#002: The Food in Ho Chi Minh VietnamTak's dispatch released on 28 October 2014

Alley Kitchen in Saigon

Food in Ho Chi Minh Vietnam

Vietnamese Foods for the Week

Very well executed food can come out of any quarter in this fine world of ours—Michelin-starred dining establishments, low-key fish shacks, your grandmother’s kitchen and gritty, grotty alleyways. What really draws you to Vietnam’s cuisine is the excellent execution of balance and the complexity achieved through seeming simplicity. Dishes here tend to marry sugars to acids with great play while the salty, pungency of fermented fish sauce disappears into a plethora of dishes and sauces with miraculous results for the taste buds.

Yet, while mind-blowing culinary transformations are tearing apart your senses, you notice that the kitchens are not loaded with Viking double-cooktops, shiny stainless-steel overhead hoods, industrial refrigerators, fine Japanese cutlery or Kitchenaid whatever-may-have-yous. Rather, many of these “kitchens” are cobbled together with a pan or two, a flame and a couple of containers setup on the ground in an alleyway (as pictured above), or rolling on the back of a bike with wires dangling from a battery. The grills are not $3,000USD behemoths, but old metal bowls with a hole cut out of the bottom and a charcoal fire built underneath. Thus, we see a recurring theme of complexity and simplicity—complex flavours coming from simple materials and simple ingredients. It is a cuisine built upon many years of focus, dedication, innovation, integration, inspiration and community.

Anyways, before that whole train of thought turns into a whole post of its own, let’s look at some of the food in Ho Chi Minh this week.

Phở bò Nam (Pho with sliced flank steak):
Phở bò Nam

One of the most popularly known dishes of Vietnamese cuisine, pho. It seems with a little bit of poking around, you find your pho spot that ends up becoming your source whenever the pho pangs strike. You gussy up your pho with culantro (not cilantro!), thai basil, a chile pepper relish, chile peppers, hoison sauce and lime juice, although in reality if you just enjoyed the pho unadulterated, you’d be super satisfied as well.

The wonderfully transparent beef pho broth is made from slow-cooking beef bones over a good period of time. The rich flavour and color is a direct result of the marrow contained within. Sometimes you see recipes or photos online where someone pretends to be a pho kingpin yet the broth is murky and opaque. Or you might see where people advise the use of cilantro rather than culantro which is a completely different herb with a completely different flavour. Substitutions like this are fine if that is what you want to do, but if someone is pretending to be making “authentic” Vietnamese pho and doing some of these things, you’ve been tipped off that they most assuredly are a self-confident hack.

When the pho comes to the table in Ho Chi Minh, it comes alongside the basil, cultantro, lime, fish sauce, etc. Thus, it is like a beautiful canvas (rather than a blank one) that you can freely embellish (or not). You play with extra lime one time, and play with less the next. You see how that one addition changes things. You add hoison sauce one visit, and do without the next. How does the hoison play with the lime you wonder? A tremendous fun for the taste-inclined.

Bánh Mì Xíu Mại (Banh Mi with spiced pork meatballs):
Bánh Mì Xíu Mại

Bánh Mì Xíu Mại, or without the diacritics, Banh Mi Xiu Mai is essentially ground pork meatballs tucked into a beautifully fresh Vietnamese-style baguette with a nice compliment of fresh vegetables and a sauce. These are prepared by street vendors and restaurants and everyone else in between. Some are open during the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evenings and a few in the overnight hours.

The banh mi is typical Vietnamese ingenuity on display, whereby they melded new culinary items that arrived alongside the French occupation, such as baguettes, into their own masterpiece. You realize after observation and research that there are a lot of twists in Vietnamese food that come from the French, including the consumption (and domestic cultivation) of avocados, carrots (seen in banh mi above), coffee, onions and even beef. Cooking with butter? That as well.

Bánh Mì Baguette Crust:
Bánh Mì Baguette

Surely you find it difficult to describe the Vietnamese baguettes but a photograph (above) perhaps conveys something special. The exterior of the baguettes you’ve had have a light but crisp crust (as pictured) and the interior is soft with some chew. You surmise these Vietnamese baguettes would draw some amount of scoffing in strict Parisian quarters due to lack of good crumb and other baguette requirements, but we all hopefully realize that these aren’t to replace French baguettes. Rather, they are their own entity, and were specially crafted to perfectly pair with the various fillings across the banh mi spectrum—and that they do.

