Out on the streets

Expat and writer Augustus roe hit some local joints to sample the variety of traditional and modern nhau snacks found on the streets of Hanoi.

on October 17,2017 04:05 PM

Out on the streets

Photos: Thai A & Ngoc Linh

Wherever you are in the world, socialising is always an important part of the local culture. In my home country, the UK, we tend to go to the pub to meet friends or have people round for dinner. But in Vietnam, socialising, eating, and drinking are so intrinsically linked that a single-word summarises the whole process: ‘Nhau’.

This culture of social eating and drinking is big business, as according to the Vietnam Beer Alcohol Beverage Association, an estimated 4 billion litres of beer will be consumed this year in the country. Hand-in-hand with this comes a vast array of traditional Vietnamese beer snacks.

Banana Flower Salad (Nộm Hoa Chuối)

Banana Flower Salad is one of the go-to dishes for Hanoi’s world-famous bia hơi (draught beer) establishments and offers a flavour that truly captures the essence of Vietnam. Fresh banana flowers are stripped and boiled, then mixed with peanuts, coriander and herbs before being covered in a sweet and sour dressing made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and sesame oil. The salad is topped with Vietnamese beef jerky, shredded chicken, diced pig’s ear or freshwater jellyfish. The freshness of the vegetables, combined with the sweet and salty meat and sauces, result in the perfect complement for a light but filling snack to be nibbled on with a cold glass of the locally brewed, low-percentage draught beer.

Bia hơi establishments are a typical part of the ‘Nhau’ culture and you will be hard pressed to travel more than a few hundred metres along the small streets of central Hanoi without finding one.

Barbecued Chicken Feet (Chân Gà Nướng)

Although they may look shocking, chicken feet genuinely make a good snack.

In the famous beer and BBQ spots around Hanoi, chicken feet are first glazed with a mixture of honey, chilli, and fish sauce, then scorched over a wood fire. This gives them a satisfyingly crunchy texture on the outside but means they are a little gristly inside. The mixture of smoke and honey gives them a surprising sweetness that is perfectly complemented by a bottle of the local brew or a glass of wild-apple rice wine (táo mèo). If you visit any of the famous BBQ chicken spots in Hanoi you will likely come across tables of young men and women crunching on chicken feet and drinking tiny cups of strong but sweet liquor. If you’re feeling adventurous, these are definitely worth a try!

Dried Squid (Mực Khô)

Dried squid is a common snack across the length of the country, possibly due to Vietnam’s extensive coastline. Personally, the pungent yet mouth-watering scent of mực khô always takes my mind to the narrow laneways in the busy old streets of HCMC. You smell the dried squid vendors’ carts approaching long before you see them, and the scent can be pretty overpowering for some. There seems to be a penchant for strong-scented foods in Vietnam, but dried squid and other delicacies like durian and jackfruit are sometimes banned from certain public spaces due to their aroma! For this reason, I would recommend trying dried squid in small quantities first, and if you get that far you may well be hooked. The briny flavour is intense, but Vietnam’s reputation for having some of the worlds’ best seafood is certainly deserved. The squid is normally torn into strips with a texture like that of cotton wool and plunged into chilli sauce or fresh lime and salt. It’s perfectly complemented with a cold can of 333, the southern equivalent of a national beer.

Snails and shellfish (Ốc)

Out on the streets

On the banks of most lakes in the capital Hanoi are rows of plastic tables and chairs packed with youngsters snacking on Ốc - a mix of freshwater and saltwater snails and shellfish. The snacks are normally boiled and served in sauces made with curry-like spices, butter, lemongrass or sweet chilli, which provide an amazing array of flavours but a somewhat rubber-like texture. You take a plate and pry the tiny creatures out with a single pronged fork. And although getting to them probably takes more effort than the energy you receive from eating them, they are a delicious, social snack and are often accompanied by bottles of local beer or countryside rice wine (rượu nếp). There are hundreds of varieties, which only a true connoisseur would be able to identify, but virtually all of them are cheap and delicious, so feel free to go crazy and try out a selection. I would recommend going with a Vietnamese friend or looking up images online before placing an order. I can tell you from experience that trying to differentiate between a mussel and a cockle using only hand gestures is no easy task.

Crispy pancakes (Bánh Ða)

Bánh đa is a deep-fried crispy pancake offered as a light snack to accompany a drink and with a tiny price tag. They are made by dipping a soft flour pancake into black sesame seeds and flash-frying it in hot oil for just a few seconds. Typically, old ladies walk around selling them by the bag. Bánh đa is made for sharing, much like the communal bowl of peanuts or packet of potato chips you would have in a bar or pub in Europe. As you sit around the table snapping off chunks by hand and dipping it in fiery chilli sauce, the audible crunching fills any gaps in conversation. In my experience, the dry and starchy flavour works particularly well with dark beers such as the locally brewed Đại Việt.

Fermented Sausage (Nem Chua)

Anyone who has spent the lunar new year (Tet) holiday in Vietnam will be more than familiar with this staple of Vietnamese parties. Any meeting with colleagues, friends or family is almost incomplete without bundles of fermented sausages sitting at the centre of the table.

Nem Chua is made from raw pork blended with garlic and spices then wrapped in aromatic leaves (normally banana) and left to ferment until ready to eat. It’s a strange feeling biting down on a chunk of uncooked pork; even after many years I still find myself wondering whether I will get sick - but I never do. The fermentation process ensures it is not only perfectly safe but delicious too. Nem Chua offers a unique blend of flavours, mixing almost-sour tones from the garlic and the richness of the soft juicy pork. This goes perfectly with the local bia hơi Hanoi, which is often served in a plastic cup with plenty of ice.

Vietnamese Beef Jerky (Thịt Bò Khô)

Out on the streets

Hanoi is famous for the spicy jerky sold on the ancient streets of the Old Quarter.

Generally, it’s made from cuts of beef, though common alternatives include buffalo (trâu) and deer (nai).

The meat is marinated in a mixture of spices, chilli, lime, fish sauce, sugar and ginger, then smoked over lemongrass and dried either in a smoke house or left out in the hot summer sun. The mixture of sweet and spicy flavours (especially when containing well-disguised slices of raw chilli) make a perfect complement to a good quality beer or cider, especially at the end of a hot and sticky afternoon as the sun sets and the humidity of the day melts away. Vietnamese beef jerky is renowned throughout the world for its fiery flavour and sharp taste, so make sure you give it a try either as plate or as part of a salad. However, if you find yourself presented with this snack in a rural area, it may well be made from something altogether more exotic. In the mountains of Son La province I once got through half a plate before someone asked me how I was enjoying the porcupine!

Sweet potato fries (Khoai Lang Chiên)

Probably one the least healthy foods possible but so delicious! Though sweet potato fries are becoming increasingly popular in many countries, Vietnam does them a little differently. The sweet potatoes are heavily deep-fried until crispy on the outside but fluffy on the inside, then coated with sugar or sesame seeds and served along with soy sauce and fresh chilli slices that ensure you need a drink shortly after.

They are commonly sold at pop-up street corner restaurants along with beer or lemon tea and are a particularly popular snack among the younger generation, who you’ll find busily chatting with friends or flirting with one another as they sit on plastic stools dotted around Ta Hien Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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