Tofu-based street food
What we say:
In the UK, tofu is largely considered as “food for veggies” and certainly not a food group that any hardcore carnivore would ever rave about. So before coming out to Asia I didn’t eat tofu. I can’t say I’d never tried it, I surely must have done somewhere, but it certainly wasn’t among my usual standards. Now, in Hanoi, I eat tofu, I buy tofu and I cook tofu. I even like it.
I attribute my change of heart to availability: whereas in the UK it’s tucked away in the specialty food area of the supermarket or only seen on menus at vegetarian, or sometimes Asian, restaurants, in Vietnam it’s widely available in restaurants and markets — and it’s cheap.
Given its popularity, it comes as no surprise that there’s a tofu-based street food dish: bun dau. Bun dau comprises a plate of cold bun (thin rice) noodles, a plate of deep fried tofu, a basket of herbs and, typically, mam tom (fermented shrimp sauce).
Now, bun doesn’t really taste of much and neither does tofu, so in order to make this a tasty dish, you do need something to dip it in. That’s where the mam tom comes in, and it really is the most notable thing about bun dau. Unfortunately, not in a good way: it’s not very nice. The flavour is hard to describe, but the fact it’s called “fermented shrimp sauce” and that you can smell it from down the street should give you an idea. It’s also a common accompaniment to dog meat.
If you don’t like the idea of mam tom, there is an alternative: most places will have a more palatable dipping sauce, such as the sauce you get with pho cuon or other spring rolls, so ask for nuoc mam instead. But I suggest you give mam tom a go at least once — there’s no shame in trying and rejecting it (in fact, it’s expected).
Stalls selling bun dau usually also sell fried spring rolls (nem) and something called cha com, which is a sticky rice mixed with pureed meat, squashed into a pattie shape and deep fried. It tastes better than it sounds.
Eat by picking up chunks of tofu or bun (or nem or cha com) and dipping them in the sauce. Intersperse with a mouthful of herbs and wash down with cha da.
Bun dau is widely available at both static and roving street stalls, and even when there’s no sign is easily identifiable by the chunks of tofu and the smell of mam tom. Ngo Gach in Old Quarter has quite a few places near the junction of Hang Giay. Expect to pay around 15,000 to 20,000 VND a portion plus extra for the nem and cha com.
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