam starts in Hanoi with bun ca – not to be confused with bun cha. Bun means “rice noodle” and ca is “fish”, but that’s not all there is to this stellar local favorite.

Like many Vietnamese soups, the deep, sophisticated bun ca broth is made by simmering pork bones for a long time. After this, ingredients are added to the mix including tomatoes, wine vinegar, and fresh dill. They impart light and fresh herbal notes and acidity to a dish that beautifully combines sweet and sour, SCMP said.

Toppings can include crunchy fried catfish or bouncy fishcakes, along with mounds of fresh herbs like coriander and basil.

People often eat fish noodle soup at breakfast or lunch in Hanoi. Apart from noodle soup, diners can enjoy noodles dipped in sweet and sour chili garlic sauce and separate fried fish.

SCMP: 3 Vietnamese Dishes You Don't Want to Miss
The broth is cooked to be sour, with tomatoes and served with vegetables such as doc mung, dill, pineapple and spring onion. Fish is cut into pieces equivalent to tow fingers together and marinated with ginger, lemongrass and spices and then fried. Photo: Eatwpeach/Instagram

Among the best bun ca vendors in Hanoi is Bun Ca Huong Thuy, which is well-known for its generous serving of fish in every bowl, as well as toppings including crunchy taro stems and even fish stomachs.

Despite bun ca’s ubiquity in Hanoi, Vietnamese-American chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who is chef-patron at the award-winning Ho Chi Minh City restaurant Anan Saigon, prefers a take on the dish found on the coast in southern Vietnam.

“I think the best version of this dish comes from Nha Trang, where it is fully loaded with all the bounty of the sea: a variety of fishcakes, fried fish and fish balls, large chunks of fresh tuna and the wonderful bouncy texture of really fresh jellyfish,” he says.

SCMP: 3 Vietnamese Dishes You Don't Want to Miss
Nha Trang fish noodle soup has a clear and less fatty broth, which is simmered from fish bones. Toppings include jellyfish, boiled fish and grilled chopped mackerel. Noodles are smaller and softer. The fish soup is often served with lettuce. Lime and chili should be added to enhance the dish.

Marcus Meek, executive chef at five-star hotel Capella Hanoi, recommends two other local Hanoi noodle dishes: Bun ngan – noodles with duck in a broth and bun oc, noodle soup with snails.

Regarding Hoi An’s cao lau, SCMP said, it ticks all the flavor boxes when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine; they’re sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter.

At Quan Cao Lau Thanh, a restaurant in the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking upon first bite that the thick noodles were Japanese udon. The similarity makes sense considering the city’s history.

SCMP: 3 Vietnamese Dishes You Don't Want to Miss
“Cao lau” rice noodles are a speciality of Hoi An ancient town in central Vietnam.

Cao lau is neither Bun (rice vermicelli) nor Pho (noodle soup). Cao lau are soaked in lye water and wood ash, giving them a distinctly firm and springy texture. In fact, true Cao lau noodles are supposed to be made with water from Ba Le well, famed for its purity.

After kneading into a dough it is thinly sliced and steamed over a flame to bring out the unique yellowish hue and springy texture. Yet perhaps even more crucially, the noodles must be homemade and hand-cut.

“Cao lau is special because it has influences from three major countries, which reflects the rich history of Hoi An as a trading port,” explains Cuong Franklin.

“Chinese with the soy and five spice pork, Japanese with the noodle texture and flavour similar to udon, and French with the fried ‘croutons’, which gives the dish another layer of texture.”

Back at his own restaurant, Cuong Franklin riffs on cao lau by cooking bacon sous vide for 24 hours before charring it and then adding his own XO sauce and egg yolk, to take the Hoi An classic somewhere altogether different.

SCMP: 3 Vietnamese Dishes You Don't Want to Miss
Bun quay – Homemade fresh rice vermicelli with homemade fresh shrimp & fish pie.Source: Dan Viet

The third Vietnamese food is bun quay, or “stirring noodles” in the island of Phu Quoc off Vietnam’s southwest coast, and Kien Xay is one of the area’s most famous purveyors. It started out as a family soup house, but quickly grew in popularity.

Bun quay at Kien Xay affords patrons an interactive dining experience because every diner prepares their own dipping sauce. This makes it a popular choice for families.

First, diners head to a counter under a hanging sign which directs readers, in English, to “make your sauce”. Here you can spoon together your own mix of chilli, fish sauce, calamansi, salt, sugar and MSG, balancing sweet, salty, umami and sour as you see fit.

After this, patrons can watch their rice flour noodles being made. Chefs take a piece of dough and cut it directly into boiling water, before dividing the cooked noodles and broth between bowls, to which are added a slick of shrimp paste and a choice of proteins such as shrimp cakes, baby squid or beef.

A big fan of Kien Xay is Spanish-born Bruno Anon, the executive chef at the nearby Regent Phu Quoc hotel, whose love of noodles stems from many years of living in Asia.

“The soft, chewy white rice noodles are perfect with the shrimp, fish paste and simple, clear, slightly sweet broth. The noodles and the seafood are so fresh that all they need to cook is a splash of hot, hearty broth poured over them in the bowl,” he says.

“However, really the dipping sauce makes this soup stand out and hits all the taste buds. [It’s] sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and umami.”

Hannah Nguyen