The Hanoi street food scene


As you attempt the navigate the sidewalks of Hanoi, you are constantly bypassing or walking through one of the thousands of street food stalls, with patrons spilling out onto the narrow sidewalks. Street food is a slight misnomer, as most of the food is actually served by tiny restaurants with a storefront but the eating does in fact happen on the street, usually on tiny plastic stools at low tables shared with strangers. Like many cities with a serious street food scene, most restaurants serve only one dish and the stalls serving the best version of Pho Bo or Bun Cha become enshrined in generations of food lore. When you sit down at one of these places, there is a rarely a menu – two or three minutes after you are seated, a heaping plate or steaming bowl of something delicious that usually involves rice noodles, fresh herbs, and meat will appear in front of you. And with the first bite, it becomes unimportant that the floor may be strewn with dirty napkins and that the aromas wafting your way are a bit mysterious, because the fresh, clean flavors of the food shine through and you know that trying to replicate these dishes in a more formal restaurant kitchen would result in a shadow of the real thing.

My husband and I ate like champions in Hanoi – below is a brief (and probably incomplete) breakdown of the many dishes we tried and the places where we ate them. In each case, two servings and a beer typically cost us between five and seven USD. Many of the suggestions came from a guidebook photocopy another traveler gave us – I'm not sure which guidebook to give credit to for the suggestions but I'm guessing it was Lonely Planet because my Rough Guide definitely did not do the street food scene justice.

Banh Ghoi: This modest little fried crescent-shaped pastry of goodness is filled with spiced pork, mushrooms, and glass rice noodles and was one of the most flavorful things I ate in Vietnam. Most of the meat I ate elsewhere was simply boiled or grilled – this was one of the few instances of spiced stir fried meat and the flavors came sprinting out with the very first bite. As a bonus, you can watch the two old ladies who run the stall deep frying all sorts of other pastries as well and you can take your pick trying them all.

52 P Ly Quoc Su, 10am – 7pm

Stuffed and fried delicious banh ghoi

Bun Bo Nam Bo: This dish consists of a steaming bowl of rice noodles and beef, served with peanuts, fried shallots, garlic, lemongrass, sprouts, green mango, lettuce, cilantro, and a light sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I have never wolfed down dinner so fast in my life – in addition to the fact that it was piping hot and delicious, we had just returned to Hanoi after three very cold days in Halong Bay and were absolutely starving and freezing from the journey. This was the perfect remedy.

67 P Hang Dieu, 11am-10pm

Delicious bun bo nam bo noodles with a light sauce, peanuts, fried shallots and meat

The kitchen of the bun bo nam bo restaurant, with rice noodles, crushed peanuts, and ground beef at the ready

Banh Cuon: These are steamed rice crepes rolled up like spring rolls and stuffed with minced pork, mushroom, and ground shrimp. Very mild in flavor, they are spiced up with cilantro and sweet fish dipping sauce and served alongside a piece of pork sausage.

Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, 14 P Hang Ga, 8am-4pm

Banh cuon rice crepes filled with minced pork and mushroom, topped with fried shallots and cilantro

Rolling up banh cuon rice crepes

Bun Cha and Nem Cua Be: This is one of the most famous dishes in Hanoi and consists of a bowl of grilled pork patties and strips of grilled beef in a sweet broth, accompanied by a giant plate of herbs and an order of fried spring rolls filled with crab meat and glass rice noodles. It was a little meat heavy for my taste but definitely worth a try.

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh, 11am-3pm

Bun cha grilled pork patties in a sweet broth with a side of herbs and rice noodles

Nem cua be fried spring rolls with glass noodles and crab

Pho Bo: Pho seems to be the main Vietnamese dish to have made it to West Hollywood. We have “Unphogettable,” “9021Pho,” and “Absolutely Phobulous,” all within a five minute drive of our apartment. While it is sometimes a late night snack, it quickly became clear to us that we had not truly experienced pho until we ate it as a traditional breakfast in Hanoi. On the surface, it looks the same as the West Hollywood version – white rice noodles, perfumed broth, slices of beef (“bo” means beef – there are other varieties as well), and leaves of cilantro, but the effect is altogether different.

Pho Gia Truyen, 49 P Bat Dan, 7-10am

Steaming bowl of pho bo, with fried dough and chopped chilis on the side

Che: As you may have noticed, I love glutinous, sticky, oddly flavored Asian desserts. If it is made from red bean, black sesame, sticky rice, coconut milk – chances are that I will like it. Given this, I was very excited to try Che, a brightly colored Vietnamese dessert consisting of different shapes, sizes, and colors of jello, mixed with creamed corn, mung beans, and sticky sweetened coconut milk. The overall effect of Che is like confetti in your cup, or a kindergartner's neon painting gone wild. My husband was understandably wary but I dove in with gusto, insisting that it was delicious. I was exaggerating. It was ok but the sweetness soon became cloying and after a third of the cup, I started to wonder what was creating the bright colors floating around in my glass. Glad I tried it but I think I may stick with some of my other newly acquired dessert favorites.

Neon colored che. Not really much more to say on this one.

