In any given restaurant, almost anywhere in the world, I’ll always be the girl that gets handed the menu and immediately turns to the back page to look at desserts. My fingers have become conditioned to doing it instinctively. This inclination will not work out well for my teeth, my waistline or my heart in the future so believe me when I say, I do try and curtail it. That said, over in Singapore last year, some of the delicious deserts I came across were so unusual, unique and unfamiliar that I almost felt I had a duty to “research” them. Ahem..
Almost as soon as Pumpkin let the cat out of the bag about where he was taking me as a surprise birthday trip this year, I was dreaming of the food.
I knew of scorching tagines where tender lamb is cooked to perfection at a pace so languid it leaves you aging during its creation. I knew of the plump and succulent Moroccan olives strewn affectionately into this literal culinary melting pot, which glaze this classic Moroccan dish with a sharp pervasive filter. I knew of the fine couscous grains that assume a new life as they sponge the excesses of the inviting aromas. But this was all I knew about Moroccan cuisine, about the history of their mouthwatering meals and about the way they are prepared.After previously trying out a daytime food walk in London and a Friday night food tour in Ljubljana, Pumpkin told me he had booked us onto the hottest foodie ticket in town at Marrakech Food Tours.
When I use the term 3T, I am not referring to that once famed, extended Jackson-clan boy band, who soaked up a fleeting moment of glory in the mid-90s. (If this rings no bells whatsoever, then you are obviously a fair bit younger than I am.)
Today, when I say 3Ts, I refer to Trip Advisor, Travel Blogs and Twitter, three forces that have been instrumental in helping me arrange my recent travel adventures, particularly blogs (not that I’m biased!) Having booked Cuba right at the last minute, planning neurotically was too arduous a strategy so instead, I glimpsed at a few websites and put out a few tweets and these were the bars and restaurants that kept recurring as some of the best in Havana, all of which can be sampled in a three night stay.
La Bodeguita del Medio
In the heart of the old town, this bar is unmissable to most tourists, having gathered itself a reputation for being Hemingway’s favourite spot for a Mojito and one of his most frequented establishments in Havana. Yes, there are almost as many tourists in here as there are Mojitos and if you go in the evening, you’ll have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a seat but it is worth seeing despite all this to sample this piece of celebrity history and to see whether you agree with the renowned author’s tip off that this really is Havana’s best Mojito.
A small informal place with rustic decor, you’ll spot the Mojito glasses already lined up with mint when you walk in. They know it’s what you’ll order. You know it too. The walls are awash with Hemingway paraphernalia and unsurprisingly, expect to pay well above the odds for drinks here. For those wondering how I fared, the Virgin Mojito was light and refreshing with a pervasive mintiness. Tip – head here in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and bag yourself a seat.
Once your palate tires of mint and rum, you’ll find this new Paladar just a short walk away and if you’re sensible, you’ll book ahead to secure a table. In fact, at the time of publishing this post, this restaurant is currently the number 1 rated Havana restaurant on Trip Advisor.
Paladars (privately run restaurants by the self-employed) are little hubbubs of character, local food and proud owners. And this one has all the ingredients for a successful venture – excellent value, generous portions of traditional Cuban food and an intimate, homely interior.
Apologies for the less-than-ideal photography – the lighting wasn’t ideal and I’m a travel blogger not a food blogger so that’s the excuse I’m going with 😀
We had grilled fish and chicken, both of which came with plantain chips, a side salad and a large portion of sweet, wholesome black beans with rice. If you find the heat suffocating, the healing hands of the frozen Mojito will resuscitate you.
Paladar La Guarida
A 10-15 minute walk away from the Old Town, this Paladar is clearly-signposted but to avoid missing it, you’ll need to have your wits about you, as it is on the 2nd floor of a derelict building so it may be easy to miss. With some fantastic fish on offer, we went for local specialties including the Mahi Mahi fish with orange sauce and dried Yucca and sweet potato sides.
This one is a little more pricey. I had a creamy lemon tart for dessert, which was refreshing in the summer heat, although similar to what I’ve had at home. The “ice cream surprise” that Pumpkin ordered was in fact a scoop served inside fresh pineapple, not entirely the surprise he was hoping for (a giant ice cream sundae!)
