Sunday 28 February 2016

Two Nights in Saigon, Vietnam

We landed at night, from a rainy Hong Kong that averaged around 17 degrees C. Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it's more commonly known) blasted at us at 36 degrees, meaning that just stepping out of the airport broke us into instant sweats. It was the epitome of culture shock; taxis tried to lure us from every direction, tugging at our bags, shouting over to us. The money was confusing and full of zeros (30,000 dong to the pound) and traffic was chaos. Everyone drives a scooter in Saigon, and the sheer volume of them, beep-beeping away was overwhelming. 

We stayed in an Air BnB right in the middle of backpacker land, in District 1. Have you been to the Khao San Road in Bangkok? It reminded me of that. Music pumped from the bars, and just walking down the street elicited people thrusting their wares at us, shouting prices, keen for attention. We were shell-shocked. We dumped our bags and headed immediately for a foot massage. Recommended by The Legal Nomads, we made our way over to Kien Chi Gia Foot Massage, 20 minutes away on foot, but this itself was no trifling matter. 

How do you cross the road? There are no zebra or pelican crossings. We had to do what the locals were doing - just walk out into the road, head up, with confidence and sure enough the scooters go around you. It goes against absolutely everything you were taught about road safety. An old lady took us by the hand and led us across, smirking. We were told later to make sure you don't make eye contact when you cross the streets - this confuses the drivers as to what your intention is. Just go. By the time we got to the massage place we were jibbering wrecks. Led to a darkened room with rows of leather seats, all taken up by silent customers, the foot massage was incredible. The back and shoulder combo also - but be warned, it does feel a little bit like being beaten up. They're not messing. 

We attempted to go to Com Nieu Sai Gon, much lauded by Anthony Bourdain and said to be one of the best restaurants in Saigon, but when we got there we discovered it was a rickety old shack that was decidedly shut. We later learned we were at the wrong one, and so we went to the correct restaurant on our stopover before heading north - verdict? Don't bother. Stick to the streets. 

Back to the present, with stomachs grumbling in a foreign land, we wandered around some very quiet streets and came across an absolutely giant restaurant, lined with fish tanks with all sorts of crustaceans. We jumped on a table. We soon realised that we were the only women customers in a restaurant full of raucously drunk men. After trying to up-sell us onto foreign beer and offering us seafood by the kilo, we knew we had to stand our ground with the waitresses and very firmly picked dishes from the menu with obvious prices. Hunger made us determined and blind to the stares. Steamed lemongrass clams were sweet and free from grit, finished with healthy bunch of basil used more like a vegetable than a herb.

Tiny baby shrimps stir-fried were to be the innards of summer rolls, assembled by ourselves. A red-faced man from a nearby table came to try to persuade us to join him and his friends, swaying on his feet and sloshing a beer around. We decided it was time to retire to the air-conditioned haven of home. 

The next morning, we had better success with finding our establishment of choice, Pho Thanh Canh. They've been serving pho for 45 years, and we didn't even have to ask before they furnished us with two bowls of steaming pho (pronounced 'fuh') with slices of beef, a giant basket of herbs, limes, chillis and beansprouts. I can't think of a better breakfast. It seems counter-intuitive to eat hot soup in such heat, but actually it makes you sweat more, thereby allowing you to cool down quicker. Whatever, I'm down with it. Pick a bit of herb for your mouthful, slurp it down, repeat. Sawleaf and basil are in abundance, again more like a vegetable than a garnish that we often associate with herbs. The broth was crystal clear and beefy, the note of aniseed shining through. It was properly restorative. It cost around £1.  

After a sweaty morning exploring the Independence Palace we went off in search of Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, reportedly the best banh mi in the city. It was closed. Unlike the rest of the city, who seem to eat lunch anywhere between 11am and 1pm, Banh Mi Huynh Hoa opens at 2pm into the night. Those delicious filled sandwiches would have to wait. Instead, we headed for a hole-in-the-wall filled with office workers, all sitting down to more noodle soups. 

Here, the herb basket was more of a salad, with slivers of banana blossom, mint leaves and chopped lettuce on each table. The noodles we had were bun cha ca (bun referring to the round noodles, ca being fish) and were made up of balls of minced prawn and fishcakes, sliced into the soup. We were having a brothy day. 

