Zooming Around Ho Chi Minh City on Back of the Bike

Before our trip to Vietnam, we’d had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Chef Chad Kubanoff, who was at the time the owner of Same Same (sadly closed now), Philadelphia’s best banh mi restaurant.  He had spent a fair amount of time in Ho Chi Minh City as a chef, and had established Back of the Bike tours, a tour company that takes people around on the back of the ubiquitous motorbikes in Saigon.  In addition to the other recommendations his wife Thuy gave us, the Back of the Bike food tour was one of the highlights of our trip.

We were picked up at our hotel, were given helmets and quick instructions for the best way to ride on the back of the bikes, and took off.  Like trying to cross the street in HCMC, riding on the back of a motorbike in the crowded streets and haphazard traffic was both terrifying and exhilarating.  It was quickly apparent that our drivers knew exactly what they were doing, which made it much easier to relax and enjoy the ride (which decidedly did not happen when crossing the street as a pedestrian).

Our first stop was next to a small park, where we sat under a tree and were given a papaya salad with dried beef liver (goi du du bo) that ranks up there with one of the best dishes we’ve ever had.  We couldn’t stop raving about it, and still remember it fondly.  From what we were told, the woman who makes it put two of her children through American college with the papaya salad sales alone, which I absolutely believe.  It was that good.

After a few touristy pictures of us on the bikes, we rode off to a small street vendor serving a variety of meat on sticks, cooked over coals.  We sat on the typical tiny plastic stools while we ate, were given beer by our guides, and had a chance to chat.  While I was a bit worried the tiny plastic stool wouldn’t be able to withstand my 250-pound American frame, it held up admirably as we ate and chatted with our guides, all while Back of the Bike’s photographer took photos so we wouldn’t have to worry about it.

After this stop, we moved on to a small seafood restaurant deeper in the city.  The ride took us through alleyways and small spaces, so we felt like we were chasing down some James Bond villain through the alleys of Ho Chi Minh—a wonderful added bonus to the trip.  Our third stop got us banh canh ghe, a wonderful crab soup with plenty of crab and noodles.  The presentation was perfect, with the crab looking directly at us as we ate around him. The soup gave us a welcomed sense of warmth on the inside while the small open-front restaurant gave us a not-so-welcome sense of warmth on the outside.

Our penultimate stop was the most interesting by a long shot.  We were taken to a street vendor making grilled beef wraps, as well as banh xeo, a crispy rice-batter pancake filled with vegetables and shrimp, which you can combine with more vegetables and wrap in rice paper.  We were all given the opportunity to man the cart ourselves, cooking up banh xeo over the incredibly hot skillets—an opportunity I still regret turning down.  Afterwards, we all sat around an outside table to enjoy the DIY pancakes, along with some homemade rice wine (served in plastic water bottles) and the opportunity to try balut.

For those who aren’t familiar, balut is the egg that has been given the change to grow a small chicken fetus before being eaten.  The egg was cracked open and we could see the shadow of the chicken inside, along with some veins throughout the egg, and even a tiny feather.  At this stop, the tummy struggled I’d had that started in Hoi An were catching up to me with all the eating, so I declined.  LeeAnne tasted the liquid that came out of the egg and said it tasted like chicken stock, and had a nibble of the egg “white.”

Also, lest you think I’m just trying to make an excuse for not eating the egg, let me be perfectly clear and admit that I wanted no part in eating it, stomach problems or not.  As much as I will eat, balut has never interested me.  And I wasn’t alone: I think LeeAnne was the only person to even try the egg liquid, let alone any part of it; everyone else declined.

After this excitement, we were taken to a small restaurant for five dishes of dessert, which heavily featured fresh fruit and ice cream—a cold treat that was incredibly welcomed in the southern Vietnam heat.  Though, as welcome as it was, no many of us could continue eating after the filling two hours we’d just had.

Even if we had been given a list of all the places to go, getting there and knowing what to order would have taken us multiple nights rather than the two hours it did take.  The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and personable, and were a treat to spend time with.  The Back of the Bike food tour was easily the highlight of our time in Ho Chi Minh City, and we would highly recommend it to anyone stopping there.

crab
See you later!

