“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?