Northern Vietnam Food Culture Snapshot: Nam Dinh Street Market and Making Pho Bo

Cousin Jonathan with his mother-in-law and wife Hoa, at the family bicycle shop in Nam Dinh (10 July 2010.)

Now that the whirlwind Indian wedding week is over, I’ve traveled through the luxury lined terminals of Suvarnabhumi Bangkok Airport to arrive Hanoi, to visit my cousin Jonathan and his wife Hoa and do a little exploring of this city on my own before heading back to the states on Friday. I’ll be moving into a hotel this afternoon for the duration of my stay, but how perfect it was to stay with Jonathan these couple of days. He and Hoa (pronounced wah, flower in Vietnamese) have given me the ultimate in crash courses on culture, language, and most importantly, food! I think I’m getting a handle on the Vietnamese way of life, and I have them to thank.  I’m learning some Vietnamese, but it’s a bitch!  First of all, letters and their combinations sound different.   Nh sounds like ing, so banh mi actually sounds like ba-ang mi.  Then you have accents, plus when you address different genders and ages there are different words you use! I have a few staple phrases down…

Yesterday, my first full day here (having arrived at night on Friday,) we took day trip to Nam Dinh, the second town about 2 hours south  of the city that the French developed into provincial outpost. It’s where Jonathan’s in laws live, and we were going to visit its street food market and learn how to make pho bo (beef pho) from Hoa and her mom.

Thanh (tang), Hao's mom in front of her shop.

The day began in Hanoi, in Jonathan’s neighborhood in the Hoan Kiem district.  We walked a few blocks to a little alley with a home that doubles as a pho restaurant.  The Vietnamese eat this savory soup for breakfast.  It all became clear why they prefer ice cold coffee that morning. A steaming bowl of beef  or chicken soup with rice noodles, fresh herbs, and fried onions — with the occasional chilli and/or lime topping — can make for a sweaty beginning to an even hotter day.

Leaving Hanoi for Nam Dinh.
Along the way, rice patties. They double as cemeteries. Uncle Ho didn't want his remains to waste land that can be cultivated.
Lots of lotus. And rock sculptures for sale...

Hoa’s family lives and works out of their bicycle shop on main street, which is prime turf.  She and Jonathan have also purchased a home in Nam Dinh in a very nice up and coming neighborhood where many politicians live when they are in town.  We went to take a look and light some incense on their top floor altar (where the dead live.) It’s typical Vietnamese…  Very narrow tall building with 5 floors and very heavy, carved dark wood Nam Dinh furniture.

Hoa’s really into cooking and has actually shown groups of foreigners how to cook typical meals, but she doesn’t do it for a living — although it would be a great business venture for her!  Her English could get a tiny bit better, but it’s actually quite good, and I understand her 80 percent of the time.

Making beef pho is quite simple, and Nam Dinh claims its origin.  We began making a stock with meticulously rinsed pork and beef bones, twice in cold water and once in hot water.  A stock pot is then filled with water.  The bones are added with a tablespoon or so of sea salt, one chard of a cinnamon stick, and then some baby onion and ginger that has been toasted over an open flame in grilling cage.   After that comes to a boil, the heat it turned down and simmered for four hours.

While the stock develops,  a mise en place comes together.  Herbs including culantro, cilantro, chervil, and mint are finely chopped.  A mild white onion (I remember not crying, but it wasn’t yellow) is sliced paper thin… We would probably use the mandoline for this, but they have very sharp knives and take pride in that.  They’re not beautiful or nice (hence the plastic handle) but someone comes to the shop house to sharpen them frequently.  Next is a lean log of beef tenderloin.  It’s sliced again paper thin, and then smashed a bit with the back of a knife.  You collect it into what is basically a ball of battered beef carpaccio and set aside. Now it was time to explore the food market.