We also went to Quan An Ngon for dinner on our last night. Quan An Ngon is a great concept restaurant that brings together stalls of all the famous street foods in the country into one courtyard, where patrons can sit in full size chairs under lanterns in a 'typical' restaurant environment and walk around to see what the stalls are cooking. Popular with wealthier Vietnamese and tourists, it is a great stop to get acquainted with street food in a clean and comfortable environment. We used it as a chance to try many of the dishes remaining on our hit list, and while the environment was lovely and the food very good, it lacked the spark of flavor that defines the best street food stalls.

It's been fascinating to compare the street food culture and foods across many of the countries I've visited. The ubiquitous nature of street eating in Hanoi most reminded me of Penang, particularly the emphasis on single dish stalls run by older men and women who have been quietly cooking up gourmet food in humble environments for most of their lives. It is definitely worth taking the plunge – just pick a spot that seems crowded with locals and you're unlikely to go wrong.

Kem xio ice cream with sticky green rice and fried coconut flakes

Additional information:
Quan An Ngon
18 Phan Bai Chau


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New Year’s Eve in Hanoi

A long overdue post…

Hanoi is known for its vibrant street food scene and the list of must-try dishes is immense: bun cha, banh cuon, and pho bo, just for starters. We needed professional help. That's where Daniel Hoyer came in, an American expat chef living in Hanoi who gives local food tours. My husband and I hopped on the back of two motorbikes to join the throngs zipping through the narrow streets of the old quarter and began eating our way through the streets with Daniel.

Our first stop was Chau Long market, where we witnessed the many innovative ways that the Vietnamese use all conceivable parts of the animals they slaughter. Despite being a little squeamish about the intestines, hearts, and livers lying around, it was clear that everything was incredibly fresh. According to Daniel, nothing in the whole market had been dead for more than a few hours and the fish and seafood were all still alive in aerated tile tanks built onto the ground. I think that was supposed to be reassuring…

More than in any of the other Southeast Asian cuisines I've encountered, the freshness is palpable in Vietnamese food. This is due to a number of factors. The first is that herbs and greens are almost universally served raw alongside piping hot soups and inside fresh spring rolls. The bright flavors of lemon-mint, holy basil, fresh cilantro, perilla (like lemony wood cleaner), fish lettuce (it actually smells like fish), and zalzom (very perfumey), combine in unexpected and unique ways in every bite and the overall effect is a constant parade of flavors on your tongue. The second source of freshness comes from the rice noodles – in Vietnam they are either made right at the restaurant or sold fresh in the market but they contain no oil, unlike the fresh rice noodles in Malaysia and Thailand which often have a light coating of oil. The third reason for the freshness is the most obvious, which is the ingredients themselves. Vietnamese shop every day, and often twice a day, for vegetables which arrive on the back of motorbikes hours after they are harvested. You can taste that in the flavor of the food.

In addition to fresh herbs, the base ingredients for Vietnamese cooking include garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and many varieties of fresh herbs. These combine to create a very different flavor from the galangal of Thailand, the coconut milk of Cambodia, the tamarind of Malaysia, and the shrimp paste of Indonesia.

But back to the food tour. After the market we headed to Class Motor Coffee Shop to warm up with some coffee. Vietnamese coffee is the other half of the cuisine and it is truly phenomenal. The beans are a secret blend of roasted Arabica and Robusta coffee, combined to create a velvety, chocolatey undertone of richness in every sip. It is made in individual tin drip cups and it is served with a generous spoonful of condensed milk. I'm not sure if I've already waxed poetic on the joys of condensed milk but regardless, I'll do so again because we don't have a sufficient appreciation for it in America. The thick, syrupy sweet substance makes everything taste just a little bit better, and it is used here in desserts as well as drinks. I have no idea what combination of chemicals makes this miraculous goo but I've decided that it's better not to ask and to simply enjoy.

It was starting to get dark after we had coffee we hopped back on the motorcycles and zipped around one of the many lakes that dot this otherwise very congested city to make our first food stop of the evening.

This restaurant, which consists of a few low plastic tables and stools under a sloping tin roof, doesn't have a name. But it does have a few specialties and we dedicated ourselves to trying all of them. The first was Pho Cuon, or delicious rice flour rolls filled with beef, lettuce, cilantro, and mint, which we dipped in a sweet fish sauce blend.

Pho cuon rice noodle rolls filled with fresh herbs

Next was a heaping plate of Ngao Nuong or roasted clams, prepared over an open flame and drizzled lightly with oil and lime juice before serving.

Ngao nuong, or roasted clams in lime juice, topped with fried shallots

Our third dish was Ngo Chien, an alternate version of popcorn – individual yellow kernels coated in rice flour seasoned with a touch of turmeric and chili powder and then fried. We ate heaping spoonfuls of these crunchy morsels doused with the ubiquitous and delicious sweet fish sauce, which somehow brought out the flavor of the corn.

Crispy ngo chien, or fried corn

All of this was accompanied by large bottles of Vietnamese beer, which average fifty cents a pop. According to Daniel, it is completely socially acceptable to drink beer with breakfast. We felt it was also totally socially acceptable for us to enjoy our super cheap beer on New Year's Eve.

