Vietnamese street food tastes better by motorbike

There are few things I enjoy more than perching on a plastic, Playskool-size stool on a steaming sidewalk, surrounded by clouds of carbon monoxide. Why do I so enjoy impersonating a contortionist and inhaling carcinogens? Because it means I’m somewhere in Southeast Asia, eating street food.

On my first visit to Vietnam, I flew up to Nha Trang, on the South Central Coast. I found a cheap hotel several blocks off the beach, and set about giving myself a crash course in Vietnamese street food. I was familiar with staples such as pho and banh mi (baguette sandwiches with pork pate and a variety of condiments). Yet I was soon overwhelmed by the array of comestibles being hawked from carts and storefronts, despite frequent thumbing through my Vietnamese food guide.

Compounding the issue was the lack of recognizability of many of the ingredients. No one could ever accuse me of being squeamish, but I like to know what I’m eating, if only for curiosity’s sake. The mysterious, meaty hunks stewing in battered, aluminum stockpots, and hanging behind Plexi-glass shields gave no indication as to their origin. Clearly, I needed someone to help me achieve Vietnamese street food cred.

%Gallery-100653%I had already planned to visit the Evason Ana Mandara & Six Senses Spa later in the week, because they had a well-regarded “street market dinner.” Since 2003, a gaggle of local women–all food vendors known for their version of a specific dish–prepare their respective specialties at one of the property’s three restaurants. It’s a fun way to educate less-adventurous guests about traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The bi-weekly dinners provide steady income for the women and their families, which is critical during inclement weather.

The privately-owned Evason-Soneva luxury property group has a core philosophy of green building design and operations, and emphasizes the hiring of local people in order to support the economy. They also make donations of revenue proceeds to community social projects, including education and health care for children.

Much of the produce and botanicals used in the restaurants and spa treatments are from the sustainable gardens at nearby (stunning) sister property, Six Senses Hideaway at Ninh Van Bay. Ana Mandara also offers market tours and cooking classes as a way to introduce guests to regional Vietnamese cuisine and ingredients.

When I finally checked in to Ana Mandara, I asked if they offered personalized food tours through one of the local guides they contract. And that’s how I found myself on the back of a motorbike at sunset, whizzing through the back streets on my very own tasting tour of Nha Trang.

My 29-year old guide, Nguyen Quoc Nam, was born and raised in Nha Trang. He took me to some of the city’s best spots for eating regional dishes–most of them popular street foods. Our first stop was the poetically-named, sidewalk eatery Phúc, which specializes in banh canh, a fish and rice vermicelli soup. The rickety sidewalk tables were crowded with patrons enthusiastically slurping soup and fried mackerel head–the other specialty of the house.

Like most Vietnamese, Nam is obsessed with food. Throughout our three-hour feeding frenzy, he gave me the history, preparation method, and eating technique for every dish we sampled. We ate banh beo, “leaves” of rice noodles topped with succulent grilled pork, herbs, and chile; sinh to, fresh fruit and yogurt shakes; banh xeo, lacy rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric crepes stuffed with grilled squid, shrimp, quail egg, and bean sprouts, and chao tom, grilled, seasoned, ground shrimp on sugar cane skewers.

At lively Quan 52, the sidewalk tables were wreathed in aromatic smoke from an adjacent grill. We were served a plate of still-sizzling strips of pork, which we used to make nem, a kind of DIY spring roll. We soaked crisp rice paper sheets in water, then layered them with the meat, nuoc nam, julienned cucumber and green banana, pickled shallots, rau hung (spearmint), diếp cá (fish mint), and ngo gai (saw leaf herb). I was utterly hopeless at constructing the tidy little packages made by fellow diners; even Nam seemed amazed by my lack of fine motor skills. Fortunately, my appetite compensates in these situations.

Our final stop was Pho Bo 81. Despite being painfully full, I managed to devour their heavenly pho (traditionally a beef noodle soup from Hanoi, it’s a staple throughout Vietnam and can also be made with chicken). The restorative broth was greaseless and fragrant, redolent of lime, chile, and star anise.

The next morning, Nam took me on a motorbike tour of the villages and rice paddies in the surrounding countryside. Rice is more than just the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, although it is eaten at every meal in some form. Rice is also intricately linked to the country’s culture, folklore, festivals, and social mores. Around noon, Nam pulled the bike up to a roadside shack beside the Cau Lung Bridge. There, we ate plate after plate of banh uot, a Nha Trang specialty of steamed rice noodle sheets, garnished with powdered dried shrimp and scallions.

After lunch, we visited Dien Thuy village, where I helped make rice paper at the home of a woman who supplies the local community. She soaked, then milled the rice by hand, Next, she mixed it with water to make a batter, and poured frisbee-sized circles onto a bamboo and cloth steamer fueled by the rice husks. The disks were then set to dry on woven bamboo ladders.

