Ever since I was a young un I’d always quietly salivated over the thought of tasting real Asian street food and finally, in January this year, I got my chance. I packed my bag, ate my last cheese and Marmite sandwich for three weeks, and hopped excitedly on to a 14-hour flight to Vietnam.
…14 hours later, tired, ravenously hungry and harrowed by ‘moderate turbulence,’ I was on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. It was certainly no disappointment. There were food carts all around the streets selling everything from Pho, Vietnam’s national Noodle dish, to delicious peanut-topped mussels to half-fertilised duck eggs. The latter, it was decided, were to be eaten in more adventuresome spirits.
I decided to head straight for the food section of Ben Thanh market in the heart of Old Saigon. I pointed wearily to a picture of a crispy pancake and a noodle dish with a crab claw poking out. They arrived seconds later and they were stunning; fragrant, complex, perfectly balanced flavours. This was my first taste of my 21-day odyssey, and it was good.
Before I set off I’d done a bit of research on the basic principals of Vietnamese food. It is considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world and works on five fundamental taste elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet. These in turn correspond to five organs: gall bladder, urinary bladd… you get the idea. Chefs will try to cook with five colours and attract all the five senses. To cut it short, It’s basically all about balance.
After my first taste of food in Ben Thanh, I decided market food was the way to go. By the time I’d traveled up to central Vietnam they’d provided me with everything from clay pots and fried noodles to a rather tasty intestine soup. It was the market at Hoi An where I had one of my favourite meals of the trip; an east-Asian Smörgåsbord of favours and textures was pilled on to a plate and served up for the equivalent of £1.50. There was pork belly, marinated prawns, vermicelli noodles, omelette, spring greens and more. I hurriedly preserved the moment for prosperity (see below) and wolfed down the lot.
The thing I was learning about Vietnamese food was how well considered many of the dishes were; it seemed so triumphantly considerate of its regions and resources and so respectful of its ingredients. Meats and vegetables, I learned, are cooked for as briefly as they allow so as to preserve their original flavours and textures. Season and climate are considered in order to achieve an over all balance. Duck meat, for example, is considered cool and eaten in the summer, Chicken (warm) and pork (hot) are eaten in the winter. I reflected on all those BBQ’d sausages I wolfed down last summer in a new light.
By the time I got to Hanoi it had gotten quite cold and I was in the mood for some comfort food. I found it in a local dish called Bún Cha, pieces of pork fat and pork patties in broth served with rice noodles and Thai basil salad. I promise when I get round to making it I’ll post up a recipe. It was sweet and light but filling and the perfect way to end the trip.
There’s so much more I could say about Vietnamese cuisine but I only wanted to provide something of a clumsy introduction. If you haven’t already, look up some regional recipes, pick up some fresh ingredients from your local Asian supermarket and have a go at making some yourself. – Jodie