There's things I expect to see in Vietnamese restaurants - noodles, rice, fried things - and one of them isn't polenta. Within 2 hours of our first destination proper though - Hanoi - I'd seen just that. Big yellow balls of it being shaved on top of rice then topped with more familiar oriental dishes like stewed and roast meats. I could hardly see it and not try it could I?
Being Hanoi's Old Quarter we were blessed with an English translation on the menu so I ordered xoi ngo, or steamed glutinous rice with maize. The Vietnamese eat a lot of shaped pork mince products - big slabs of orange sided sausage meat or leaf wrapped cylinders of pink paste. From my trips to London's Vietnamese supermarkets they really sum up Vietnamese cuisine and so I had to have that as a topping - gio lua in the local lingo I found out. With each topping coming in between 4000 and 7000 dong (15p - 25p) I didn't feel I was breaking the traveller's budget by adding some Chinese braised pork belly (thit kho tau) to the bowl too. Something I wasn't expecting were the kernels of (white) sweetcorn in the rice, a welcome addition.
We had front row seats and I saw the lady shave slices of polenta onto the kernel studded rice, squirt it with what I found out was plain vegetable oil, and then top with the pork products. It was stodgy goodness, set off with the meat juices from the braised pork and pork paste. A perfect meal after the few bia hoi we'd had over the preceding couple of hours.
When aforementioned German foodie friend passed through Hanoi a few days later I had to show him my discovery. This time we went for Vietnamese pate on top, a soft steamed minced meat/loose meatloaf dish that was an even better partner than the previous meats. With sticky rice, polenta and moist meat this was comfort food at its finest.