A Nam Dinh adventure: light meals, full satisfaction

A variety of light meals in the northern province of Nam Dinh makes for a completely satisfying culinary experience.

Nam Dinh is the home to several delicacies that give it its own place on Vietnam’s food map, and several of them are flavor-packed light eats.

Around 110 kilometers away from Hanoi, Nam Dinh was once the country's second largest city, established under the Tran Dynasty back in the 13th century, behind Thang Long (now Hanoi).

Today, Nam Dinh City, the center of the eponymous province, does not present the hustle and bustle of a crowded metropolis. It only takes a half-charged electric bicycle to get around this city and enjoy all the savory meals it has to offer.

First stop: Banh mi under the bridge

We stopped by Mai’s stall on a sidewalk off Phan Dinh Phung Street to have an emergency brunch. The stall stands near a bridge, hence the popular reference to it.

Having had nothing for breakfast, my hunger had been bothering me until a bite of the banh mi paté, a type of seasoned minced pork and offals, filled my mouth.

The stall serves two types of banh mi, crunchy and soft versions, with the filling of paté, fried shallots, pickled cucumber, and a bit of liquid fat.

Ingredients for the dish include fried shallots, paté and liquid fat.

Mai peeled shallot skins with practiced ease as she talked to us.

“The stall has been here for 20 years, I got it from my mom,” said Mai, adding she mainly sold in the morning and a relative took over in the afternoon.

To cook the paté, Mai mixes minced pork, pork liver and spices according to her family’s recipe, and steams the mix in a big pot for 8 hours. She cooks on her own all the ingredients, including the pickled cucumber and fried shallots.

Price: VND8,000 ($0.34)

Early afternoon special : Sticky rice with char siu

A bowl of char siu sticky rice.

Thai Lien’s stall on Bac Ninh Street opens at around 1.30 p.m, which is an odd time. It seems as though residents do not have their lunch outside, as many stalls are closed from 12 p.m to around 2 p.m.

Thai Lien’s restaurant has been selling sticky rice with char siu for around four decades. The dish is special because of the special sauce added to the dish.

“Back in time, sticky rice was eaten by itself, then my parents thought about adding the meat sauce,” said Lien.

This dish include char siu meat, sausage and the special meat sauce.

The char siu is not merely roasted pork, it is also braised with spices to create the sauce. When we placed our order, Lien put sticky rice into bowls and ladled a spoonful of sauce over it.

I have been a big fan of plain sticky rice forever. But the addition of sauce did the rice justice, adding a salty flavor and making it softer. However, for those who are not that big a fan of fat, I would recommend having the dish with a light drink to ease out the greasy feeling.

The dish is also served with sausage and dried pork, for people who want some diversity in the meaty compartment.

Price: VND20,000 ($0.86)

Afternoon supper: Crab noodles with figs

Our next food stop was by Dien Hong market on Quang Trung Street, hoping to get some bun sung, literally meaning “fig noodle.” The dish is actually crab noodles soup, which is perfect for an after-lunch meal; at least that was how we enjoyed it. Crab noodles is popular all over the country, but Nam Dinh is perhaps the only place that adds pickled fig as an important element that supersedes the crab.

Besides the sweet crab extracts in the bowl of noodles and the crunchy fried pork fat, the sour pickled fig slices add a strong, fresh difference that we really enjoyed.

The fresh figs are bought from a nearby stall in the market, sliced and soaked in water. Some customers just have the fresh figs, some choose to season the fig by dipping it in vinegar, chilli and salt, said the owner, who did not want to be named.

Price: VND5,000 – 15,000 ($0.21- 0.43)

Snack: Xiu bao – Fried dumpling

Once in Nam Dinh, one dish that cannot be skipped is xiu bao, the province's renowned version of the dumpling. We bought a dozen of this fried dumpling at the Ba Binh store on Hoang Van Thu Street, one of the oldest xiu bao sellers in the city. The fried dumpling’s filling consists of boiled quail egg, minced pork, Jew’s ear, spices, honey and pork fat.

The crust of the dumpling is considered perfect when it is crunchy but not easily broken. One cake was enough to satisfy our taste buds on a full stomach, so the rest were saved for later.

Price: VND5,000 ($0.21) each

Afternoon supper: Kenh Village’s steamed rice rolls

The Kenh Village originally belonged to an area with many canals. The village is famous for its banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls. Now that the neighborhood has modernized, several families who traditionally made these rolls have switched to other careers and vocations, but the dish continues to be a local specialty.

As the last stop of our food journey on an electric bike, we dropped by Hang Sat Street, where a woman born in Kenh has set up a stall to sell the dish that her family has been making for generations.

The stall serves two types of the steamed rice rolls. One is the original version, which is not rolled but left flat on the dish with some pieces of pork sausage. The other is the steamed and rolled version with ground pork inside, like it is usually available in Hanoi and other places, which she just added to the menu around 8-9 years ago. Most customers order the former, she said.

The cake was made when we ordered, and it was white, silk-soft and super thin. As we put each piece into the mouth, it slipped like it was on a water slide, from the mouth to the throat and into the stomach. We enjoyed it with some fried shallot, Jew’s ear mushrooms and fresh greens.

The owner could not tell us how many generations of her family had made this, just many, many generations. Her family was still in Kenh village, but she opened her stall here after getting married.

The cake is at its most delicious when it is served with fish sauce with high protein content that has been diluted with water, white vinegar and sugar, and some pieces of sausages.

Price: VND15,000-20,000 ($0.43-0.86)

This light, delicious meal ended our Nam Dinh food journey for the day. As we switched off the electric bike with very little power left, we felt rewarded by that rare experience of not feeling stuffed, but feeling fully satisfied.

Story by Bao Ngoc

Photos by Dai Trang

By Bao Ngoc