Thach dua – Coconut Jelly

Coconut Jelly

One of the great joys of living in Hanoi is spending time by one its many lakes. Especially when the temperature spikes after the chilly, damp winter as it did a few Sunday’s ago. The road around Hanoi’s largest lake, Tay Ho, is lined with cafes where you can sit on the lakeside and drink sinh tố, juice, coffee or beer and snack on sunflower seeds or thạch dừa – coconut jelly.

thạch dừa

On this Sunday we stopped at a favourite lakeside coffee spot, sat in deckchairs and ordered coconut jelly. The jelly coconut looks like a regular drinking coconut, but is filled with coconut jelly instead of liquid. When you open it up, the top layer is white coconut cream covering the set, wobbly coconut water. The inside of the coconut is still covered with flesh, easily prised away with a spoon.

coconut3t

As I understand it, the jelly is made by adding sugar and agar to the different components and setting them in layers. This version had almost no sugar added, and even though it was served room temperature, as demand was high this day, it was perfectly refreshing. Paired with the coconut flesh, thạch dừa is a light but satisfying snack.

I’ve only recently started to like coconuts, so many years of affordable and plentiful access to coconuts wasted. This summer will be different.

Discarded coconuts
Coconut rubbish pile.

Thạch dừa – Coconut Jelly
Available all over. This one is from Mai Heaven Coffee (17 Quang An, Tay Ho, Hanoi).
Coconut Jelly 45,000 vnd (~$2.60AU)
Regular Coconut 35,000 vnd (~$2AU)

dừa – coconut. The same word with different tones also means melon and pineapple which can cause confusion.

Posted in Vietnam, Vietnoms | 3 Comments

Bo Bit Tet

Bo Bit Tet
Bo Bit Tet at Bit Tet Ngon So 5 – the meat is under the pile of chips.

Bò Bít Tết is often translated into Vietnamese Beef Steak, but this is wholly different greasy beast. There are different variations around Hanoi, but as well as beef steak most include paté, eggs and potatoes served on a red-hot animal shaped sizzling plate. Some places drench the whole lot in gravy, with extra on side at request. The meat is pounded thin and cooked through. There’s always a plate of cucumber and tomatoes and plenty of fresh banh mi on the side.

It will arrive at the table covered, hissing and spitting oil, so sit back and wait until the ruckus dies down. Take the lid off when most of the bubbling has resided and the egg whites are set. Pepper, chilli and soy sauce your plate at will.

ngoc-hieu-bittett
My favourite bit tet at Ngoc Hieu

Where to eat Bo Bit Tet?

Anywhere you can find it, but if the floor isn’t slippery with grease, don’t bother. It’s an all day kind of dish, though I almost exclusively eat it at lunch time.

Hoè Nhai Street has a tangle of bit tet joints open from morning until night, where it’s often the only thing on the menu. Bit Tet Ngon So 5 at 20A Hoè Nhai is solid and popular with a plate going for 70,000VND.
I also like the one with the green sign that used to be at 3 Hoè Nhai but has recently moved 10m farther down the street.

Bò bít tết Ngọc Hiếu
The bit tet here is proper. In place of the pate is a mystery meatball, and with 2 eggs it’s a hefty meal. At 115,000VND it’s pricey, but well worth it. The menu also includes some Bit Tet variations, and and a selection of soup. The Van Cao location also has a hipster drinks annex, so you can order a smoothie in a jar for healthy balance. The crushed garlic vinegar and dried chilli oil, probably meant for the soups, is also great.

Saigon Beer

 

Hoè Nhai, Nguyễn Trung Trực, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Bò bít tết Ngọc Hiếu
107 – 109 Van Cao
also at 52 Lė Ngoc Han and 71 Trán Duy Hung

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Drinking Makgeolli

makgeolli
Makgeolli 

Makgeolli is at the top of my to-drink list when visiting Korea. And this being Korea, you cannot drink without eating. Although it is possible to sit outside any 7-11 and imbibe this Korean rice alcohol, it screams to be paired with better food than packaged dried squid. And because I’m classy, a trip to a makgeolli house or traditional pub ( 막걸리집 / 전통주점) is essential.