It has been at least a minute since we discussed cocktails and in Cuba, this is one rum-free minute too many. Hemingway indeed had a soft spot for his beloved La Bodeguita when it came to Mojitos but I was much more inclined towards his penchant for this bar, whose name literally translates to “Little Florida”, where he found his favourite Daiquiri.
A dimly-lit, elegant cocktail bar shrouded in scarlet and staffed by waistcoated bar-tenders, this epitomises the sassy and seductive side of Cuba. Rumour has it a world record for the largest Daiquiri ever made took place here. You can also eat in the formal restaurant at the back.
Anyone heading to Havana will invariably hear about this historic and opulent hotel, the city’s most famous and the scene of many a Mafia-meeting, Castro speeches and celebrity spots. We decided not to stay here, as it’s actually quite far away from most of Havana’s key attractions but it’s worth a visit to stroll around the glitzy, long lobby and to spot the photos of Castro with Robert Redford. End your visit with a walk through the lobby onto the ground floor gardens, where you can stop off for a drink or snack at the outdoor cafe with an ocean view. The backdrop of the seafront promenade, the Malecon, with colourful vintage cars swiftly crossing your vision could leave you sleepily gazing under the Cuban sun for hours.
Havana’s Street Food
Last year, I told you all of my love of the street food in Rio de Janeiro and whilst this isn’t a restaurant per se, Havana’s road-side cuisine certainly stopped me in my tracks a couple of times. First, we were tapped on the shoulder (as is often the case in Cuba but you just need to be friendly, understanding and polite and you’ll generally be left alone – you can find lots more tips for Cuba here)
The lady in question was carrying a basket full of paper cones with these snacks in them. I wasn’t sure what they were but they looked like thin, fried crispy snacks with a dusting of icing sugar and after a morning of walking around, I was peckish enough to try them out.And although I’m not usually one to crave hot snacks in tropical climates, the temptation of these freshly-made Churros was too much to surpass whilst Pumpkin went for the more instinctive option in the midday sun by reaching straight for the street-side ice-cream served in a coconut shell. I must admit I was a little wary about his choice from a hygiene point of view as my street food consumptions are usually limited to hot, cooked dishes but either it was safe to eat or he has a gut of steel but either way, it didn’t seem to do him any harm.
Have you ever visited Havana? What was your impression of the food?
When I look at my parents’ travel photos back in the 70s, I see some beautiful pictures of my Mum smiling sweetly in front of the Colosseum in Rome. As I flick forward, I spot her standing proudly by the Eiffel Tower. I find these classic photos endearing and then I wonder why, somewhere along the way, it became unfashionable to go to major, well-known tourist attractions.Surely, there’s a reason famous sights are famous; a reason they have been celebrated for generations and a reason we should continue to nurture them, however much we foray into the unknown. In this, my first trip to Rio, I did just that, celebrating all that it is famed for. There are few other world cities that fuse mountainous terrain, golden sandy beaches and urban high rises quite so harmoniously and that for me was the essence of what gives Rio such a flair.
Corcovado – Christ The Redeemer Statue
No visit to Rio would be complete without ascending the Corcovado to see the impressive Christ The Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), which just eight years ago was named one of the new seven wonders of the world. You don’t have to be Christian to feel a certain sense of spirituality, looming beneath this 38m high iconic work of art. We went without advanced booking and arrived at around 8.30am but still weren’t able to board a train until 9.20am. Come early – you snooze you lose.The right hand side of the train is the place to be to assure optimal views on the ascent but this inside “secret” is far from a secret and the only view I got on the way up was that of somebody’s derriere. The view from the Corcovado offers so much more than just the statue with panoramas of Sugar Loaf Mountain, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the site that had Pumpkin’s heart fluttering chaotically – the Maracana football stadium. Try to aim for a clear day –clouds dampen the views as much as they do the atmosphere so if you can tolerate queues, it is worth skipping advanced booking and playing it by ear depending on weather. To get better photos, encompassing the entirety of this 1145 tonne statue, be prepared to get down and dirty – literally. We were far from the only tourists seen lying on the floor, cameras pointing towards the heavens but dress more wisely than I did – white dresses are not fit for this purpose!