That evening, we were picked up by XO Street Tours for their night-time 'foodie' tour. We were drawn to this tour in particular as they advertise that they're the only operator to have accident insurance, and I love a bit of insurance, me. They're also all-female drivers, if that is the sort of thing that swings your decision-making. We jumped on the back of the scooters, white knuckles gripping on really tight as we weaved our way through the traffic. I was pretty certain of imminent death, but weirdly once you're immersed into the traffic it all just seems to make sense. The scooters flow around the pedestrians, and everyone is going slowly enough to be able to react. 

Our first stop was bun bo hue, a spicy beef noodle soup, while we met the other people on the trip. Here, the garnishes offered were more sophisticated than we were used to; a rich, dark chilli sauce, slivered banana blossom, and shredded greens.  

Wary of not filling up too soon, we abandoned our noodle soups 3/4s of the way through and jumped back onto the scooters. Our guides took us to the Chinatown market, and shimmied us through the open air stalls selling vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. Just past sunset, it was full of people buying groceries, vendors yelling prices, transactions reached over from scooter to scooter. At each stop our guide talked us through which district we were in, and what it was known for, so we really got a feel for each of the districts we visited, something impossible to do by foot. We visited the posher District 3, where the apartments are new and shiny, as well as the poorer District 4 in stark contrast. Eventually, we stopped at a huge open-air barbecue restaurant, and small charcoal burning stoves were placed on the tables. 

We were not to do any cooking ourselves, and instead our scooter drivers diligently cooked up the food for us, describing what each thing was and how to eat it. It was here we discovered 'fish herb', Diep Cá
 in Vietnamese, here wrapping the grilled goat. We were told it is an acquired taste; it is not a taste I have acquired. It's disgusting. It's hard to describe, but it's slightly fishy, a bit metallic. From this point on we often found it lurking in dishes and one bite of it is enough to ruin a mouthful and have me reaching for water. Foul stuff.

We were given plates of grilled frog, complete with crisp skin, which tastes just like chicken with fish skin attached to it. We got stuck in but others weren't going near it. Skewers of prawns were barbecued and dextrously relieved of their shells with scissors, for us to eat like lollipops off the stick. 

Back onto the scooters we went, over a busy bridge to District 5 for seafood. On the way my driver asked me if I'd like to try balut, a speciality of Vietnam (called  trung vit long) and the Philippines. I knew exactly what it was and I knew exactly that my stubbornness would mean that yes I would have to try it. She had me in a bind. Firstly though, we had tiny barbecued scallops dressed with fish sauce, peanuts and coriander. Crab legs cooked on the barbecue were cracked open by our drivers and handed to us to dip in black pepper, salt and lime juice; it felt a bit weird to be effectively be fed morsels but I can understand that it might be intimidating for some. Still, I like to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. 

I couldn't put it off for much longer. The steaming balut was placed before me and everyone peered at me expectantly. Balut is a duck egg which has been fertilised and the duck has started to grow inside it before being eaten by people like me. I tapped the shell open and was instructed to drink the 'soup' accumulated in the top - barf - which just tasted like eggy salty water. You could see the duck feather fronds in the egg whites. I had a mouthful or two but it really just tasted like a very eggy egg with some texture to it. 

We had more clams here, this time in lemongrass and spicy tamarind broth. I loved these, they were spicy but sweet and the broth was incredibly moreish. 

Besides shaved ice drinks with jellies and tapioca in them, I'm not sure Vietnamese desserts are up to much. This was coconut jelly, and we also had a caramel flan. We were offered more food, which I certainly would have gone for if they had been different to what we'd already eaten but for much of the same, I was satisfied. We really enjoyed the tour; afterwards it felt like Saigon made a lot more sense to us instead of the heaving, confusing mass it had been when we first got there. 

I'll admit it though, I still breathed a slight sigh of relief when we packed up to go flop on the beach the next day.

