July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

Quick Eats: Fei Zhai Pork Rib Prawn Noodles

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I got this tip off from a taxi driver who waxed lyrical that these prawn noodles were better than the one at Pek Kio Market. DC and I had a hard time tracking it down because he called it “Ah Bui” prawn noodles in the Alexandra area. After some extensive googling, I found a place call Fei Zhai Pork Rib Prawn Noodles on a tech forum. Turns out that it’s at the junction of Pasir Panjang Road and Pepys Road, where we go fairly often to have E-Sarn Thai food. We’d not seen it before because it only opens in the morning and is supposedly shut by 2pm. Motivated by love of food and the thrill of a new find, we woke up early one Saturday morning and made our way there. There was only a very short queue and the very friendly owner soon despatched our orders. No pig tail nor big prawns as recommended by the taxi driver though, only pork ribs and regular prawns.

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But the ribs and regular prawns were good enough! The prawns were firm and extremely fresh and the pork ribs tender and full of good flavour both from good meat and from the herbs delicately scenting the soup. I enjoyed the soup a lot, there was a lot of briny sea in there from the prawns and also sweetness from the pork. DC felt that it was quite prawn nirvana though, he felt that the Pek Kio one was far superior. Noodles-wise, it was decent with good bite to the noodles. Not sure why, but the crunchy fresh beansprouts really added to this dish they were that good. I wasn’t sure about the chilli because I felt it too sweet. However, the sweetness gelled with the breakfast aspect of the noodles. I wouldn’t want to have too in-your-face a chilli so early in the morning. I’m glad to report that Fei Zhai is generous on the lard and those lard bits are pretty darn heavenly too. He probably uses superior pork cuts. Next time, we’re going in for the kill for pig tail. Stay tuned.

Fei Zhai Pork Rib Prawn Noodles
Junction of Pepys Road and Pasir Panjang Road
Open only in the morning

June in Thailand:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

June in Thailand: Food Festival and Other Sukhothai Eats

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Tom and I pulled into Sukhothai in the evening and we settled into a charming guesthouse (that would later steal money from the stash we put in safekeeping with them, unfortunately). We wandered out onto the street looking for food and chanced upon a banner advertising the Sukhothai Food Festival. It was just on the opposite side of the river from our guesthouse and nicely within walking distance. The place was bustling but not too crowded, just right for soaking in the atmosphere yet getting our food with no problem.

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There was loads of stuff on offer, from salads and fish cakes to rice with dishes and plenty of fruit and desserts. Here was where I introduced Tom to the joys of rambutan and my favourite, mangosteen. But let me show you just the highlights. I particularly liked the salt grilled river fish. The tilapia-like fish was coated generously in salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. When it’s on the plate, just lift off the skin, scales and salt and all. The interior is steaming hot and incredibly juicy, heavenly with the spicy lime and chilli dipping sauce.

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Then there were the grilled jumbo-sized prawns. Oh my, how fresh and succulent and good these babies were. It was Tom’s first time eating proper prawns, so I taught him how: grab and pull off the head, being careful not to let the juices dribble out, then quickly suck out the brains; peel carapace off body section by section, dip in sauce and devour. There’s something just so magical about charred crustacean. Like my prawns, I lost my head and blew my daily budget getting more. I’d just have to eat less the next day. (As if.)

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The most fascinating thing I saw of the festival was this dessert stand. It made gossamer-thin pancakes, even thinner than paper-thin, somewhat like Singaporean popiah skins. With the pancakes came a bundle of coloured spun sugar, a bit like cotton candy. Eat by rolling sugar in pancake then popping in mouth. It was a great dessert and we stood for ages at the stand, mesmerised by the deft twirlings of the chef slapping dough ball on hot slab to make perfectly round pancakes in perfect timing.

The food festival was so good we went there two nights in a row, but of course that’s not all we saw of Sukhothai cuisine. I read in the guidebook of a place that specialised in Sukhothai kway tiew noodles. It took little coercion to get Tom in on the hunt and after one failed attempt (it was closed), we sat down to two variations of the exceptionally thin flat rice noodles. The first was a bowl of scalded noodles with toppings, somewhat like the Vietnamese noodle salad bun thit nuong. It had bits of boiled pork, deep fried wanton skin, chai poh (preserved turnip), grated peanut, beans and herbs, all topped with lime and fish sauce. The medley of flavours was refreshing and a delicious change from the usual soup noodles or fried noodles.

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Speaking of which, the fried version was very yummy too, thanks to the generous sprinkling of deep fried lard over it. It was somewhat like pad thai minus the ketchup and shrimp. While both were delicious, I think the unfried version was slightly more unique.

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Stomachs sated, we were satisfied enough to head out to the attractions of Sukhothai.

Seoul Eats: Traditional Hotpot Noodles and Porridge

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One of our contacts brought us to a delightful place in the Seochu area. I have no idea how to get back there as it’s in a back alley in a business district. On first glance, the place looked like a barbecue place as it consisted mainly of long private rooms where people sat in the sunken area around similarly long tables. I was surprised and relieved that we weren’t having barbecue for lunch as I wasn’t looking forward to an entire afternoon of business meetings smelling like charred beef.

First came the typical side dishes. There were a few types of kimchi: cabbage, turnip and one that the locals themselves argued about. It was a spicy salad of Korean shiso leaves, but not fermented, hence the hot debate. There was also oddly enough fried spam and a sort of potato salad with sweet thousand island dressing.

