Vietnam has well over 100 street food dishes, most of them dreamt up locally, with a smattering coming from overseas. But which of these dishes are quintessentially Vietnamese? And which dishes are the true originals?
Street food is an obsession. Rich or poor, old or young, all like to get their fix. In an environment where status no longer takes precedence, the only important thing is the quality of the food. In Vietnam, street food is the great equaliser.
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Like other street food eateries, do nuong joints don’t have much in the way of amenities. When the sun goes down, plastic stools come out and sacks of vegetables are chopped into manageable morsels destined for the grill. But unlike one-bowl meals like pho and bun cha, these barbecue feasts are meant to be shared. We combed Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for the best places to get your grill on.
In the beginning, baguettes were for the rich. When the French first brought over their banh tay — ‘foreign cakes’ — they were an extravagance. Rich Vietnamese people would take the loaves and dip them in condensed milk. And no one ever thought to put cheap meats inside.
Five minutes into my first banh xeo, I’m wondering if I should have opted for a less ambitious dish. In one hand I’m holding a wok the size of a small refrigerator. With the other, I’m trying to ladle a mixture of rice flour and coconut milk across the scalding surface. Even pho — the archetypal Vietnamese street food dish — seems less daunting.
In the early 1920s, food connoisseur and writer Thach Lam penned the following words about street food in Hanoi: “There is no time in a day that one can’t find street food. Each hour is a different one; eating street food is an art: one has to eat at that right hour and buy it from that right man — that’s a connoisseur.”