(At the other end of the country, my compadre Helen wrote about 24 Hours in Hanoi - well worth a read) 

Tuesday 23 February 2016

A Return to the Motherland - Hong Kong, Jan 2016

Back in January I took a short trip back to my motherland, Hong Kong, before heading on for a couple of weeks in Vietnam. This time I had a friend in tow who'd never been, which is one of the most exciting ways to visit your home city, and show off all your favourite haunts. A lot of the places I've mentioned before, but isn't it good to know that there's consistency?

Let's start with Kau Kee, in Central. I can't miss coming here for their beef brisket noodles; they're just so good. Curry tendon with e-fu noodles, an iced lemon tea and a side of vegetables will cost you under a tenner and it's so frickin' good. I know a lot of people are put off by the gelatinous nature of tendon, which can look a bit like pure fat but my mother tells me its very good for me and will keep me looking young. Full of collagen, guys. It's very small and there's sometimes a queue and you will be required to squeeze into the tightest spot but you will if you know what's good for you. 

G/F, 21 Gough Street, Central, Hong Kong

We followed this almost immediately with a bowl of wonton and fish ball noodles from Tsim Chai Kee. I've been torn between them and Mak's Noodle for best wontons, but the fish balls here are so good - properly bouncy, rough-hewn and with a hint of dried orange peel - that I've picked them as my winner. 

98 Wellington St, Central, Hong Kong

My friend called mercy but I wasn't having any of it and I marched her off to Din Tai Fung. They have a few in Hong Kong, but I've always gone back to the branch in Kowloon, in Silvercord shopping centre. Maybe because I know it's big. Anyway, they are the epitome of efficient and you can pop in for steamer of dumplings and be out of there in half an hour. Every time I say I'm going to go with a bigger appetite and try more of the menu. Every time I stuff myself silly on the soup dumplings. I go every time I go to Hong Kong. Hell, I went to the back of the beyond for another branch of Din Tai Fung when I was on a business trip in Seattle. Why oh why won't they open in London? 

3/F, Silvercord, No.30 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Temple Street Night Market is over on Kowloon side, and it spans the length of a street, selling electronics, clothes and souvenirs. Most of it is tat, but I don't go there for the shopping. The restaurants that surround the stalls are properly spit n' sawdust - plonk yourself down on a rickety plastic stool, have a nose at whatever everyone else is ordering, and follow suit. I LOVE their melamine crockery too. We had prawns covered in as much garlic that would possibly coat them, all sticky and messy eaten with our fingers and sheets and sheets of tiny napkins. 

Scallops had the hugest roes I've ever seen, and they were steamed in their shells with black bean sauce, soy sauce, a little chilli and spring onion. 

We ordered rabbit fish since they sounded cute, and these were served simply steamed with ginger, garlic and soy. Along with steamed claypot rice with Chinese sausages and a couple of beers, this set us back about £25. Traverse the length of the street just to make sure, follow your nose, look for the restaurant with the biggest crowd and squeeze in. 

Jordan is the best MTR stop for Temple Street Night Market. 

For breakfast, we hit Australia Dairy Company which is your classic Hong Kong cha chaan teng (tea house). They are famous for their thick, crunchy, fluffy toast with the creamiest scrambled eggs. I'm not sure I could have taken a more revolting picture if I tried so I'm not going to share that with you - they will squish you into the tightest space imaginable to fit you in which isn't conducive to good snaps. But the eggs are glorious. The Hong Kong classic of macaroni in chicken broth topped with shredded ham is pure comforting nostalgia to me, the food of my childhood and it comes as part of a breakfast set. I don't expect people who haven't grown up with it to 'get' it but go for the eggs and you might be pleasantly surprised. They're open till 11pm, so you can go all hours of the day for classic Hong Kong-style food.

47 Parkes St, Jordan, Hong Kong

My friend had never really had congee before, so we went to Law Fu Kee in Sheung Wan to load up before we went off to our hike. The congee was thick and creamy, the rice grains just discernible. I had preserved egg with pork slices, while she stuck to beef. A side of wontons in broth set us up nicely for the morning. 

140 Des Voeux Road Central, Sheung Wan

As an aside, Dragon's Back is well worth doing. A 1.5 hour or so hike from the Shek O road, you get 360 panoramic views. It's often surprising to people that Hong Kong island isn't just one giant concrete jungle. We have beaches, reservoirs and giant golf courses.