These are drinking places that serve a range of alcohol matched food items (anju, 안주). They’re often wood-panelled and reminiscent of the olden-days countryside, perhaps because makgeolli was traditionally the farmers drink of choice. Many are dusty and dark and decorated with replica vegetables and strings of fake leaves. Or, they may have interior walls covered in graffiti, with pens inviting customers to make their own mark. In other words, they’re fun.

makgeolli-house
Popular places for modeum jeon in Hongdae

On every table you’ll spot a teapot or bowl full of alcohol, and small, wide-mouthed metal bowls instead of glasses. Makgeolli is an alcohol made from wheat and rice which has been fermented to a milky, slightly bubbly and sour-ish liquid. It’s sometimes called ‘rice beer’, has a complex flavours that are frustratingly difficult to describe and altogether too easy to drink.

On sitting in plastic bottles in the fridge, the sediment will sink to the bottom, leaving an unappealing pale yellow fluid atop white sludge. This sight, and the horror story hangovers, is probably why it took me months to first try makgeolli. That’s too long wasted. Sweetness levels and overall flavour vary between bottles and brands, so taste widely, if you have the opportunity. Rice, fruit and nut variations are on restaurant menus and in convenience stores throughout Korea, but due to a mixture of short shelf life and unawareness, it’s rarely seen internationally.

Dongdongju (동동주) is a kind of makgeolli that is not strained. It has a much higher alcohol content and is rarely fizzy. These features contribute to its unrefined reputation, which has caused dongdongju to previously be held in low esteem. It’s served in a bowl with a ladle, as opposed to a teapot, and sometimes in summer it’ll be icy, like a rice alcohol slushie. It’s only available in restaurants, and despite its low standing, dongdongju is my favourite.

makgeolli-menu
The menu at a traditional pub. I can read Korean, but have trouble with this script.

Just as every flavour of makgeolli is different, each makgeolli house has it’s own quirks and specialities. The string of joints behind Hongik University train station, with their streetside grills are popular for big plates of modeum jeon (모듬전, mixed pancakes) in similarly dank graffitied rooms. These are more like greasy fritters, tofu, green chillies, crab sticks and a range of vegetables are stuffed with a pork mixture, dipped in a runny batter and fried. Served with kimchi and plenty of dongdongju this dish marks the start of many a great night.

At other places each table will have a bubbling pot of spicy chicken stew, or plate-overhanging jeon (전, pancake) made with kimchi, or spring onions, or potatoes, or seafood. Or oily crunchy slabs of bindaetteok (빈대떡, mung bean pancake). Little plates loaded with boneless chicken feet slathered in dangerous crimson sauce, Golbaengi (snail) noodle salad, smokey grilled fish, and you get the picture. A lot of food.

makgeolli-kimchi-jeon
Makgeolli and kimchi jeon.

Makgeolli is growing popular again in Korea, and cocktails featuring the drink are becoming available across Seoul. This popularity has also,  and perhaps more desirably, spawned makgeolli and dongdongju making workshops and increased success among artisan brewers.

It’s tradition for Koreans to eat jeon on rainy days, because the sizzling pancake batter on the griddle sounds like the falling rain. And if the anju is jeon, the traditional drink will be makgeolli. But you don’t have to wait for a drizzly day. In fact, you shouldn’t.

 

Makgeolli previously featured at Mindeulle Cheoleom in Hyehwa, Seoul

Map location for Modeum Jeon places in Hongdae

Map location for a favourite Makgeolli house in Hongdae

Posted in Seoul, Seoult and Pepper | 2 Comments

Boat Noodle Alley, Bangkok

Boat Noodles

I’d heard about an alley of restaurants in Bangkok serving mini-portions of noodles, and I was excited. But that’s really my default setting when it comes to eating in Thailand, so I was actually extra excited plus. The restaurants line a small canal not far from Victory Monument BTS station, which is handy for some bonus accidental sightseeing. And they serve boat noodles, amongst other things, so called as they used to be served from boats plying the canals. A few twists of noodle, a sprinkle of greenery (snipped up water spinach and herbs), some meat and a spiced broth enriched with pigs blood.

