Eating hanoi: local specialty dishes part 2 | bún thang, bún bò nam bộ, chả cá, phở chiên phồng, phở cuốn

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As the capital, Hanoi is arguably the most
famous city when it comes to Northern Vietnam, and with its large population
second only to Ho Chi Minh. Due to the topography of the country, Hanoi’s
climate and environment is distinctly different to its Central and Southern
counterparts, which unsurprisingly influences its agriculture and its cuisine
accordingly.

Its culinary history is also influenced by
both the Chinese, with whom Northern Vietnam shares its border, and the French,
who conquered and colonised the land for over half a century. Though at first
glance these foreign roots may not be obvious, a closer look at several famous
dishes could prove otherwise.

Of course, for us it wouldn’t be a holiday
abroad without sampling all the local dishes we could get our hands on. So with
a few short days in the city and a map with enough pins to put an acupuncturist
to shame, we got stuck right into it. In this half, we’ll take a look at bún
thang, Hanoi’s humble but delicious chicken noodle soup; bún bò Nam Bộ,
the Hanoi version of beef vermicelli salad; chả cá, Hanoi’s most iconic grilled turmeric fish with dill; and phở
chiên phồng and phở cuốn,
two unique preparations of phở popular with the Hanoi locals.

Bún Thang (chicken noodle soup) and Bún Bò Nam Bộ (southern-style beef noodles)

Many dishes of the north are not often found
overseas due to most migrants bringing dishes from Saigon and Southern Vietnam.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a couple of Hanoi’s most beloved noodle
dishes are barely mentioned outside of articles detailing the north’s specific
cuisine.

Let’s start with bún thang. Described as a traditional Hanoi-style chicken noodle soup, thang is speculated to either mean “ladder”, possibly alluding the climbing desire to eat more, or to a unit of measurement for Chinese herbal medicine, due to its recipe calling for small quantities of many ingredients. Typically eaten during Tết, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year celebration period, this dish requires many components meaning it is time-consuming to make.

A bowl of homemade phở gà (chicken phở) that we were lucky enough to sample, made by our local friend.

Standard chicken noodles already exist in Hanoi, often in the form of phở gà (chicken phở). However, for this traditional-style chicken noodle soup rice noodles are usually served in a chicken, mushroom, and shrimp-based broth, shredded chicken, finely sliced egg omelette, ham, and a selection of fresh herbs. It is typically eaten with a little bit of mắm tôm, fermented shrimp paste, which adds a pungent and savoury flavour to the soup.

On the other hand is bún bò Nam Bộ. Translating roughly to “southern-style beef noodles”, the dish is supposed to have originated from the south before making its way up the country. Compared to many other Vietnamese noodles, this dish does not have a soup, similar to bún thịt bò xào (beef vermicelli salad with fish sauce). It consists of vermicelli, salad vegetables, green papaya, and a heaping pile of beef and beansprouts stir fried with aromatics, all sitting in a shallow pool of sweet fish sauce dressing.

Bún bò Nam Bộ is similar to the bún thịt nướng that we ate at Bún Thịt Nướng Kiều Bảo in Saigon.

For this dish, it’s essential to mix it up
before eating, taking care not to spill! Of course, we’re always up for noodle
dishes that don’t involve soup (our old love). Despite its supposed start in
the south, Hanoi is supposed to be the home of the best bún bò Nam Bộ,
with many restaurants making claim to this title. In either case, as long as
it’s a local speciality, we needed to give them both a try.

Bún Thang

Listed on Google simply as the two dishes it
does best (Bún thang Bún bò Nam Bộ), this restaurant is located
obscurely down the very end of a small alley off a street from the main road.
As such, it took us a little bit of searching to get there, and by that time it
was coming close to 1.30pm and supposedly the end of lunch hours, as suggested
by the proprietor’s polite but impatient urges to have us eat faster.

The alleyway down which the Bún Thang restaurant is located.

In any case, ordering is simple. There are
only four items on the menu: bún thang, phở bò (beef phở), and phở gà (chicken phở) each at ₫25,000
(US$1.10), and bún bò Nam Bộ at ₫40,000 (US$1.75). As such, ordering
comes pretty easy, and the food comes very fast. Both dishes were plentiful in
size, so well worth the price they charge.