Bratislava Food Tours

curiedcovikaSlovak food has been a part of my life since I was born, but not a large part.  My family has always had a few standard recipes: pierogi, kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) for Christmas Eve, halušky (though that died off when I was young), and stuffed cabbage, which I learned on my travels was more Hungarian than Slovak—but close enough.  Other than that, though, there wasn’t much.  All the women in the family receive a First Slovak Ladies Association cookbook, but it’s just a compendium of whatever recipes anyone wanted to submit; a quick glance shows there’s really nothing Slovak about it.

This was the main drive behind checking out Bratislava Food Tours—I wanted to be able to try my family favorites and see how they differed between the motherland and my mother’s house, and I also wanted more insight into some of the traditional foods we had been missing out on over the years.

We met Linda (who at the time was very pregnant) at Bratislava Castle, where she started off the food tour with a shot of Čučoriedkovica, a delicious low-alcohol liquer that is made by mixing plum brandy with a pile of blueberries and sugar and letting it sit forever.  Needless to say, it’s a great way to start a food tour.

toastAs was our first stop, which was the Zámocký Pivovar (“Pivovar” being Slovak for “Brewery”) to sample a light beer (svetlé 10°) and a dark beer (tmavé 12°), as well as a few traditional Slovak small bites: pečeňová paštéta (liver pate) and restované hribiky na hrianke, which were sautéed forest mushrooms on toast.  I pretty much automatically love anything on toast, and anything that deals with mushrooms, and these were no exception—the sauce they were in had a deep, rich flavor that would’ve made me happy had the tour ended right then.  I hadn’t had previous experience with either of these foods as traditionally Slovak, so learning more about the cuisine of my people was off to a great start.

We then moved on to another brewery (joy!), but this time only for food and not for beer.  Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar served up a vianočná kapustnica (Christmas sauerkraut soup) that was slightly different from the one we had at 1. Slovak Pub the previous night.  This one left out the potatoes, but had more meat (including sausage and pulled pork) and was just as delicious—maybe more so. This only secured my love for the sauerkraut soup in Slovakia above the version I’d been having at home all those years (sorry, mom).

soup2

We stopped briefly for a savory pastry called pagáč (a word I had heard before, but apparently applied incredibly incorrectly at home) and then to a small specialty food store called Sklizeno for one of our favorite things: cheese and meat.  We were able to sample bravčová klobása (a pork sausage), ovčí syr (a very fresh sheep’s cheese) and oravský korbáčik, known as “little whip cheese” which came in small strings.

charcuterie

Next was the main course: a stop at Zylinder, a nicer restaurant, for a traditional Bratislava Sunday dinner.  Being so close to Austria, the cuisines were surprisingly similar, with a prešporský schnitzel (a Bratislava schnitzel with potato salad) and kačací konfit, which is roasted duck leg with potato pancakes, knoedel, and a terrific savory and slightly sweet stewed cabbage that had us dying for the recipe. One top of that was a plate of špenátové pirohy(spinach pierogi topped with bryndza cheese sauce).

Our final stop was at a coffee shop called Moods for Bratislavské rožky, which are small local rolls with a poppy seed and nut filling.  We’d had so much food, we could hardly finish these small bites, but we made a good show of it.

All in all, the Bratislava Food Tour was easily my favorite part of Bratislava: I had gone there to learn about the local cuisine, and I had done just that.  It didn’t only show me differences to my own family’s way of doing things, but greatly expounded on that, as most of the food on the tour I had never heard of or tried, or didn’t know was part of a typical Slovak menu.

Linda was a fantastic guide; knowledgeable, well-spoken and very engaging.  I have even been in regular contact with her over the past year to ask her repeated questions about food and recipes, and she always gets back to me quickly and patiently answers all of my questions.  When I find myself back in Bratislava, I would go back on the tour if for no other reason than to just hang out and talk about food with her.  Well, and to eat it all again.