Four decades after the Vietnam War, Thanksgiving is becoming a major event in Hanoi.
Trendy bistros cater to a growing market of homesick expats and curious locals, offering dishes like yogurt-brined turkey with cranberry gastrique and chestnut-crab veloute. Snagging a spot for Thanksgiving dinner requires booking days in advance, testifying to the city's increasingly ambitious dining scene.
"I don't remember anyone really pulling out the stops for Thanksgiving before. I think with all the new great restaurants opening, the game has been upped. Gotta show the guests you give a shit," said Keith Thibert, who opened The Moose and Roo gastropub last year.
Many expats also host their own Thanksgiving dinners, but like Thibert, who is "going full traditional, right down to the cranberry jelly," they often just buy everything imported.
Recreating American favorites from scratch can be daunting here, where it's hard to find ingredients comparable to what you'd find at home.
But we set out to prove that Vietnam could offer a proper harvest bounty. Without using any imported components, we would make the essentials: turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie. We also wanted to cook traditional ingredients like sweet potato, squash and Brussels sprouts in new ways. What would a Vietnamese foodie do?
We sought out advice from freelance stylist Sophie Le. Her first question was: "What's your starter?" When we confessed that we hadn't really thought about it, she frowned and started scribbling on a notepad. But in the time it took to drink our coffee, she came up with a MasterChef-worthy and intimidatingly elaborate concept: cabbage parcels in squash sauce. The leaves would be wrapped around a filling of ground pork, woodear mushrooms and glass noodles—like spring rolls, sans rice paper—then simmered in a sauce made from squash and garlic. Le also nixed our idea to make mashed sweet potato. "That's kind of boring," she said with typical Vietnamese bluntness, suggesting stuffing it instead into sticky rice dumplings for banh troi, a traditional winter dessert of dumplings simmered in a steamy ginger broth.
Ingredients list in hand, we hit up the local market. Shopping here is not unlike going to a farmer's market in the US, if you replace whimsically labeled packages of meat with entire carcasses sprawled on tables. Everything is so farm-fresh it doesn't need to be refrigerated—whether it's clean is another matter—and vendors are almost too helpful: as soon as they see you glance at a cabbage, it's tucked halfway into a plastic bag before you can object.
Produce here is theoretically quite affordable, but as a foreigner you have to prove that you're not just another backpacker with a DSLR. This sometimes requires a bit of haggling, during which you are supposed to smile brightly while saying phrases like "Too expensive! I'm not a chicken." Doesn't everyone crave more social interaction while grocery shopping? Being a regular (or a local) helps, so we cajoled a Hanoian friend into helping us shop with the promise of turkey.
Spotting a man tying sacks of pig trotters to the back of his motorbike, we figured there was pork to be found, so we looked behind him to a table outside the market, where two pounds of ground meat for Le's cabbage parcels cost $3.
"People say this pork is made from rats," our friend remarked cheerfully as the middle-aged vendor scooped handfuls into a plastic bag.
Inside the market, we started stocking up on vegetables. Right away, we hit a snag as the potato vendor was determined to sell us the "more delicious" variety rather than the chubby, pale-fleshed sweet potatoes we needed. Several minutes of negotiation later, we got four earth-covered tubers for a little more than $1.
Locating squash proved still more challenging. Were these varieties sweet enough for pie? Asking vendors yielded little insight as they are savvy entrepreneurs and no matter what you ask, the answer is always yes. After pawing through several piles, we chose two varieties that looked promising: a tubular gourd and the only squash we could find that resembled the American pumpkin. In proper Thanksgiving fashion, the vendor threw in a handful of lemongrass for free.
Clutching bags laden with produce, we made our way to nearby bakery Nguyen Sinh to grab some banh mi bread for stuffing. Nguyen Sinh was the first restaurant in Hanoi to sell Western food when it opened in 1942. They're famous for their classic banh mi with pate and ham, but if you ask, they'll sell you just the rolls for 25 cents apiece along with a look of pity for your inability to consume proper nourishment.
Our one concession to the no-imports rule was the turkey. While some street vendors sell ga Tay (the word for turkey, which literally translates as "Western chicken"), Le urged us to buy a more reliable American one from the freezer at Metro supermarket. Driving the motorbike home with the 10-pound bird on board, slowly defrosting in the November heat, we drew fewer stares than expected—perhaps a sign that Thanksgiving really is catching on.
For inspiration on how to prepare the turkey, we checked in with one of Hanoi's most innovative chefs, Shahar Lubin, who draws on influences from his native Israel to the American Bayou to prepare local ingredients at his bistro Daluva. Lubin was doing a preliminary roast ahead of the big day for turkey sandwiches, so we got a hands-on demonstration.
"The important thing about turkey is brining that motherfucker," he told us.
It's hard to make turkey meat moist, Lubin explained, so the salty brine is essential, drawing liquid and flavors into cells through osmosis. His double-brine process sounds like a spa treatment: first a 24-hour soak in water containing sugar, salt and rosemary, then a second day-long yogurt bath ("Yogurt is one of the only marinades that is scientifically proven to tenderize meat.")
Like most living in Hanoi, we didn't have an oven as Vietnamese don't traditionally use them; the banh mi was brought by the French. We told Lubin we were after a more authentically Hanoian method. He laughed: "Vietnamese would just boil it."
However, while the boil-and-serve-with-the-head-on technique is ubiquitous in home kitchens, the sidewalks of Hanoi offered another idea. Duck and chicken are often roasted over hot coals, coming out with crispy skin and succulent interiors. What's more all-American than a BBQ?
We'd seen a pig roasting on a spit the previous week at a local restaurant, so we went to investigate if the restaurant could rotisserie our turkey. But on this particular afternoon, there was no spit to be seen. Apparently the pig guy only came on Tuesdays. When we asked the guy we found there if he knew anyone else we could ask, he didn't blink: "No."
However, at a nearby vit nuong (grilled duck) restaurant, the plucky employees agreed right away to take care of our bird. They even asked which way we would want to cook it: roasted over hot coals (nuong) or boiled and then deep-fried (quay). We asked what time was good the next day and got a shrug of "Whenever."
Before going home to "brine that motherfucker," we needed one more key item: cranberries. Lubin, who uses Vietnamese candied tomatoes in his cocktails, suggested that they would be an ideal replacement. The small shop he recommended didn't have tomatoes, but they did have a pile of red fruit called so ri. Glazed in a sticky syrup, the fruit tasted like a cross between cranberries and cherries, sweet and a bit tart. Could candied so ri be the next exotic Thanksgiving delicacy Whole Foods shoppers would lap up?
After we spent two hours peeling the flesh off the tiny pits, the answer was decidedly no.
The next day, we showed up at the restaurant, turkey in tow. The only two customers, a couple picking at a hotpot of duck meat and blood cakes, turned to stare as we carried the bird into the kitchen. The cooks also appeared bemused by the bird, but dealt with it with the finesse that they would treat any other, hacking it into two with a giant cleaver and clamping the halves between hand-held grates.
Nguyen Hai Nam, a wiry 18-year-old from nearby Nam Dinh province, manned the grill. He had seen turkey once before in a restaurant; although he had never cooked or eaten it, Nam was up for the challenge.
Cooking the turkey required a bit of adjustment as it was significantly bigger than the duck he usually cooked, but the heavy bird seemed easier for Nam to grasp than the concept of Thanksgiving.