Food of the World: Snacking in Hanoi, Vietnam

Whenever back in Vietnam, I spend a lot of time eating on the street. I would first go for the food that is either too controversial or common to have found its way into Vietnamese restaurants in the western world. 

When the day just ends and the evening almost begins, many people rush to street stalls for mouth-watering snacks. You would find me among them, guzzling crunchy snails or deep-fry sausages. Sometimes, I go for a healthier option: papaya salad, though it's not quite vegetarian. Here’s the list for when you pass by Hanoi at twilight.

Snails or "ốc" 

Many know about the French and their escargots, but few might have heard of the Vietnamese’s love affair with the slimy creatures. 

When the stomach growls, many Hanoians hurry out for savoury snail dishes. No, you won't find Paris-like posh snail restaurants here. Hanoians eat snails on plastic stools outdoor where they have plenty of room to manoeuvre a little hook through twisted shells. Pulling out the body intact brings real satisfaction. 

The most basic stalls offer steamed freshwater snails. Some can be as small as a raspberry. Bigger ones are the size of strawberries in August. The body goes into a tangy fish sauce dip — the make-or-break factor of any snail catering business. Each chef has her favourite recipe for the portions of sugar, lime, chilli as well as lemongrass and ginger to add to the dip. After eating, many people drink the liquid mixed with broth from the steaming pot. The cocktail supposedly balances out the cold attribute of the snails. 

More established restaurants offer fancy and expensive sea snails: fragrant grilled winkles or stir-fried tamarind-coated razor shells.

Nem chua rán 

On the edge of the 36 Streets, Tam Thuong alley has one of the most popular stalls in Hanoi: the Old Lady. It's, unsurprisingly, owned and ran by a senior woman. 

She has the look of an aristocrat, which is not at all common among street food sellers. She is strict and does not like it when you hesitate with your order. You need to be loud, clear and prompt unless you want to be scolded. In the early days, the old lady took orders, made the food and handled the payment. One or two other people, presumably family members, waited on tables. 

In my most recent visit, there was an army helping out because the stall has extended three-fold. Most food now comes from a kitchen in the back, but the lady still sits at the front, does some token cooking, and takes the money. 
 “Nem chua ran” is the food at the Old Lady and many other stalls around Hanoi. The closest translation would be deep-fry sour sausage. It’s made from pork and pig skin, covered in breadcrumbs before being deep fried. Stalls serve them hot with chilli sauce and pieces of fresh cucumber or mango. 

“Nem chua ran” is not sour regardless how it’s called. While “ran”  reflects the deep-frying process, “nem chua” is a sausage which has the same ingredients but an acidic taste from fermentation. Vietnamese had already been crazy about the raw version before chefs started to experiment with the frying pan. They ended up using the pre-fermenting sausages for better texture and taste but keep the name for the fame.



Papaya salad or "nộm" 

If you have tried the famous Thai papaya salad, you’ve got the idea. It’s raw papaya mixed with a handful of other ingredients in fish sauce dressing. The difference is subtle but not unnoticeable: the Vietnamese dressing is less in quantity and intensity, which makes the salad milder and more crunchy. 

The star in this salad is beef jerky. Unlike the one commonly found in the US, Vietnamese beef jerky is moist and spiced heavily with chilli, ginger, garlic and ngu vi huong (five spices). 

The Vietnamese papaya salad has grated carrots, Vietnamese balms, chopped fresh chillies, all thrown into a shallow bowl with the papaya and beef jerky. A ladle of the fish sauce dressing is added to soak the top layer only. Roasted peanuts come after, then chilli sauce. Guests mix the salad themselves, eat it fast before the dressing sinks in and takes away the crunchiness. Some people prefer to make a wrap with the ingredients inside a sheet of rice paper, then dip the wrap into as little (or much) dressing as they like.