I prefer the Brazilian name, Pao de Acucar – meaning “bread of sugar” which is surely every bit as sweet linguistically as it would be on the palate. This beautiful round-topped mountain is one of Rio’s most famed sights. We took a cable car to reach the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, trying to time it for dusk and the views certainly did not disappoint, particularly watching the boats scattered like marbles on the golden-rimmed. reflective waters.
Love it or hate it, a stroll along the Copacabana is the only way to find out for yourself what you make of this stretch of beach that distinctly divides opinion and is adjacent to a wide promenade that houses countless high-rise hotels, including the famous Copacabana Palace. We stayed at the fabulous Porto Bay Rio right on the Copacabana, giving us plenty of opportunities to find our feet here.The faded-yellow sand is luxuriously easy on the feet. Once the place to be seen and a favourite amongst celebrities, it is clear to see that those days have passed. I won’t lie – it took me a while to warm to Copacabana but what I found appealing about it was this: this is a beach that belongs to the people, especially after sunset. The shores are buzzing with the sounds of young boys playing football, bootcamp victims doing circuits on the sand and couples, embraced in passionate kisses, while the Atlantic Ocean roars ferociously.Lines of street food carts provide the fuel for the sport, although I had a guilty intuition that it was, in reality, more the tourists than the locals indulging in the Churros. A stream of kiosks form the boundary between the promenade and the sand, with the sounds of Brazilian samba blaring from the speakers and serving far better food than one might expect from a beach-side kiosk. Of course there are tourists milling around but I got the distinct impression that it wasn’t really about them. On the powdery floors of the Copacabana, we were almost an afterthought, a phenomenon I found oddly refreshing. As Barry Manilow so aptly sang in his annoyingly catchy 70s classic, “music and passion were always in fashion at the Copacabana”.
Watching football at Maracana
I’ll admit that watching a game of football on the last night of what had been an epic holiday wasn’t exactly my idea of a romantic evening. But, as Pumpkin patiently navigated me through all my chosen gelaterias in Buenos Aires, I couldn’t deny the look of glee in his face that came with watching a match at the world-famous Maracana. You can make your own way to the stadium or numerous agencies arrange ticket purchase, hotel transfer and accompany you to the entrance.We were watching Flamengo v Bolivar, Flamengo being Brazil’s most loved and famed team. We knew we were nearing the venue when we saw street upon street illuminated by red and black stripes, cavorting in swarms, chanting, drinking beer and feeling optimistic. Sadly, the feeling of euphoria was a forgotten story by the end of the night when a 2-2 draw left moods subdued. There is a real sense of solidarity amongst supporters here and they were more than happy to get us involved in the jubilation when Flamengo scored their first goal.
The Selaron Steps (Escaderia Selaron)
The brainchild of the late Chilean artist, Jorge Selaron, I never imagined I would be so inspired by a staircase but this mosaic tapestry of striking colours and vibrant, visual stimuli harnesses hour upon hour of artistic ambition and vision and pays tribute to a man whose soul lies in each tile.
In 1990, Selaron started renovating this staircase and with each tile, from emerald-green to canary yellow, radiant blue to the shiny mirrors, his passion to the cause became further embedded. Used on set for some famous music videos including this one with Pharell and Snoop Dog, it seemed fitting and poignant that Selaron took his last breaths in the place that earned him such personal and critical acclaim. Sadly, the maintenance of the staircase since his death has declined and there is a deep sense of concern amongst those who love it about the perceived lack of effort being put into this.And as a final afterthought – a taste more than a sight!
Sipping a Caipirinha
The drink that is to Brazil what Sangria is to Spain. As the national cocktail and a favourite of turbo-powered mixologists all over the world, this is a drink you cannot miss in Rio, unless of course you’re teetotal like I am (hence the giant coconut that overshadows it.) Made of Cachaca, a sugar cane liquor, sugar and lime, this cocktail (I am reliably informed) is refreshing and zingy, perfect for a scorching day on the Copacabana. So that I wouldn’t be left with a terminal case of FOMO (fear of missing out), I did ensure I at least had a virgin Caipirinha and in the humid sun, the burst of lime stimulated my circulation and awoke the senses.