Cá Chiên (Fried Red Snapper) with shredded cabbage, rice & beans:
Fried Red Snapper

You are wandering along a narrow street, with cackling motorbikes providing a gentle breeze as they sail by, when you notice plates of whole fried fish being escorted from a hole in the wall to a brightly-lit room filled with focused individuals enjoying those seated next to them, and the delights placed in front of them. You sit down at the no-frills stainless-steel table, replete with requisite fish sauce, chili sauce, chopsticks and western utensils. Soon thereafter, a complimentary glass of iced tea is in your hand and a pitcher nearby. A couple more minutes elapse, at which point someone is walking down the same narrow street with cackling motorbikes. It is then that they observes a full fried fish plate being walked along in your direction.

You notice, rather immediately, that, while the rice underneath is hot, the temperature of the fish is ambient. At first, this is a jolting obervation to your western sensibilities. You are used to food coming out piping hot or chilled cold, but ambient? But then you realize that it doesn’t come out that way here. It is cooked in a batch and it is enjoyed as it is. You recall that in many instances, they are working with just one pan. This is the way it is. Once you put away those preconceived notions, and drizzle on the special sauce, and taste the flavours, you easily forget about what you think it should be, and realize you are enjoying it as it “should be”, which is quite a special treat.

Bún Bò Xào (Beef with Noodles):
Bún Bò Xào (Beef with Noodles)

The late afternoon rains are in full force, as are your hunger pangs. You cavort through the fascinating alleyways, somewhat protected from the skies, in the downtown district south of Phạm Ngũ Lão Street. Sure, it is known as the backpackers area and sure it is littered with some street hawkers and theme restaurants, but there is much more going on here than just that. You notice that while it indeed has more of a tourist bent than other areas, there is a lot of authentic activity going on here as well. As such, as you cruise through the alleyways, you notice the local beer hangout with nary a Westerner in sight, the fruit dealers pushing, pulling and driving wooden fruit carts and, of course, the hole-in-the-wall true-to-form restaurants.

A Vietnamese grandmother stands at the division of alley and restaurant in front of an efficient cooking setup. At her left stands a Vietnamese woman one generation removed. In between them a pile of flip flops in the entryway and behind them a simple setup consisting of a low-level table and some coloured-plastic stools set upon a white tile floor.

You order beef, noodles and vegetables, or bun bo xao. The older woman gets to work, methodically cutting, cooking and plating a fine masterpiece. You dress it with the fermenting house-made chiles and fish sauces. You relish the simplicity of the dish and the complexity of flavour that she masterfully musters out of her compact, semi-portable “kitchen”. This is a dish with tremendous amounts of soul, cooked only as grandmother could.

As you finish your meal, she appears in front of you with a perfectly ripened banana, thoughtful eyes and a warm smile. It is a heart-warming conclusion to your dish. You don’t know the name of her “restaurant”, nor do you need to know, rather, you simply know it as “Grandma’s”. When you want a simple, consistent and perfectly executed dish wrapped up in soulful preparation, you return to Grandma’s.

Bún Xào Hải Sản (Seafood with Noodles):
Bún Xào Hải Sản (Seafood with Noodles)

Grandma’s seafood, noodle and vegetable plate. Another fine choice. Another complimentary banana. Another pair of big smiles exchanged.

Bánh Bột Chiên (Fried Rice Flour Cakes w/ Egg and Noodle):
Bánh Bột Chiên (Fried Rice Flour Cake w/ Egg and Noodle)

You are now wandering outside of the core of downtown. You are searching for something to eat, and are pretty certain it will be some kind of grilled meat. Smokes billiows out of numerous stalls, drawing you closer. One spot looks perfect, but the seats are filled past capacity. You decide to continue, confident that you will be drawn to something else.

You cross another busy intersection—motorbikes just in front of you, motorbikes just behind you. The sun is setting casting a familiar glow across the busy street scene. You pass by several more options, nothing is catching your fancy. And then, on the left, is an open flame dancing, a pan sputtering and a busy gentleman tending to his craft.

