Vietnam: Saigon

Vietnam: Saigon

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
18 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743792193
Photographer
Alan Benson

Saigon. Crazy-hectic and developing at an astounding pace, it’s got an energy and dynamism you can almost smell. I totally love it. Maybe I’m biased though, as the city is now my second home. It’s also where my family came from before they moved to Australia all those years ago, so the place is virtually in my DNA.

Naturally I’m addicted to the street food, and I practically trip over it every day because this town is one heaving smorgasbord of outdoor dining options, wherever you venture or look. Seafood, fresh herbs, prodigious varieties of vegetables, sweetish, light flavours, and simple cooking styles are the hallmarks of Saigon’s food, though being Vietnam’s biggest city, there’s plenty of regional fare from other corners of the country on offer too. Throw in some French influence (you haven’t lived until you’ve had Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk, or a crunchy-fluffy baguette filled with local charcuterie) and an uber-vibrant Chinatown and you’ve got an incredibly rich street food repertoire.

The locals all have their favourite food haunts and one of mine is Cô Giang Street in District 1. I like to come here early, when it’s still a little calm, and breakfast on bún thit nuong, which consists of honey-marinated grilled pork, springy rice noodles, herbs, pickled vegetables, spring rolls and peanuts. This dish, typical of Saigon cuisine, contains every texture imaginable – crunchy, slippery, chewy, snappy, slurpy.

During the day, as I poke around streets and back alleys across Saigon’s 24 districts, I can’t stop grazing on tasty little snacks. Like bánh khot: crisp, soft-centred ‘pancakes’ made in special pans using a turmeric-scented batter. You eat them with fresh herbs, wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham, or sweetened fish sauce. Then there are Saigon’s myriad soups, which are perfect for this hot climate. Súp cua óc heo, or crab soup with pork brain, is light and fragrant and way more delicious than it might sound. Bún măm is a porky-seafoody noodle soup dish based on pungent, fermented anchovy stock that’s really typical of this part of Vietnam, and another favourite dish. And, of course, there’s pho. When people ask where I get the best pho (and they always do), I take them down an alleyway in District 1, through clouds of spice-infused steam, where the family at Pho Ngoc have been making this iconic dish for 40 years. Coming here is like being fed by your grandmother; the atmosphere is warm and the pho is indescribably good.

As night settles, the pace on the street intensifies, with scooters, cyclists and taxis zeroing in on favourite evening eats. I like to hang out in non-touristy District 4, where my uncle lives. The fragrance of lemongrass, lime, black pepper and garlic oil hangs in the air and there’s cooking – and eating – activity right on the pavements. Uncle Four has shown me all his special haunts and now, if you come with me, I’ll share them with you too.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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