Have you been to Rio before? Which other sights would you recommend?
For most visitors heading to Argentina, the eagerly anticipated culinary objects of desire are undoubtedly steak and Malbec with most people grasping their carinvorous molars into a plump slab of meat within hours of arrival. As a lady who neither drinks alcohol nor eats beef, however, what was left for me to lust after on my trip? The truth is, I am a confectioner’s dream target market and had been salivating for weeks about trying Dulce de Leche on a continent that devours it. Pumpkin’s oh-so-inaccurate claim it is in fact just “caramel with a fancy name” fell on deaf (and unimpressed) ears.
When he made the suggestion that I write an entire post on Dulce De Leche, I think he was in fact joking, poking fun at my mission to sample just about anything that contained it. Sarcasm aside though, I thought it was a moment of sheer genius. Dulce de Leche, which literally translates to “candy of milk”, is circulating in the blood of the Argentinian people, so prevalent is it in whichever direction you look. So after a calorie-infused fortnight in Argentina, I present to you:
The Dulce de Leche Diaries:
Where it all began. This can be eaten on toast, in desserts, used in other recipes or quite frankly, just by the tablespoon. As a dentist’s nemesis, it is so naughty that it should be illegal. The San Telmo Market had several stalls featuring 0.5 – 1kg jars, starting from 3USD but as this was the freshest and creamiest stuff, it had a short shelf life, which even I would have struggled to bypass. Instead, I opted for a smaller jar with a longer shelf life from a deli in Puerto Madero – only time will tell whether I need have bothered with the long life.
Dulce de Leche crepe
Another fabulous San Telmo street food find and just two days before pancake day, the rumbles in my tummy drew us like a compass towards this crepe within hours of landing. At only 20 Argentinian pesos per crepe, this was made in front of my eyes by an elderly local with a smile even sweeter than the indulgent crepe he was serving.
Dulce de Leche Icecream
I wasn’t a total novice to this flavour, having sampled it at Freggo London, which is the closest I have discovered to Authentic Argentinian icecream (helado) in London. But rarely have I seen one flavour sub-categorised into so many offshoots. Most ice cream shops (heladerias) will serve the original but also offer a tempting range of twists including Granizado (chocolate chips), brownie pieces, chocolate, coconut and meringue to name but a few. After a few scoops of the classic, I persuaded myself to branch out.
Where do I begin?! These crumbly, melt in the mouth , shortbread-like biscuits are sandwiched together with a layer of Dulce de Leche to form perhaps the most moreish sweet bite I’ve had in a long time. It’s light enough that you don’t feel sick, sweet enough to leave you craving more and small enough to delude you into a guilt-free bubble. Hence, it became a daily fixture on the holiday menu and as it’s really more a biscuit, I exempted it from the daily dessert count. Naturally. The first picture is one I had in Argentina and the second is one I made in my kitchen back in London a few weeks later! (And mine tasted almost as good – hurrah!)
Dulce de Leche Breakfast Tart
Sandwiched between two layers of tart and topped with dessicated coconut, these triangular nuggets of heaven were to be found on the daily breakfast buffet menu (and on my plate) at the Esplendor Hotel in El Calafate, Patagonia. There is something deeply dangerous about spotting an item so tantalising in a buffet environment.
Dulce de Leche waffle
Another breakfast find, this time at the boutique Bobo hotel in Palermo SoHo, Buenos Aires, this waffle promised red berries, whipped cream and Dulce de Leche. Although the waffle batter was bouncy and light, not overly sweetened and overall a good choice, I was barely able to taste the Dulce de Leche. Or had I just become immune?
Chocolate & Dulce de Leche dessert
Finally, the one to beat came in the form of a moist chocolate sponge with layer upon layer of silky Dulce de Leche precision hidden seductively inside. My sweet trophy of the trip (of 2014 in fact) went to this round of decadence, which I found at the Smeterling Patisserie in Buenos Aires. I wish wish wish I had paused to take a photo of the creamy layering on the inside but some delights are too divine to stand still for the pressures of blogging, Instagram and social media. Some moments are just to be enjoyed. And that’s exactly what I did.So there you have it – a mini tour of Argentina through a Dulce de Leche lens, a treat we indulged in so frequently that Pumpkin abbreviated it to “DDL”. Time to hit the gym.
