Perhaps nowhere in the canvas of Filipino food is there a dish more representative of the 300 years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines than in lechón. While it's found in other parts of the world, the origins of lechón are of Spanish heritage. We had our first at a "lechón party," where a $70 pig fed 15 of us.
Banh cuon is a popular breakfast dish in Vietnam made from rice batter. The batter composition is similar to that of banh xeo, but the cooking technique is entirely different. Banh cuon batter may sometimes be fermented, but it is always steamed.
When we got in the van at 8:30am to head out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we started asking our guide about banh xeo, the sizzling cake made from rice batter that's popular throughout Vietnam. The "xeo" part of the name refers to the sound the cakes make when they're seared in a scorching wok. Banh xeo take seconds to make, but the technique takes hours of practice. On the way back from our trip, the driver dropped us off in front of Bánh Xèo Ngọc Sơn. It was close to where we were staying, and just so happened to be his favorite place to get banh xeo.
In the 1960s, the Viet Cong dug an immense labyrinth of tunnels in the Cu Chi District of Saigon so VC guerrillas could hide from the enemy during daylight hours. Covering over 200km, the tunnel system is located about halfway between Saigon and the Cambodian border. The tunnels have since been preserved by the Vietnamese government and are now a popular tourist destination. On our way out to explore the underground network (and shoot assault rifles), we stopped for lunch at a pink, rather polished looking building. Inside, a group of fluorescently clad tourists was already having lunch. We kindly informed the guide we were looking for something different, something maybe he would want to have for lunch. He smilked and took us to Quán Cơm Rạng Đông a kilometer down the street.
Banh kep vendors setup shop on nearly every street, selling a pastry made from rice flour, water, coconut milk, vanilla, sugar, oil, and egg. Similar to Italian pizzelli or cannoli shells, one form of banh kep is thin and crisp. The second is a lighter and fluffier version, triangular shaped and donut-like. Both variations are cooked in small cast iron skillets over charcoal. The edges are especially crispy from batter that oozes out during cooking. Smoke from the charcoal gives them a slightly smoky flavor that contrasts the sweet. Catch one fresh from the skillet and it'll have a soft chew before it's completely set. Vendors carry bags of banh kep they made earlier in the day, a bag of either kind is between $1 and $1.50.
We've eaten just about everything we possibly could on our journey to Manila and Saigon. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We flew into Tokyo from Manila and now flight DL276 is boarding for Detroit. That's our ticket outta here. We still have a lot of "Asia Feed" posts to catch up on, but we're going to revert back to the regular New York "News" feed when we're back in the states. We'll keep Asia Feed up in the menu bar until we're caught up.
No sooner than we left Manila did we start thinking about what our first meal was going to be back home. It's still up in the air. Give us your suggestions in the comments section. We're hungry.
Ca phe sua da is a Vietnamese staple. There are variations on the drink, but at it's root is ca phe nong; hot coffee made using a pour-over technique. The slow extraction allows the ground beans to give up most of their essence. "Da" means ice and "sua" indicates the addition of sweetened condensed milk. Vietnamese-Americans introduced chicory to the coffee, a version that has since been popularized in New York at pho and banh mi restaurants citywide.
Ben Thanh Market was established by French colonial powers in the middle of the 19th Century. Originally called Les Halles Centrales, it started as a wet market at the hands of vendors who would gather to sell their daily catch reeled in from the nearby Saigon River. A fire damaged a good deal of the market in 1870, but the grounds were quickly rebuilt. In 1912, the market moved to its current location, took on the Ben Thanh moniker, and became one of the most bustling areas in Saigon's District 1. One hundred years later, there is no indication of a centennial, simply hundreds of vendors, merchants, and food stalls going about their daily business.
French influence came to Vietnam in the middle of the 19th Century when France colonized the Indochina Peninsula. The ensuing 90 years of French rule in Vietnam left a lasting affect on the country's cuisine. Perhaps the most widely known example is Banh Mi; the sandwich rich with pate, crunchy with pickled vegetables, and fresh from cilantro leaves and stems, delivered on the famously French vehicle: the baguette. In Vietnam, the baguette takes on a lighter, crispier profile from the addition of rice flour. When toasted, as all Banh Mi sandwiches are (should be), the light, airy bread takes on a delicate, cracker-like crunch. Banh Mi stands are everywhere in Vietnam and it's not uncommon to see brick-and-mortar locations devoted to the sandwich. We had our first from a cart on the corner of Where are we? and Who knows? for about $1.50.
Moring glory, or water spinach, is a widely used ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. The tops and leaves are typically boiled or stir-fried. In Vietnam, the stems are commonly found in canh (soup) and xà lách (salad). The versatile ingredient is prized for its culinary potential and has a subtle, earthy flavor. In order to make the slightly tough stems easier on the palate, they can be cut up by hand, but that's only if you don't have a dao chẻ rau muống. The name translates to "knife for splitting water spinach" and was designed for the sole purpose of preparing the vegetable. Here's a play by play of a dao chẻ rau muống in action.