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Next, the hotpot was cooked in front of us, with plenty of beef slices, leek, Chinese cabbage and siew bak choy. There were also mushrooms, noodles and plenty of spice. Strangely enough, we didn’t do anything ourselves. Having the pot in front of us was strictly ceremonial as the waitress quickly whisked the pot away when the noodle soup was done and portioned them out into individual servings.

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Each serving was huge as it is. It was a hearty and simple noodle dish that hit the right spot of warming and spicy. Deep inside, I wondered if it was a tad too simple for a business meal.

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Of course, the Koreans never stint in their hospitality. That bowl of noodles was only part one! There was plenty of stock left in the noodle pot and they mixed in rice, seaweed and other yummies. This was all done away from the table so we had no idea what else went in. This porridge was even more delicious than the noodles and we happily slurped it all up despite the premonition that food coma plus afternoon meetings did not add up well!

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Favourites at Changi Village

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One of my favourite hawker centres is the one at Changi Village. There’s just so much variety and plain good food there. The only problem is that the ventilation is bad and some stalls are either sold out or worse – closed – if you arrive too late. The beef noodles are a case in point. Arrive too late and they’re likely to be sold out of the dry version. The soup rendition is pretty decent, but oh how the dry one beats it hands down! The gooey starchy brown sauce is flecked with bits of finely shredded beef, showing how much good stuff goes into the stew. Order it “mixed” so under the dark velvety sauce you’ll get lots of melt-in-the-mouth tendon, chewy tripe, tender braised beef and fresh beef slices. Squeeze over the lime, toss in the chilli sauce, mix and eat with the pickled onion-chinchalok accompaniment. All together, it makes for a lovely bowl of bliss.

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Just a few stalls along the row is another firm favourite. Guang Xing is hardly open when I’m there in the evenings, so make sure you have it for lunch. Once when DC and I weret there for Sunday brunch, I spied it just opening and immediately jumped at the chance for my favourite fried noodles with fish head. Even though the stall had only just opened, the wait was still at least 30 minutes long. Even though we spoiled our appetites during the wait with inferior nasi lemak and other assorted snacks, we managed to wallop the whole $10 plate of noodles. (In case you’re wondering, yes we are greedy but no $10 is really the minimum order.) We saw other tables of 3 or 4 going for the samd $10 plate so you can imagine how good it is. This dish has flavourful chunks of juicy and slightly cartilageous fish head  as well as thick beehoon fried in plenty of onion, garlic and ginger as well as spring onions, caixin and bitter gourd and finished off with some black bean. There’s plenty of wok hei and intense flavours. Accompanying it with the special sambal brings it to a whole new level. Notwithstanding having to spit out bits of snapper bone, gristle and scale, this stuff is my holy grail of fish head beehoon.

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Changi Village Beef Kway Teow Mee
#01-19 Changi Village Hawker Centre

Guang Xing Original Taste Fish Head Mee Hoon
#01-16 Changi Village Hawker Centre

Quick Eats: Ipoh Horfun

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Lee Tong Kee Ipoh Sar Hor Fun is one of those old school places that modernised into an air-conditioned coffeeshop but still retains the same gruff, I-know-exactly-what-you-want-and-when-you’ll-get-it service. We had fried wanton ($6) for starters and they were fried to crisp perfection on the outside and bursty juiciness on the inside. Either that or I was too hungry to be discerning.

The standard Lee Tong Kee horfun dry ($4) came swimming in its own private pool of delicious dark brown gravy. I guess people like to drink it like soup, but not me. I liked the fresh prawns (completely peeled, without even the tail, what a rarity!) and tasty tender chicken but wasn’t too keen on how the horfun stuck together. Texture-wise, the noodles were fine. They were quite delicate, so it was a pity that they were pre-assembled and practically glued together. But overall, it was very good. The sprinkle of homemade fried onion (not factory-made) really completed the dish.

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Go try this place if you’re in the area. It’s reasonably priced considering that you get aircon and you don’t have to queue.

Lee Tong Kee Ipoh Sar Hor Fun
278 South Bridge Road
Tel 6226 0417

Southeast Asian-Style Coca Cola Chicken Noodle Soup

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This is a rather odd-sounding recipe. It’s inspired to some point by the famous Kai Tun Coke in Chiang Mai (even though I haven’t tried the McCoy yet) and from eating my way around Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. I know that most people don’t have a leftover Coke problem when they have guests over, but I do. This recipe used up my leftovers beautifully.

First, simmer the chicken in an infusion of coke, fish sauce and whatever herbs and spices you like. My recipe is a broad indication, use as many or as few of them as you like. Similarly for my soup toppings: I adore the Viet idea of having a whole herb garden to accompany each meal. Diners would then pick and choose from the basket whatever they liked and added the herbs and vegetables according to preference. I tried to replicate some of it here, so please don’t feel like you have to run out to buy every single topping/garnish. If you just want it in its most bare bones form,  try it with just mint, onion and lime.

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Ingredients:
500 ml coke
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 star anise
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 chicken

kway teow noodles
romaine lettuce
onion, sliced thinly
mint leaves
lime wedges

Optional:

cucumber, cored and cut into matchsticks
long bean, cut into short lengths
beansprouts
red chilli, sliced

coriander leaves
thai holy basil
spring onion

Method:

  1. Combine the coke, fish sauce and herbs in a pot and lower in the chicken, breast-side up. The breast should just about be covered by the liquid.
  2. On low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool in its own liquid.
  4. Lift out the chicken carefully and divide into portions ready for serving. Reserve the cooking liquid.

To serve:

  1. Dilute the cooking liquid in an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil and season with fish sauce to taste.
  2. Add the noodles and lettuce. Bring back to the boil.
  3. Divide into bowls, top with the chicken and serve. Diners will add their own garnish according to taste.