A portion of bún thang (left), and bún bò Nam Bộ.

The bún thang, besides being a little
salty and savoury from the broth, has a herbaceous, citrusy flavour which we
suspected came from one of the fresh herbs on top. Adding a little vinegar
tones down the salt and the slightly greasy mouthfeel, allowing a more
full-bodied chicken flavour to arise. A simple but flavourful noodle soup.

A satisfying final bite of bún bò Nam Bộ, with crunchy bean sprouts and peanuts, smoky beef, all drenched in the sweet, savoury ‎nước mắm fish sauce dressing.

As for the bún bò Nam Bộ, what can we say? As refreshing as a vermicelli salad, and the addition of mounds of beansprouts only adds to the texture. It’s smoky, savoury, salty, and sweet, the beef tasting of Vietnamese Maggi seasoning sauce and the roasted peanuts it’s topped with. With tonnes of vegetables and only a little bit of dressing broth, it’s refreshing and light despite its huge, bulky size. Another winner in our books.

Chả
Cá (Grilled fish with turmeric and
dill)

This dish is arguably Hanoi’s most famous,
one that it can fully claim without any need for speculation. In fact, it can
be traced back over 100 years ago to a family who used to make this dish for
Vietnamese troops during the French colonial period.

With a dish as famous as this, many
restaurants attempt to replicate the iconic dish of the Đoàn family by
opening restaurants serving their own versions of chả cá along the same
road. In fact, with the restaurants all competing for customers, the road soon
came to be renamed Chả Cá, after the dish that put it on the map.

So what is chả cá? Translating
directly to “grilled fish”, this dish consists of white fish marinated in
aromatics, and pan-fried with generous amounts of fresh dill. Because of the
turmeric used for the marinade, the fish becomes yellow in colour and is then
served by mixing into vermicelli noodles, more fresh herbs and vegetables,
roasted peanuts, and a spoonful of the pervasive salty, sweet, savoury nước mắm fish sauce dressing. Besides the marinating, this dish is mostly
cooked at the table by diners, making for a fun, hands-on experience.

A mouthful of turmeric fish fried with dill, tossed together with vermicelli, herbs, peanuts and dressing, known as the dish chả cá.

This dish is an excellent representation of
the complex, sophisticated style of cuisine that is Hanoi food. While it was
last our last dinner in Vietnam it should be the first on the list of Hanoi
to-eat dishes. There’s more restaurants around for you to try it, so there’s no
excuse to not give it a go!

Chả Cá Thăng Long

The exterior of Chả Cá Thăng Long.

With the growing popularity of Vietnam and
Hanoi as a holiday destination for tourists, and the fame surrounding chả cá as a dish, it’s no surprise that there is
an abundance of restaurants that specialise in this. A quick search on Foody,
the Vietnamese restaurant-reviewing website equivalent to Yelp or Zomato, will
yield at least a dozen restaurants with a rating of more than 7.0, which is
considered quite good.

In the case of Hanoi, we couldn’t leave
without taking advantage of our lovely local friend one last time. She
recommended her favourite restaurant for chả cá, which we visited faithfully. Away from the Chả Cá street, we hadn’t expected a large establishment only to find out that
they occupied three shopfronts just to accommodate to their customers.

And with the dish being very expensive by local Vietnamese standards (a
normal bowl of noodles only sets you back only ₫30,000-40,000 (US$1.30-1.75)), it was a surprise to see how busy it
could become on an average weeknight. We were ushered to their third building,
across the street from the main restaurant from which they operate.

Walking into the restaurant was a surprise.
Because of the method of cooking at the table, the whole restaurant was filled
with the smell of cooking, though not fishy in the slightest. Instead, the
fragrance of dill frying in the sweet smell of cooking oil reminded us of the
similar smell one might find with cooking it in a cream sauce with salmon.
Familiar, and very appetite-inducing.

A single portion of chả cá cooking in the frying pan at the table with dill and other aromatics.

One portion of chả cá here is ₫120,000
(US$5.20), which is not as expensive as they can get. We also asked if we were
allowed to share as we weren’t too hungry from having sampled a good quantity
of food already that day. They weren’t super stoked about that but they did not
bother to argue, so we figure it’s acceptable even if they don’t like it. We
know for certain that some of the more famous restaurants will not allow
customers to do this, so make sure to follow along with their rules.

