Last weekend, I travelled to Vietnam's old port town, Hội An. Having long ago lost its status as a major trading hub, it was considered important in world trade since Champa Empire times for goods as varied as spices and ceramics, until Đà Nẵng - slightly further north - superceded Hội An in the late 1700's, just as the French started poking around. Two hundred or so years later, the two ports are a study in contrasts, with Đà Nẵng now the country's fourth largest city and third largest port, while Hội An is a UNESCO Disneyland for travellers, clogged up with tourist restaurants, cooking schools and cheap tailors.
All of which I can take or leave; mostly leave. But then there's the cracked walls of chalky ochre and aquamarine. And a street menu with a slew of central specialties being dealt out by old ladies in conical hats. This is the stratum of Hoi An that I manipulate my way into when I visit. No yellow upholstered cushions for my arse. There's way too much food lining the old walls and, as the weekend clock ticks faster than the weekday one, comfortable seating would likely only retard matters.
One early afternoon sit-down had us snacking on bánh bèo nhân tôm thịt, a specialty of the region which has origins in Huế, Vietnam's old capital, a further 140km north. The foundation of the dish, no matter where it is consumed, is a steamed rice and tapioca flour disc. In Huế, it is normally simply decorated with tôm khô (dried shrimp dust) and sweated spring onions. This vendor's interpretation in Hoi An is richer and more substantial, with two distinct toppings spooned over the disc which as been steamed and set in dozens of blue and white earthenware ramekins. These she has carried to her plot of pavement in two rattan baskets, reaching down to grab them as the orders come in. The stacks of dirty ones scattered around are in some way tied into the catering and accounting system, I'm sure. If this day's trade is evidence, she'd want to increase future production.
In among the clinking clutter, the aforementioned toppings reside in pots. One contains a viscous orange porridge coloured with shrimp and spotted with spring onions. This goes on first. The other has a lumpy coagulation of minced pork and shrimp, again greened with spring onion. A dollop of this is followed by further texture, in the form of croutons, an inspired touch without which the 'mouthfeel' is largely mooshy nothing.
Being as we are in Vietnam's spicy centre, the dish's flavour profile would not be complete without the lusty heat of chilli. The vendor clips medium sized green chilli - not unlike the Anaheim - with scissors into the same ramekins, each with a couple of tablespoons of fish sauce already spooned in. Moderate on the heat scale, I call for more. We construct our own little tower of ceramics in no time because we are not the kind of people who can stop at one.
In fact, I would probably find it hard to like a person who could stop at just one.
Bánh Bèo Nhân Tôm Thịt
Đường Hoàng Văn Thụ