Saturday, October 24, 2009

Seafood Spring Rolls

I have a joke I tell my Vietnamese friends whenever they see me chowing down on the local cuisine: Tôi có da trắng nhưng bụng Việt Nam ("I have white skin, but a Vietnamese stomach"). This week, I learned just how true this was, when circumstances led me to spend TWO ENTIRE DAYS eating mainly foreign grub. I felt dirty, impure; it was...unnatural. Feeling a need to restore my body's equilibrium, I returned yesterday to my normal fare.

Lunch was bún chả and seafood spring rolls at one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall at 36 Lê Văn Hưu Street. My readers ought to be familiar with
bún chả, one of the culinary specialties of northern Vietnam. It's normally served on street corners at 15,000 VNĐ (approx. US$0.85) for all the fixings. The particular establishment I go to on Lê Văn Hưu charges an astronomical 25,000 VNĐ (US$1.40) for a bún chả that really is that much better than most of its competitors.

But that's not why I go there. It's for the springrolls.

Little spring rolls (
nem) are common lunchtime fare at bún chả joints; you dip them into the broth along with everything else. Most spring rolls are filled with pork, some are filled with crab. The place on Lê Văn Hưu serves GINORMOUS spring rolls (nem hải sản) that are more like savory French pastries, filled with an indulgent assortment of large, succulent pieces of crab meat, fat, juicy prawns, and the like. The pastry itself is light and flaky, and retains its crispiness even after being dipped. Combined with the dipping broth from the bún chả, it presents a mind-numbing combination of flavors and textures: sweet, savory, crispy, chewy; it's a taste of heaven in phyllo dough.
At 18,000 VNĐ (US$1) a pop the spring rolls cost more than the
bún chả at most places, and once you add in a soft drink, the whole meal usually comes in at slightly under US$3, which is considerably more than I usually pay for lunch, and still half the price of the greasy French food my friends took me to eat the other day...which unsettled my stomach and brought back my adolescent acne. It's all a matter of taste, I suppose. One man's fish is another man's poisson.


  1. I very much enjoy your blog. I left Saigon 30 years ago and have only returned once. The changes are indeed amazing.

    A couple of points I wanted to mention:
    - This "nem hải sản" seems to be a fairly recent invention, as I have never seen it in the 20+ years I was in Vietnam. As living conditions improve, more elaborate recipes will see the light of day. To give you an example, when I left VN (1981) food was severely rationed. I still remember we could only get **half of a can** of condensed milk every month. You cannot imagine the taste of a "càphê sữa đá" then, esp. when you could only make 3 or 4 of them each month!

    - When you travel to the South of VN, you'll find out that "nem" is the name of a different dish down there. It's also a roll, but it's not fried.

    Finally, do you discuss the quality of the food ingredients with your Vnmese friends or students? I'd be curious to see what they think of this article from a Vnmese newspaper:

    Here's the Cliff notes version for readers who do not read Vnmese: brown eggs from China are bleached with hydrochloric acid to make them white, as white eggs are more prized, and thus more expensive.
    It's funny how the reverse is true in the US, we pay more for brown eggs... Go figure.

  2. Hal- How did your US stomach handle all those greens when you first arrived? Would you recommend tourists eat them?

    Looks so yummy!


  3. Re: nem – in the north, nem cuốn refers to the dish that's comprised of mostly raw ingredients wrapped in spring roll wrappers, and nem ran is what they call the fried spring rolls. I understand in the south nem refers to ground pork patties...yet another example of the difficulties involved in trying to get a straight answer about ANYTHING related to food in Vietnam!

    Re: greens – oh my ghod, I LOVE them! My stomach has had absolutely no problems. This isn't to say that problems don't exist – so it's hard for me to recommend anything to tourists – but my general rule of thumb when eating street food is to hit places that look busy; this assures you the food is at least moving. In fact, the only stomach-related probs I've had in 5 1/2 months in VN have come from eating Western food! The VN food sits very, very well with me...

  4. PS - I'm going to ask my friends about the issue with eggs forthwith. Thanks for the tidbit; this looks interesting!

  5. Great blog. If you love those springrolls and haven't been yet, you should pop into Quan Nem, on Bui Thi Xuan or Giang Vo. Like big fried pillows you want to take to bed with you, filled with all the fixings mentioned above.

  6. In San Francisco, there's a hole-in-the-wall that makes Imperial Rolls to die for. What's the story of "Imperial Rolls" you've learned in your travels? Alas, I don't remember the Viet Namese name of the dish...

  7. umm I want nem cua be^?. That's the best, hal :)

    did you try bun cha on Hang Manh? it's gooooood :D oh i miss the smell of the grilled pork so much :(

  8. btw, quan Nem is ok. it's more fusion b/c it has a lot of different types of Nem. Last summer when I came back, my family and I went there. It wasn't fantastic. I find myself more attracted to food on the street :D the best place to try different kind of Vietnamese food is quan Ngon on Phan Boi Chau street.
    I love Pho Ga on Nam Ngu. eat it with qua^?y :D Or Bun thang/My van than on Hang Dieu.
    Sorry I kept on commenting on your blog hehe It's great to see you exploring Hanoi and loving it there :D

  9. I have become a fan of this blog ever since happening on it while poking around on the web before coming to Hanoi from the U.S. about two weeks ago. I am here for a year to work with the UN. I am still in a bit of culture shock but excited to explore my new home. I do find the street food stalls a bit intimidating, because I don't speak a lick of Vietnamese. I really appreciate your embrace of the culture, and hope that I can grow to have the same enthusiasm.

  10. You people are so sweet! Thanks, Thuy, for all your postings - I'm happy that you're connecting with the experiences I'm having, and I thank you for all your kind feedback and advice. And I'm totally with you - the street food is where it's AT!

    Hey, "Anonymous" at the UN - if you want to go out and check out some street food, I'm more than happy to take you to some of my favorite haunts. Just drop me a line - but I'm afraid you're going to have to drop your anonymity if you want to hit the street food!

    Anyway - thanks to you both, and Aaron and Jean and the others who've posted. It definitely encourages me to keep scrawling...

  11. Very informative and well-written blog! Your descriptions have made me even more excited to visit Vietnam in just a few weeks. Very much appreciated.

  12. "Tôi có da trắng nhưng bụng Việt Nam ("I have white skin, but a Vietnamese stomach")"

    Good lord amigo! Don't you know this is an open challenge for your Vietnamese buddies to take you to the extreme edges of Vietnamese culinary adventurism???

    Roasted paddy rats marinated with lemon grass for appetizer.
    Raw pig's blood pudding lightly sprinkled with roasted peanuts.
    Cobra blood rice liquor with the creature's heart still beating at the bottom of the flask.