A Vietnam food odyssey
A celebrity chef searches for a taste of old Saigon
HO Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city. It lies along the Saigon River, 80km from the South China Sea. With nine million people and more than six million motorbikes, this bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan place always fills me with great excitement and energy.
I head directly to Ben Thanh Market, a must-see for any visitor. Built by the French in 1912, it is surely Saigon’s most colourful and vibrant market and has everything from fabrics and cooking gear to souvenirs, dry goods and fake Gucci bags.
But I’m here specifically for the street food and fresh produce, and to cook one of Saigon’s most-loved dishes, Canh chua ca, a tamarind and pineapple soup with fish, okra, tomato, elephant ear stems and fresh herbs.
I’m blown away by how fresh and cheap everything is. Pineapples are three for $1; tomatoes, 50c a kilo; herbs, a ridiculous 10c a bunch. With a spring in mystep I move on to the seafood section. The Vietnamese love their produce super-fresh — alive where possible. My soup calls for mudfish, a fatty freshwater species with great texture. The elderly lady selling them has no teeth and a great big smile, and I am drawn to her. She scales the fish and chops it into thick cutlets, bone on. It’s a bargain at $3.
Finding the soup ingredients is easy, but the market is so busy it takes two hours to secure a spot where we are not in anyone’s way, so I can be filmed cooking the dish for my SBS television series. The soup- making takes five hours, and locals who have stopped to watch demand that I make enough for them all to have a taste. One of them tells me of a street food dish I must try. The only details she provides are: ‘‘It’s on Hai Ba Trung in District 1, just past Dien Bien Phu Street. She makes the best green papaya salad in town.’’
So off I go in search of the Green Papaya Lady — but Hai Ba Trung is one of the longest streets in Saigon, so I don’t get my hopes up. As I pass Dien Bien Phu, I notice motorbikes pulling to the kerb, where they line up in front of a cart with a cabinet full of shredded green papaya. This has to be her.
As I approach, the vendor asks if I want to eat in or take away. Eat in? How do I do that? She points across the road, where her daughter beckons me over with a wave. The street is busy, three lanes on either side, and the traffic is thick, so it takes a while to cross.
The daughter hands me a plastic mat and tells me to sit under a tree, with many others waiting for their salad. She takes multiple orders and shouts to her mother, ‘‘Ten portions!’’ Mum is working frantically to serve the motorcyclists lining up for takeaways.
Five minutes later, she carries 10 portions of green papaya salad on a
PICTURES: THE FOOD OF VIETNAM, HARDIE GRANT tray across the road, dodging the traffic. This is Saigon street food at its best: raw, chaotic, fun, quirky and delicious. I sit for hours watching this fascinating mother-and-daughter teamwork.
As the sun fades and Saigon lights up, the energy of the city reaches another level. More street food vendors appear as locals finish work and go in search of a light snack. I notice a greatlooking cart selling beef skewers, fish balls, wok-tossed corn with chilli, and beef rolled in betel leaves.
I’ve always wanted to cook on one of these classic food carts, so I give chase as it’s wheeled down the street. Tuan, the owner, kindly allows me to use his facilities, and even volunteers to help. Together we wok-toss thin slices of beef with lemongrass, garlic, chilli and wild betel leaf.
The aroma of the lemongrass and garlic and the sweet scent of the betel leaf wafting through the streets attracts a queue of locals, who want to buy our dish. It is a winner — they love it.
The next morning we make our way to Cau Ong Lanh, the market neighbourhood in which my parents grew up. Both sides of the family owned wholesale fruit stalls — Mum’s side selling mangoes, durian, jackfruit and dragon fruit; Dad’s selling custard apples, rambutans, longans and lychees. The stalls were passed on to them by their parents, and my parents then handed the stalls to their siblings when they left Vietnam.
My grandmother, cousins, aunties and uncles still live here and the market remains active, but on a smaller scale.
This is my favourite place to visit in all of Saigon. To me, Cau Ong Lanh is the ‘‘real Saigon’’; it feels as though nothing has changed for hundreds of years. The locals experience a lifestyle similar to the generation before them. The cramped environment in which people live can be shocking at first, but for me it’s admirable and unique. As much as this way of life is based in poverty, the richness of the relationships within the community cannot be replicated. Walking through its narrow laneways gives a true sense of the lifestyle of the Vietnamese.
Whenever I visit I imagine a life I might have had if my family hadn’t fled Vietnam. I may have run my own noodle cart, or stayed within the family fruit-selling business; maybe I would’ve still ended up in the restaurant industry, and worked my way up to having my own place.
Cooking, eating and spending time with my family in Cau Ong Lanh makes me appreciate the simpler things in life. We talk about food, family and the neighbourhood, and life feels less complicated for a moment. This is an edited extract from The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen (Hardie Grant, $69.95).
Luke Nguyen is intoxicated by Saigon’s markets and vendors such as the Green Papaya Lady