That sort of thing tends to make you work up an appetite, so we headed to Ho Lee Fook for dinner. Geddit? Their website says they are a "funky chinese kitchen inspired by old school hong kong cha chaan tengs and the spirit of late-night chinatown hangouts in 1960’s new york" - all of my favourite things! We had to go. 

It's trendy. From street level it looks like your normal open kitchen with roasted meats hanging in the window, until you do an about-turn to the wall of waving cats. Downstairs it's properly dark; we felt our way to our table. Yes, that is a caveat for the terrible light in my pictures. 

The menu is massive. I wanted to eat everything on it but that was not to be, for we were merely two. Instead, we opted for some dumplings which were pork, "mostly cabbage" and great for it. Doused in sacha soy dressing, they were incredibly moreish. Accompanying these, we slurped down cocktails made with Pocari Sweat (only the best damn drink in the world) in plastic cartons. 

We knew the roasted meat was not to be missed. Unfortunately the "Roast Wagyu short ribs, jalapeño purée, green shallot kimchi, soy glaze" clocking in at around £45 was out of our league (and probably our stomach capacity) so we opted for Kurobuta char siu (barbecued pork). We were asked if we preferred lean or fatty and I'm sure you can guess what we went for. Sweet Jesus but it was glorious. Juicy, sweet, smoky. We despaired that we hadn't ordered any plain rice for mopping up those juices with. The best £16 we ever spent. 

When our rice did come we were also presented with plastic gloves. Apparently you're to mix this rice with your hands, to really get the seaweed, sesame and pork floss in there. It was good fun, and seriously messy. It really makes you aware of how often I might touch my face when I emerged, blinking in the lights, covered in flecks of seaweed.

Continuing the theme of eating with our hands, the sang choi bao (fresh vegetable wraps) were pork, with cucumber kimchi and pickled ginger. I loved this; refreshing, interesting and unexpected flavours from a Cantonese classic.

To finish, "Breakfast 2.0” Horlicks ice cream, cornflake honeyjoy, oats, dried longan, cocoa coffee crumbs"- it did, indeed, taste like the best kind of breakfast. If only my desk muesli could come anywhere close. 

Ho Lee Fook isn't cheap, and it certainly wasn't the kind of prices we had been paying in old faithfuls like Kau Kee. At around £40 a head though, its not bank-breaking and given the high quality of the ingredients and cooking, it made for pretty great value for money. I'm still thinking about that char siu. 

G/F No. 1-5 Elgin St, Central

We slowly came to realise that to eat at all the places we wanted to try, we were going to have to up our game somewhat. That's when two dinners came into play. Dinner Number One: Little Bao

It's a tiny little joint, maybe about 25 seats, and as such you have to wait. We did but it was only for 10 minutes thank god, because the food they were turning out looked incredible. It's easy to compare Little Bao to our own Bao but the two are far apart; Bao has the serenity and discipline of classic Taiwanese cooking updated for Soho, whereas Little Bao is this cheeky young thing, dipping her toe in all the fusion seas. We kicked off with a light salad of aubergines, which was actually a giant pile of delicious smoky vegetable topped with a spicy yogurt, pine nuts, and coriander. We devoured it. 

The baos on the menu are announced with "NO CUTTING". I don't know why. Seems harsh. The Szechuan fried chicken with Chinese black vinegar glaze, Szechuan mayo and coleslaw I was happy not to cut and have all to myself except we were supposed to be sharing, humpf. It was perfect; battered chicken, crisp as you like, with a tangy, punchy mayo. 

Did you know I love Filet O'Fish from McDonald's? Have you tried one? You should. The fish tempura bao reminded me of it, but in a really posh way with it's fancy lemongrass and fennel tartare and tamarind palm sugar glaze.

If that wasn't enough, the dessert fried bao with green tea ice cream and condensed milk was almost too cute to eat. But we ate it. It was incredible. 