With the fish already partly cooked, it only
took a couple more minutes before it was done all the way through. They
demonstrated serving it up, placing the noodles, a piece of fish, a good
portion of dill and herbs in a bowl with peanuts and fish sauce for us to eat.

Vermicelli, herbs, and fried dill that are added to the fish.

The sauce is much more limey than typical,
probably to offset the fish. Having fried the dill, its mellow in flavour and
almost indistinguishable when you take a big mouthful of food. Besides the
stunning balance of textures and flavours, the fish is by far the star of the
show. It had a layer of fat near the surface that was neither cloying not
greasy, providing a lovely, light flavour and moisture to the flaky,
perfectly-cooked fish.

The fatty white fish used in chả cá.

Eating it only once was a mistake. We wish
we could have eaten more, but we were way too full for another serving. It’s
obvious by that one meal as to why it’s the most famous dish of Hanoi. Rich, light,
fresh, and beyond flavourful, it’s also number one on our recommendations of
what to eat in the old city.

A bonus: Phở Chiên Phồng (fried phở)
and Phở Cuốn (phở rolls)

Already we have seen how Hanoi cuisine is so
different to its southern counterparts, masterfully created with a much richer
combination of flavours contributing to a more sophisticated eating style.
Perhaps we can see from this trend how the population enjoy their uniqueness
and are always up for adapting to what they have. It’s maybe for that reason
that we see another dish that is very popular in Hanoi, though not so much the
rest of the country.

Let’s start with phở chiên phồng.
Translating to “fried phở”, these are layers of square rice noodle
sheets, deep fried to puff up into pillows with crispy shells and soft, chewy
middles. As a dish, it comes topped with a saucy stir-fry of vegetables and
meat, which dribbles down into the crispy phở beneath.

A crispy pillow with layers of soft rice noodles.

We think this might be due to influence from
Southern China, particularly the Canton area and Hong Kong, whose crispy chow
mein noodles are also found in many Cantonese restaurants outside of Asia.

On the other hand, phở cuốn (phở
rolls), are rice noodle sheets wrapped around a variety of fillings, much like
a very rudimentary spring roll. Though its origins are unclear, the invention
is supposed to be the result of a phở restaurant running out of broth
and creating the rolls with uncut sheets of noodle. This dish must have taken
off, as it’s now found all over Hanoi and enjoyed by many locals.

Phở Cuốn Hương Mai

Possibly one of the most famous places to
visit for these two dishes is Phở Cuốn Hương Mai. There are 7 outlets
scattered throughout Hanoi. That makes for trying this dish very easy,
regardless of where in the city you might be staying, and you know that it’s a
popular place for even locals to visit.

The menu is fairly extensive, and admittedly
a little pricier than your typical local restaurant in Vietnam. But the choices
are also very unique, so it’s worth a go if you’re looking for something a
little different. The phở cuốn (₫60,000; US$2.60), served with a bowl of
nước mắm for dipping, is a nice light appetiser, its
skin silky and the beef and vegetables inside tender.

A portion of phở cuốn at Phở Cuốn Hương Mai.

The phở chiên phồng (₫65,000;
US$2.80) was much more decadent, crunchy and drenched with plenty of flavourful
gravy, tender beef, and crispy vegetables that made for moreish munchies. A
final dish we decided to give a go was the phở chiên trứng (₫65,000;
US$2.80), fried phở with egg, though we found that the thin strips of
egg soaked in a little too much oil and it ended up being greasy.

A portion of phở chiên trứng (lower left) and phở chiên phồng (upper right).

We may not have filmed this one but it’s
definitely super delicious, and a great place to come if for any reason you’re
missing some Cantonese food! It’s fairly similar because of the seasonings used
to flavour the gravy.

If you love Hanoi food and want to find out more on where we ate more of their local specialties, you can check out information on the other half of the video here! We cover phở, a dish possibly originating in Hanoi; bún ốc, Hanoi’s answer to Vietnam’s snail delicacies; and xôi, the pervasive sticky rice dish that Hanoi does a little differently.

Cách làm món BÚN THANG HÀ NỘI (Công thức Cổ truyền)- by Mon ngon Ho Guom

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