Hang Duong: Retaining the sweet soul of Hanoi

My favorite Tet specialty – Hanoi’s ô mai – is flavorful and unique in its own way, combining sour, spicy, sweet and salty flavors all in one. The article is published on Le Petit Journal – Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi issue Jan 2016.

Photo credit: Internet

The high humidity up north lends a hand in making Hanoi’s weather bitterly cold, and even, frigid at night. Yet, even in Hanoi’s coldest months, the city still manages to keep its streets busy and crowded. The festive spirit is more than present in the Old Quarter, and when the lunar year is approaching its end, the streets are bustling in preparation for Tet. Wandering in this maze of streets, travelers will be easily appealed by splendid Hang Ma street and bustling Hang Dao street. In addition to these two, Hang Duong (or “sugar street”) is another spot with street side stalls selling diverse types of sweets and sugars for Tet. Over many generations, Hang Duong street has continued to retain traditional flavor of Hanoi’s specialty “ô mai”, known as the sweet and salty dried fruits or jams.

Dating back to the 18th century, the street was once used for sugar trading between Chinese broker and sugar producers from north-central Vietnam. According to the locals, during the French colonial era, the street was once known as “Rue du Sucre” and was renamed again as Hang Duong in 1945. Since then, the street has transformed into a busy little market where many merchants gather to sell trinkets and local goods, more specifically Hanoi’s traditional treat, ô mai.

The street is known best for its ô mai made by local experts using traditional methods. These sugars and sweets are made of a variety of Vietnamese fruits, carefully picked from gardens in northern provinces. Star fruit, tamarind, kumquat, plum, pineapple and lemon, are just but a few examples. The delicious taste of ô mai is said to be dependent on all steps of preparation – from choosing the best fruits to using special recipes. Hanoi’s ô mai is flavorful and unique in its own way, combining sour, spicy, sweet and salty flavors all in one.

Every year, when Mid-Autumn Festival or Lunar New Year arrives, the street comes to life. Through its ups and downs, the street’s soul is still retained with preserved structures and dozens of ô mai shops inherited from generation to generation. During this time of the year, Hanoians head for this “ô mai street” to hand-pick their  Tet specialties, and pair them with cups of tea as a special treat for the holiday.

– Huyen Tran

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Street food: Phở gà Bà Lâm – Phố Nam Ngư

I find my way back to the basic of Hanoi’s street food, Phở Gà! Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Julia Vola. The article was published on Word Vietnam Issue January 2015. 

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Phở Gà – Back to basic

I was surprised myself when being told from our Chief Editor that we have not yet covered a full story on Phở Gà – Hanoi chicken noodle. To me, maybe Phở Gà is the most basic and an absolute staple of local street food, that makes us, Street Snacker writers, all think that it must have been covered long ago. It somehow explains why it remains uncovered story. Therefore, I decided to find my way back to Hanoi’s basic and simple but flavorful traditional Phở.
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Street Food: Banh bot loc chan

In this month’s Street Snacker, Huyen Tran explores the season’s longing for dumplings. Photos by David Harris

In this cold, it is easy to understand when we suddenly have a longing for dumplings. Let’s discover the Banh bot loc chan on Thuy Khue street. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by David Harris.The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine – Issue December 2014.

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While exploring Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll find that northern Vietnam’s foods adapt accordingly to the weather. When autumn comes, Hanoians consider it a must to treat themselves to at least a handful of com, young green rice. And what a miss if their summer is without the sour taste of qua sau, dracontomelum! And — when the November weather gets pleasantly mild and cool during the day, with a colder breeze at night — it is natural that we suddenly have a craving for a hot banh gio (a rice pyramid dumpling), a bowl of chao trai (clam rice porridge) or a hot bowl of banh bot loc — Vietnamese pork and shrimp dumplings.

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Street Food: Nom bo kho

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Papaya salad with dried beef anyone? Photos by David Harris. Words by me, edited by Nick Ross. The article was published on Word Vietnam magazine – Issue August 2014.

“What impresses you most about Vietnamese cuisine?” I ask a foreign friend who’s been in Vietnam for three months, just long enough to grasp what it’s like to live as a local.

“Fish sauce,” he replies.

After a pause he explains his response.

“I don’t exactly mean raw fish sauce — it’s too salty and strong for me,” he says. “It’s the diverse way Vietnamese use fish sauce in their cooking, blending the raw fish sauce with other condiments to make up a light sauce. The sauces all look the same, but taste so different.”

He is correct. Large numbers of Vietnamese dishes contain light fish sauce, such as mixed noodle dishes like mien tron, pho ga tron or bun bo Nam Bo. Light fish sauce is also an essential ingredient when we eat spring rolls, banh tom Ho Tay and nom.

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Street food: Pho ga tron

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A variation on the noble pho, pho ga tron is popular with Hanoians in the summer months. Words by me. Photos by David Harris. The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue July 2014.

Pho originated in the early 20th century in the northern province of Nam Dinh, and has since become a signature Hanoian dish. Over the past century it has developed a diverse range of variations. Not only are there pho noodles with broth — pho bo (beef pho) or pho ga (chicken pho) — but other offerings such as pho cuon, pho chien, pho xao and pho chay. Among these diverse choices, pho ga tron or mixed pho with chicken is a modern variation on a traditional favourite. If pho ga is eaten at breakfast to start off a new day, then pho ga tron is its younger sibling, best eaten for dinner.

