A cuisine of its own

Hai Phong has a host of dishes peculiar to the northern port city.

By Thuy Duong on December 12,2019 02:50 PM

A cuisine of its own

Photos: Thuy Duong

Hai Phong cuisine is an interesting and flavorsome combination of Chinese and French cuisine with fresh seafood. A unique feature of the port city’s cuisine is how it makes people curious, with many groups of friends organizing their own “food tours” to Hai Phong just to enjoy its delicious offerings.

When people think of Hai Phong, most think of a bustling port city in Vietnam’s north with a cultural mix of East and West. That cultural intersection manifests itself especially in the city’s food. Its delicious dishes are strongly influenced by Chinese and French cuisine, prepared from or combined with local specialties to create special dishes not found elsewhere.

A cuisine of its own

The origin of many famous Hai Phong dishes is largely unknown, such as “banh da cua” (red rice noodles with crab), “nem cua be” (crab spring rolls), “lau cua dong” (rice-field crab hotpot), “com chay hai san” (rice with seafood), and “banh mi cay” (spicy bread). Such dishes, when ordered in Hai Phong, are so delicious and popular that people have forgotten where they actually came from, but they are nonetheless associated with the city.

Nature has bestowed upon Hai Phong a marine area with abundant fish and shrimp. Dishes in the city are usually a little sweet and moderately salty - not too spicy like food in the central region, not too plain like northern dishes, not too sweet like southern dishes, and, of course, less sophisticated than royal dishes found in Hue.

They are popular, inexpensive, and easy to eat, suitable for the tastes of all, including foreign visitors. Hai Phong cuisine impresses with its simplicity, highlighting the naturally delicious taste of the ingredients.

Similar to other cuisine in Vietnam, a dipping sauce plays an important role in the city’s food. Vietnamese people often say “Whether the dish is delicious or not depends on the sauce”, and this is evident in Hai Phong cuisine. Local families often make their own fish sauce and “chiu truong”, and ferment their own vinegar. “Chiu truong” is a type of sauce originating from China made from freshly-chopped chili, tomatoes, and ground garlic, seasoned with a pinch of salt and fermented according to a traditional recipe. The delicious “chiu truong” must be an eye-catching bright red and accompanies almost every dish in Hai Phong.

Another extremely important ingredient in the city’s cuisine is “banh da do”, or red rice cake. Rice cakes appear in many Hai Phong specialties, such as “banh da cua” (red rice noodles with crab) and “nem cua be” (crab spring rolls). Despite being made from whole grain (red rice) or finished rice (white rice), rice cakes in Hai Phong are different from others found elsewhere - thicker yet fragile and with a specific flavor.

“Banh da cua” (Red rice noodles with crab)

Any talk of the cuisine Hai Phong has to offer simply must include “banh da cua”, as it’s considered “a dish creating the reputation of Hai Phong cuisine”. A bowl of “authentic” Hai Phong “banh da cua” must meet all “five elements of Yin and Yang”: the dark red color of the noodles, the bright red of “chiu truong”, the green of cooked spinach, the yellowish color of fried onions and braised crab eggs, and the light maroon of the shrimp.

Similar to “pho” in Hanoi, “banh da cua” is sold all day throughout the city, for breakfast, lunch, a light supper, and even dinner. A bowl costs just VND30,000 ($1.2).

“Banh mi cay” (Spicy bread)

Neither sophisticatedly prepared nor luxurious but inexpensive, “banh mi cay” (spicy bread) and “banh mi que” (bread sticks) satisfy even the most demanding of palates. A small loaf just slightly larger than a thumb costs only VND5,000 (20 US cents), but can only be found in Hai Phong.

The ingredients are simple - flour, salt, and baking powder. But to make it crispy on the outside but soft on the inside requires the skills of an experienced baker. The tiny loaves are quite hard to bake right, so the baker must pay particular attention during the process. As they turn slightly yellowish, they are taken out of the oven immediately. The loaf is just enough for two bites. The addition of pate, coriander, and “chiu truong” make it a stand-out treat!

“Nem cua be” (Crab spring rolls)

It’s also impossible not to mention “nem cua be” when talking about Hai Phong’s many great dishes. Though prepared under a recipe similar to Hanoi spring rolls, the Hai Phong version uses seafood rather than pork. “Nem cua be” is carefully and beautifully wrapped in a square shape, with the thick rice paper keeping everything together when frying. The flavor is sure to win over diners from the very first bite!

“Nem cua be” is available at seafood restaurants on Cat Ba Island, at Do Son Beach, and Cat Bi and Co Dao markets in Hai Phong, ranging from VND40,000 ($1.7) to VND70,000 ($3) per piece, depending on whether you try it at a market or a restaurant.

“Bun be be” (Noodles with mantis shrimp)

 

A cuisine of its own

“Be be” is a type of shrimp but has different names in different regions, such as “tom tich”, “tom bua”, and “tom thuyen”. The shrimp has a sweet flavor and fragrance, so cooks can prepare a host of delicious and nutritious dishes such as braised shrimp with tamarind, grilled shrimp, and steamed shrimp with ginger. Of particular note is “bun be be”.

When visiting Hai Phong, I’ve never missed the chance to eat “bun be be”. While most visitors like “banh da cua”, I prefer “bun be be” as it is deliciously cool in summer and warm in winter.

One thing that gives “bun be be” its unique flavor is its broth, cooked from shrimp heads and shells. Cooks skillfully cut the sides of the shrimp, removing the meat intact. The meat is then put on top of a bowl of noodles with no salt or fish sauce, so it retains its fresh taste. A delicious bowl of “bun be be” in Hai Phong costs just VND30,000 ($1.3)

“Thach gang” (Jelly cooked from the leaves of Randia tomentosa)

For most people in Hai Phong, “Thach Gang” conjures up childhood memories. The fresh softness of the jelly melts on the tip of the tongue. The beautiful green jelly pieces are accompanied by sweet sugar. After enjoying one of Hai Phong’s many delicious dishes, a glass of “thach gang” refreshes the palate. It can be eaten with toppings such as fresh grated coconut or dried coconut. The dish is available at most markets around town for VND10,000 (40 US cents) a glass.

In some places, “thach gang” is called “thach xanh” due to its green color. The “gang” tree grows wild in the forest, where it is harvested by ethnic minority people and sold in cities. Cooks must remove all the thorns on the leaves, wash them carefully, and soak them in boiled water. The leaves are then crumpled and filtered through a clean cloth. They sit for a while, and the water is then frozen to become a clear green jelly. It looks and tastes delicious.

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