Where in the world have you enjoyed the sweetest delicacies?
Apologies, your honour. I commence with a confession: It took me until 2013 to finally muster up the courage to sample real street food. When a bout of exhausting and severe gastroenteritis struck me as a 12 year old in India, I was left with a gripping fear of all manner of roadside snacks – completely counter-intuitive of course, since it wasn’t even street food that caused the illness. But this rationale is not something one appreciates at that age so the portable apprehension shadowed my future eating habits as I traversed the globe, resulting in me missing out on some of the best foodie finds in countries like Thailand and Hong Kong. In Rio de Janeiro, I wasn’t really expecting to find much street food. We weren’t going for the food and we certainly didn’t research it so when I spotted carts dotted along the boulevards of the Copacabana, I was determined to make up for lost time.
What I hadn’t realised was just how many unique, tasty treats can be found on Rio’s roads. Whether you are looking for a deep-fried dessert, a healthy, savoury snack or just some refreshing rehydration in the Amazonian heat, you’ll find it here and you’ll find it cheap. Here are my top picks:
As one of my favourite ever desserts, Churros are fried-dough desserts, rather like elongated doughnuts with slimming ridges along their length. Spanish churros are often produced in spirals before being cut up and served with melted chocolate. Brazilian churros are made straight and are filled with a central piping of chocolate or dulce de leche (or doce de leite in Portuguese). The sugar dusting yields a dissolving, grainy surface to the crispy exterior but that moment, when your mouth cuts into the sinfully sweet and creamy dulce de leche, is nothing short of an explosive epiphany to the tastebuds, the luscious sauce oozing langurously from the centre like viscous, caramel magma. If you can’t quite make it to Rio, the fabulous Brazilian Churros stall at Greenwich Market is the closest alternative for hungry Londoners.
Endemic to this part of the world, the acai berry from the acai palm plant is hard to miss in Brazil, being used as an ingredient for a range of foods and drinks but I spotted it most often in the form of frozen acai pulp, reminiscent of frozen yoghurt with a velvety, maroon hue and the option of a granola topping. The portions were huge so we shared one between us and you’ll have to forgive my photos, which do not do it justice but in the tropical humidity, I was more concerned with inhaling this zingy cooler than I was with Instagram.
I must admit I only really tried this to ease my conscience about the lack of vegetables I was eating during my time in Rio. I’m most partial to corn on the cob when it’s cooked on a flame and moistened with a bit of fresh lemon juice and salt. Here in Rio, it is boiled and laced with a little knob of butter and salt. It was certainly nutritious and seemed very popular with the locals but personally, I found myself missing the charred, brown surface.
I love the sense of discovery when travelling and all the more delicious when it happens to be a food discovery. Tapioca, I have heard of but never a tapioca pancake. Made from manioc flour and water, this mixture quickly melts into a crepe when placed on heat and can be filled with a range of sweet and savoury fillings including banana, chocolate, coconut, guava paste, meats and cheese. The tapioca batter is quite dense so one of these could easily make for a hearty, street food lunch. Are you spotting a trend emerging? Brazilian food cannot be accused of leaving you hungry!
In England, I am rarely tempted by fast food – I occasionally collapse under the pressure of self-discipline on a Friday night to indulge in (half a portion of) fish and chips but these moments are rare. If, however, Pastels were as commonplace in the UK as they are in Brazil, then it would be an altogether different scenario. These adorably-sized, mini pies are deep fried and come with a variety of fillings, including chicken, beef, cheese and even soya mince and less commonly with sweet fillings, such as guava jam.
They can be found at street food stalls or Pastelarias, entire shops devoted to these scrumptious snacks! We grabbed a Pastel each on the go, munching whilst walking towards Ipanema beach but they were so moreish that half way down, we turned around, went straight back into the shop and ordered another! Hopefully, they will have received our repeat visit proudly and not judged us as the greedy Brits who returned for seconds! 😀
It is an enormous relief to my gastronomic senses that the curse of the “street-food fear” has finally lifted and if a trip to Rio de Janeiro is on the cards for you, don’t miss these delicious bites!
Do you love street food? Where in the world have you experienced the best street food?