With a changed way of combining ingredients, the cool mixed noodles are more suitable for the hot summers than its version with hot broth. Rich in taste, light but appetizing, pho ga tron is the perfect choice for the sweaty Hanoi weather of June, July and August.

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Street Food: Banh cuon ruoc tom

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There are many places to eat banh cuon in the capital. But one eatery does this dish just that little bit differently to make it stand out from the crowd. Words by me. Photos by David Harris. The article was published on Word Vietnam magazine – Issue May 2014.

Summer in Hanoi is on its way. During this time of the year, with the transitioning weather in northern Vietnam, I’m not immune to the common confusion on what to eat for breakfast, since the muggy weather definitely causes a loss of appetite.

In the heat of the morning, the decision is clear — banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls. For the summer, there’s no better choice than light and delicate yet flavourful rolls, dipped into warm fish sauce with fresh herbs.

The question is where to go. Famous eateries like Banh Cuon Hang Ga (14 Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem),Banh Cuon Ba Hoanh (66 To Hien Thanh, Hai Ba Trung) or Banh Cuon Gia An (25 Thai Phien, Hai Ba Trung) aren’t quite what I have pictured for this early morning, when I’d rather find a small corner to enjoy and relax.

So, I decide to head for Banh Cuon Phuong (68 Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem). Arriving at this banh cuon eatery on a quiet corner block around 7am, it is peaceful and silent — a rarity in the Old Quarter. An elegant, elderly lady is pouring thin silky liquid batter on a stretched muslin cloth over a large pot of boiling water. Her daughter keeps wrapping the sheet with minced pork while quiet diners are enjoying their banh cuon in the calm. Featured in a cooking programme a few years back made by well-known Vietnamese-Australian chef, Luke Nguyen, this eatery has been seen around the world. Yet it remains endearingly local.

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Street Food: Nem Phung

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A popular pairing with Hanoi’s favourite beverage, bia hoi, nem phung is as simple as it is delicious. Words by me.  Photos by David Harris. The article was published on Word Vietnam magazine – Issue April.

I remember reading a post written by a foreign blogger about Ta Hien in Hanoi, deeming it the city’s backpacker area. To young Hanoians, this ancient street is also known as the capital’s ‘international crossroads’, since it is the best-known gathering spot for expats, travellers and locals alike. Although it’s known mainly for its cheap bia hoi, or fresh beer, the crossroad’s numerous street eateries with simple and delicious local food is another reason for its draw. For many, there can be no bia hoi without pairing it with one of Hanoi’s signature snacks — nem phung.

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Street Food: Banh ran

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The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue March 2014. Words by me. Photos by Francis Roux.

While walking along Hang Dao on our way to exploring the city, my Scottish friend — who had been in Hanoi for only a few weeks — was overcome with curiosity when she saw a few peddlers selling small rice balls in their baskets.

“Hey, I just saw some ladies with baskets full of small ball-shaped cake in different colours,” she said. “Some are orange, some are white like snowballs, and some others are brown. Are they all the same?”

In response, I bought her a few to taste. “They’re deep-fried glutinous rice balls, or fried cake in short,” I explained. “They’re called banh ran in the North and banh cam in the South.

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Street Food: Banh my thit xien nuong

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Where the best banh my thit xien nuong in the city? The king of banh my thit xien nuong in my mind is always Banh my Ba Nga – Quang Trung street. Words by me. Photos by Francis Roux. The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue January 2014.

When I was growing up, my grandmother told me, “Bread is the dish of Western people, brought to Vietnam by the French. It is only for urban or upper class people. It is expensive and not for the working class like us…”

Today, this sounds far-fetched. For many years, bread or banh my (banh mi in the south), has been one of Vietnam’s street food staples.

 Banh my can be found everywhere. On the street pavements, on street corners, on hawkers’ bikes, in street food eateries and even on food stops on the highway.

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Street Snacker: Banh My Sot Vang

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Whenever you want to eat local food, which eatery in your mind can satisfy your craving? When it comes to Banh my, the eatery in my mind is Banh My Thien Su – Banh My Sot Vang Dinh Ngang. The article was published on Word Vietnam Magazine Issue October 2013. Photos by Francis Roux.

As the street corners in Hanoi start feeling the onset of autumn, things start to get a little romantic. Streets are filled with yellow leaves, trees quiver in the light breeze and the air is perfumed with that special aroma of milky flower.

Then there are the yellow-painted buildings left over from the French colonial era. But autumn isn’t just in this faded yellow atmosphere — it’s also in the French-originated dishes which have become part of the Hanoi street food tradition.

Among these dishes, there’s one that is ideal for enjoying in the cool breeze of an early October morning, or at night, when the weather brings lovers closer. It is banh my sot vang — beef stew in red wine sauce, served with bread.

This dish is typical of French cuisine adapted to Vietnamese tastes. It’s based on beef au vin or beef bourguignon, a traditional French stew prepared with beef braised in red Burgundy wine. Sot vang also has a red wine base. However, it differs from the original in spice and seasoning. Instead of herbs like parsley, rosemary and thyme, warm spices like cinnamon, star anise and cardamom are used.

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