Next, we visited the Vinh family, who operate a small rice noodle factory out of their home. Outside of the major cities, rice paper and noodles are made in similar factories, often by hand (the Vinh’s had just purchased a machine to cut the noodles). It’s repetitive, exhausting, time-consuming work. My two-day motorbike journey took me into the origins of not just my beloved street food, but the very soul of Vietnamese culture.

Ana Mandara’s culinary motorbike tours are approximately $40.00, and are offered only by personal request. Cooking classes and market tours also available.

Click here to learn how to make banh cuon (steamed rice crepes with ground pork and mushrooms).

Top ten foreign street foods

With food trucks springing up across the U.S. like so many mushrooms, it seems the culture of street food is finally finding its place in the national psyche. Some, like Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck (a Korean-Mexican hybrid that I promise tastes approximately a million times better than you might think) in LA, have garnered critical acclaim, with Choi recently being named one of 2010’s “Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine. Others, like Portland’s Garden State, have earned widespread press for the utter deliciousness with which local ingredients are transformed into versions of Italian street food like arrancini, or chickpea fritters. In fact, Portland is unofficially the food cart capital of the nation.

But U.S. street food is like the United States itself: a melting pot. Our street food culture- aside from hot dog vendors and Manhattan food carts dispensing coffee and breakfast sandwiches to office workers and the hungover-is primarily based upon inspired reproductions or adaptations of foreign street foods.

In honor of our country’s fledgling, on-the-fly food culture, here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of the best overseas street snacks. Totally subjective and dependent upon the individual vendor, mind you, but the following are regional specialties you don’t want to miss, should you find yourself in the vicinity.

1. Tacos de anything

Who doesn’t love a great taco? And by taco, I mean soft corn tortilla, no bigger than a softball in diameter, piled with juicy bits of carne asada, carnitas, adovada, cabeza, lengua, or pescado. Bonus points for bowls of freshly made salsas and other condiments like escabeche, guacamole, limes, radishes, chopped onion, and cilantro.

2. Elotes/choclo con queso

Depending upon where you are in Latin America, you’ll find corn on the cob sold in a variety of permutations. Elotes are a beloved Mexican street food: boiled or grilled corn slathered with mayo, chile powder, and lime juice (you may instead find fresh kernels cut into plastic cups and mixed with same). Choclo con queso is found in parts of South America, like Peru and Ecuador. The deceptively simple pairing of chewy, boiled native corn (a world apart from our overly-sweet hybrids), served with a generous slice of handmade queso fresco is proof that two ingredients can still equal nirvana.

3. Dumplings from almost anywhere

Korean yakimandu, Russian pelmeni, Polish pierogis, Nepalese momos, Chinese bao; all delicious. Doughy dumpling relatives include Vietnamese bahn cuon (rice noodle sheets filled with ground pork, mushrooms, and shrimp), or Cantonese cheung fun (same, only filled with whole, peeled shrimp, and chopped scallion).

4. Roti

These flat, crispy/chewy Malaysian pancakes are found in various countries with a significant Muslim population. There are many different types, ranging from roti canai, a tissue-thin version served with a side of curry, to thicker, more doughy variations. In Southern Thailand, you’ll often find sweet roti filled with sliced banana and drizzled with condensed milk. Singaporean hawker centers are a great place to find a wide selection.

5. Chaat

These bite-size, salty, crispy, tangy snacks are traditionally indigenous to Northern India; the southern states have their own version, known as tiffin. Chaat is generally vegetarian, because vendors lack refrigeration; look for bites such as pani puri and bhel puri. These puffed, hollow rice crisps come with spiced potatoes, chickpeas, and condiments such as yogurt, chutney or spiced waters.

7. Empanadas

Most of Latin America has empanadas in some form: fried or baked dough stuffed with meat and other savory or, occasionally, sweet fillings. Argentina, however, is the undisputed king, wherein entire towns or provinces are famed for their empanadas. Salta, considered to be the empanada epicenter, produces varieties that reflect the arid region’s climate. Baked empanadas de choclo, a savory, hominy-like corn filling, or charqui, an air-dried beef softened by the steam from the baking process, make for exceptionally flavorful pastries. In Tucuman, empanadas are such a point of pride that they get their own Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada.

8. Kebabs, satay, yakitori, or other versions of meat-on-a-stick

‘Nuff said. [Ed’s note: Just ask @MikeSowden]

9. Pizza/calzone


10. Pho

Done right, few things are more nourishing, or nurturing, than a giant bowl of fragrant beef broth loaded with rice noodles, tender bits of meat, slices of chile, and herbs. Traditionally, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is from Hanoi, but you’ll find variations, including a version made with chicken, throughout Vietnam.

