Cornucopia (Dinner Friday)

5 Jun

View into fruit store in alleyway, Hanoi, with bananas, eggs, litchis in foreground.

The fruit stall on our alleyway, in Hanoi, Vietnam

This is the fruit stall in the alleyway next to our guesthouse, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday evening. It’s just an ordinary store. Nothing fancy. No posher than the laundry, the menders, the barbers, the old lady who wheels her cart of lurid plastic sandals here every morning and home every night, or the five separate cottage industries selling street-fried spring rolls side by side in the cross-alley.

Yet these ladies don’t just sell the obvious — melons, watermelons, bananas, apples, oranges, limes, fresh mango, eggs. They’ve got rambutans, litchis so fresh they still have their leaves on, passion fruit the size of your fist (one dollar a kilo), those succulent sour plums you dip in salt and chilli, custard apples, great cannonballs of pomelos, bigger than a man’s head.

Oh, and mangosteens. The succulent, tough-shelled, very perishable fruit known as the Queen of Fruit. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria offered a reward to anyone who could manage to bring her a ripe mangosteen to try.

Those were the days before airfreight, of course, so nobody claimed the reward. And Queen Victoria died unfulfilled. Did she miss out!

One whole mangosteen, one halved to reveal the fruit.

Yum, yum, yum...

The leathery shell of a mangosteen doesn’t look like much, but the white segments of fruit nestling within the scarlet lining once you slice it open are a revelation. The flesh tastes like a tangy, sherbety, turbo-charged litchi, with intense notes of peach, pineapple and strawberry. And it’s really fun to eat.

Not as much fun, however, as rambutans, the little pink and green hairy fellas which look like an alien lifeform just invaded (even more so when you pop open their shell to squeeze out the juicy, translucent fruit within).

A rambutan, with green tendrils emerging from its fuchsia rind.

Rambutan. Tastes far, far better than it looks.

Pomelo is another amazing fruit. It’s a huge, green, pear-shaped citrus, intensely aromatic, with enormously thick pith. Once you’ve hacked your way through the outer covering, the segments are jam-packed with huge, dry tendrils of juicy flesh (AKA “bottles” in the juice-making trade):

close up of pomelo fruit, showing the bottles of flesh.

Juicy bottles of pomelo flesh within a segment.

The taste? Well, imagine grapefruit meeting orange, but not too sharply, with the aromaticism of lime but none of the sourness.

Image of street signs on Cam Chi off Hang Bong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Food haven...

The fruit binge functioned as little more than a starter to Friday dinner. We made our way through the Hanoi hubbub of scooter jams, pavement diners on kindergarten tables, girls peddling flowers from bicycles, chaps hawking dodgy DVDs, fake watch vendors, honking horns, flashing neon, and the like out to what we call Food Alley, Cam Chi.

Chicken and advertising sign, Cam Chi alley, Hanoi, Vietnam

Cam Chi food alley, Hanoi, Vietnam

Here seafood awaits its fate in fishtanks, women scrub pots on the street, raw chickens and plates of clams serve as streetside advertising displays, and the scooters bip-bip steadily off Hang Bong and down the lane while folk dine at plastic tables from plastic chairs, great vats of hotpot bubble on the table burners and, in the corner coffeeshop, resting motorbike taxi drivers enjoy third-rate action movies on flatscreen HBO.

It was, in fact, the hotpot that we were there for. A gigantic, bottomless soup that you create among yourselves at table, hotpot provides a way of eating that could have all the complexity of the tea ceremony if you knew how to negotiate it.

You start with a big plate of meat, fish, shellfish, squid and innards of various sorts. A plastic box of noodles. Another plastic box with greens. And a great big pot of broth, packed with taro, mushrooms, tofu skin, tomato, pineapple and more, bubbling away on the burner.

hot pot on tabletop with plate of meat beside it. Cam Chi alley, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hot pot waiting to boil, Cam Chi alley, Hanoi, Vietnam

When the broth’s ready, you add your favoured components — plus some for the pot — as and when, and wait for them to cook to perfection, stirring a little as you go. Succulent prawns… Tofu slabs… Those lovely wide, flat ribbon noodles they do so well in North Vietnam. The fantastic clams they have all over the country. Tender kidney. Fresh squid. Water spinach. Thin slices of lotus stem…

Lifting a prawn from a hotpot, Cam Chi Alley, Hanoi, Vietnam

The finished product in process...

Then you dip in with chopsticks, a ladle or a strainer, fish out your favoured bits and dig in. The mildly sour soup broth gets stronger and more flavoursome the further you go in. It’s a deliciously communal way to eat. Like a fondue. Only more varied. More flavoursome. More communal. Just better, in fact.

Thanks to Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Fridays.

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One Response to “Cornucopia (Dinner Friday)”

  1. Helen June 7, 2010 at 12:07 am #

    What a treat, after a week away, to come back to 6 new posts. I feel thoroughly spoiled.

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