The noodles are available in small (10 baht ~$0.30AU) or large (35-40 baht), but go with the small, which provides freedom for the strong and pungent, in a way that can be overwhelming with large portions. Every diner has their own style,and some even order a couple of small bowls of the same dish and dump them all in the one bowl before seasoning and eating instead of opting for the large size. On my few visits here, I’ve managed to try four of the restaurants in this little strip, ordering widely from their picture menus.

Boat Noodles

Here’s how it works. You pick a variety of noodle (wheat, egg, glass, thin or thick rice), then a method of preparation and a meat. These last two vary as you progress down the alley and each place has about 5 preparations, but all serve boat noodles, the one with the spiced blood soup, and florid pink fermented beancurd broth – yen ta fo. Most serve a dry spicy noodle, and some have a tom yum soup version. Also on the menu are crisped pigs skin and deep fried wonton wrappers. All tasty and so affordable it seems a shame not to try.

Tradition dictates a particular noodle for each preparation, but the lack of phonetic descriptions messes with my carefully prepared food phrases and I end up randomly picking and choosing. I don’t maths well, but five types of noodles, five preparations and a few meats (beef, pork, braised beef, a range of balls), means many potential combinations – certainly more than all but seasoned eating competition winners could down in one sitting.

bangkokt-9

The first place you come to – Pranakorn Noodle Restaurant – served up this sad looking boat noodle. It tasted fine, pleasantly musty with dried spices and not at all bloody, but there is something to be said for presentation and extras. The big plus of this joint is a very fine, almost savoury steamed coconut and pandan custard. These little cups are sitting on the table, I dare you to stop at just one. Also, this is the only place where you can sit by the canal. Although it’s filthy, you might, as we did, spot a couple of enormous water monitors tussling.

Boat Noodle Alley Coconut dessert

The other places have the benefit of air conditioning and generally friendlier service, tastier food (first two pictures), and larger menus. For me, the joy of eating here lies in the portion sizes. Small bites that are the antithesis of a hulking carb-heavy bowl of pho. Where a handful of servings adds up to just a light lunch and you can enjoy a cacophony of flavours and without being overburdened in the stomach or the wallet. Plus, it’s fun, even if you don’t spot the huge water lizards fighting.

 

Boat Noodle Alley
Google map location
Very easy to find. Exit Victory monument BTS station to the north (check the maps in the station). Follow the raised walkway. Continue following the walkway halfway around the Victory monument, take the easy right before the walkway crosses the main road. You’ll cross over a canal. Go down the stairs and chuck a u-turn. Take the next left, and you’ll see the alley and and the restaurants.

Open 11am – 9pm

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Coconut Ice Cream

CoconutIce-cream
Thai coconut ice-cream

I’ve been travelling a bit recently and getting out of my loner comfort zone by talking to backpackers. It’s been an eye opening experience, especially when the conversation twists and whirls to Bangkok, as it invariable does. I fall more for this magnificent city each time I visit. They all gushed about the Khao San Road version of Bangkok, with barely a breath given to what may lie beyond. Sure, Khao San area has all a backpacker may need: fishermans pants, fake university degrees, cheap ‘cocktail’ buckets; but greater Bangkok has so much more to offer, especially when it comes to food.

Superlative noodles, blow-your-head-off somtam and chic fine-dining are just a few meals that I’ve recently enjoyed outside the backpacker ghetto. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing great to eat in this area. This coconut ice-cream pictured was from Sukhumvit, but the roving sellers make appearances on the Khao San side of town as well. They crack a drained coconut open, scrape up the flesh with a special tool, and top with mini-scoops of creamy pandan-accented very-coconut ice-cream. A final flourish of evaporated milk seems gratuitous on this sizable dessert, but is welcome for its almost savoury counterpoint.

The flavour and textural combination simply embodies the concept of ‘balance’, everpresent in good Thai food, in an easily accessible and tasty package. Happily available even in backpacker town.

CoconutIce-cream

Available from roving salespeople across Bangkok, 25 baht a pop (about $0.80AU).

Posted in Thailand | 2 Comments
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