Three magical meals from Vietnam

It was on the second day of our Vietnam trip last month when S and I admitted that we didn’t like Vietnamese food. After having heard so much about Vietnamese cuisine, our expectations from the food were high. But the meals we’d had were disappointing, mostly due to lack of flavour and finesse (except the breakfast we had at our Hanoi hotel- Essence Palace).

We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps Vietnamese cuisine wasn’t right for us. Or was overrated.

But on the third day of our trip, we took a flight to Dong Hoi and headed to Phong Nha, home to the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. That’s when our luck with Vietnamese food turned.

Magical Meal One: DIY Vietnamese spring rolls in Phong Nha

In Phong Nha, we spent the morning at Paradise Cave (stunning!) and then headed with our group to the Dark Cave restaurant for lunch. The meal there consisted of spring rolls. Yep, just spring rolls. Simple meal, yet strangely satisfying. We were served a giant platter with spring roll stuffings and the paper, and we had to build and roll our own spring rolls.

This is what the non-vegetarian and vegetarian platters looked like:

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

And my vegetarian spring roll with tofu:

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

I shared the vegetarian platter of tofu, vegetables, dip and sticky rice with a French girl, and we ate several rolls before wrapping up (pun intended) and heading to the Dark Cave for a fun-filled afternoon.

Magical Meal Two: Traditional dishes at Sapa

Sapa Town is a hillside town, teeming with hundreds of tourists who come for trekking in the valley and beyond. And because its economy is largely tourist-driven, there are dozens of restaurants serving all possible cuisines. But like any capitalist will tell you, the more the market players, the merrier. The customers usually wins with so many options. So after wandering about town and debating where to eat, S and I finally headed to Sapa Village restaurant. Great staff, but our food took a while to come. But when our dishes arrived, we knew the wait was totally worth it.

These are the curries we had (vegetables and chicken):

Vietnamese coconut curry

Vietnamese coconut curry

The curries had been cooked in tender coconut, and the warm aroma of spices with the rustic texture and delicious curry had us reaching for our spoons already. This delightful meal, cooked with excellent flavours, fresh ingredients and the chef’s love (we hope!) was just what we needed after a long day.

Magical Meal Three: Modern Vietnamese in Hanoi

We didn’t know that Gia Ngu restaurant in our hotel served such excellent food till we found raving reviews online. The small and chic restaurant serves a Vietnamese cuisine with a modern touch, with equal focus on taste, presentation, service and concept. S reported that their breakfast pho was excellent, and so we gave it a go for dinner one evening.

The food was so good we ended up having two meals there, and we enjoyed both times. But the hands-down winner was the steamed fish.

Vietnamese food Gia Ngu restaurant

The chefs have stuck to local seasonings and flavours for their dishes, but the concepts are western. For instance the grilled chicken may seem to be cooked and served the “western” way, but the flavours were definitely Vietnamese.

Vietnamese food Gia Ngu restaurant

Vietnam is a beautiful country with a cuisine and both must be explored, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegetarian like me. Despite our rocky start with local food, we flew back home with excellent food memories. And no, Vietnamese food isn’t overrated.

Foodie Friday: The truth about Burmese Khowsuey

It’s been a month since I moved to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), former capital of Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). Eager on quickly getting a hang of the local culture, I’ve insisted on learning the language, picking up a few local habits, and of course, eating at a local restaurant to sample Burmese food. But the cultural adventures are for another day. This is about my first taste of authentic and famous Burmese khowsuey.

I love khowsuey and if it’s being served at a party in India, I make sure I have a bowl. I love the noodles mixed with yellow coconut-based gravy, the cute toppings, and the taste of course. It’s a meal in itself and absolutely delicious. So when I sought khowsuey at a Burmese restaurant, I was in for a big surprise. This is what it looked like:

Burmese khowsuey dish

To start with, let’s get the word right

The correct pronunciation for khowsuey or khowshwe or khawoswe is khauk-swey (with the KH sound not too hard and the second ‘k’ almost silent). It should sound something like khow-sway when you say it quickly. (I’m going to spell it the popular Indian way to avoid confusion).

STOP PRESS: Khowsuey is not a Burmese dish. It’s an ingredient.

Noodles!

Burmese khowsuey noodles

Khowsuey means “noodles” in Burmese / Myanmar language, and this ingredient is versatile and used in a variety of dishes. It is cooked in a number of ways with different ingredients, depending on the region you’re in.

So, asking for khowsuey in a local restaurant is as specific as asking for say, paneer or rice in an Indian restaurant. Do you want paneer makhanwala, paneer tikka or paneer bhurji? Or would you like mutter pulao, mutton biryani or steamed rice? Like paneer and rice, khowsuey is the star of a variety of dishes, but all cooked differently. I’ve eaten khowsuey at a couple of restaurants in Yangon, and they’ve always looked and tasted different each time I ordered.

Burmese noodles can be shan-style, or coconut noodles, or served as mohinga (thin rice noodles in fish soup) etc. As for the yellow coconut gravy we have in India? Not spotted it in Yangon yet.

A mini-history lesson and a theory about Burmese khowsuey

I’ve been reading up on the history of Myanmar (history was never so interesting in school!), starting with the wonderful book The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U and the history I’ve read so far has given me a theory of khowsuey captured the Indian palate. When the British came to Myanmar in the 19th century, they opened the floodgates to trade establishing the major port at Rangoon. Thousands of Indians came to Burma to earn a living, while keeping in touch with their families back home. So the Burmese khowsuey may have made its way to India from our migrant ancestors, anywhere from the late 19th century to the early 1960s.

Burmese khowsuey is one of those early “fusion” dishes that we Indians loved and re-invented, strongly influenced by Burmese and Indian culinary traditions. So yep, we Indians made our own version of it, like we did with Chinese food! 😀 And this is the khowsuey in India!

Indian style Burmese khowsuey

Khowsuey toppings are aplenty, and they’re for real.

The Myanmar people garnish their dishes with all sorts of toppings. They love adding roasted peanuts, green chillies, dehydrated onion, chopped garlic and dried shrimp to dishes (thankfully I don’t have a nut allergy). And these are some of the toppings you see at khowsuey counters across parties and weddings. The lemons and fried noodles might be an Indian introduction, and we’re using fried onions instead.

Here’s a Burmese noodle soup with pork.

Burmese Myanmar khowsuey

Enjoy your khowsuey!

Okay, so what if the “Indian” khowsuey” isn’t 100% authentic? It’s still yum, so I’m going to eat it when I get the chance. But if you’re visiting Myanmar anytime soon, you won’t get the Burmese khowsuey you’re used to. And that’s because it’s not authentic Burmese cuisine. Or Myanmar cuisine, as they now like to call it. Instead, try the local khowsuey dishes. You’ll love them- I did!