Published May 2014 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
No matter what country you visit, how highly their cuisine or their restaurants or their street food is regarded, locals will almost always tell you that the best food in their country is home-cooking. However, time constraints and a lack of opportunities to meet local people in a relaxed (i.e. non-touristy) environment mean that a home-cooked meal is something most travellers don’t get to experience. Fortunately, the internet is starting to change all that. Withlocals (www.withlocals.com) is a website which lets you try genuine home-cooked meals with local people in their homes all over Vietnam (and much of the rest of Southeast Asia too). With a network of trusted and verified ‘hosts’ throughout Vietnam, travellers can contact local Vietnamese people and arrange a time for a home-cooked meal at a very reasonable price. But, in a country like Vietnam, where good food is found on every street, how much better can a home-cooked meal really be? Withlocals contacted me a few weeks ago to give me the chance to find out – and, of course, I couldn’t wait to try it.
I’ve lived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for 8 years, but I’ve rarely visited District 6, which is where my hosts’ house is located. Crossing the city, through the evening carousel of whirring motorbikes and red and white lights, I wondered what kind of people my hosts would be, and what had made them want to join Withlocals and cook for people they’d never met?
Tài and Thiên are brother and sister. They met me at the entrance to their house, squeezed into the corner of an alleyway, off one of Saigon’s many burgeoning main roads. No sooner had we finished introducing ourselves, than the food arrived on the wooden table, which stood just inside the house, next to the open front doors. Tài and Thiên are exactly what you’d hope your hosts to be: friendly, open, easy to talk to and passionate about food. They told me they’d joined Withlocals to meet and learn from the foreigners who came to eat with them, but, most of all, because they loved cooking. The latter was made obvious by the amazing spread – and it was a spread – of food laid out before me.
On the Withlocals website, Tài’s tagline for his cooking is ‘All from Rice’. As this suggests, all his dishes are made from rice in some form or another, even the dessert was rice-based. Some of the dishes were familiar to me; popular Vietnamese classics which I’ve eaten and enjoyed all over Vietnam. But, a couple of them were entirely new to me, (this is one of the wonderful things about Vietnamese cuisine; the variety is so great that you are always discovering new dishes).
As we waited for my friend, Carl, to arrive, we talked – with rising anticipation in my case – about the food on the table:
First, there was bánh khọt, a kind of small, circular pancake no bigger than a cupcake. Made from rice flour and coconut juice, these little gems have to be carefully cooked so that the outside is crispy but the inside is soft. Then they are wrapped in a big lettuce or mustard leaf and rolled up with herbs into a ‘spring roll’ shape before being dipped into a salty-sweet nước mắm (fish sauce).
Next on the table was bánh bèo, a rice flour-based curd topped with green bean paste, shrimp, pork and spring onions. In appearance and texture it’s similar to crème caramel. It sounds very strange indeed, but these are lovely little treats and they are beautifully presented in shallow, painted bowls.
The third item was bánh bột lọc, which I’ve tried a handful of times before but never quite ‘understood’. These are small, transparent parcels made from rice and cassava flour with pork and shrimp inside.
The last dish was unfamiliar to me. Bánh ít trần is a kind of white dumpling made from sticky rice flour and presented on a banana leaf. I had no idea what to expect from this one.
Carl arrived and, with a glass of chilled ginseng each, we began our feast. We ate and talked for well over two hours. Outside the open doors the evening traffic started to ease, but at our table the food kept coming and coming: whenever a dish was running low, our hosts would rush into the kitchen and return to ‘restock’ our plates. Conversation flowed: aided by Thiên’s excellent English we talked more about food and Vietnamese culture, and then Thiên and Tài shared some interesting stories about their lives and their family.
The food was fantastic. Of the dishes I was already familiar with, bánh khọt and bánh bèo, the former was certainly the tastiest I’ve ever tried. For me, bánh khọt has always been about texture: crispy and crunchy. Usually, most of the flavour comes from the herbs that you roll it with. But this bánh khọt had a sweet, coconut fragrance which added a new dimension to the dish. It was so good that I’m afraid of eating bánh khọt again for fear that it will never live up to the standard set by my hosts.
Of the two dishes less familiar to me, bánh bột lọc and bánh ít trần, the former was much more appealing than other versions I’ve tried, and the latter was a real surprise. Bánh ít trần is confusing: the first thing you notice is how sticky and glutinous it is – when you try to take it off the banana leaf it clings on with such suction it’s as if it were alive and unwilling to be removed. Once in your mouth, this ball of sticky rice flour is as chewy and stretchy as bubble gum and with the same odd addictiveness and satisfaction that bubble gum has. It’s also very difficult to pin down the flavour. Perhaps because of its gluey texture, I got a mild hint of cheese, camembert maybe, even parmesan – I felt like I was eating Italian gnocchi. I enjoyed trying to unravel the mystery of bánh ít trần and I liked the way it disoriented my taste buds. Now that I know what it is, I’ll look out for it elsewhere in Vietnam.
After all this food, we struggled to eat our dessert, which was fresh jackfruit, mango and a sweet cake called bánh da lợn, which literally means ‘pig skin pie’. Our hosts reassured us, however, that the name refers to its appearance not the ingredients: people say the light and dark layers of this dessert (which is, of course, made from rice) resemble the stratification of pork belly. We washed this clean and refreshing dessert down with the juice from a fresh, chilled coconut, and said a warm goodbye to our hosts, Thiên and Tài. Carl and I drove back across the city, feeling sated and buoyed by the night’s experience.
Prices for home-cooked meals vary, but most are very reasonable. Our meal worked out at around $15 per person, which is what you would pay in a mid-range Vietnamese restaurant in Saigon, but neither the food nor the company would be as good. Most hosts offer to pick guests up from wherever they are in the city, so you won’t have to find your own way to their home. I recommend contacting your host at least a week in advance of the intended date of your meal, as you may have to wait a few days before receiving a reply. The method of payment is chosen by the host: you will either pay in full online by credit card or PayPal, or you will pay a deposit online and pay the rest in cash directly to the host after the meal. The latter is a little socially awkward and at odds with the rest of the experience: after a successful meal in an environment that makes you feel as if you’ve known your hosts for a long time, the last thing you want to do is break the spell by essentially asking for the bill for their ‘services’. I hope that all hosts who are able to accept payment online will choose to do so, just as our hosts, Thiên and Tài, did. For more information about Withlocals visit their website: www.withlocals.com.
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