So Long Rainy Day Blues

Rainy season is upon us in Saigon and the frequent downpours are cooling things down.  This is our “winter” and even in Vietnam comfort foods warm us up.   Here is a link to my latest article for Tuoi Tre newspaper and the text follows:

For those of us not lucky enough to hail from southern Vietnam’s year-round tropical climate, summer’s departure is the time of year our lives slow down and turn indoors.  As the nights become longer and the days colder, many of us in the West seek comfort foods to help knock away the winter time gloom. 

Now I do realize “cold” is relative, but as we move into the rainy season, hearty foods can help warm our souls on a wet and cool day in Vietnam, too.  Follow me on a breakfast, lunch, and dinner tour of three hearty soups sure to lift your spirits as the rains fall.

What better way to start a new day than with a rich red-hued soup called bo kho.  With its complex blend of lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, curry powder and Chinese 5-spice powder, this sweet and tangy broth hits the tongue with a one-two punch of flavors.   Soft strips of beef fall apart as we attempt to snatch them with chopsticks, and a crispy baguette mops up whatever broth our spoons have left behind in the bottom of the bowl.
As I balanced on a tiny squat stool out on the sidewalk hunched over breakfast, I could not help but compare it to beef stew or pot roast back home in the United States. Indeed, bo kho’s tender carrots, soft onions and beef could be at home slow cooking in any American kitchen, and I found a decent VND20,000 (US$1) bowl in Binh Thanh District at a tiny sidewalk stand at 15 Nguyen Van Lac Street.

Thick and creamy chao so long is the perfect comfort food to carry us over the midday hump. Sticky rice porridge is a blank canvas awaiting the diverse flavors of oysters faintly hinting of the salty sea, diced mushrooms, sliced scallions, and cracked black pepper. Tossing in some vinegary chili pepper relish kicks this one a few rungs up the heat ladder, while a squeeze of lime adds a nice tart contrast to the otherwise savory base.

Hoang Ty at 70-72 Vo Van Tan Street in District 3 serves a great porridge with oysters in exchange for VND65,000 ($3).  Very similar in taste to chao so long, though not rice based, is the New England clam chowder that has warmed me up on many a cold winter day.  Trust me, one bowl of this rice porridge, and you will be saying “ciao” and “so long” to the rainy day blues.

A dinnertime serving of hu tieu Nam Vang rounds out our day.  Do not assume this Phnom Penh noodle soup, as it literally translates, is a simple taste affair based on its relatively clear both.  Boiling pork bones, pork shoulder, dried squid and shrimp imparts a savory, velvety texture into the liquid, and rock sugar adds an unexpected element of sweet in a world where soups are typically more a savory variety.  Sprinkle some black pepper on top along with garnishes such as chives, leafy stalks of Chinese celery, lime juice, bean sprouts and hot peppers and your mood will soon be lifted.

Ba Hoang just inside a green gate opening up to an alley at 46 Vo Van Tan Street in District 3 serves a great bowl of hu tieu Nam Vang for just under VND 40,000 ($2).   On Sundays the “Lunch Lady” made famous by Anthony Bourdain serves her VND30,000 ($1.5) interpretation of this noodle soup as well.  Her alleyway stand is located in District 1 at 23 Hoang Sa Street near the Nguyen Thi Minh Street bridge into Binh Thanh District. If only for a few minutes, each of these comfort foods provides a flavor-packed rainy day escape.  No matter where you find them, I hope each of these Vietnamese specialties will expand your culinary journey one savory bite at a time.  Bon appetit!

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

One Comment on “So Long Rainy Day Blues”

  1. May 17, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Bo kho is an amazing and flavorful dish! What a great idea for the blog and for your appetite with trying so many cool and spicy dishes!

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