Tigers seem to be the universal image for beer in Southeast Asia

We hopped back on the motorbikes and braced ourselves against the chill as we careened toward “chicken street,” aptly named for the dozens of open flame grills roasting skewers of chicken feet on wooden spears. Since we didn't fully appreciate the delicacy that is chicken cartilage, Daniel ordered rounds of chicken wings and thighs smothered in a sweet barbecue sauce. It was served with grilled french bread painted with the same delicious sauce and the whole thing was a smoky, sticky feast as we perched on child-sized plastic stools on a street packed with happy eaters flickering in the inconsistent street lighting.

Curbside dining

Grilling the chicken in delicious barbeque sauce

Chicken feet waiting to be grilled - not really our thing

Fully sated, we bid Daniel farewell and set off on foot to continue the New Year's Eve festivities. The first stop was Hoan Kiem lake, the heart of the city and the area which we'd heard would be the center of any celebrations. A brisk walk around the perimeter of the lake revealed lots of colorful neon lights and a few large groups of revelers standing around scattered jumbotrons. Upon closer examination, it became clear that they were watching a massive Near Year's Eve celebratory concert. We began to piece together what city might be hosting such a concert when a flood of teenagers bumped into us, rushing excitedly toward the Opera House in the French Quarter. Intrigued, we followed them, and shortly hit a massive wall of people blissfully shouting the words to a Vietnamese pop hit. This was the jumbotron concert and we had unwittingly stumbled upon teeny bopper central. It turns out that New Year's Eve is primarily celebrated by the youth in Hanoi as the real New Year's festivities occur during Tet, the lunar new year in early February. After enjoying as much jostling as we could handle, we headed back to some bars in the Old Quarter and welcomed in the stroke of midnight back around the lake. Fireworks there were not, but we had certainly eaten our way through the end of 2012 and straight into a delicious 2013.

Teeny bopper concert in the French Quarter of Hanoi on New Year's Eve

Additional information:
Daniel Hoyer


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Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls

There was a distinct lightness to everything I cooked at the Saigon Cooking School. Fresh herbs, paper thin rice paper, clear coconut water – it could have easily been billed as a healthy cooking class.

We started with fresh spring rolls stuffed with blanched shrimp, pork, rice noodles, and herbs, including basil, mint, chives, lettuce, and bean sprouts. The rice paper felt like it was going to crack as I rolled in all this goodness but we painted the edges with water to make the wrapper a bit sticky to help hold everything together. It wasn't the prettiest spring roll I'd ever made but it was the closest one has come to feeling like a healthy salad. Our 'dressing' was a homemade peanut sauce made by mixing roasted peanuts with hoisin sauce, water, garlic, and chili, making for a sweet and salty flavor to complement the fresh rolls.

Peanut butter and hoisin sauce for dipping spring rolls

Fresh spring rolls with shrimp and fresh herbs and veggies

Our second course was morning glory salad with prawns and a tangy kumquat dressing. Morning glory, or water spinach, is a common and popular green vegetable in Vietnam and is served raw in salads or often sautéed with garlic as a side dish. When eaten raw, typically just the hollow stem is used and it is sliced into super thin strips with a tool that basically has a pinwheel of razor blades on top of a long pole. You ram the morning glory up the pole and the razor slits the vegetables while a plastic circle protects your fingers. It's pretty cool and I bought one on the street later for two dollars. The strips of morning glory are put into a bowl of cold water, where they curl up beautifully, making a lovely, crunchy base for salad. We added onion, carrot, shrimp, basil, fried garlic, fried shallots, and roasted peanuts to the salad. The dressing used kumquats, rather than lime, as the base, creating a sour and tangy taste without the bitterness that sometimes accompanies lime. We mixed sugar, fish sauce, garlic, chili, and salt into the dressing to round out the flavors. It was a refreshing and light dish, great for the summer.

Slicing morning glory with a pinwheel razor blade

Morning glory and shrimp salad with kumquat dressing

The main course was a clay pot chicken stew with ginger, basil, and coconut water. We started by briefly marinating the chicken in ginger, chili, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and annatto seed oil (an orange oil that apparently gives color but not flavor). Next we heated the clay pot and added the chicken and julienned ginger until the meat was sealed. Coconut water came next for the braise. This was the first time I've added coconut water straight from a coconut to a dish – the other times I've cooked with coconut it has been the milk, which has to be briefly processed by mixing the shredded flesh with water. This feels like a distinctive element of Vietnamese cooking – going right to the source of the ingredient, and using the lighter coconut water rather than the heavier milk. We seasoned our chicken with fish sauce, salt, pepper, and garlic as it was cooking and added in fresh basil at the last minute. The result was delicious – strong flavor from the ginger in a light broth from the coconut water.

