Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flavourful streets of Vietnam

Fresh, cheap taste sensations

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When I arrived in Vietnam, I announced to my hosts that my plan was to eat plenty of street food. They blanched and suggested in the latter stages of pregnancy, this perhaps wasn't a great idea just in case I ate something none-too-clean.

And so we compromised. We ate street food in restaurants very close to the street, we just didn't eat street food directly off the street. You can sample many of Vietnam's great culinary achievements everywhere -- on the street, in restaurants and in homes.

I went off to a cooking school to learn more about it. The Hanoi Cooking Centre is part owned and run by Australian Tracey Lister, one of the co-owners of Koto, Hanoi's first restaurant that employs and trains street kids to work in the food and hotel industry. Last year, the Sheraton Hotel in the city employed the restaurant's entire graduating class. But the cooking school caters to residents and tourists alike.

There were four others, all Australian, keen to get an insight into the zinging, fresh and lively flavours of Vietnam, as was famed chef Gordon Ramsay who visited last year. At 9 a.m., we set off with our instructor-guide to the nearby market. She showed us live frogs, giant snails, shellfish, bugs and birds. We inspected many different types of green leaves, countless herbs and exotic vegetables. Fish flapped in giant white polystyrene holding tanks while women butchered pieces of meat as we watched. Despite the heat and humidity, everything looked far fresher than the food we find in Canada on polystyrene trays wrapped in plastic. Markets start early and close by lunchtime. We were assured that all produce was brought in daily.

By 10 a.m., we were back in the shiny stainless steel kitchen preparing banana flower salad, shrimp spring rolls, caramelized pork cooked in clay pots and black sesame seed desert. As we worked, chopping and stirring, we were treated to mouthfuls of omelette prepared with herbs from the market -- all unidentifiable but green, bitter and delicious. At noon we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labours -- delicate, tangy sweet pork belly, bowlfuls of short-grain rice, crunchy banana flower salad and a surprisingly tasty dessert. Unfortunately, nobody thought to mention black sesame seeds lodge themselves in every crevice in your mouth, so it wasn't until I got home later that evening that I realized I'd been smiling all afternoon with a mouthful of black teeth.

In Vietnam the day begins early. Scooters and motorbikes are busy with their horns by 6 a.m., so a nation of early-risers demands a nutritious breakfast. Alongside western fare of excellent bread, coffee, fruit juices and pastries, the go-to inexpensive breakfast eaten across the country is pho -- a chicken-or beef-based noodle soup with bean sprouts and fresh herbs.

Each region also has its specialties. One hour to the south of Hanoi by air along the central coast near the UNESCO World Heritage site of the town of Hoi An, it's a noodle dish called Cau Lau. Here, while listening alternately to Communist propaganda broadcast over the town's loudspeakers or the greatest hits of western classical music at high volume, you can start your day with locally produced yellow rice noodles, less slippery than pho and more doughy, that have been prepared with water from the springs surrounding the town. Cau Lau has only a very little broth at the bottom, but plenty of herbs, pork and spice for early in the morning.

Another specialty of the region is a simple dish called White Rose. This is shrimp dumpling wrapped in soft, white dough, served warm with crispy fried garlic slivers on top. A taste sensation!

Even for Vietnam, a country bless-ed with excellent, fresh, cheap food and plenty of regional specialties, Hoi An is recognized for an abundance of inexpensive good restaurants offering local fare.

The region and its restaurants draw food-lovers and celebrities alike. Mick Jagger has eaten at the Mango Rooms while Anthony Bourdain filmed a segment for his cooking-travel show No Reservations in Hoi An. Cooking classes come highly recommended. There are plenty to choose from across the town or just ask in your favourite restaurant if they'll teach you how it's done.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

RECOMMENDED IN HANOI

Au Lac House: 13 Trang Hung Dao. Vietnamese food in an elegant French colonial villa.

Quan an Nogan: 18 Phan Boi Chau. Street food in an elegant courtyard not quite on the street.

La Verticale: 19 NGO Van So Street. French-Vietnamese fusion food. Excellent $14 three-course lunch menu.

Hotel Metropole: 15 NGO Quyen. Elegant, colonial hotel with expensive but excellent food and bars.

Hanoi Cooking Centre: 44 Chau Long Street.

RECOMMENDED IN HOI AN

Mango Rooms: 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc Cargo Room: 107 D Nguyen Thai Hoc

Morning Glory: 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc. Good cooking classes offered.

The Nam Hai Hotel: World-class luxury at world-class prices a little way outside the town. Perfect peace. Excellent, expensive food. www. thenamhai.com

An Huy Hotel: 30 Phan Boi Chau, in central Hoi An, close to the bustling daily market. Simple but clean rooms for approximately US$30. www.anhuyhotel.com

Getting there: Reliable and frequent flights to Hoi An are inexpensive ($80 return from Hanoi) with Vietnam Airways.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 D5

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