Someone is waiting nearby for their order. You peer inside the pock-marked metal disc and see fried eggs, scallions and potatoes coming together in surreal fashion. This is it. You stop the search. You make hand gestures, pointing excitedly at the dish and inquiring on price.

The price is right, and you are led to the now ubiquitous coloured-plastic stools down an alley to await your order. It arrives after perhaps 10 minutes and looks even better than what you could have imagined. How is this street food? Everything melds perfectly—the sweet chili sauce, the zing of the scallion, the perfectly-cooked egg.

A couple days later, you are sitting in the park on a late afternoon, and are greeted by a gaggle of excited Vietnamese students who want to practice their English—what is your name, where are you from, the standard litany of questions. At some point, they ask you what dishes you have had in Vietnam that you really like. You rack your memory; you don’t want to just go straight to the popular pho or bahn mi answer. Then it hits you, that potato and egg dish. You want to know more about it, so you offer it up as a discussion point.

Blank stares and confusion! The more you describe it, the more confused they become. You assume they don’t know what the English word for egg is. No, they do seem to know what an egg is. You assume maybe they don’t know the word for potato—another import of French influence—but it surely seems they do know what a potato is. After good effort, you are forced to give up. They don’t know what this dish is and you don’t know why. Perhaps it is not common, perhaps it is some specialty of that roadside operation?

A couple days later, while at Grandma’s, it hits you. The woman to Grandma’s left is cooking something with an egg. You spring up from your stool and peer over, and, of course, there it is—the potato egg dish. You have now proven to yourself that this is not some rare exotic dish, this is something well-known. You still have no idea what it is called, and once again order it using hand-gestures.

So off to the internet, as your best hope, to hunt down the name of the dish. You do searches for “eggs potatoes Vietnamese”, “Vietnamese cuisine”, “Vietnamese street dishes”, on and on trying to find the dish, but nothing. You search for “eggs scallions sweet chile sauce vietnam”, “fried egg dish vietanam”, and a littany of other possibilities oscillating between word and image search. Nothing, nothing and nothing. But then, after much effort and time, you come stumbling into the promised land, Bánh Bột Chiên,

Bánh Bột Chiên. There it is, there is the image, there is the description and as you read onwards, down comes your whole house of cards. It is much like unlocking a combination lock, you had 5 of 6 digits right and were pulling zealously at the lock to no avail. The last digit? Those were not potatoes. The last digit was rather rice flour cakes, small cubes of rice flour pan-fried to perfection.

Those rice creations complimented the eggs just as well as any fried potatoes would, but the texture was something even more grand. In fact, then you rememeber that as you ate those “potatoes”, you wondered what they had done to get such perfect texture. Now you understand, the secret was not in how they cooked the potatoes, but that they weren’t cooking potatoes. The secret texture arrived by utilizing what they utilize so deftly and creatively in Vietnamese cuisine, rice. Of course. Rice.

Quán Ụt Ụt, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam [Non-Vietnamese Cuisine]
Quan Ut Ut BBQ Pork Ribs

So you are sitting at Grandma’s alleyway restaurant, eating a fine meal of rice & vegetables (which you somehow ordered in broken Vietnamese) and thought, “they have a lot of pork in Vietnam, it would probably be great to experiment with American-style BBQ here.”

Well, the following evening you stumble across Quán Ụt Ụt, which is an American BBQ restaurant opened by some guy from Chicago, a Frenchman and an Aussie in early-2014. Anyways, it is located along the canal at 168 Vo Van Kiet in District 1.

Was that idea a good one? Does Ho Chi Minh have some of the best American BBQ in the world as some reviews lead you to believe? Read about it here

Travel Hack: Travel Lighter, Travel Smarter

One of the things that really fascinates you, from what I understand, is the practice of “backpackers” that carry vast quantities of whatever it is they carry. They have a giant backpack on their back, another on their front, and a bunch of junk dangling off of those backpacks.

So you try to identify with them, but the only time you had a large backpack was the time you wild-camped across a Scottish island northwest of the mainland. In that instance, you needed a strong, waterproof tent to fend off the Atlantic storms whipping the landscape. You needed a sleeping bag to keep warm during the damp night. And given the lack of any human infrastructure or civilization between points A and B, you needed food and methods of drinking from the streams or sky. In summary, you had a large backpack because you were living in the wild (under less than optimal conditions).

