Dinner in Hanoi
Goi Ga Bap Cai (Chicken Salad)
Salads in Vietnam aren't lettuce-and-ranch-dressing affairs, but a myriad of flavors, textures, and spices all working together in harmony. Salads are the perfect example of the cuisine’s broader philosophical approach. Vietnamese food always has five elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet (the dressing for this salad has chilis, limes, herbs, fish sauce, and sugar). In general, the balance between fresh herbs, meats, spices and very little oil makes Vietnamese cuisine one of the healthiest in the world. (Contains peanuts, fish; no gluten.)
Pho Bo Ha Noi (Beef Broth with Sliced Beef and Noodles)
This soup is often called the national dish of Vietnam. It originated in Hanoi, but is eaten all over the country, often for breakfast or lunch. A bowl of pho is “built” by placing cooked rice noodles in a warmed bowl; then adding a layer of sliced beef, chopped scallions, and sliced onion; pouring the boiling hot broth into the bowl; and finally, topping with fresh herbs, sliced chilies, and a squeeze of lime. It seems pretty simple, but a great deal of attention is paid to the clarity, flavor, and aroma of the broth (no canned beef broth here!); the aromatic spices (cloves, black cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise) are gently toasted, the onion and garlic carefully charred and rinsed, and the broth is simmered for up to ten hours. The dish is substantial and warming, but the flavor is more delicate than that of some other Vietnamese soups. If you want to eat this in the traditional way, wield a pair of chopsticks in one hand and a deep soup spoon in the other. Use the chopsticks to eat noodles and meat, and the spoon to gather up broth and anything that slides off the chopsticks - slurping is encouraged! (Contains fish; no gluten.)
Cha Ca (Turmeric and Dill Fish)
Cha Ca is one of the most famous dishes of Hanoi, and perhaps the one with the most interesting and unique history. In the late 1800s, a family turned their home into a “restaurant” so they could host clandestine meetings with revolutionary soldiers who wanted to evict the French colonialists. The only thing on the menu: Cha Ca. Ironically, the restaurant became a hit with French aristocrats, so the cover worked perfectly. Since then, the entire street has been renamed Cha Ca and the dish is a symbol of revolution. Our version of stir fried catfish marinated in turmeric, dill, spring onions and fish sauce is best served with some vermicelli and fresh herbs and topped off with Nuoc Cham (see below). (Contains fish; no gluten.)
Bun Cha (Grilled Pork Meatballs and Pork Belly)
Bun Cha is, undeniably, the most popular dish in Hanoi and a lunchtime staple throughout the entire city. Follow the scent of grilled pork and it will most likely lead you to a small alley with a woman hunched over a makeshift grill aggressively fanning the flames under grilled meat. To me, this dish epitomizes the enchantment of Hanoi; sitting in a haze of grilled meat smoke while the city, with its kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells, whizzes by you. It’s also THAT dish, the one Obama had with Anthony Bourdain in the famous Parts Unknown episode. (Contains fish, soy, gluten.)
Rice Vermicelli Noodles, Fresh Herbs, Pickled Veggies and Nuoc Cham (dipping sauce)
These four “sides” are meant to accompany the above. In 12,000 BCE, the indigenous peoples of Vietnam settled the Hong River Valley, where rice and fresh herbs grew in abundance. By 2,000 BCE, Vietnam was considered a Chinese province and noodles became incorporated into Vietnamese cuisine. Nuoc Cham also has its origins in antiquity, with fermented fish sauces being popular even before the Romans. All Southeast Asian countries consume fish sauces in one form or another; in Vietnam, it’s on every table, for every meal. (Nuoc cham contains fish; all other garnishes are free of major allergens.)
Ca Phe Panna Cotta
Let’s start this one off by saying that this isn’t a traditional Vietnamese dessert. Our favorite way of ending any Vietnamese meal is with Ca Phe, a super strong coffee with a healthy dollop of sweet condensed milk. The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is undeniable, from the baguettes that form the basis of bahn mi to pho, a take on the classic French pot-au-feu. The Vietnamese just took the best aspects of French cuisine and made them better. This panna cotta takes the essence of a Vietnamese Ca Phe and infuses it into a silken custard. (Contains dairy; no gluten.)
Along with bread, the French also brought beer to Vietnam in the late 1800s. Fast forward to the present and Bia Hoi can be found all over the country, a favorite drink due to its mild flavor and low price (beer in Hanoi is advertised as the cheapest in the world…probably because it has an ABV between 2-4%). Since we can’t find Vietnamese beer in the area, your best bet would be an Asian lager such as Tsingtao, Sapporo, Asahi, etc.
