Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Taste of Hoi An" Street Food Tour

"You live in Hanoi? Then why do you need to do this tour?", one of my fellow food-tasters asked me. Stunned, I stared at him. For a minute or so my mouth gaped open, it opening and closing with no words coming out, me wanting to say something, but really having no idea how to respond to that. I like to eat and I like to discover new things, and in a country FULL of tasty treats and regional variations, how could he even think that living in Hanoi meant I had nothing left to discover?

I've recently hit my two-and-a-half year mark of living in Vietnam, and yes, I might know more about Vietnamese food than most people who don't live here, but I wouldn't say my knowledge is all that extensive. I don't even know all about all the Hanoi specialities, never mind delicious goodies from other parts of Vietnam!

Thus, when I booked a trip to Hoi An for just after Christmas and people started suggesting the Taste of Hoi An Street Food Tour, how could I resist?

The tour started early, with a 7:30am pick-up from my hotel. Luckily, the first stop was a small cafe for sinh tố, a fruit shake. These come in all varieties, but the one we had was mixed chunks of fruit (rather than blended) with ice and coconut milk. The perfect breakfast!

Next was the market tour.

I didn't take many pictures in the market, as I've taken so many before and while pictures of vegetables are colourful, they get a bit old after a while! One thing I did think picture-worthy was this:

Now, I'm no expert and no one said anything or made a big deal out of it, but that looks a lot like a shark to me! And I feel like that's something you don't see too often in the markets here! (Ok, Hanoi's not on the coast...)

I also liked this large billboard advocating the use of re-useable shopping bags rather than zillions of plastic ones! Yes!

We stopped to chat to this gorgeous old woman selling root vegetables. She's in her 90s and a long time ago painted her teeth black, as was the custom in her village. Isn't she stunning?

We were also joined on our market tour by Jim, a veteran of the American War who just likes to come hang out with Neville and his group of tourists. Jim doesn't really speak any English but he figured out that I could speak a bit of Vietnamese, and from then on he took it upon himself to tell me the Vietnamese name of EVERYTHING we looked at. Of course I don't remember any of it!

Just outside of the market we found this woman who sells xí mà, which in my menu of things we tried is described in English as "Sweet Water-Grass & Black Sesame Seed Elixir" - it's kind of a slightly sweet pudding made of various things that are supposed to be ridiculously good for you. It reminded me a lot of black sesame chè we made in our Hanoi Cooking Centre class, but less sweet and thick. This was one time when my Hanoian-ness showed itself: while everyone else was exclaiming how strange the texture and flavour was, I was gobbling it up pretty quickly because it all seemed quite normal to me!

Despite that, Jim decided that I wasn't eating my xí mà fast enough and that he had to spoon-feed me!

Jim left us shortly after this, and it wasn't until he was about to go that I looked down and realized that half of his right leg was made of metal.

It was a time of the lunar month when the locals don't eat much meat, so there was a lot of tofu and fish for sale, with various sauces and pickled veggies to accompany it. 

The tour leader, or "Teacher", Neville, has obviously made many friends along his route!

We then stopped at a cafe for a sit-down and a chance to try a few Hoi An specialities.

First, the ubiquitous bánh mì...

...and some samples of cao lầu and mì quảng, two Hoi An noodle specialties, as well as cà tím (eggplant roasted with shallots and oil) and rau muống xào tỏi (stir-fried morning glory with garlic), the last of which is a dish I've had more times than I could possibly count!

The eggplant up close.

And then some samples of gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls), bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancake filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts), bánh bao (White rose, a small shrimp dumpling that is famous in Hoi An), and hoành thánh chiên (Fried wontons with pork, shrimp, and salsa).   

This is getting long and I've got lots more to show you, so I'll just leave you with that teaser! Come back in a couple of days to see more of my Taste of Hoi An Street Food Tour!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fruity Fridays - Milk fruit

This week's fruit: milk fruit

Also known as: star apple, cainito, abiaba, estrella, aguay

Vietnamese name: vú sữa (literally translates to "breast milk")

Cost in the market outside my house: 40,000 dong (roughly $2) per kilo

Season in Northern Vietnam: I think they're generally all imported from the South!

