New Orleans has grown pretty accustomed to pho, banh mi, spring rolls and other staples of the casual Vietnamese noodle house.
But the Pho Festival, now in progress in Gretna, is showing some different sides of the cuisine, springing from family traditions, festival customs and religious observance.
With fertilized duck eggs, goat blood stew, herb-bundled beef kebabs and an array of light, exuberantly fresh vegetarian dishes on offer, this small festival has flavors that don’t normally make it onto local restaurant menus.
“This is the cooking of our families, the home style cooking,” explained Thanh Le, president of Vietnamese American Community in Louisiana Inc.
Le said this nonprofit helps immigrants adjust to life in the U.S., and the Pho Festival is its fundraiser. It continues at Mel Ott Park (2301 Belle Chasse Hwy., Gretna) on Sunday, June 28, until 10 p.m. with free admission.
Held inside a gym and outside by a grove of cypress trees, the event has a homespun feel. The pho is prepared by Kim’s Noodle House, a restaurant that is slated to open soon on the Westbank Expressway in Harvey and which has set up shop in the gym concession stand for the festival.
Otherwise, food comes 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 these stands are run by Buddhist temples and by members of the local Cao Dai community, a religion with its roots in Vietnam, and they serve only vegetarian food. There are mushrooms encased in slippery squiggles of rice flour, spring rolls wrapped around crunchy greens and carrots, cubes of bean cake and rice cake, tamale-like sweet rice rolls, vegetarian pate 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 are 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 pealed 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. If this is something on your culinary bucket list, here’s a chance to try it for $2. I’ve certainly scrubbed it from my list now.
Another booth had a specialty in goat – cooked as a curry, seared in chunks over a citrus salad and in a third preparation advertised on the hand-lettered menu board as “goat blood pizza.” Clearly and emphatically not pizza in any way, the name was a mystery the friendly young lady running the booth could not explain (in Vietnamese, the dish is called tiet canh). It was more like a stew of ground goat, drenched in thick, streaking, mu
rder-red blood and tasting very much like blood.
It was enough to send me running back to the many vegetarian booths, and they did not stop giving. There’s 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.
The namesake pho is served in beef and vegetarian versions, and other vendors offer much more familiar Vietnamese fare alongside French fries and chicken wings and such.
For those who love Vietnamese food, it’s a chance to eat off the menu (perhaps far off the menu). And it’s another example 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 may prove, that bedrock appeal will be familiar enough for Louisiana food lovers.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.