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A taste of Vietnam and prawn cakes

little statue in Ca cha va long st.pineapples on bikebuddaHanoi marketfresh lycheesaubergines in Hanoi marketpho for breakfast, lunch or dinnerfresh seafood at marketmillions of bikes in Hanoicha ca fishhappy banh mi customerHalong BayCruise on Halong Baywooden ships in Halong BayHoi AnHoi An templesmagical paper lanterns in Hoi AnSupersonic pineapple juiceHoi An beachesthe ultimate carry-allfishing boats at Cham Islandrelaxing after lunch on Cham IslandCham Island residents having lunchrocky boat trip back from Cham Island

The first sound I heard when we arrived at our hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi, was a rooster crowing across the street. Clearly, fresh food was close by. The sun-kissed ingredients of Vietnam were tasty indeed and the chicken and pork tasted like the old days, before battery farming drummed out all the fun. Little food stalls with mini stools (best suited for people under 4 feet tall) line the streets everywhere, each with their specialty: pho, fried spring rolls, bun cha (noodles with pork) or banh mi (grilled pork sandwiches). Pho, the National dish of Vietnam, is noodle soup with beef, chicken or pork and garnished with chilis, herbs and fish sauce. Its eaten primarily for breakfast but you see people slurping it up all day. Your stomach will be full for about an hour and then you need to eat again. Hence all the abundance of street food. One of my older posts has a recipe for chicken if you fancy making some. (see tab for recipes)

Fruit is practically super-sonic there. Menus have laundry lists of choices; watermelon, lychee, mango, pineapple and all sorts. Curries and spring rolls also incorporate it, making the sweet/sour tastes come alive. We simply did not have a bad meal, not one gripe to speak of. As we moved from Hanoi to Hoi An, a city further South, it just kept getting better. The best bit was that it was cheap as chips. Even at a sit-down restaurant you weren’t set back more £15.00

The lack of bad smells really surprised me. That whiff of fermenting fish that pervades most Asian markets was non-existent. It’s surprisingly clean for such a gritty urban city. If you had to choose a downside to Hanoi it would be the millions of motorbikes that swarm through the streets like a pack of bumblebees. You need a neck like an owl to spot which direction they are zooming from. Little grannies wander into thunderous intersections, whilst balancing heavy goods on shoulder poles, without even a glance. Miraculously, the bikes swerve around them as if some guardian angel was hovering over them. One little granny was walking with boiling oil on one of her two balanced trays, frying tofu. Safety shmafty!

So over the next couple of posts I want to share a few of the dishes I experienced. This prawn cake recipe is typical of the street food eaten there. When the prawns are roughly pureed in the food processor, the sticky flesh bonds together so there is no need for egg. The sweet chili dipping sauce that accompanies it can be used for all sorts. Grilled salmon, chicken or anything fried is divine with it and it keeps in the fridge for ages.

prawn cakes with sticky chili sauce
Makes 8 cakes, serves 4 as a starter

500g raw peeled prawns, 400g
3 shallots, thinly sliced
3cm chucnk ginger
1 lime, zested
1 handful coriander chopped
half red chili, thumb sized seeded and diced
1 tbsp fish sauce

250ml rice vinegar
175g castor sugar
1 red chili sliced

In a small saucepan, boil the sugar and vinegar with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes until syrupy. Remove from heat and let cool completely.

Place the ginger, coriander, 2 of the shallots, and half the chili in the food processor and blend until fine. Add the prawns, lime rind, and fish sauce and pulse until chunky. Grind plenty of black pepper over. Form into 8 flat cakes. Preheat oven grill. Brush both sides of the cakes with a tiny bit of vegetable oil and place on a baking tray fitted with a rack. Cook for 2 minutes one side and turn over. Cook another 2-3 minutes or until opaque. Add the chili and remaining shallot to the vinegar syrup and mix. Serve the warm cakes with the sauce.

prawn cakes  with sweet chili sauce
photo Maja Smend, food styling Jennifer Joyce


  1. neverknowinglyunderfed says:

    Wow, I went to Vietnam a few years ago and your post (and photos) have brought back happy memories. Will definitely be taking a trip down memory lane with these recipes! x

  2. catty says:

    What a gorgeous collage of photos from Vietnam! I love it… and love Vietnamese food but haven’t had the chance to visit. Your prawn cakes look great too. Have a fab weekend xx

  3. mealsinheels says:

    Hi Catty, thanks for your comments. If you ever go I can give you lots of addresses. Your blog is great. I subscribed recently and love your writing style. Keep it coming!

  4. Jean says:

    These look luscious. When you say oven grill, I assume you mean…broiler? Also, how do think these would do on an outside gas grill? Or would the smokiness overpower the other flavors? I, too, love the collage of photos.

  5. mealsinheels says:

    Hi Jean, yes, an oven grill is the British equivalent to broiler! I think they would do well on an outdoor grill but be sure to oil them up well so they don’t stick. Glad you like the photos.

  6. Peter says:

    A blogger friend of mine just got back from Vietnam, and it does truly sound amazing. Do you have any idea where the stylist got the sansho peppercorn bowl in back?

  7. Ann says:

    Do these taste anything like the usual thai cakes that are fried? I like the idea that they are grilled! Can’t wait for your new book “Skinny meals in heels” to come out, I’ve pre ordered on Amazon.
    If the meals are like this diet here I come!

  8. mealsinheels says:

    They are very similar but much healthier since no frying is involved!

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