San Telmo is to Buenos Aires what Covent Garden is to London. Certainly, the similarities are less than subtle – the gilded live entertainers, the tapering, cobbled streets and the abundance of handicrafts, jewellery stalls and bric-a-brac (or clutter as Pumpkin refers to it). And yet, the San Telmo flea market, which many boast to be the only place to be in Buenos Aires on a Sunday, has a vibrancy and pulse very much unparalleled to most markets I had encountered before.
There is an interesting bit of history behind the cobblestone floors that my flip flops were struggling with. Many years ago, when ships were importing produce into Buenos Aires, stones were added to the cargo to weigh it down further but upon arrival, these same stones were dumped in San Telmo and were to form the foundations of the charming narrow streets still seen in this area.
To begin your market marathon, make your way to Plaza del Mayo. Once there, you could have an inbuilt GPS as hopeless as mine and you would still need no navigation, as the enthused crowds lead you down Defensa and into Plaza Dorrego along narrow pedestrianised streets, packed to the brim with traders and colourful stalls.A huge array of items are available for sale, from the more mundane clothes and shoes to the more unique items, such as jewellery made entirely from leather, flattened glass bottles that have been turned into wall ornaments and clocks and an entire stall of handmade kaleidoscopes. I was able to walk past the arts and crafts with nought but a glimpse, I was even able to walk away from the 1kg jar of fresh Dulce de Leche sauce (perhaps only because I had just eaten a crepe stuffed with it) but I really could not be dragged away from the kaleidoscopes.
I have always been known to be the last one on the ladder when it comes to technology. For years, I resisted a mobile phone, then a digital camera, then the MP3 player. It’s not a dislike for technology per se but rather a contentedness for simple things. This is one of the reasons why I always loved kaleidoscopes, both as a child and now as an adult. Spirals of shape, shades and mirrors seep together into an explosive chiasm, evolving and emerging with each rotation like a chameleon on a ferris wheel. And so, after some persuading Pumpkin that these are not in fact just for children, we overlooked its above average price tag to buy my one and only souvenir from the trip (Dulce de Leche excluded).
We had read numerous reviews about this market being a goldmine for pickpockets and were apprehensive about whether to carry cameras and cash. But with a little bit of common sense and a lot of vigilance, we were okay and managed to take all the pictures we wanted. There are lots of tourists interspersed between locals and aside from the obvious tips of not keeping wallets in back pockets and keeping your handbag strapped across you at all times, we spotted many men carrying rucksacks on their front.
We spent about 3 hours at this market, which was about as valiant an effort as we could manage having stepped off the plane just a few hours earlier but didn’t leave without indulging in some local street foods and my first dose of Dulce de Leche to set me up for the rest of the trip!
Vietnamese Street Food
Food is a huge part of Vietnamese life and nowhere manifests this better than the streets. The scents waft through your nose and bring out an appetite you didn’t realise you had. Barbequed chicken skewers, deep fried banana and coconut pancakes, white rose dumplings, Bun Cha, Pho, steamed rice paper rolls (Banh Cuon) can be found on every street corner and dotted along roads. Some have small stools to perch on, some don’t. Some seem frequented by tourists, many don’t. You feel a huge burst of optimism walking past the streets. Put simply – everyone seems happy. We saw a family picnic happening on the street, a stone’s throw away from 4 men, crouched on the floor, adorning cigarettes, laughing cheekily, unwinding over a game of Mah Jong. The sound of drumming on trucks led us to the sight of 3 young children, running and playing together with dragon masks to celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival. I usually come home from a holiday desperate to eat something completely different to refresh my palate – I returned home from Vietnam craving Vietnamese food and so I wanted to share some of my favourite food finds from this culinary delight of a nation. It’s not easy to accredit individual roadside food stalls by name so think of the Vietnamese street as a food institution in its own right!
With not much planned for the first day and with a number 1 rating on Trip Advisor, I was not expecting to bag a dinner reservation within a few hours of wanting to go but a couple of quick emails later, we were there. If this was to be our introduction to Vietnamese food, then we were in for a treat all week! From Pumpkin’s grilled seabass wrapped in a banana leaf to my tempura fish in a sweet orange sauce to the more standard fare options such as Pho with chicken, the flavours were mild but wholly flavoursome. The sweet /chilli combination of flavours, which feature heavily on most menus in Vietnam, are rife at Essence Café and a give a zingy burst on the tongue, initially with a citrusy tang before the spice starts to dissolve.