Taking a random turn or two off of Saigon's main roads is likely to put you in a labrynthine conglomerate of small, narrow streets. They're tucked away from the bustle and steady purr of motorbikes racing over the main roads. Like every other corner you turn in Saigon, there's incredible food to be found here, and a lot of times it's offered from the front of someone's home. The place we chose served one dish: pho, the widely popular noodle dish in Vietnam served with beef or chicken. The biggest difference between southern (Saigon) and northern (Hanoi) variations is the inclusion of bean sprouts. They're left out of pho in Hanoi. The BAD (back alley dinner) we stumbled upon was one of the most humbling eating experiences so far.
Saigon is a portable city. Inhabitants move ceaselessly about on motorbikes. The functional mobility of rickshaws and food carts is well-understood. Many pedestrians run one-man operations. For some, the money maker is a shoe-shine kit. For others, it's a rack of sunglasses or a tray of Zippos. This guy was selling fresh coconuts, the tops of which he chopped off "to order," so to speak, and then stabbed the opening with a bright, plastic straw. We stopped and bought one on our way to get lunch from a yet to be determined place and drank the ice cold juice in a patch of shade.
The restaurant has no name. There is no menu. There are no tables. No chairs. What the place does have are red plastic stools and bánh canh giò móng, a noodle dish with pork knuckles, chili, and lime. The stools are there indefinitely. As for the noodles, they're available starting at 3pm everyday until they sell out. That happens in about an hour.
Late last night Cebu-Pacific Air flight 5J751 dropped us in Saigon for the second leg of our journey. We go back to Manila for a few days before ultimately heading home, but for the next five days we're going to be eating everything we can here in Saigon. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in July of '76 when it merged with the surrounding Gia Định Provence. Despite acquiring a new name nearly 40 years ago, locals still refer to Vietnam's largest city as Saigon.
The Salcedo Community Market is an outdoor market held on Saturdays at the corner of L.P Veliste and Toledo in the heart of the Makati Business District. Open from 7am - 2pm, it was started eight years ago by residents who occupy apartments in nearby high rises. With almost 150 vendors, the market attracts hundreds of visitors each Saturday and boasts a wide variety of goods; from whole roasted calf to plates and bowls made from locally sourced wood. We've included a picture of said calf after the jump. Just to warn you, it looks like a whole roasted calf.
The Sino-Philippine trade brought Chinese influence to the Philippines in the 10th Century. The country's thousand-year relationship with China has left an undeniable mark on Filipino culture, one that was further influenced by ensuing Spanish occupation that began in the 16th Century. In addition to the Spanish and Chinese influences found in Filipino cuisine, purer forms of each can be found throughout metro Manila. There is a tendency of the Filipino palate to avoid extremely spicy food, making some spicier cuisines harder to find. The Sze-Chuan House, a block inland from the Manila Bay in the Aloha Hotel, is one of the few restaurants that attempts to provide a spicier regional Chinese cuisine to the Filipino public.
After breakfast at home Friday, we headed to Max's for fried chicken. The highlight was having our first halo-halo, the classic Filipino dessert whose presentation and combination of ingredients mimicks a pantry disaster of sorts, but more on that in a minute. Born in 1945, Max's is a Filipino fried chicken restaurant chain. It got its start when a Filipino teacher named Maximo Gimenez befriended American troops stationed in Quezon City during WWII. Gimenez opened a cafe to provide soldiers food and drink and his generosity grew into a sit down restaurant. Since opening its doors to franchising in 1998, Max's has expanded to the US (California and New Jersey) and Canada.
Waking up at 6am is only ever a bad thing when it happens in a place where things don't open until ten. We made breakfast at home.
Scrambled eggs took on a darker hue than normal from the bright orange yolks that seem to be at the center of all eggs outside the US. We fried some Vigan Longaniza sausages we bought at an SM Super Market yesterday in a dash of olive oil. The greens are pehcay; Filipino bok choi. They grow year round so they're always available and always cheap. The leaves are commonly used as a garnish and in soups, but a quick sautee with garlic and chilies puts a nice twist on the healthy, earthy, crunchy greens.
We noticed there was a crowd waiting to eat at Fely J's as we walked by so we decided to join the crowd. Twenty minutes for a table for two. Browsing the food options while we waited revealed a four page menu built around Filipino tradition. Making decisions was going to be difficult, but it had to be done.
Greenbelt 3 has a concentration of coffee shops, high-end retail stores, and some of the better dining options in the Greenbelt Mall. For lunch we went to an old Thai favorite of the folks we're staying with: People's Palace. The restaurant serves the cuisine of Thailand with the same freshness and attention to detail that have earned Sri Pra Phai its cult following and Andy Ricker rave reviews for his deeply learned efforts on display at his Pok Pok restaurants. The dishes at People's Palace may not dive as deeply into Thailand's pantry as those at Pok Pok, but there is a consistency throughout the menu that suggests you may not be dining in the Philippines, but 1,300 miles to the west.