Friday, October 29, 2010

Bún Chả, Ryukyu Glass, and Sữa Chua Nếp Cẩm

Last Sunday we planned a little afternoon escape from Hanoi. Our friends at Hanoilife had told us about a Japanese glass factory in Gia Lam, just over the Red River, and their recently opened showroom. The factory specializes in Ryukyu glassware, which comes, as readers may already know, from Okinawa, Japan.

But no decent trip can be made on an empty stomach, so before braving Long Bien Bridge and the dusty, beat-up roads of Gia Lam, we decided to have bún chả and nem. There are several places in the Truc Bach area that specialize in this, but one place I particularly like is on Pho Duc Chinh Street, at the corner of Ngo 64. I like this sidewalk eatery; the crumbling, paint-faded walls add an extra dimension to the streetside atmosphere, and besides, the women running this place work hard and their food tastes good. They also refrain from overcharging me, which happens at about 50% of the sidewalk eateries I go to.

Bún chả is basically just rice vermicelli and charcoal-grilled pork. One sees the pork being grilled on the sidewalk often, usually by women squatting over charcoal fires and fanning the meat with bamboo fans. Driving a motorbike through Hanoi one also often passes through clouds of its grill-smoke, which then stays in one’s clothes and hair. The chả (grilled pork) is served in a medium-sized bowl filled to an inch of the rim with a savory mixture of fish sauce (nướoc mắm), vinegar, pepper, and lime juice. The idea is to take clumps of the rice noodles and place them in the bowl, then add whatever you like from the basket of herbs that accompany the bún chả.

In the basket of herbs pictured below, we were given lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, lemon leaf, and probably other things, too – as usual, I ate too quickly to pay close attention.

We also ordered two pieces of nem rán, or fried spring rolls. These came to our table hot and crisp, and they stayed that way, even after a lengthy dip in our bún chả bowls.

Across the street from the bún chả place is a cat that always stares longingly at customers eating. By the looks of it, it could stand to eat a couple bowls, too. If it could find a way to come up with 54,000 dong ($2.77), it too could have a meal for two, including two iced teas.

From here we went directly to Long Bien Bridge, which is kind of a scary conveyance over the Red River. This is partly because it’s incredibly beat up – it was bombed in two different wars – and also because, even though the narrow, right and left lanes are for one-way traffic, one often comes across a few motorbikes going the wrong way. (Idiots! Seriously, how much trouble is it to drive an extra twenty feet to get in the correct lane?) But, once in Gia Lam, which is a district of Hanoi, one feels they’ve escaped the city. Here it’s more open, with fields and hills and views of the river, various old temples one can stop off at, less traffic (but worse roads), and, at least on the way to the glass factory, dozens of 50-foot-tall, silo-shaped, papered-over lanterns – which are apparently used at night. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them, but after my experience on the Gia Lam bridge I just wanted to get to the factory as soon as I could.

The factory is located in the Vietnam-Ryukyu Cultural Technological Village – a mouthful, for sure, but worth learning to say so you can make the trip here.

Because we went on a Sunday between three and four p.m., it was very slow here; the factory itself was closed, though the showroom was open. Often, if you come during a weekday, you can take a tour of the factory and see how the many types of glass are made.

I intend to come back here soon, and when I do I’ll write an addendum to this. Until then, I’ll just go ahead and show pictures of the showroom and some of the pieces I thought were particularly nice.

This is one of two areas comprising the showroom. You would not want to let a bull roam around inside.

These glasses here are intended for various kinds of use. In general, for glasses like these, prices ranged from around $5-$8. Expensive for Vietnam, but cheap by Japanese standards.

The glass here is produced primarily for Japanese consumers. Once made, the factory ships it back to Japan for sale.

A lot of sake glasses. I'm proud of myself for not succumbing to the temptation of buying a new set...

The Vietnamese workers are trained by Japanese glass-making artists. We were told that the factory employs about 200 Vietnamese people.

I liked these paper weights. Arigatou and Shiawase wa itsumo jibun no kokoro ga kimeru were commonly inscribed on them.

This dark blue glass was made by a Japanese artist named Kiyoichi-san, who came here to train Vietnamese glassblowers.

I loved this one. At $80, it's probably a great price, but it was too pricey for me.

Glass slippers, anyone? Or rather, glass flipflops?

Vietnam Ryukyu Cultural Technological Village can be found at 93 Duc Giang, Long Bien. Tel: (84) 4-3877-0262. Fax: (84) 4-3877-0263. Web: Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Sundays and holidays.

As everyone knows, a trip to a glass factory in Gia Lam requires a visit to a yoghurt shop afterward. With that in mind we headed to Sữa Chua Nếp Cẩm, between the Old Quarter and Truc Bach Lake. Not only did they have about 50 yoghurt items on their menu, but also flan, small cakes, and tea and coffee.