Moon cakes, traditional for weddings.
Sweet tofu soup... A cool and refreshing soup of slightly sweetened water with ice cubes, rice flower blossom and soft tofu.
Eaten with a Chinese style roast pork bun filled with mushrooms, onions, and tofu. A nice flaky crust. Slightly sweet in a yummy roast pork kind of way.
Pineapples cut to remove the eyes. And easy to snap each ridge to snack. It's nearing the end of the season, so they're slightly tangy -- which suits me just fine.
Rambutan fruit. And giggling, smiling sales ladies - always!
Lotus seeds. Everywhere you go, women are removing their husks and bagging them. I don't know all the uses yet, but Hoa is going to make me a sweet lotus seed soup later today. She has them in the pressure (or rice?) cooker now.
The fate of ducks (and cats and dogs here, although I didn't see any at this market.)
And waiting their fate behind fallen comrades.
Self explanatory!!
I picked up 6 little bags of shrimp chip starters here. You just throw the flattened discs about the size of a quarter into the deep frier and voila! My favorite snack.

Everything is little here, and I think it makes for more flavorful food.

Dried seafood of all sorts like this cuttlefish, and tons of baby shrimp.

Taking a nap in the early afternoon. Typical since it's so hot out.

Crab handcuffs.
Hoa and I in our non (in Hanoi) and mu (in Ho Chi Min.)

After four hours, it was time to finish the pho and plate. First remove the bones and swirl crispy fried shallots into the broth…  Then lay out your bowls, and
assemble in this order:

1) soaked rice noodles that have been dunked again in hot water with some salt to loosen clumping and make smooth
2) a few pinches of herbs and paper thin onions
3) beef (put an American lime-sized ball of the raw meat with little grated raw ginger into  a flat ladle and  dunk in the stock pot with the broth.  It will instantly turn from red to gray. Place cooked beef in bowl with noodles.)
4) Ladle broth on top of your bowl of pho
5) sprinkle little msg powder
6) sprinkle finely ground black pepper (we got ours from the market in a little baggie.)
7) using chopsticks, swirl at table and enjoy! using spoon in left hand for broth and sticks in right to eat noodles… Hoa piles her noodles onto the spoon neatly and then eats with a little broth.

The finished product. So so good. I need to buy some cooking chopsticks now (the extra long ones...)

On the way home we stopped at a temple site honoring a general who is worshiped as a deity. Even without a religious connection, being at a temple is very peaceful, even spiritual. Sit outside, smell the incense and just chill.

And meet new friends, like this woman who was sweeping and wanted her picture taken in front of the incense urn. Hoa said she has a problem where she can't speak but her cheerful face said it all.

Lots of trees bearing tropical fruit right now, especially jack fruit and longan. Jack fruit grows on the trunks, durian on branches.

It’s a new day in Hanoi today — Hoa wants to take me to 5 street food stalls she likes. For breakfast down the street from the house, we already had amazing rolling cakes with ground pork and mushroom and chicken eggs on top that take on a slightly chewy but immensely pleasing texture since they’re steamed right where the rice flour crepe is.  This is accompanied by fried onions, a few sprigs of mint with tiny leaves, sliced rounds of red chilli, and a little bowl of cool broth (cinnamon, fish sauce, rice flower blossom) with pieces of pork cake.

We’ll visit Hoa Lo Prision, have lunch at the food stalls, and then move into my hotel at 3:00 p.m. I’m then taking them to Verticale, a well respected french restaurant tonight for dinner, followed by Water Puppets show depicting the story of the Hoan Kiem sword swallowed by the tortoise.

Categories off the beaten path

5 thoughts on “Northern Vietnam Food Culture Snapshot: Nam Dinh Street Market and Making Pho Bo

  1. Beautiful pictures!

  2. So jealous so happy for you

  3. Amazing pictures. I love the ducks on the street. I want to jump on a plane right now!!!!

  4. Great photo journey through Vietnam, I love these posts, makes me feel I was there with you. So right, in Asia, small is sweeter, full of flavor.

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