“Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure….The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Condé Nast Traveler interview
For some reason dining wasn’t at the top of my list for Dalat. It’s surprising because I love Vietnamese food. But I headed for the Central Highlands for the sights more than anything–I had seen too many pictures of nature in the region. The food in Dalat was an amazing bonus.
In search of nem nuong
I didn’t have much of an idea of what this was before I tried it. I had only read that Dalat was known for nem nướng, which meant that I had to try it. For all I knew, I could’ve had it on my previous trip to Vietnam–I had eaten my share of foods that I didn’t know the name of.
This is grilled minced pork formed into a small sausage shape that is wrapped in rice paper with fresh vegetables. Before ordering I didn’t realize that it was served with assembly required.
The waitress helped me make the first one because I had no idea what to do. I had to mix the pork with cilantro, lettuce, cucumber, radish, and a crunchy fried wonton. After it was wrapped (poorly), I could dip it in the peanut sauce. And it was delicious despite my awful wrapping job.
This was a tasty introduction to my stay in Dalat. And it wasn’t a big meal, which ensured I’d be hungry after my long walk around town. Had I known that walk would be so long I would’ve ordered more.
Eating at Dalat Market
The center of life in the city is Dalat Market. Had I known about all the produce for sale in market, I might’ve stayed somewhere with a kitchen. Unfortunately, most of the best fruit in the region requires utensils to eat–at least a knife.
Two things Dalat is known for are artichoke and avocado. I had no idea before arriving that these were two major crops. They were everywhere at the market and it all looked perfect. It reminded me of a Japanese grocery store where they discard any produce that isn’t perfect.
While I didn’t get a chance to sample the avocado or fresh artichoke, I did get artichoke tea. Wasn’t sure I’d like it, but it’s just a little sweet and has a calming effect. It’s also supposed to be good for lowering cholesterol. There are plenty of shops in the area that sell tea and snacks, but the best was L’angfarm, a local organic specialty shop (I regret not buying more from this store).
The first snack I had was Vietnamese pizza or bánh tráng nướng. Other than a little bit of cheese, this has absolutely no relation to actual pizza. The “dough” is a piece of rice paper and it’s all cooked over a grill. It’s topped with chives and processed sausage with a chili paste. There were some other things on it as well.
It’s rolled up in paper to make it easy to carry around and eat. Of course, in the rain, I opted to eat under the umbrella at the vendor. There were a lot of vendors selling the Vietnamese pizza and prices varied by about 50 cents–I couldn’t tell if quality varied as well. It made for a good pre-dinner snack.
The one thing I had to look for at the market, as recommended by a Vietnamese friend, was yogurt. Dalat has it’s own specialty yogurt that can only be bought on the street in a plastic cup. It’s a like a yogurt custard–it’s thick and sweet. It’s a great dessert if you can find it.
A Stop for Curry
I wasn’t satisfied with street food at the Dalat Market. Part of that was the lack of seating and the rain. I also felt like I was getting charge tourist prices. So, I went in search of a restaurant with more comfortable seating.
The restaurants on the streets just above the market were mainly overpriced cafes with very little that was Vietnamese. Despite being hungry, I decided to walk toward my hotel and away from the crowd in search of food.
Just passed the bus station I found a line of small, quiet restaurants. Not much looked all that appetizing until I came to a little curry shop with outdoor seating. I was hungry enough that I didn’t want to wander farther, and I figured this would tide me over til I found something better.
Finding something else was entirely unnecessary. The chicken curry arrived in a bubbling clay pot. I attempted to throw in the side of vegetables and basil, but the pot was too small to fit much of it.
This was the best, richest curry I have had. I have an affinity for Thai curries–the blend of spiciness with coconut milk. But this curry was flavorful and delicious. It was so good that I went back the next day for dinner. For a little over a dollar, this was the most satisfying meal I could find–it was about the same price as the Vietnamese pizza.
Everywhere else I ate around Dalat was unimpressive. It’s not that the food wasn’t good, but it wasn’t nearly as good as other meals I’ve had around Vietnam. I ended up in the wrong areas at the wrong times. Let that be a lesson to you: plan to be in the best food areas when it’s time to eat.
Have you visited Dalat? Did you find any local specialties?