We ordered sữa chua nếp cẩm (plain yoghurt with ice and sweet, black, chewy, immature rice). I really like this dessert. The sweet, chewy rice goes well with yoghurt, and the ice, which is basically shaved, mixes nicely and keeps it all cold.

We also ordered sữa chua xoài (plain yoghurt with ice and fresh mango). The two yoghurt drinks totaled a mere 24,000 dong ($1.23).

The place is cozy if not exactly sparkling clean. There was a Japanese group filming their yoghurt- and flan-eating experiences here. I don’t know who they were. Perhaps just fellow bloggers, but if so, they were a lot more sophisticated. They interviewed a Vietnamese woman who had led them here, and got some close-up shots of their desserts.

On the way out, I snapped a quick photo of one of their refrigerators. As you can see, they have a fair bit of sweets on hand, and like anything in Vietnam, it’s easily ordered as takeaway.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Homemade Passionfruit Juice, Vietnamese-Style

During the first four times I lived in Vietnam, I rarely, if ever, saw passionfruit juice (nước chanh leo) offered on a drinks menu. Until my latest move to Vietnam, my experience with passionfruit came in horrible packaged teas and not very decent passionfruit cheesecakes. I remember buying passionfruit from a roadside fruitstand on the North Shore of Oahu once, too, and then wondering what I was supposed to do with it when I got it home. I tried to eat it straight, only to find it was so sour that I couldn’t get much of it down. I gave up on passionfruit before I should have. And I say this because in Vietnam, when it’s sweltering out, there is nothing, and I mean nothing in this world, that is more refreshing than a glass of passionfruit juice (but remember to mention “no seeds, please,” or "xin không hạt").

Here’s a quick and easy recipe for blow-you-away passionfruit juice. And here’s hoping you can get fresh passionfruit wherever you live…

Step 1: Cut two passionfruits in half (as in the photo above).

Step 2: Use a spoon to scoop the fruits' innards into a strainer, which should be held, obviously, over a cup or glass.

Step 3: After the straining is complete, pour about 4 tablespoons of hot water over the passionfruit that remains in the strainer, then stir this to make sure that all the juice is removed.

Step 4: Stir 3 tablespoons of sugar into the cup of pure passionfruit juice.

Step 5: Fill the cup or mug with cold water (enough to serve two people).

Step 6: Divide the juice into glasses and add ice.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chikuan Restaurant and Gyotaku Art

Truc Bach, where I live, conspicuously lacks a good Japanese restaurant. Tsukiji Restaurant had been a good option ever since I moved here, but months of mismanagement, which resulted in bankruptcy and its recent closure, made Truc Bach seem utterly barren of Japanese restaurants. But then my good friends at Hanoilife told me about Chikuan, a restaurant known as much for its gyotaku art as for its excellent nihon ryouri. Unknown to me, it was also located in Truc Bach.

It’s easy to overlook Chikuan – on a small street overshadowed by much larger, flashier restaurants nearby, and without a signboard in English or Vietnamese, I had a bit of trouble just finding it. But once I walked through the door – a wooden door that’s usually closed, which makes the entire restaurant also look closed – I discovered a huge interior that felt homey and was full of wonderful cooking smells.

We were guided to the second floor, where our friends from Hanoilife were waiting. My friend M– (whose birthday was last week, and on which day he broke his arm!) pointed me to a gyotaku painting outside our small private room and said that it, like all the others on the restaurant’s walls, was done by the restaurant’s owner. Basically, he caught the fish, painted it with colored ink, then pressed it against rice paper and completed the rest of the painting, as it’s seen framed below.

In fact, I came across five different gyotaku paintings in the restaurant, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.

The fifth gyotaku painting is of a fish called iwana in Japanese. Iwana is a kind of char, and it featured prominently in our meal later, though not because of anything we ordered…

M– also brought a bottle of Taiga no Itteki shochu, a special type of shochu made in Miyazaki province in Kyushu, which a friend of his had brought back for him from Japan. I’m glad M– thought to bring it with him, and I'm also grateful that he was willing to share it – it really topped off what turned out to be a great (if rather bizarre) meal.

The first dish we ordered was hiyayakko, an enormous slab of cold tofu served with chopped green onions, fried rice, and soy sauce. For something as plain-seeming as tofu, this had amazing flavor, and was a pleasantly light beginning of our feast.

We followed this with kohada sashimi, served on a beautiful Ryukyu-style glass plate (manufactured in Gia Lam and surely the subject of a future post here). I’m a big fan of kohada, or gizzard shad in English, and this was as excellent as I’ve found it anywhere. The presentation, too, was beautiful.