Yet you see these backpackers who are living in hostels, guesthouses and hotels who have more stuff than you had in the wilds of Scotland. How can it be? One good hunch is the severe overpacking of clothes, and for this you have a solution. When they are traveling, they may reasonably conclude that they “need” clean clothes. They may also reasonably conclude that they either will not find, or do not want to spend time in, a laundromat. All valid assertions indeed. But just like our forebears did as standard practice, they too have the ability to hand wash clothes.

And so, in this nice simple film, we will display how quick and easy and great it is to hand wash clothes while traveling (or even when not traveling if the need arises). It really isn’t a terrible amount of work and for the amount of weight it saves, it is a vital part of how you travel (when traveling quick & nimble).

A couple others points to add: if you have a stopper in the sink (or for the sink) and the sink is clean (or you don’t mind making it so) and the sink is deep enough, then you don’t need the plastic bag. Second, only fill the bag about half way or so with clothes so you have room to work without making a mess. Finally, once you have finished rinsing out all the soap, lay your clothes flat onto a towel (if you have a spare kicking around) and roll them up in it. Then squeeze the rolled up towel. This will take some of the excess moisture from the clothes out and help your clothes dry quicker. I use cotton, which isn’t the quickest drying fabric ever. If you use something like silk, then all the better.

Obviously, this whole fandangle is applicable for backpackers, flashpackers and casual travelers. If you are traveling for a short period, traveling for business, traveling with a higher-level budget, traveling with complex fashions (like dresses and suits) or traveling with your hand-selected butlers and/or maids, this is not as applicable.

Live Vietnamese Music

The first time you thought it was maybe the performer. The second time you thought it was maybe the performer. Eventually you worked your way up to a statistically valid sample size and so you form opinions that you can convince yourself as being scientifically correct and accurate. In simple form: an extended bout of live Vietnamese music can be some of the most awful, terrible, horrendous and miserable additions to your foreign ear. You sit in your room—which is by a large park where one of these truly dreadful performances is held every single night for a couple hours until 21:00—and increase your torture tolerance by leaps and bounds. Every. Single. Night. The only thing that comes to your aid is the chance thunderstorm. How you wish for that daily thunderstorm. And you thought you wanted to come here during dry season; what a mistake that would have been.

The Recipe is as follows:
1 slow drum beat
3 awful voices
2 twirrly, grating sitar

Mix slow drum beat with molasses so that it is even slower than a quadriplegic climbing a tree. Add awful voices ensuring no reasonable melody ensues. Imagine the sound a dying wolf would make if it was being eaten from the inside by angry fire ants, and vocalize. The second voice should sound like an orangutan that just got its hip gashed open by nine rusty shovels. The final voice needs to do something unrelated to the first two, just ensure extreme loudness. Compliment all of this with some endlessly droning (and loud) sitars. Mix together. Increase volume. Let it come unglued. Increase volume. Increase Volume. Increase Volume…

And then you hear it, the rain starting to dance on the corrugated tin roofs. That is the music you so desperately sought! Life is good.

Looking Forward to the Week Ahead

The rainy season is still sputtering along, with quick rains coming nearly every afternoon. Typically they seem to fall somewhere between 3pm and 7pm and last about 30 minutes, and usually it is just one shower a day. In any case, it does not seem to disrupt things much at all. If you find yourself out in the middle of one of these downpours, you can nearly always find a large overhang or some sort of shelter from which you can observe the transformations that rain brings.

This is just one of those good life lessons though, that when it rains, it is a great time to stop what you are doing and observe. You don’t really need to get “there” quick. You don’t really need to do “that” right now. You don’t need to get hysterical. Just let the rain come and watch the rain go. You notice here that life goes on just as it did before the rain, and it will go on just as it did after.

In the event that you really do NEED to get wherever you were headed right away, you might be happy to note that your skin was specially crafted to get wet without ill effect. Your clothes, your skin and your hair all dry off—as if nothing ever happened, imagine that. Just another fine experience that life allows at no charge.

As you look forward, it seems that beverages are increasingly a great part of your life in Ho Chi Minh, so perhaps that is a good direction to dart in, is it not?

Until next week, enjoy!

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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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