From street kids to culinary stars in Vietnam

As I strode into the restaurant, relieved to take a brief respite from the chaos that is Saigon’s streets, a warm smile greeted me. A young man, probably in his late teens, led me to a table and handed me a menu. There were fried pork ribs with lemongrass, ginger-braised chicken, steamed prawns in coconut juice. Not terribly surprising southeast Asian fare. But this was a surprisingly different restaurant.

People don’t come to Vietnam to eat. At least not historically. They came for other reasons. The Khmer, the Chinese, the French, the Americans came to occupy, to settle, to pillage, to exploit, to push back, or various other things that didn’t always sit well with the locals. And while they didn’t come for the food, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine is now indelible. The Khmer influence can be seen-or, rather, tasted-in the south, the Chinese in the north, the French all over the place (banh mi, anyone?).

But, like a lot of people these days, I came to Vietnam to eat. And I ate everything I could that didn’t previously bark. Including the wince-inducing stuff: rat, snake, pigs blood and various “other” parts of mammals. The Vietnamese are fiercely omnivorous and, like other southeast Asians, they don’t waste much of a plant or animal.

And while I left thinking that I could spend a decade or so eating my way through the country-the steaming bowls of pho in the morning, street cart sticky rice flavored with exotic fruits, the sweet, caramelized clay pot dishes have left me dreaming for more long after I departed-there was something else that was tugging at me: namely the estimated 19,000 street kids in Vietnam.

And the restaurant I was eating at in Saigon was trying to do something about it. Welcome to Huong Lai, a pioneer of sorts, not because of the acclaimed food it serves, but because of the employees. They’re all street kids, orphans whose first years of life were one of begging for money and sustenance.

Haong Lai isn’t the only restaurant and training center in Vietnam to turn streets kids into culinary stars. Koto, in Hanoi, has been doing the same. There’s also a similar school/restaurant in Cambodia. And they’re not just learning how to prepare spring rolls. They’re trained in cooking western dishes as well as other aspects of restaurant hospitality and they’re taught English.

The latest to throw its toque into the kitchen is Streets International. Located in Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, Streets was founded by Neal F. Bermas, a resident of Hoi An and New York City who teaches at New York University. The school and restaurant, located smack in the center of UNESCO-protected Hoi An, received donations from various international organizations as well as an annual charity event in New York City. Which was where I caught up with Bermas last week. While the attendees were munching on food from restaurants such as Blue Smoke, Cabrito, Tabla, and Colicchio & Sons, Bermas told me about that light bulb moment for Streets: “It was my first night in Saigon over a decade ago and I came across these streets kids. They had these dark yet beautifully compelling eyes. And as time went on, I just kept coming back to that image.” Bermas hopes to expand the model to other parts of Vietnam and even southeast Asia.

Which got me wondering: what is it about southeast Asia, in general, and Vietnam, in particular, that has bred this great idea to deal with poverty? Bermas had an intriguing answer: “This model works particularly well in so-called developing countries when the tourism industry is just starting to take off.” And in Vietnam it’s doing just that. Tourism is up fifteen percent in the last few years. The economy grew last year by four percent, which is a lot considering most of the world’s economic activity has slowed to a crawl.

Because Streets International is about a year old, no one has graduated from the 18-month training program yet. But the endeavor can already be called a success. Not just for taking a handful of kids off the streets. As Bermas told me last week, Nam Hai, the upscale resort on the coast near Hoi An, has said they would hire the entire first batch of trainees.

Now that’s well worth tucking in to a bowl of steamed prawns in coconut juice during your next visit to Vietnam for.

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.

South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Gadling’s tribute to foodie travel

Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I’m probably the worst foodie traveler on the planet. I stood by while my companions ate horse sashimi in Tokyo, politely declined the boiling hot oyster balls in Osaka, ordered the steak instead of the borscht in Russia, and definitely skipped the chicken feet in Hong Kong. Andrew Zimmern makes me uncomfortable, my first tuna roll was in Bangkok last year and even with a Vietnamese mother, I’ll admit that I don’t like phở.

It’s true that gastronomic exploration is an excellent way to experience a culture, eat like a local and try something exotic, but there are more significant components to foodie travel then competing to see who can eat the most outlandish viscera. Food brings people and cultures to a communal table, a place where stories are exchanged, traditions are observed and friends are made. And this can happen at the dive bar in the red light district or at the 4 star Michelin rated restaurant at the top of the finest hotel in the city.

Enjoying food on the road can thus come in many forms, some in plain sight in a guide book and others, more subtle, in a host’s kitchen or at a marketplace vendor. Today at Gadling we’ll be covering all points on the spectrum, from some of our favorite hotspots to strategies for making your meal worth it’s buck. We hope you enjoy it.