A Cult Classic From Hanoi: Cha Ca La Vong

There is a restaurant in Hanoi that has a one-dish menu. Imagine that, a restaurant that serves just one thing! The restaurant is called Cha Ca La Vong 14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem; 84-4-3825-3929, which also happens to be the name of the classic fish dish that they serve. This tiny joint is still run by the descendants of the dish’s creator, and has been cooking Cha Ca La Vong for over 100 years.
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What In The World Are Banana Blossoms & More Importantly, How Do You Eat Them!?

You know when you happen upon something unfamiliar and then you encounter it repeatedly? I called it serendipity or fortunate happenstance, but science has another term for it, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Mine is currently banana blossoms. Keep Reading!

Ta Da! Café Sua Da!

Envision a bright summer day you are on a drive with your windows rolled down.  The scent of fresh air and flora fill your lungs while sunshine warms your shoulders.  The rhythmic rumble of pavement is felt beneath your car tires as you wind through the countryside.  Glancing at the passing scenery you will most certainly see stalks of indigo flowers dotting the roadsides.  I’ve always grouped this flowering plant into the “pretty weeds” category…like Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow and Milkweed.  I have now discovered that this “weed” is delicious and it is called chicory!!! Stemming from Europe it flourishes in the Mediterranean, India, Australia, South East Asia and the United States.
The chicory plant’s leaves and roots can be consumed and are often described as having a bitter bite.  The greens are used fresh in salads, cooked, stuffed or baked.  The root is what I am interested in because it is used in two of my favorite things:

1. Cafè du Monde 

That is right, the chicory root is ground down and used in coffee or as a substitute for coffee…if that’ your thing! What I’m about to tell you next may deter you from trying chicory root but it’s history and history is important  so here it goes.  The chicory root has been used as a coffee substitute in prisons, it has gained popularity in times of economic hardship such as, The Civil War and Great Depression and has widespread use in poorer global regions.

My first taste of chicory arose when my lips brushed the foam from my first real Cafè Au Lait.  It was utter bliss, bubbly foam, dark coffee mixed with creamy milk and a warmth that traveled to my toes.  I was in New Orleans at the famed Cafè du Monde.  This is an original French market stand that roasts and brews it’s own coffee mixed with chicory!  Why with chicory you may ask?  Well, it was brought to this area by the French as they settled colonies during the  1700’s.  They acquired a taste for this blend during their civil war.  Now all visitors of New Orleans can enjoy a fresh cup of cafè au lait and a beignet 7 days a week 24 hours a day at this landmark in the French Quarter.

For those who are not able to head to NOLA for a fresh cup of coffee with chicory you can purchase the Cafè du Monde coffee here and I recommend that you do!

2. Café Sua Da

This is a coffee and chicory beverage hailing from Vietnam.  Cafè Sua Da is probably the most sublime iced coffee that one can experience.  The French are noted for introducing coffee into the region sometime during the 19th century.  The Vietnamese began using sweetened condensed milk in their morning brew due to a lack of fresh milk hence the birth of Cafè Sua Da!  This icy treat is made with thick sweetened condensed milk, robust French coffee with chicory and ice.  A few inexpensive utensils are needed in the preparation such as, a small metal French drip filter. I found mine in a local Asian market for around $3.00  otherwise you can purchase one here.

The following recipe is from Todd Porter and Diane Cu and was featured in the LA Times

Ca Phe Sua Da Recipe (Iced Vietnamese Coffee)

(makes 1 serving)

1 1/2 T Coarse Ground Coffee (use a strong roast suitable for espresso, the grind the same as for a french press)  such as Cafe du Monde
2 T Sweetened Condensed Milk
Hot Water (almost to a boil)
Ice
Vietnamese Coffee Filter

1. Pour the 2 T Sweetened Condensed Milk into an 8-10 oz glass.

2. Remove the top screen from the coffee filter. Put the ground coffee in the filter, screw screen back on, compacting the grounds. Place filter on the glass with the sweetened condensed milk. Pour just enough hot water to cover the grounds and let sit for 30 sec.

3. Loosen the filter screen screw at least 2 full rotations. Pour hot water to top of filter, cover and let sit until water has gone all the way through filter. (should be @ 5 min. at a rate of 3-4 drips/sec. If it is faster, coffees grind is too coarse. If slower, coffees grind is too fine.)

4. When water has passed though filter, remove filter from glass. Stir coffee and sweetened condensed milk together. Add ice and enjoy.

Ta Da!!!

Phở….sounds like “fuh”

Some say that chicken noodle soup feeds the soul but for me it’s straight up Phở! Seriously, how can one say no to a slow simmered broth made from charred onions, beef bones, oxtails, anise, cinnamon, cardamom, clove and ginger?  This delish broth is served in a large bowl with a heaping parcel of white rice noodles to slurp up.   You also have your choice of thinly sliced flank steak (cooked or raw), tripe, tendon, brisket, meatballs or less traditionally chicken or pork.  Accoutrements include, mung bean sprouts, culantro, Thai basil, white onions, lime, fish sauce, Sriracha and hoisen sauce.
Phở is best eaten with chopsticks and little sighs of joy between each slurp of rice noodle and soul satisfying broth.

Eventually, when I am less daunted by bone broth I will attempt my own home-cooked version of Phở .  But for now where I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan we have a few Phở places to check out… (like 4).  I recommend two dives–either Pho Sac Trang on Div-Ave. or Pho99 on 28th St. SW.  For those of us who are not too adventurous when it comes to restaurant ‘ambiance’ consider this your warning when I say dive.  Personally I’m okay with a little hole in the wall interior so long as the food is fantastic and fresh!

Phở broth can also be purchased in Asian markets much like chicken stock…

Pho stock, photo from google images

So, now that Phở has made a it’s move into mainstream America please extend nhiều nhờ (many thanks) to Vietnam the country in which pho hails from!