Hanoi, located on the western bank of the Red River in Northern Vietnam, is the political and cultural capital of the country. It is not the largest city (that would be Ho Chi Minh City in the south), but it is vibrant and bustling, rapidly changing, while also retaining vestiges of its ancient past. Hanoi is a city of contrasts - the buzz of motorbikes, the quiet calm of its many lakes (twenty inside the city itself!), the high rise buildings and hotels in the southern part of the city, the ancient temples and pagodas, the vibrant contemporary art scene, the historic market lanes of the Old Quarter. The area around present-day Hanoi was settled in prehistoric times, and the city itself was founded in 1010.
Vietnam’s history is complex and greatly defined by successive occupations (by the Chinese, French, and Japanese) and wars. It was only in 1946 that Vietnam declared its independence from France, and it entered - almost immediately - into the conflicts that would escalate into what Americans call the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese call the American War. This war, technically between North and South Vietnam, lasted for twenty years, finally ending in 1975 with the devastated country unified under Communist rule. Since then, Vietnam has rebuilt itself, and normalized relations with many of its former enemies. In one of the most striking visuals of improved relations with the United States (and certainly germane to this menu, and to our values at the White Pine Kitchen), President Barack Obama visited a streetside diner in Hanoi, perched on a tiny blue plastic stool, and slurped up a bowl of bun cha with Anthony Bourdain in 2016. Today, Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and rapid urbanization has meant that Hanoi’s population has grown dramatically - from 6.5 million in 2009 to almost 8 million in 2019. Two-thirds of Vietnam’s population remains rural, but that is changing quickly, as people move to urban centers in search of non-agricultural employment, educational opportunities, and an improved quality of life.
Tourism accounted for nine percent of Vietnam’s GDP in 2019, and Hanoi is one of the most popular destinations for tourists. The city itself boasts a number of cultural and historic attractions - the aforementioned temples and pagodas, the ancient Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (built in the 11th century), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the well-maintained colonial architecture of French Indochina. The Old Quarter is a maze of streets packed with street vendors of all sorts, cafes, diners, and shops. Just two and a half hours from the city is the stunning Ha Long Bay, where legend holds that Vietnamese civilization originated when one hundred children were born to a dragon and a fairy; fifty of the children went with the fairy mother and settled inland, where they began to cultivate rice, and the other fifty children followed the dragon father and mastered the sea. Indeed, rice and fish are the cornerstones of Vietnamese cuisine, and Vietnamese food is a big draw for tourists.
The food varies regionally around the country, though the staple ingredients remain constant. Rice, coconut, ginger, garlic, chilies, fish sauce, and fresh herbs all feature heavily in the cuisine. Vietnamese cooks aspire to achieve a balance of flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy. In the (relatively) cooler north, the food is characterized by heartier dishes. Pho (beef broth soup) is the most famous of these dishes, but bun cha (pork meatballs) and cha ca (grilled fish) are also typical of Northern Vietnam. All of these dishes feature rice vermicelli noodles (bun), and a variety of accompaniments such as fresh herbs, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, and sauces. Unlike many of our other menus, where we select a progression of courses, this menu is a sampler of these three dishes, each of which you could find in a streetside diner or stall in Hanoi. You’d perch on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk, facing the street, motorbikes honking as they whiz past, the smells of food and exhaust fumes mingling together. You’d slurp up your noodles and broth, and wonder how on earth something could taste so good.
Featured Recipe: Bun Cha
Makes 6 servings
1 lb minced pork
1 lb pork belly, thinly sliced
1 lb dried vermicelli noodles, cooked as per their instruction
3 red chilies, seeded and finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Herbs to serve such as mint, thai basil, lettuce, cilantro, etc
¼ cup fish sauce
4 small shallots
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ chopped lemongrass
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ cup white vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 ounces thinly sliced green papaya
2 ounces thinly sliced carrots
½ cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons white vinegar
¾ cup sugar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons lime juice
In a bowl, mix the marinade ingredients together. Take half the marinade and add to the pork belly, let it sit for at least an hour or overnight. Take the other half of the marinade and pour into the minced pork. Form the pork into patties and leave to marinate for an hour or overnight as well
Combine the vinegar, sugar and salt and mix together until the sugar dissolves. Add the papaya and carrot and set aside for at least 30 minutes
Make the dressing by heating up the fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and water over high heat until sugar dissolves. Let it cool and mix in the lime juice
Heat a skillet or BBQ over high heat. Brush with some oil and grill the pork belly for 2 minutes on each side, until cooked and slightly charred. Do the same with the pork patties for 3-4 minutes per side. Place cooked meat in a bowl
Pour the dressing over the cooked meat. Serve with noodles, herbs, pickles, garlic and chilies
Recipes Inspired By:
An incredibly produced masterpiece documentary on the Vietnam War. This mini-series, with over 20 hours of footage, will forever change how you perceive the war and the 60s cultural revolution in America
Here is a helpful timeline of the Vietnam War, and US engagement in it.
Here are some photos of some of the most remarkable temples and pagodas in Hanoi.