Ginger, chicken, and seasoning in a clay pot

Piping hot chicken stew in coconut water broth with ginger and basil

Dessert wasn't part of the cooking agenda for the day but the chef was kind enough to serve us a light passion fruit mousse which was absolutely fantastic. I'm waiting for passion fruit to become the next “It” fruit in the progression of lychee, pomegranate, and mango. When passion fruit is made into artificial flavoring it becomes cloyingly sweet but in its natural form it balances tart, sweet, and crunchy in a very addictive way.

Tangy passion fruit mousse

One of the best parts of the class (which I took before my husband met me in Vietnam) was meeting two American sisters whose parents are Vietnamese and who were visiting the country together. They invited me to join them for an evening of exploration, pointing out different foods, ordering things in Vietnamese, and were also great motorcycle dodging companions.

Additional information:
Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc Restaurant
74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (84-8)3 825 84 85
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Motorbike madness in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City really does have the frantic, intense energy you read about. Not only are the streets jam packed with motorbikes, but when traffic gets bad they simply hop up onto the sidewalks and drive there. Crossing the street is an adventure onto itself – look for a slight opening in oncoming traffic, take the plunge, and pray that the speeding scooters will manage to successfully dodge you. That said, the energy is palpable and the city, with its museums and monuments, is a fascinating introduction to Vietnam.

Attempting to walk on the street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City

View from the Bitexco Tower in downtown HCMC

Beautiful monuments, testament to the French colonial period in the city

The Ben Thanh market is a great amalgamation of the energy of the city, all under one large tin roof. The market is broken down into sections, each of which has dozens of stalls selling similar wares. One part is buzzing with fresh meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables, food and coffee stands crowd another part, tourist knick-knacks comprise another area, and all manner of fabrics, toys, and home goods populate the rest of the market. At night the streets outside the covered market turn into a bustling outdoor street fair, replete with portable food stalls, ironic t-shirts, and any other item you might want to buy.

Inside Ben Thanh market

Hard at work selling fabric in Ben Thanh market

Night market outside Ben Thanh market. Definitely need to look both ways before crossing the street!

A friend living in HCMC city recommended Cuc Gach Quan for dinner and it was a wonderful oasis within the city. Set in a converted French home with a central courtyard, the food is traditional Vietnamese country food, cooked with fresh and natural ingredients and bursting with flavor. I especially loved the homemade tofo, fried on the outside and custardy rich on the inside.

It has been a fun and frenetic 36 hours in HCMC!

Additional information:
Cuc Gach Quan Restaurant
10 Dang Tat | Ward Tan Dinh, Ho Chi Minh City District 1, Vietnam


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Cambodian coconut curry

Khmer food has a gentle sweetness and soft spice to it. Like the culture in this beautiful country, it is friendly and accessible on the surface but also complex and multi-faceted. Coconut cream, fish sauce, palm sugar, and lemongrass feature prominently. Freshwater fish is often the protein of choice, freshly caught from the massive Tonle Sap lake, the lifeblood of the region around Siem Reap.

This was the first cooking class my husband joined me for and I was excited that he would be getting a hands on sense for how I'd been spending my time for much of the last few months. The class was set up as a three course meal but since we each got to choose a dish for every course, the result was a massive six course lunch. We were not complaining.

We started with fresh spring rolls. The outside wrap is made by dipping a piece of thick rice paper in water so that it is malleable and opaque. We then filled it with a delicious mixture of stir fried pork, chicken, and shrimp, seasoned with oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, salt, and pepper. This actually makes for a pretty unique spring roll – the fresh spring rolls in Vietnam are usually filled with uncooked herbs and greens, while the fried spring rolls in Thailand are predominantly rice noodles with a little bit of protein – this was the first spring roll I encountered where the filling itself was flavorful enough to be the main event in a meal.

Fresh spring rolls with a peanut and sweetened fish sauce dip

Flavorful spring roll filling with baby shrimp, pork, chicken, and onions stir fried with oyster sauce and fish sauce

Unfortunately for my husband Isaac, the other starter option was a green mango salad – since he is allergic to mango, we sort of glossed over this one. The main thing to know about green mango salad is that it is not actually unripe mango (contrary to what I had initially assumed) but instead of variety of mango that stays green. Same deal for green papaya.

Tangy green mango salad

For the main course we made the two staple dishes of Khmer cuisine (at least according to the many restaurant menus we perused around town): Fish Amok and Khmer curry. Both use a similar lemongrass-based spice blend as the core of the dish, and include roasted peanuts, an ingredient you don't typically see in curry pastes (they are usually added later into sauces). Both dishes are also dominated by the subtly sweet combination of coconut cream and palm sugar. The main difference in how you cook the two dishes is the amount of water used – amok has minimal water and includes an egg scrambled in to thicken the sauce that coats the fish. In contrast, the curry is made with more water and is closer to a soup in density and will typically have chicken, shrimp, or pork as the protein, rather than fish. There are also a number of add on spices you could put in the curry but we kept it simple and didn't tinker too much with the core of the spice blend.

Key ingredients for the spice paste at the root of many Khmer dishes

Khmer spice paste, with the color of red chili and the flavor of lemongrass

Fish amok in a clay pot, with a dash of coconut cream on top (becuase why not top everything with coconut cream?!)

