New Orleans has grown pretty accustomed to pho, banh mi, spring rolls and other staples of the casual Vietnamese noodle house.
But over the weekend, the Pho Festival showed some different sides of the cuisine, with dishes springing from family traditions, customs of the Old Country and even religious observance. It also pointed to the potential for a wider range of flavors within this increasingly popular cuisine.
“This is the cooking of our families, the homestyle cooking,” explained Thanh Le, president of Vietnamese American Community in Louisiana Inc., the nonprofit that held the two-day event in Mel Ott Park as a fundraiser for its community outreach work.
Some examples could be politely called “acquired tastes,” with fertilized duck eggs in the offing and a goat blood stew of a color and texture that left nothing to the imagination. But it’s easy to see other dishes making the leap to regular menu rotation, especially as the ranks of Vietnamese restaurants grow and the incentive to differentiate amid a crowded field rises.
The pho for this Pho Festival was prepared by Kim’s Noodle House. This is a new restaurant, slated to open soon at 3709 Westbank Expressway in Harvey, and it’s from the same family that previously ran Lin’s, a large Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant on the same block.
Otherwise, the food came courtesy of families, volunteers and friends cooking together at tailgate tents, over propane grills and at ad hoc picnic prep stations heaped with bags of herbs and bushels of rice noodles.
Some of the festival stands were run by local Buddhist temples and by members of the local Cao Dai community, a religion with its roots in Vietnam. These served only vegetarian food. There were mushrooms encased in slippery squiggles of rice flour, spring rolls wrapped around crunchy greens and carrots, cubes of bean cake and rice cake, vegetarian paté and many others.
I wanted to try everything, and I started at a non-vegetarian booth with the bo la lot, a kebab of heavily seasoned beef wrapped in dark green betel leaf.
Speared on skewers and grilled, they were savory, bitter and delicious. Next up was nem chua, or squares of pressed, sour-and-sweet fermented ham, topped with shards of garlic and chiles and individually wrapped in plastic like pork brownies.
Then there was the trung vit long, the fertilized duck egg better known by its Filipino name duck balut and for its many appearances on weird-food travel shows. As instructed by an eager cook at his booth, I cracked the top of the egg, slurped the hot egg white and then peeled back more shell to spoon up yolk and a partially formed duck fetus, adding dashes of salt and pepper. There’s the flavor of hot custard, then soft, almost gummy duck. One egg was enough to satisfy my curiosity and confirm that I am not a fertilized duck egg kind of guy.
In fact, that egg and the goat blood stew were enough to send me running back to the many vegetarian booths, and they did not stop giving. There was banh it, or banana leafs folded into sharp pyramid shapes around sweet mung bean paste and rice flour, orb-shaped sesame cakes, brilliant green, semi-sweet, very chewy banh da lon cakes, and mam chung, which resembles a tofu quiche with a more fermented flavor and dappling of chiles.
Some of these dishes appear at Vietnamese markets, but it was eye opening to find so many of them offered for impulse snacking at a food festival. In an area increasingly enamored with Vietnamese cooking, this homespun event was a chance to eat off the menu — perhaps far off the menu — and on another level it was a display of what happens when a proud and tight-knit community comes together to cook, eat and share with others.
As exotic as some of the food proved, that bedrock appeal should be familiar enough for Louisiana food lovers.
I’d be happy to see some of these dishes migrate to our local Vietnamese restaurants, though in any event, I’ll be looking out for Pho Festival when it comes around again next year.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.