This was followed by several tempura dishes, the first of which was made from sliced lotus. All of our tempura dishes were served with a dollop of green tea powder mixed with salt, which is used for dipping.

The next dish was megochi no tempura. Megochi is Japanese for flathead, and its meat is white and slightly sweet. This, too, was excellent, and something I’ll want to order again the next time I come to Chikuan.

I was really surprised by our third and final tempura order, pieces shaped like tied sacks and filled with cream cheese. There's no way to pretend that this is healthy, but it certainly tasted good.

I’m not sure if the next order is seasonal or not, and while it’s a very common thing to eat in Japan, this was the first time I can remember having it: roasted ginko nuts, or ginnan in Japanese.

These were kind of fun to de-shell and peel, and dipped in sea salt they were tasty and chewy.

The four of us were already on our seventh dish of the night – a grilled fish, the name of which I forget.

It was at this point that the meal started to test our courage. M–, I think, can eat anything, and I’m usually up for any food challenge, though the other two people in our party began now to bow out. I don’t blame them, really, though my initial dislike for the dish in the photo below – ika no kimo ni (tofu and squid marinated in a squid-liver-based sauce) – matured into something like respect (I ate two bowls of it). It was good, I discovered, as long as I went easy on the sauce.

The next thing we ordered was gyutan, or cow tongue, which was thinly sliced and grilled with pepper and salt. I’ve had gyutan before, mostly in Hawaii, but this was by far the best I’ve ever had. As expected, it was very tender, and the salt and pepper gave it a sort of crisp flavor that went great with the last gulp of beer I had left in my glass.

Our tenth but nowhere near our final dish was cha soba, buckwheat noodles made with green tea. This is one of my favorite soba dishes, and with a nice dipping sauce I was able to practice my slurping skills, which have apparently deteriorated recently. My shirt ended up half-drenched, but I didn’t care.

We took a short breather, as you might during halftime of a sporting event you’re engaged in. I grabbed the wet towel I'd been given at the start of our meal and wiped myself down. Then I ordered a new wet towel, one free of my own sweat.

One of the perks of a good soba meal is being able to drink afterward the water used to boil the soba noodles (sobayu). It’s healthy and refreshing, and mixed with M–’s shochu, as we mixed the two tonight, it’s extra special.

This is where the meal separated the men from the boys. Or rather, the men from the women, who at this point just sat and watched me and M– with gravely concerned expressions on their faces. M–’s friend had not only brought back shochu from Japan, but also, at M–’s request, two kinds of chinmi (delicacies) from Akita province. The first was uruka, which is basically the salted guts of a fish or squid. M– brought a small bottle of iwana uruka (see the fifth gyotaku painting above), and with chopsticks he proceeded to scoop some out and show just how disgusting its texture was. It hung on each side of his chopsticks like your basic sludge, and wasn’t smooth but somehow had a pocked surface. It was pretty gross. The kind of thing you might find yourself being forced to eat in a nightmare, lets say.

He dumped some on my plate, where it sat in a congealed lump and seemed to breathe in a good part of the oxygen in the room. Before we were all asphyxiated, then, I scooped up almost the entire blob in one go and choked it down. Only, once it was in my mouth, there was no need to choke it down at all. It was good! It was salty, which was probably what made it edible, but it wasn’t bad at all.

I was so pleasantly surprised that I jumped into my next food challenge as if it were nothing.

The next thing M– served me requires some explanation. It’s called hata hata no shirakodzuke, which roughly translates to “the eggs and testicles of a sandfish, marinated in sandfish sperm, chilies, sake, and salt.”

My Hanoilife friends didn’t give me this full explanation right away, but only after I’d taken the first bite (admittedly a small one). But at that point I’d gone so far with it that I figured I might as well go farther, so for good measure I ate about a third of the glob M– put on my plate.

It tasted much as the iwana uruka did – it was basically just salty, and slimy enough that it was smooth going down.

As if we needed chasers for the fish guts, sperm, eggs, and testicles, we ordered sticks of grilled fish patties (tsukune), which with lemon were fantastic – so thick and meaty. As chasers, we couldn’t have done better than this.

Our final dish of the night ended up being torikawa yakitori, or chicken skin grilled on sticks. When hot, these were a tasty end to the night, but they cooled soon and somehow became more oily.

For four people, our meal ended up costing $56, which is quite reasonable for the amount of food we ordered. I highly recommend this place, though at the same time I’m a bit wary about letting others in on this unobtrusive gem of a restaurant in Truc Bach…

Chikuan is located at 108 Cua Bac Street in Hanoi. Tel: (04) 6294-1098. Email: It’s open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 – 14:00 and from 17:30 – 23:00. On Sunday the hours are the same, but it closes at 22:00.

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