A Vietnamese coffee (or Vietnamese drip as they sweetly named it here), which for those unfamiliar is a coffee (hot or cold) but with lashing of condensed milk completed my meal nicely. My caffeine-naivety together with the jet lag meant I was bordering on ADHD tendencies at 3am and an unhappy Pumpkin..The food was outstanding but if it is possible, the service even more so with the warmest-hearted staff who taught us a lot about local Vietnamese culinary customs and all for less than the cost of Nandos back home.
Quan An Ngon Street Food Café, Hanoi
Think of a cross between Street Feast London and a shopping mall food court, now add in a crowd predominantly full of locals and you’ll find yourself at this huge bustling restaurant, illuminated by hanging lanterns and enough gastronomic material to occupy a food critic for a year. We were seated upstairs as we arrived at peak time, which was a bit of a shame as all the action happens downstairs. Stall upon stall of street food vendors are parked, preparing fresh street food. Menus are brought to you or you can wander around and see what tickles your fancy. Translated menus are available and allow yourself ample time to order as menus are vast. Things aren’t laid out as starters and mains, which left us a bit confused as to how much to order. Start with a few small plates and order more as you go along.
Highlights included Pumpkin’s tapioca rolls with shredded pork and shrimp, which had a strangely intriguing, spongy outside with tender meat in the middle. As usual, I managed to find a crevice of space in my satiated stomach, which I filled with sweet potato Che, a warm and creamy Vietnamese dessert soup. Mum’s steamed “vegetarian” dumpling which actually had nothing in it and was just cooked in vegetable broth won gold for worst order of the night – a complete anomaly though as the food was outstanding, definitely the most authentic of all the meals we had and we visited it twice during our short 3 night stay in Hanoi.
With a 2nd branch in Hoi An, Green Mango will appeal to lovers of the fusion genre. Vietnamese features on the menu but the majority are twists on Western classics. This was a pricey restaurant by Vietnamese standards but still a bargain by standards back home. I took the stance that I would order the most unusual unique items on the menu, which resulted in grape covered in goats cheese and cashew nuts for starters, sea bass topped with cashew crust with a passion fruit and ginger jus and chocolate fondant filled with walnuts, raisins, warm grape, served with raspberry coulis, fresh strawberry and crème anglaise. Not necessarily what you would call Vietnamese classics but novel, unique and refreshing and worth a visit if you are doing a 2 week stint in Vietnam and fancy a day off Pho.
The in-laws had recommended this well-renowned restaurant to us after their trip to Vietnam last year but it would be difficult to complete a stay in Hoi An without hearing about it in any case. This is Hoi An’s answer to a Vietnamese street food cafe and the founder of this restaurant seems to have something of a monopoly in this city, owning 3 restaurants, a famous cookery school and even a published recipe book. I felt a paradox between the authentic Vietnamese street food experience that is advertised and the walkie-talkies used by staff, computers at the front doors and rapid turnover time to accommodate for queues of hungry diners. On the real streets of Vietnam, locals seem laid back and at ease; it is the aromas that stretch for miles and not the queues of tourists. There is an inexplicable simplicity and the time taken to enjoy food and company seems endless – this for me, was the real street food experience and I’m not sure that Morning Glory encapsulates that essence.
Having said that, I cannot deny the quality of the food and would have regretted leaving Hoi An without sampling it. The portion sizes are huge and the food is extremely good value for money. From BBQ pork with rice paper, which you are taught to roll yourself to the Hoi An Pancake, a delicious deep fried flattened wonton served open with a topping (bears no resemblance to the Western definition of a pancake) to the fish served in a clay pot, each of our dishes were scrumptious, hugely filling and our bill came to the equivalent of £8/head (without wine) so with hot, fresh food of that standard and bargain prices, it’s simple to see why they have found a winning formula.
Have you been to Vietnam and discovered any food highlights that I missed on this trip? Feel free to share your own suggestions and recommendations!