G/F, 66 Staunton St. Central, Hong Kong

We were almost hysterical with fullness by the time we got to Yardbird, for what would be our 6th meal of the day. We kept erupting into uncontrollable giggles. I think the bar staff thought we were odd. They specialise in yakitori; grilled skewers of usually chicken, over charcoal. We propped up the bar with whiskey cocktails and got to ordering. Tempura sweetcorn was exactly that, and we were impressed they'd managed to make them perfect balls. 

Then followed a frenzy of skewers - we ordered chickens knees, meatballs that you dip in a goey egg yolk, chicken necks, chicken skin... and the skewers just kept coming. I was a bit surprised that they came as twos, as it wasn't specified as that when we ordered - my friend wasn't enormously keen on chicken knees and probably would have sat that out, but that was decided for her. I was also surprised to see that the skewers, charged between $42 - $46 (that's around £4 - £5) are per skewer. I should have twigged really; at Little Bao a dreadfully dreary waiter had intoned about Yardbird being expensive, since "they insist on using free-range chicken, eyeroll". Hey, that's cool with me. You pay for quality produce.

They made up for it when we tapped out at Korean Fried Cauliflower, which was completely delicious but absolutely enormous, and defeated us. The waiter was aghast that we hadn't been offered the half portion, and immediately changed our bill to reflect that, which was nice. It was so, so good. I feel a recreation coming on. 

33-35 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan

I like Yardbird's vibe. So much so that on my 10 hour stop-over on my way back from Vietnam via Hong Kong again, I went down to Sunday's Grocery in Kennedy Town. Along with Ronin, a higher class Japanese joint, they're all owned by the same people. Maybe I'm dense, but the website doesn't make it enormously obvious that Sunday's Grocery is a takeaway hole-in-the-wall, but luckily the friend I was visiting did. We grabbed sandwiches, cans of mixed whiskey drinks (they really like their whiskey) and headed to her apartment. 

The chicken katsu sando was all sold out (wail) and bemusedly I took the server's recommendation of the banh mi - I had just come from Vietnam - and he was right, it wasn't like any banh mi I'd had. Here we were strong on the liver, big on the pickled vegetables. The bread wasn't the airy baguette I had come to know and love, but nevertheless, it was a pretty great sandwich. The bite of chicken schnitzel I had was tip top too. I would like more places to sell me cans of whiskey soda, please. 

I've saved the best for last. I came here both at the beginning of my trip, and made an instant beeline for it during my stopover two weeks later. Yes, Yat Lok's roast goose is hardly a secret, but it really is so good. Perfectly, beautifully lacquered skin and succulent meat, the first time we came we ordered a quarter, to eat with lo mein (noodles to stir) served on the side. We just ate and ate and ate the goose, sometimes with a bite of steamed vegetables in between, a blissful look on our faces. I went back on my own and had a goose leg in soup, with ho fun noodles just to make it a well rounded meal. Stunning stuff. Ol' sad-sack over at Little Bao told us the Tai Po branch was better, which I'm sure it may well be but if you haven't the time to hike out to Tai Po, the Central version still blew me away. 

G/F, 34-38 Stanley Street, Central

I'm fairly certain it would be quite difficult to eat badly in Hong Kong; my peoples just wouldn't stand for it. Even in the airport (roast goose and crispy belly pork, pictured) the food is better than you'd find in a lot of London restaurants charging double for it. 

I miss my motherland. 

Sunday 14 February 2016

Shuang Shuang, Chinatown

Shuang Shuang is a new-ish restaurant, taking over the space that used to be Mr Wu's buffet of woe on the corner of Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. When it was being built I wondered if we were getting another conveyor belt sushi joint, but I only got half of that right - conveyor belt, yes, but instead they specialise in hotpot. 

Hotpot is incredibly popular in Asia; some know it better as steamboat. It's especially liked as a style of meal for groups; its great fun and sociable, and you get a bonus face-steaming facial. It's a messy meal, as it involves dipping raw ingredients into stock, and then swooshing through various sauces and for that very reason Shuang Shuang provide bibs. I was a bit skeptical about the concept; it's meant to be a sociable dinner, so how would the individual stock pots work? Turns out they have both individual ones and ones to share, with a split for different stocks. Upstairs they have tables for parties of four. All bases covered, then.

