On the streets of Saigon

Track­ing down the best Viet­namese fare

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - LUKE NGUYEN

Crazy-hec­tic and de­vel­op­ing at an as­tound­ing pace, Saigon’s got an energy and dy­namism you can al­most smell. I to­tally love it. Maybe I’m bi­ased though, as the city is now my sec­ond home. It’s also where my fam­ily came from be­fore they moved to Aus­tralia all those years ago, so the place is vir­tu­ally in my DNA.

Nat­u­rally I’m ad­dicted to the street food, and I prac­ti­cally trip over it ev­ery day be­cause this city is one heav­ing smor­gas­bord of out­door din­ing op­tions, wher­ever you ven­ture or look. Seafood, fresh herbs, prodi­gious va­ri­eties of veg­eta­bles, sweet­ish, light flavours and sim­ple cook­ing styles are the hall­marks of Saigon’s food, though be­ing Viet­nam’s big­gest city, there’s plenty of re­gional fare from other cor­ners of the coun­try on of­fer too. Throw in some French in­flu­ence (you haven’t lived un­til you’ve had Viet­namese drip cof­fee with con­densed milk or a crunchy-fluffy baguette filled with lo­cal char­cu­terie) and an uber-vi­brant Chi­na­town and you’ve got an in­cred­i­bly rich street food reper­toire.

The lo­cals have their favourite food haunts and one of mine is Co Giang Street in Dis­trict 1. I like to come here early, when it’s still a lit­tle calm, and break­fast on bun thit nuong, which con­sists of honey-mar­i­nated grilled pork, springy rice noo­dles, herbs, pick­led veg­eta­bles, spring rolls and peanuts. This dish, typ­i­cal of Saigon cui­sine, con­tains ev­ery tex­ture imag­in­able — crunchy, slip­pery, chewy, snappy, slurpy.

Dur­ing the day, as I poke around streets and back al­leys across Saigon’s 24 districts, I can’t stop graz­ing on tasty lit­tle snacks, such as banh khot, which are crisp, soft­cen­tred “pan­cakes’’ made in spe­cial pans us­ing a turmeric-scented bat­ter. You eat them with fresh herbs, wrapped in let­tuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham, or sweet­ened fish sauce. Then there are Saigon’s myr­iad soups, which are per­fect for this hot cli­mate. Sup cua oc heo, or crab soup with pork brain, is light and fra­grant and way more de­li­cious than it might sound. Bun mam is a porky-seafoody noo­dle soup dish based on pun­gent, fer­mented an­chovy stock that’s re­ally typ­i­cal of this part of Viet­nam, and an­other favourite dish of mine.

As night set­tles, the pace on the street in­ten­si­fies, with scoot­ers, cy­clists and taxis ze­ro­ing in on favourite evening eats. I like to hang out in the non-touristy Dis­trict 4, where my un­cle lives. The fra­grance of lemon­grass, lime, black pep­per and gar­lic oil hangs in the air and there’s cook­ing, and eat­ing, ac­tiv­ity right on the pave­ments.

BEEF NOO­DLE SOUP LO­CAL NAME: PHO BO Two ques­tions I am of­ten asked are, “What is pho?’’ and, “Where does it come from?” To an­swer the sec­ond, though the ex­act ori­gins are un­clear, ru­mour has it that pho was cre­ated in north­ern Viet­nam in the early 20th cen­tury. Both Chi­nese and French cook­ing heav­ily in­flu­enced the dish, which may have been de­rived from the French beef stew, potau-feu. A hearty, broth-based noo­dle soup of­ten made with beef or chicken, it varies from re­gion to re­gion. In north­ern Viet­nam the broth is likely to be lighter and made with fewer ingredients, the noo­dles served with thin beef slices and gin­ger, or chicken and lime leaves, and ac­com­pa­nied by bean sprouts, herbs, lime and fresh chilli on the side. In south­ern Viet­nam, the broth is a lot sweeter and made from more ingredients, and the ac­com­pa­ni­ments in­clude hoisin sauce, fish sauce and chilli paste. When peo­ple ask where I get the best pho (and they al­ways do), I take them down an al­ley­way in Dis­trict 1, through clouds of spice-in­fused steam, where the fam­ily at Pho Ngoc have been mak­ing this iconic dish for more than 30 years. Com­ing here is like be­ing fed by your grand­mother; the at­mos­phere is warm and the pho is in­de­scrib­ably good. (Add a poached egg to the broth when or­der­ing for ex­tra silk­i­ness.) The din­ers are reg­u­lar cus­tomers — I meet a man who tells me his grandma has been eat­ing here since she could re­mem­ber and she brings him here ev­ery Satur­day as a fam­ily rit­ual.

VIET­NAMESE STEAMED RICE ROLLS WITH PORK AND MUSH­ROOM STUFFING LO­CAL NAME: BANH CUON Beau­ti­ful, el­e­gant to eat and amaz­ing to watch be­ing pre­pared, banh cuon is one of my all-time favourite Viet­namese break­fast dishes. The del­i­cate rice flour sheets can be made ex­tremely thin and I love to watch the aun­ties mak­ing th­ese. To start, they slowly pour a very thin layer of the rice bat­ter on to a fab­ric-cov­ered pot and evenly spread it pa­per thin, then cover it briefly with a lid to cook. Less than a minute later, the del­i­cate rice flour wrap­pers are picked up us­ing a flat bam­boo stick and trans­ferred to their boards. They are then filled with stir-fried pork and mush­rooms and care­fully rolled. Topped with fresh herbs and served with warm nuoc cham, break­fast doesn’t come much tastier.

CHARGRILLED PORK CHOPS WITH BRO­KEN RICE AND EGG LO­CAL NAME: COM BI SUON Here’s an­other of my favourite dishes and it’s one that I have for lunch two, or even three times a week when I’m in Saigon. It not only packs a ton of flavour but has a cool back­story. When rice is milled to sep­a­rate the husks from the grains, some grains end up break­ing in the process and need to be sep­a­rated out from the first grade, un­dam­aged rice. Back in the day, poor rice farm­ers would save this bro­ken rice and eat it as a cheap source of food. To­day, it’s be­come some­thing of a del­i­cacy for the Viet­namese and is so sought af­ter that it’s ac­tu­ally rather ex­pen­sive to buy. I love the irony of this. Why do Viet­namese peo­ple love bro­ken rice so much? I think it’s be­cause of the tex­ture, which is some­thing quite spe­cial. The mar­i­nated pork in this dish re­quires the smok­i­ness that comes from char­grilling to taste right, even though some ven­dors pan fry it in­stead. So when you go to Saigon, look for ones that grill over coals. To serve, the pork goes on the rice with co­rian­der, cu­cum­ber, toma­toes and a bit of spring onion oil. On goes a fried egg, some lap cheong and with tasty nuoc cham on the side, it’s a per­fect light meal for any time of the day.

This is an edited ex­tract from Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen (Hardie Grant Books, $60).

A chef pre­pares char­grilled pork chops, top; the dish ready to serve, above left; eat­ing with the lo­cals, above; pho bo, above right; chef Luke Nguyen, left

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