Sunday, June 7, 2009

Taking it to the street

Two weeks ago I was in the city of Ha Noi, Vietnam. Guided by the awesome StickyRice, I took every opportunity between meetings to slurp down bowls of Pho, crunch through golden nem and savour the unusual combinations of flavours and textures in fresh rice paper rolls. I even had the chance to enjoy ‘cha ca’ at the oft recommended Cha Ca Vong, a winding rickety fish restaurant located in the Old Quarter, which despite being a novel experience, from my point of view is overshadowed by less publicised eateries, and even the food of the street itself.
Ha Noi is like nowhere else I have ever been. The buzz and energy of the city is infectious. Fresh mangosteens, tamarind, mangoes and star fruit, are carried by women in straw pails who crowd the footpaths and expertly weave between the thousands of mopeds that throng Ha Noi’s streets. Salted and chillied mango, almost every part of the pig, grassy onion flavoured cordials and taro seeds are available for sale at vendors that pop-up spontaneously using all available space in the city, crammed into doorways, down laneways and perched on kerbs. House fronts in Ha Noi are shoulder squishingly narrow. This is apparently an egalitarian practice in order to give all people access to a ‘shop front’ and the opportunity to eke out a living spruiking wares on their doorstep. This has led to the development of a very social culture, with people crowding around in amazing numbers on squat stools, to enjoy steaming bowls of street food or coconut milk icecream and chatter. Suprisingly there were very few alfresco bars, although I did try the ubiquitous and lacklustre Hanoi lager one night perched on a stack of three paving blocks at an outdoor ‘pop-up’ bar.
Far preferable were these vibrant meals hastily quaffed to the largely homogenised meals I ate with my colleagues in the chain hotel I stayed in. However even there, the ingredients were tongue blisteringly fresh and I ate my way through some volume of fresh rice rolls. I have been making these rolls for years, but had never had them in their native habitat, and having done so, am in retrospect embarrassed at my efforts which in contrast to the tight and firm rolls in Ha Noi are somewhat limp and sagging. A bit like making home made sushi, I imagine practice is the key.
Fresh rice paper rolls
Half a cup of cooked rice noodles (any noodles should work, but I prefer the rice variety)
15 rice paper wrappers (available in the Oriental Market in Dublin)
100 g of minced pork, cooked and seasoned with salt and white pepper (You could instead use shredded chicken, peeled and deveined prawns or chopped tofu)
One carrot, julienned
A handful of peanuts of cashews, roughly chopped (optional)
Cup of mixed leaves and herbs (I use thai basil, mizuna, mint and coriander)
Teaspoon of minced ginger
Tablespoon of Hoisin sauce
For the Sauce
Tablespoon of soy sauce
Tablespoon of lime juice
A pinch of chilli flakes
Fill a large bowl with warm water. Submerge one wrapper into the hot water for 5 seconds to soften. Lay wrapper flat on a work surface.
In a row across the centre of the wrapper, place a teaspoon of minced pork, an equal amount of rice noodles, a small handful of the leaf mix, a large pinch of ginger, a smear of hoisin sauce, a few strips of carrot and the nuts if used leaving about five cm uncovered on each side. Fold uncovered sides inward, then tightly roll the wrapper, beginning at the end with the lettuce. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
To make the sauce: mix all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and serve alongside the fresh rolls for dipping.

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