Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Xôi in Hanoi

Here, xôi thập cẩm includes glutinous yellow rice, shaved pork skin, paté, a fried boiled egg, red Chinese sausage, Vietnamese sausage, strips of cooked chicken, and dried mung bean shavings. It also comes with a complimentary bowl of chopped cucumbers and red chilies in vinegar. Not bad for 34,000 dong ($1.74).

One of my favorite places to eat in Hanoi is called Xôi Yến. It’s located on Nguyen Huu Huan Street, and has, in my opinion, the best xôi anywhere in Vietnam.

Xôi is a Vietnamese dish made from glutinous rice and comes with all sorts of different toppings. In Ho Chi Minh City, where I lived from 2004 to 2007, I would often have xôi for breakfast. It was a sweet version of xôi, with dried coconut shavings, roasted sesame seeds, and crystallized sugar sprinkled on top. It’s especially good with soybean milk, and no xôi vendor worth his or her glutinous rice operates without a few bottles on hand.

Xôi Yến and I go back a long time. I used to eat there on occasion in 1997, back when I was teaching at the University of Foreign Trade and living relatively far away, in Dong Da district. But in 2002, when I was living much closer -- on Tran Quoc Toan Street -- I came here more often.

These places are invariably run by teenagers and young 20-somethings. While they may not offer what I'd call polite, attentive service, they sure know how to make excellent xôi.

My most pleasant memory of Xôi Yến, in fact, is of going there at around midnight with a couple friends, ordering giant bowls of xôi thập cẩm (mixed xôi), and then suddenly being ushered inside from the sidewalk as a caravan of police showed up in trucks. The police proceeded to confiscate tables and chairs and fine various late-night restaurants – they weren’t supposed to be open that late, nor were they supposed to have tables and chairs spilling out into public space. Once we were herded inside, the owners pulled shut their long metal accordion doors, turned off the lights, and lit candles. My friends and I were the only foreigners inside, and not only did the owners let us continue to finish our meals in the near-darkness, but they let us drink free beer for the half hour it took for the police to finally leave. It became a little party – the sort of thing you could only enjoy in Vietnam.

Balls of dried mung beans.

Some of the toppings available with xôi.

I still visit Xôi Yến, though not as frequently as in the past. I live just as close to it now as I did back in 2002, but xôi tends to be quite heavy, and since I like their thập cẩm best of all, it’s an incredible amount of food that I always end up facing. One feels it in one’s stomach for hours afterward. But every now and then I feel a craving for it, and if I’m downtown I’m liable to stop there for a quick meal.

Xôi Yến is open from early morning until late at night, and it's never less than crowded.

Xôi Yến is located at 35B Nguyen Huu Huan Street in Hanoi, just a couple blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake. Tel: (4) 926-3427.

Much nearer to where I live is a woman who plants herself inconspicuously on a small street corner and sells xôi all morning long. She told me that she usually wakes up at three or four a.m., cooks the rice and prepares her toppings, then packs it all into shallow, wide straw baskets, ties them up to her bicycle, and rides through the pre-dawn darkness five kilometers to her selling spot in Truc Bach.

She, too, serves different types of xôi – white or yellow glutinous with toppings such as roasted peanuts, crushed sesame seeds, shaved pork skin (rước), fried shallots, dried mung bean shavings, etc.

Locals crowd her corner every morning, and for good reason. One bowl, which is a filling breakfast by itself, only costs about 12,000 dong ($.62).

A young xôi connoisseur.

An early morning view of Truc Bach's back streets from the xôi lady's spot.

Wikipedia gives an interesting overview of what kind of xôi can be had in Vietnam: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xôi

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  1. Your entry makes me feel hungry and want to have Xôi Yến though it is afternoon at work. It's amazing to know such many different kinds of Xôi in Vietnam and so lucky you are to try some of those. What a big breakfast with xoi & soybean milk. Love it.

  2. I love reading your blog so so much - keep up the good work! :D