Friday, 20 June 2008

Hoi An - Culinary Delights

The food in Hoi An is some of the best we've tasted in Vietnam. Some of the restaurants we ate in were quite basic looking however. Reminded me a lot of Malaysia and Singapore, where great food comes from the most unusual places. One place we ate at, Cafe Restaurant 94, was either falling apart, or a master team of designers had been in there and made the place look on the brink of collapse. The food was fantastic though. 
Hoi An is known for a few specialities, which according to myth one of them are made by one family and the recipe is a closely guarded secret. 
It's a pretty town, which just adds to the touristic value of the place. It has a nice waterfront area, where you can sit and relax over a cold beer of an evening, and watch the rush hour boat traffic go by. 
The most surprising thing is that the quality of food for such a touristic place,  is very high. Even a few market stalls were selling good tasting food. This is always a good sign of any place that you are in foodie heaven. 
As I said Hoi An is well known for a few things. The most famous is Cao Lau. which is doughy flat noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts, greens, topped with pork slices. Crispy rice paper is crumbled on top just before serving. According to legend Cao Lau can only be made with water drawn from Ba Le Well. This well, a tourist attraction in its own right. It is supposed to date from Cham times. If the water for your Cao Lau is not drawn there, then it ain't Cao Lau. You can see old people drawing water from there in the mornings. A sign that a feast is going to happen in their house that day. 
We had it several times. It is served in quite small bowls, which is a pleasure actually, as too much of a good thing can be .............. The different flavours combined with the different textures make it a real pleasure to eat. Such delicate flavours. 
The other most famous dish that Hoi An offers is the White Rose. Shrimp encased in rice paper and steamed. The look of those shrimps coming through the translucent rice paper is really beautiful. You can taste the shrimp, the rice paper and the topping they use, all at the same time. The combination of flavours all work very well together. 
I had heard of Cafe De Amis owned by the famous Mr Nguyen Manh Kim. His restaurant is set out like his home. Really bizarre ornaments there. You take a seat and are given a drinks menu. You are then asked if you want either the meat, seafood or vegetarian set menu. It costs 70,000 dong. There are 7 dishes on each menu. You could ask what you are going to get, but I think that sometimes its nicer and more interesting to see what the chef is going to give you. We ordered one seafood and one meat menu. It was a never ending stream of food that came to our table. All the dishes were expertly cooked and tasted divine. The only dish neither of us were overly keen on was the stir-fried noodles. It reminded me of too many drunken visits to Chinese takeaways and ordering chow mein as it was quick to cook and easy to eat. I try to avoid stir-fried noodles as often as I can now. 
We took a moto to the beach one day. lovely wide and open beach. Lots of restaurants offering seafood line the beach with the normal touts trying to drag you in. We wandered down taking in the cool breeze and getting our feet wet in the sea. We stopped at one place, nothing different from this one than all the others, in fact they were all the same. 
The unfortunate thing that day, was that we never had that much money with us, as it was kinda a spur of the moment thing to do. So we counted our money and looked at everything on the menu. So we ordered two of the biggest coconuts we had ever seen. One would have done a family of four for a week. We also ordered 6 huge prawns, which came with a salt, chilli and lime dipping sauce. I have really got into that taste of salt and lime juice to dip your seafood in. Yum yum. 
The prawns were simply grilled over charcoal to perfection. We demolished them as quickly as it took to cook them. For some reason seafood always tastes better to me, when you have sand between your toes. Oh I wish we had more money with us, cos when we went to pay they were cooking a lobster and some clams for someone else. It looked delish. 
Sometimes the best thing to do with seafood is just to cook it simply. No fancy sauces or butters or anything else. To taste the meat in its purest form is a pure delight. That was a good afternoon. 
The funniest thing we saw was on the train to Hue. At a stop a woman got on the train with a bag of dried shrimp to sell. Someone ordered some, and as if from nowhere out appeared a charcoal burner and she started to cook the shrimp, much to the train guards annoyance, who was screaming and shouting at her to get off the train as she was gonna burn it down. Smelt fantastic. 
If there is one place I would have loved to spent more time was Hoi An. It reminds me a lot of Bologna, where there is great food on every corner. But would have to join a gym and run my normal 5km a day just to keep my belly to a respectable size. 

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