Interesting facts: In Jamaica, the flesh is often eaten with sour orange juice, a combination called "matrimony". Maybe this is related to the idea that it's the "breast milk fruit". Before you eat it, you're supposed to "massage" it or squeeze it gently to release the juice. You can then cut a hole in the top and suck out the sweet milk!

I first learned about this fruit on a market tour with Hanoi Cooking Centre. We got to try it, and it was ok but nothing special, but I decided it was time to give it another go. (Remember what happened with custard apples? I didn't like it much the first time, tried it again 2 years later and now they're one of my favourite fruits!)

In Vietnam, these are usually greenish, sometimes with a purple tinge, but are white on the inside. In other places, they also come in dark purple (with purplish flesh) and yellow, but apparently the yellow ones are rare.

I bought these two milk fruits in the market and honestly they sat in my apartment for a week or so before I was really inspired to eat them, so by that time they were getting quite soft!

One was softer than the other, so I decided to try squeezing that one, and the top just split right open. However, you can see the milk oozing out of it between my fingers!

Sucking the milk out wasn't much of an option because it had all gotten rather messy, but I sort of tipped it and drank what I could, then scooped the flesh out with a spoon.

The milk and the flesh both have a taste that I can only describe as sweet and milky, but I'm not a big fan of the texture of the flesh. It's a bit grainy, much like the sapodilla (actually I read that they are a member of the same family). People say the milk not only looks like breast milk, but it tastes like it too! I couldn't say as the last time I drank breast milk was, well, let's just say it was so long ago I can't remember!

I decided to eat the second one a different way, to show you the pretty star pattern inside.

I then ate this with a spoon as well. You can't eat the rind of this fruit at all, and you wouldn't want to as it's quite waxy on the outside.

I haven't cooked anything with this, and honestly I probably won't. These people in Northeastern Australia said that in September-October they have far more of these than they know what to do with, and they can't sell them because everyone has them, and they tried drying them and making jam and none of it worked. The only recipe they had (and that I've seen) was their recipe for Star Apple whip. I guess you'll just have to enjoy your "breast milk fruit" as is!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Second Annual Gingerbread Mega-Project!

Christmas is now well over and it's about time I posted about the Second Annual Jacqui and Jenny Gingerbread Mega-Project (this year featuring Sam and Ngoc Ha).

You may remember last year's mega gingerbread project, the Gingerbread Mausoleum. After that amazing piece of work, we had to think pretty hard about how to top it this year! Good thing we had a whole year to plan!

Well, ok, we didn't really think about it for a whole year, but it did come up in conversation occasionally with some thought and discussion. Despite all that, the big day snuck up on us pretty quickly and we were much less prepared and planned this year than we were for the mausoleum.

Thus, the day began with some sketching, measuring, and drawing blueprints.

Then, it was very important to gather up all the candy and potential decorations we had and take a photo of them before we started eating them *ahem* decorating the gingerbread.

Rolling out the gingerbread and transferring it to the pan was a challenge, so I rolled it right on some baking paper and then transferred the whole thing. That meant that someone had to hold the baking paper still while I rolled. This didn't happen with anyone else but for some reason whenever Jacqui was the holder we always ended up in this position:

Sam helped me whip up the icing. He was a much better helper once he put on the frilly pink apron.

It was very important to taste test the icing...

...and to test the functionality of the icing piping device.

As a result of all the "testing" a bit of sugar overload ensued.

At one point Sam was curled up on the floor in a sugar coma (and why don't we have a picture of that?)

Anyway, decorating the façade was finished and construction had to begin!

Meanwhile, assembly and decoration of various accessories was also happening.

And finally it was finished!

In case you're wondering, this is a Hanoi alleyway, complete with narrow, multi-storey houses with balconies full of everything imaginable, water tanks on the roof, crazy power lines going everywhere, fruit sellers and motorbikes in the lane, and old folks looking after their granchildren.

I don't know why there's a koala on the roof. Silly buggers seem to turn up everywhere!

When we got it to work we put Santa on the roof, but I guess I don't have a picture! He must've been eating a lot this year because overnight the roof collapsed under his weight. Oh well, that makes it a much more typical Hanoian house anyway!

So that was this year's gingerbread house. It disappeared pretty quickly so it must've been tasty! Now to start thinking about next year's Gingerbread Mega-Project....