a world beyond pho

A friend of mine from Atlanta, in the midst of a whirlwind tour to SE Asia, stopped by for two nights. He landed in Hanoi, then moved on to Bangkok before arriving in Saigon. As he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong, he whined: “I ate really well, but come to think of it, I didn’t even eat any pho!”, to which I replied. “But there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than pho!”.

In Hanoi, which he didn’t particularly like, he ate at the bun cha joint made famous by President Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s visit last May.  In Bangkok (“a cross between Vegas, New Orleans, and New York; it’s sensory overload!”), he ate at the floating markets and got food poisoning.  When he arrived in Saigon, he said he was game to eating almost anything as long as he took some medicine first.

So we ate - and ate, and ate.  We ate banh khot, the tiny pancakes cooked in cast iron molds, filled with coconut milk and crab meat. Cau lau, a dish traditionally made in Hoi An, noodles and pork with very little (but extremely flavorful) broth. Fresh spring rolls which we rolled up in lettuce and mint and dipped into nuoc mam cham (fish sauce with chilis, lime juice, and sugar).  A vat of clams in a starfruit broth with tomatoes and loads of fresh dill. Caramelized pork ribs encrusted with sesame seeds (which he proclaimed to be “one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth”).  And consumed more ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) in two days than I’ve had in a year of living here.

One can find Vietnamese restaurants all along Buford Highway in Atlanta, and lot of their menus consist of more than pho and banh mi sandwiches, but those two food items are really the only things that most Atlantans know as Vietnamese food, which is a crying shame.

Two days is just not enough time to sample the variety that encompasses Vietnamese cuisine. He said he’d come back next year, with wife and kids in tow, and vowed to spend more time diving into the food culture.  And I’m glad I’m doing my part to convince people back home that there’s a whole great big wide world out there beyond pho.


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