Both of the desserts we made also used coconut cream and small silver tapioca pearls as their base. The first was banana in coconut cream which we made by boiling the banana with the pre-cooked tapioca pearls, water, sugar and salt and then adding in the coconut cream at the end. The result was sweet and delicious and surprisingly not especially heavy. The second dessert was made in a similar fashion, but we added in egg yolks to make the coconut cream into more of a custard and combined it with pre-cooked cubes of pumpkin. The salty sweet dessert was also very good but a bit too heavy for the increasingly hot afternoon.

Left: Banana in coconut cream with tapioca pearls. Right: Pumpkin in coconut cream with tapioca pearls and egg yolk

Our teacher was a friendly and knowledgeable transplant from the captial city of Phnom Penh and we quickly learned that she was hoping to move to the US. In a fascinating conversation, she volunteered that she was planning to move to the US to marry a man she had met online. As she explained, an American Indian man came to Cambodia about six months ago to find a wife and had met and married her friend, who has been waiting for months since the wedding for her visa to arrive. The man had also asked around to find a few other Cambodian women interested in meeting potential American husbands and he introduced his friends to the women over Skype. As she described, after a single conversation, she hit it off with one of the men and they got engaged virtually. She speaks to him multiple times a day on Skype and will hopefully meet him for the first time in a few months, when he has a tentative trip planned to Cambodia. As she articulated it, she is interested in traveling abroad and this seems like a good way to do it. It was an absolutely fascinating discussion that gave us another lens through which we could try to understand the culture and left us with more questions than answers as we ate our delicious lunch.


Additional information:
Golden Temple Hotel Cooking class
7 Makara road, or Angkor High School road , Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia.
Telephone: +855 (0)12 756 655
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Better late than never: Christmas in Cambodia

I had expected to be amazed by the temples of Angkor, and I was. What I hadn't realized was just how wonderfully hospitable the Cambodian people are, how charming Siem Reap is, and how delicious Khmer food can be. In short, I had an absolutely wonderful four days in Cambodia and left wanting to experience more of this fascinating country.

Gorgeous sunrise at Angkor Wat

A friend had recommended that my husband and I get a private guide to spend a few days helping us understand the history and splendor of the many temples that comprise the Angkor Wat area. For thirty dollars a day, our guide was an enthusiastic and energetic host, hiking the jungle ruins of Bang Melea with us, accompanying us at dawn to watch the sunrise over the famed Angkor Wat, teaching us about the history and architecture of the many temples we visited, and taking us to a Kompung Pluk, a fishing village built on stilts on the banks of the ever flooding Tonle Sap lake. We had fascinating conversations with him about current politics, the relationship between Cambodia and its neighbors, and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Bang Melea, the jungle temple that has fallen into disrepair over the centuries

We basically hiked Bang Melea as our guide insisted on eschewing the marked paths in favor of the more adventurous and harrowing climbs on the rooftops of the temple ruins. He continued to laugh and ask us if we were scared and as we gracefully attempted to crabwalk over a giant precipice we definitely answered Yes!! multiple times.

Fishing village of Kompung Pluk

Houses on stilts to protect from the floods of the Tonle Sap lake

Mangrove river outside the fishing village

Sunset on Tonle Sap lake

Only part of the hoards of people sharing the sunrise with us at Angkor Wat. Beautiful - yes; peaceful - no

Entrance to the massive Angkor Thom temple complex

Bayoun temple in Angkor Thom. This temple is famous for the many faces of Buddha still intact

The many faces of Bayoun

Our Hollywood moment - at Ta Prohm temple, where Tomb Raider was filmed and where trees have taken root inside the temple walls

One of the dancing ladies carved into the walls of Angkor Wat

Intricate and elaborate carvings at Banteay Srey temple

At the end of each sweaty day of temple hopping, we explored a different facet of Siem Reap. The town has grown as a tourist hub in recent years and it has done so in the most tasteful way I've seen, with charming budget and boutique hotels, a night market with beautiful and inexpensive handicrafts, and a surprisingly pleasant central area called “Pub Street,” which is a brightly lit mini-mini Times Square with tons of cute restaurants, bars, and foot massages on the street. We were even brave enough to try “Dr. Fish” one night, a “massage/pedicure” where you put your feet into a tank of fish and they supposedly nibble off your dead skin. It felt bizarre, and I'm pretty sure it was entirely ineffective, but it was fun and ridiculous and the two of us now feature in dozens of photos taken by other tourists not interested in plunging their own feet into water swarming with hungry fish.

I think this one is pretty self evident. The town definitely made sure there was no chance you would miss Pub Street.

In case you can't read it, the caption for Dr. Fish very convincingly advertises If our fish can not make you happy we'll not charge. Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin. Fish can do massage and pedicure. Just take a look!

Fish eating Isaac's foot. The whole thing was a bit creepy and gross but chalk it up to unique experiences!

The best food we had was at Viroth's Restaurant, a bit away from the hubbub of Pub Street. Set on a large bamboo platform with golden lanterns and swaying saffron curtains, the food matched the charm of the environment. We ordered fish amok, a very typical Khmer dish that surfaces on most menus, but was prepared at Viroth's with a sophistication we encountered nowhere else. We also had a fantastic pineapple and squid salad that was tangy, spicy, and bursting with flavor. Everything we ordered was fantastic – we tried to go back for a second night but they were all booked!