The only cooked options are the 'snacks', and the jasmine tea egg was properly gooey. The pigs ears in Xinjiang spice were crisp, crunchy and addictive. That flavour built up incredibly, and before long we were gasping for water. They are a perfect little beer snack. 

We were invited to pick between the broths, and after having tasted them the 'fish pond', which was scented with lemongrass and reminded me much of a tom yum was selected, alongside the vegan soy milk base. I was hoping for a thicker, creamier broth for the soy milk, much like the gojiru that Koya Bar serve but as the broth reduces down, it typically gets stronger in flavour. I was a little taken aback that they charge £7 - £8 for the broths, as you can't really have a meal here without it. 

We got stuck into the ingredients, using the tongs to pluck the ingredients out of their plates and into our wire mesh baskets, to get dunked and cooked in the broth. All of the ingredients that whizzed past on the conveyor belt were of high quality, and we didn't feel there was any point in which we were lacking in variety. Other hotpot meals I've been for in London serve large portions of each ingredient which is great when there's four or six of you, but can be a bit filling when there's just two. This conveyor belt system means you can choose to eat a wider variety in smaller portions. Our favourite was the prawn balls; it arrives in a bamboo tube, for you to spoon into you broth, where it puffs up and bobs to the surface when its cooked. 

Roots like pumpkin, daikon and lotus stems need to go in early on, to give them plenty of cooking time. I usually forget about them and fish out a nice surprise when I'm sweeping the pot. Shuang Shuang has a guide to how long things need to cook for, but for anyone who cooks at home I imagine this would be redundant, as it were us. 

I like that they have more traditional ingredients, like tripe, and this blood tofu. It's pigs blood set and sliced - it has the texture of silken tofu. They also have 'luncheon meat' - aka Spam - which is really very delicious boiled. Trust me. Lots of vegetables went by, like choy sum, gai laan and corn on the cob. They also have very thinly sliced beef, available as wagyu as well which we didn't bother with; after all, you are boiling it and wiping it through a pretty intense sauce. 

Traditionally, once you're done with cooking your bits and bobs, noodles then go in for you to finish off with a noodle soup using the broth that's been enriched with all the flavours of your ingredients. I liked the knotted noodles, and trashy instant noodles hit the spot too. I'd like to see more options for the noodles as they were quite limited to these two on the night we went. 

And then we were done. Soy milk ice cream with crystallised ginger was a lovely, refreshing end to the meal. 

I've been reading the reviews trickle in with interest, and sure enough a lot of them quip about not wanting to cook their own dinner. Giles appears unable to gauge the heat of vegetables coming out of a cauldron of boiling stock. AA Gill confuses hotpot with soup. Bafflingly, a lot of them complain about the stress of so much choice. Have they been to Yo! Sushi? Is that heart-stopping too? Chill out, guys. There's much mention on feeling stressed about all the utensils on offer. Let me break it down for you - tongs for raw food, wire mesh basket for fishing, chopsticks for cooked food into the mouth. The critics seem to have broken down into hysterical children at something more complicated than ordering off a menu. Peculiar really, as I absolutely loved hotpot as a child, and I do now. It's meant to be fun.  

There is the delicate matter of the bill, though. As with any conveyor belt restaurant, one does have to be a little savvy with mental arithmetic. All the careful sourcing, house-made tofu and quality of the ingredients mean that to come to Shuang Shuang, feel like you've had a decent meal and maybe half a bottle of wine, you're looking at £50 a head. Not inconceivable for a Central London restaurant, but Little Lamb, a few doors down, has a hotpot set menu at £23 a head, whereby you order 5 ingredients each. (NB. this is most worthwhile if you are a party of 4 or more.) Quality and variety costs. 

Shuang Shuang,
64 Shaftesbury Ave, 
London W1D 6LU

I dined as a guest of the restaurant. 

EDIT from the PR: the prices have been altered since the visit to the restaurant and the average is now around £25-£30 a head. Shuang Shuang have now introduced a set menu ‘The Market Set” which is £12.50 for broth, dipping sauce, noodles and x5 green plates.