Saigon Street Food Journal #1
One of the greatest things about Saigon is its street food. There’s an endless variety, it’s ultra-cheap, and (almost always) delicious. This was the number one reason we had been excited about living in Saigon, and so far we haven’t been disappointed. We eat out for both lunch and dinner, and often breakfast. And when plates cost around a dollar, there’s no reason not to indulge… if we especially loved a particular dish, we’ll gleefully order another round. It happens more often than I’d like to admit.
Bún Bò is one of the most popular dishes in Saigon. We see it advertised even more frequently than phở. Originally from Hue, this soup combines rice vermicelli noodles (bún) and beef (bò), with veggies like cilantro, cabbage and onions, in a tangy, sweet and spicy broth. It has already become our default dish — if we’re feeling like something we know will be delicious, we’ll sit down at the nearest bún bò shop.
Location: we first tried it near the market of Chợ Thị Nghè.
Individually translating the words of this snack’s name yields something like “Covered, Grilled Cake”, but we’ve been referring to it as “Vietnamese Pizza”. A thin, round piece of rice paper is covered with ingredients like bacon, egg and chives, and then finished off with a sweet, red sauce. You can find bánh tráng nướng all around, but we tried ours from a lady who sits in front of the central post office.
The translation of “cơm tấm” is “broken rice”, and that’s literally what it is: broken rice grains, accompanied with any variety of meat and veggies. Pork ribs are a popular topping, and the dish often comes with a slice of omelet. In the west, rice which has been damaged during the milling process is not sold for consumption, but here, it’s turned into a delicious meal; there’s no nutritional difference with unbroken grains, and tastes just the same.
Location: We like this one near our apartment.
These delicate rice-paper dumplings are filled with pork and served in a sweet and spicy sauce, with some veggies like onion and chives. And they are heavenly. We first discovered this in an alleyway near our house. The proximity is dangerous, because every time we walk by, we’re tempted to grab a plate. The lady who works there has already gone from joy about her new regular customers, to concern for our mental well-being.
Bún… okay, we learned earlier that this means “vermicelli”. No idea what “đậu mắm tôm” is, but the plate on our neighbor’s table looks safe enough: noodles, and a bunch of meat and veggies. “One Bún Đậu Mắm Tôm, please!” Upon being served, our noses are assaulted by the smell of rotting fish. Măm tôm, it turns out, means fermented shrimp paste. We’re expected to dip our delicious food into this horrid bowl of putrid sauce?! Fine, “when in Rome”, I guess. Turns out, the sauce actually tastes kind of good on the tongue… but the odor wafting up into your nasal passages might force you to wretch. This dish is going to take some acclimatization. That will be your job, Jürgen. Congratulations, you have been named the “Măm Tôm Expert” of our relationship.
During one of Saigon’s typical, oppressively hot afternoons, we were wandering aimlessly about a residential neighborhood in Phuong 11, and found a small family shop which was selling cool shakes. Unable to resist, we sat down… or tried to, anyway. Sweaty, man-gorillas attempting to balance on doll-sized stools must be quite the attraction, because by the time we finally managed to get settled, we were already neighborhood celebrities. While a cadre of shirtless children cackled over our every clumsy action, the shop’s family worked as a seamless unit: daughter helped translate, dad showed us plastic models of the various fruits (our audience squealed with delight when I made the mistake of trying to sniff one of the plastic fruits), and mom insisted we try bánh plan trà xanh, which was like a green tea flan served with crushed ice and coffee, covered in sweet, condensed milk.
-Learn how to cook Vietnamese with this cookbook.
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