Pineapple and squid salad at Viroth's Restaurant

Additional information:
Guide: Sopheaktra Sim

Viroth's Restaurant and Hotel
Tel. +855 12 826 346


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The cliches about Chiang Mai are true….

It really is a traveler's haven. Gold and crimson temples dot the streets, orange clad monks allow visitors to observe their daily chants, locals are friendly, and you can just as easily order the ubiquitous bowls of yogurt, museli, and fresh fruit as you can a tangy bowl of local khao soi coconut soup, all for a few dollars. A few images of beautiful temples from my week wandering around this charming city in the northern mountains of Thailand.


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My day with the elephants

Everyone does it. You come to Chiang Mai, you ride elephants. It would almost be trite except that elephants are such fascinating creatures that it doesn't matter that every other tourist in the vicinity is having a similar experience. I chose to spend my day with Patara Elephants, a family run outfit that emphasizes elephant care and pairs each visitor with her own elephant for the day.

Mama elephant and two month old baby

My elephant was Soo, an eight year old male with big tusks and a playful personality. We first learned how to make our approach to an elephant – bring lots of bananas, and if the ears are flapping, all is well. If the ears are spread straight out – best to find another elephant as this one is having a bad day. The guide taught our small group the four ways to check an elephant's health: (1) Check the poop. No way around it, you have to actually pick it up and squeeze it to check if there is enough water and if the grass fibers are fully digested. Interestingly, when it is fresh, it is actually not incredibly gross, but you have to really love an elephant to touch its dung. (2) Check to see if it has sleep marks on its sides. Healthy elephants sleep lying down on the dirt and they get up every half hour to switch sides. A sick elephant doesn't lie down because it knows it won't be able to hoist its massive weight up again. So if an elephant has the dirt equivalent of pillow marks on its body, you are good to go. (3) Check if it has tears. Elephants always have a slow but steady stream of tears coming down their tusks. (4) Check for sweat. Where do elephants sweat you might wonder? Between their toenails. I was definitely a little nervous about getting trampled down there by Soo's massive feet but he did indeed have a little sweat on his toenails.

Meet Soo (on the right))

Next up was brushing the loose dirt off the elephants and washing them with a hose. From what I could tell, Soo loved the water, and playfully drank from the hose while I was washing him.

Soo getting clean

Once we determined that our elephants were healthy and clean, it was time for a bamboo jungle hike to a waterfall so that we could give the elephants a proper bath. We rode bare backed, and you can climb up an elephant two ways: hoisting yourself up its trunk or using its front leg as a step stool to swing one of your legs over its back. Needless to say, both methods are incredibly graceful. We learned a few commands for “Stop” and “Go” and we were off. Riding an elephant is pretty cool – you really get a sense for its sturdy size and how it navigates the terrain. It turns out it is also pretty uncomfortable after a little while to straddle its massive neck as you lumber down steep hills. Definitely an experience worth having; probably not one that needs to be repeated in the near future.

Riding Soo through the bamboo jumgle

He looks much smaller from this angle for some reason

An hour and a half later we reached the waterfall and I think the elephants were as excited as our group was to get out of the hot sun and into the cool water. They immediately lay down in the river and rolled around like little kids, splashing water at each other with their trunks. Also just like little kids, they tried to wriggle away from the grown ups attempting to clean them with brushes and buckets. Except that unlike children, they could completely squash you as you try to hang on and wash them. It was really fun and kind of amazing to be in the river with all these massive and gentle creatures who were so clearly enjoying themselves.

Others in the group washing their elephants in the river

When Soo was finally clean, I walked her up the hill to snack on some bamboo and realized that I was completely starving as well. Luckily, our guides had set out an amazing feast of fried chicken, sticky rice, a bunch of different palm sugar, banana, and coconut cakes, and tons of fresh fruit for us to feast on, including sticky sweet mangosteens, my new favorite fruit. It was the perfect jungle lunch.

Delicious and much needed jungle lunch

After we and the elephants had eaten, it was time to say goodbye. One of the incredible things about elephants is that they look you in the eye when you stand next to them and it feels like there is a glimmer of recognition in there. Spending the day with Soo has absolutely increased my appreciation for these smart and fascinating creatures who are disappearing at a disconcerting rate. To me, they seem to offer a glimmer of another age, where massive creatures with intimidating tusks roamed the earth.

Mama and baby again

Playful one year old elephant who walked with us for the day

Additional information:
Patara Elephants
299/22 Siwalee Rachapreuk MaeHea, Chiangmai, Thailand


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Coconut soup and other delicious discoveries in Chiang Mai

For some reason, I’ve never ordered coconut milk soup before. It always looked heavy to me and the temptation of noodles and stir fry would lure me in first. No longer. I learned to make chicken in coconut milk soup today and it was light and refreshing, with tangy kaffir lime leaves, a burst of lemongrass, and a hint of spice in the finish.

