I had this for the first time from the Hanoi Kitchen, a Vietnamese stall at the Kerb in Camden Market. Hanoi Kitchen, was one of about 35 stalls in the market – each chosen to represent a different national cuisine from around the world or regional food from around Britain. This poses a fascinating challenge, given that stalls are limited in the range of food they can offer (usually about 3 different items), how do they decide on a menu that will represent their national or regional cuisine? The challenge is further complicated by the fundamental requirement of producing food that is easy to hold in the hand and/or to eat on the street.
Most stall holders answer the task using proven and well-established precedents. So we get American food represented by hamburgers, Middle Eastern food in wraps, and oriental food with pots of noodles. You might think that this practical ‘street food’ restriction would distort a trader’s ability to represent a specific cuisine. But remarkably, it still seems possible to convey an accurate representation of a particular cuisine. An American hamburger, goes a long way to describing American food – and you can put endless variations of flavours and ingredients in a wrap or pot of noodles…
This is how the Hanoi Kitchen solved their product offer: ‘Having scoured the streets of Hanoi and tasted every dish along the way, we persuaded our favourite traders to teach us the best Vietnamese street eats so that we could bring them home to you in the UK!’ Look at their menu and you see the same main dishes being offered in most Vietnamese stalls and restaurants: Banh mi baguettes, pho ga chicken noodle soup and bun cha BBQ pork noodle (salad) pots – along with chicken, beef and tofu versions (they also offer summer rolls). So with a limited menu of three or four items, they have created take-away versions of the most popular Vietnamese classics.
Of course, any national or regional cuisine will be more complex and diverse than can be sold in a street market, but Hanoi Kitchen have done a good job at incorporating key ingredients, flavours and textures of Vietnam. Our bun cha was light and fresh, full of vegetables and herbs (especially mint), there was pickled carrot, sweet and savoury meat, offset with a filling portion of vermicelli rice noodles. The dressing balanced sweet, sour, salty and hot tastes well – and all was topped with the crunch of roasted peanuts. It was an excellent interpretation. Camden Lock may not be the old quarter of Hanoi, but our bun cha certainly helped to evoke the tastes and flavours of Vietnam.