Coconut soup ingredients, including chicken, oyster mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, green beans, lime, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, and chili

Tangy coconut soup

The soup was the first of the seven dishes I made with Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. The school looks like a small family operation on the surface but is actually an efficiently run business that rotates through teaching up to 50 tourists a day, in small groups of eight that do manage to feel pretty intimate. When you arrive, you are given a menu with four options for each of the seven courses and each person can customize her own meal. The benefit is that you also learn a little bit about how other dishes are made – while I was making my coconut milk soup, I could watch the person next to me tackle spicy soup with sweet basil.

Noodle dishes were the next order of the day and I was particularly excited to learn how to make Pad See Eaw or fried big noodles in a sweet soya sauce. This is the dish I can never stop myself from ordering and one that I definitely want to try at home. It is made by stir frying chicken and smashed garlic, adding in an egg, then thinly sliced vegetables (we used Thai kale, baby corn, and carrot), and fresh thick rice noodles. The key to the flavor comes from the sauces: soy sauce and dark soy sauce reduction to marinate the noodles and oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar to add into the wok while everything is cooking. We just tossed all the seasoning in rapid fire while we were cooking, but at home I think I would measure it out first and really taste it to make sure the balance of sweet, salty, and sour is right because you don’t have time to correct that while you are cooking. My noodles were delicious – don’t get me wrong – but they weren’t outstanding and I think they were missing some of the depth of flavor that more deliberate seasoning could have provided.

Thick rice noodles marinating in soy sauce

Pad see eaw stir fry ingredients

Pad see eaw sizzling in the wok

I am now ready for a stir fried noodle competition with myself, and it is going to be a very close call between Malay/Chinese Char Kway Teow, Thai Pad See Eaw, and Pad Thai. Let me know if you want to be a judge!

Next was the appetizer course of salads and spring rolls. I opted for the spicy chicken salad and it was definitely a good call. I started by boiling thin slices of chicken until they were cooked and then added the chicken to a bowl of chili flakes, sliced shallots, julienned tomato, spring onions, and lemongrass slices. The dressing was a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar and definitely accomplished the sweet, salty, sour structure of the dish after tweaking some of the proportions. Sprinkled with peanuts and coriander and mint leaves on top, this salad would be a perfect main course in the summer or a light way to start a meal at any point in the year.

Spicy chicken salad ingredients, including lime, tomato, ground toasted rice, cilantro, lemongrass, mint, shallot, and chili powder

Delicious and spicy chicken salad

We needed a break from cooking and eating so our little group moved to a shaded pavilion and lounged on triangular Thai floor pillows as our instructor demonstrated how to carve a carrot into a flower. It looked so easy when he did it. Soon everyone was hunched forward in concentration, simultaneously trying not to accidentally slice off a carrot petal or a finger.

My carrot carving handiwork

After our rest and relaxation it was time to use our arm muscles to pound curry paste. I decided to do green curry again – not because I’m obsessed (although I am, a little) but because yesterday we had only made the dish, not the paste itself and I wanted to make sure I could replicate the whole shebang at home. This meant that I was forced to eat green curry two days in a row, which makes my life really tough right now. I also really want to learn how to make Penang and Massaman curry pastes after tasting what others in the class had concocted.

Getting ready to mash together tons of spices into green curry paste

Spicy and flavorful green curry paste

For the stir fry I chose pad kra prao or chicken with holy basil. Like most stir fries, the work was in the prep – chopping up long beans, onions, garlic, and chili and then tossing them in the wok with holy basil, chicken, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and soy sauce. The dish was sweet and the basil was the dominant flavor although the overall feel of the dish was quite similar to the chicken with cashew nuts I made yesterday.

Chicken with holy basil stir fry

Last and certainly not least was dessert. All the options involved some combination of sticky rice, sweet coconut sauce, and fruit. I opted for sticky rice with fresh coconut in a coconut sauce. The hardest part of this dish is making the sticky rice – it has to be soaked overnight and rinsed multiple times before it is ready to steam. Once it is steamed, you pour the coconut sauce on top of it and let it sit again to absorb the liquid. The coconut sauce is a simple mixture of boiled coconut cream, sugar, and salt and in this dish, strips of young coconut, which is much softer than the thick hard chunks of mature coconut you usually find in American grocery stores. It was a richer dish than the sticky rice with mango that I made yesterday, with subtly different flavors in the rice despite the similar preparation.

Young coconut strips and sticky rice, ready for assembly

Sticky rice in a coconut cream sauce, sweet and salty

One of the things that struck me about the cooking classes in Chiang Mai was how similar they were to each other and how closely the menus mirror the Thai food we can get in the States. Cooking classes are much more closely aligned with the core tourism industry here than in any of the other places where I’ve taken classes and I wonder if that, combined with the fact that people often have a favorite Thai dish in mind that they want to make, has led to a more standardized set of menu items than I’ve encountered in other locations. Everything I made was still absolutely delicious, and I can’t wait to replicate it at home, but I feel like I learned less about the nature of the cuisine here than I did in some of the other locations. I would be very curious to take more Thai cooking classes in other cities inThailand at some point to see what the differences are. In the meantime, I have lots of green curry and pad see eaw in my future.

Additional information:
Siam Rice Thai Cookery School
211 Moo 13 Soy 5
Canal rd.,T.Suthep,
Mueng, Chiang Mai 50200
Office : 66 53 329091
Mobile : 66 8 41773160 , 66 8 50388600
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A love affair with green curry

I came for the pad thai but I left with an abiding love of green curry. My day with “A Lot of Thai” was exactly that – six dishes later, the only thing I could possibly be expected to do with my evening was get an $8 Thai massage.

I flew in from Kuala Lumpur this morning and was whisked off straight to class with the ebullient teacher / owner Yui and a friendly class of eight others. We started with the classic pad thai. The key with any stir fry is to have all of your ingredients, including any sauce mixtures, prepped in advance, because once you turn the wok on, things move fast. We timed ourselves cooking, and the entire dish literally took 90 seconds on the stove. The cooking itself was actually pretty similar to how I made char kway teow in Penang, just with different ingredients. The sweet-salty flavor in pad thai comes from a combination of fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree, sugar, and dried shrimp.

Assembling ingredients for pad thai: rice noodles, garlic, shallot, preserved daikon, spring onions, egg, chicken, bean sprouts, and tofu

Adding a fried egg to the stir fried noodles

Sweet and salty pad thai, smothered with crushed peanuts and chili powder

Next up was tom yam kung, which is a hot and sour prawn soup. The dominant flavors in this tangy and refreshing clear soup are a mixture of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and fish sauce.

Tangy tom yam soup

Our last dish before the midday break was green curry. Green curry paste is the key to this dish and is made by mashing together a whole bunch of different spices: chili, peppercorn, coriander seeds and root, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime peel, shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, and a touch of turmeric to bring out the color. Clearly this is something to make in bulk and freeze, because the rest of the dish is pretty straightforward. The curry sauce is made by boiling coconut cream with the green spice paste and thai basil leaves and then adding in whatever vegetables and protein you want in the dish – in our case, we used eggplant and chicken. The result was a complex series of tastes in each bite – first creamy, then slightly sweet, a little salty, and finally a kick of spice in the back of my throat. It was absolutely delicious.

Ingredients for green curry (with the paste already made)

Stages of boiling coconut milk and mixing it with curry paste

We took a break in the middle of the day to head to the market and learn more about the Thai fruits, vegetables, and spices we’d been using all morning. Also to build back up an appetite for an afternoon of more cooking.

Colorful Thai market

Prepared foods at the market, including roasted fish on skewers

Beautiful vegetables that make you want to eat your greens

The first afternoon dish we tackled was stir fried chicken with cashews or gai pad med ma muang him ma pan. That is a seriously long name for a pretty simple dish. We stir fried a mixture of chicken, garlic, onions, chili, spring onions and cashew nuts with a sauce made from sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and fish sauce. The result with salty and flavorful and tasted different from the pad thai, despite using many of the same ingredients.

Ingredients for cashew chicken, including garlic, spring onion, chili, and onion

Stir fried cashew chicken

Next it was time to flex our fine motor skills – or lack thereof, in my case. Spring rolls were on deck. The first order of business was to prepare a filling by stir frying glass noodles with soy sauce and julienned vegetables – any veggies that keep their shape and don’t get too soggy will work. We used bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage and minced chicken. Next it was time to wrap and roll. You basically fold the diamond shaped piece of paper-thin wheat dough like an envelope, deep fry it in sizzling oil, and keep your fingers crossed that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart in the wok. Mine were mostly a success – despite being totally different sizes, the result was crispy, crunchy, and delicious.

Filling for spring rolls, including glass noodles and vegetables

Golden wok fried spring rolls, one with the smooth part of the wrapper on the outside, and one with the rough part on the outside

And dessert – always save the best for last. We made mango sticky rice or kao niew ma muang. My husband is allergic to mango so I have serious mango deprivation in my life and I love that sweet, sticky, sunset orange fruit. Who knew that sticky rice with sweet-salty coconut cream sauce could make mango even better? I love how effectively Asian desserts often mix sweet and salty so that you finish a meal with a complex set of flavors dancing around your tastebuds, rather than leaving a meal in a complete sugar coma as I so often do with Western cakes and pies. Not that that stops me from eating them, I’m just saying.

Steamed sticky rice with coconut cream sauce

Sweet salty delicious mango sticky rice

It was a lovely day of eating and cooking at Yui’s home and she was a friendly and gracious host, constantly sharing tips for how to cook more successfully and consciously. Obviously I will be attempting these dishes at home but I think I am going to need a Thai themed week once I go to all the effort to acquire the many different ingredients needed. I suspect I will also have a Thai themed freezer for a while too, since apparently most of the raw ingredients freeze well.

Additional information:
A Lot of Thai
165 Soi 9 Chiangmai – Lampoon Rd.
T.Nonghoi Muang Chiangmai 50000 Thailand
Tel. (66)89-9544930, (66)898539680
E-mail :
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