Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl
Insiders' advice for dining on the streets
By Robyn Lewis
As soon as you arrive in Vietnam, you are struck by the food. Almost everywhere you go there are street stalls – some selling vegetables, fruit or freshly-squeezed juices, even fish and meat – but many cooking meals on the spot. For Westerners unused to anything more al fresco that a café table in the sun, it can be quite a shock.
But then the inviting aromas take over! Many street stalls specialise in just one dish, whether dumplings, sticky rice balls or the ubiquitous pho (noodle soup; pronounced like ‘fur’), regarded by the Vietnamese as a national treasure. In Hanoi, whole laneways are devoted to street food – to find the best, simply look for the longest queue (and be prepared to wait).
It seems that almost twenty-four hours a day, you can eat on the streets of Vietnam, well and cheaply. Many urban-dwelling locals dine there regularly, and for foreigners with even a small spirit of adventure, it’s the place to taste the local flavours, whilst absorbing the lively atmosphere. The smell of food tantalises you to explore, and damn the occasional diesel fumes and cacophony of motor cycles. Welcome to the healthy fast-food nation.
I have lived and worked all over Asia and have never once been ill from eating street food. Perhaps it’s because it’s all cooked fresh, and nothing is kept and refrigerated overnight – the vendors make enough to meet demand, and if that runs out, then you simply find another stall, or come back tomorrow! Sure, it’s best to be cautious about the water, but if food is thoroughly cooked, then in my experience you are fairly safe.
Co-author of Vietnamese Street Food Tracey Lister is a former Melbourne chef, who went to Vietnam with husband Andreas Pohl over a decade ago, and never looked back. This is their joint production and the product of some dedicated food sleuthing.
In their early days there they teamed up with Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy Pham, who established KOTO (Know One Teach One), a charity to teach homeless kids the basics of cooking and hospitality. Their first book KOTO – a culinary journey through Vietnam was a result.
Tracey has since established a successful cooking school out of Hanoi, and has even cooked traditional Vietnamese food for official state dinners – so who better than to guide us through the vast menu of offerings that greets the visitor venturing outdoors?
I find Vietnamese street food to be far more approachable and interesting than that of Thailand (as much as I love that too), and regard Vietnamese cuisine – with its subtle French influences – as perhaps the finest in Asia. So forgive a little bias here, although it’s based on years of happy experimentation….
Over a hundred years of French colonisation left many marks on Vietnamese cuisine, from baguettes, croissants and coffee in the morning, to the use of spices and herbs like dill which are unknown in the rest of Asia. Cooking techniques also incorporate French methods – sauces, simmering and slow cooking are a contrast to the stir fries so ubiquitous elsewhere.
Whilst Vietnamese Street Food does not emphasise this heritage, it is there if you look, especially in the last savoury chapter on baguettes – Vietnam’s answer to the sandwich.
Many of the recipes in Vietnamese Street Food have been cooked by their creators (and forebears) for years, even decades; some are very traditional indeed. I imagine that they could cook them in their sleep. You and I may need a little more practice and guidance, but the book provides it, in detail.
As their authors point out, their biggest difficulty was selecting the dishes to include. They started with ones they loved the most, but also ensuring that examples from as many regions of this geographically dispersed country and its range of cooking techniques (from deep frying to dry steaming) were included.
Of course there is pho (noodle soup), although the index is constructed in such a way as to make some recipes difficult to find – look under noodles, then cellophane and rice noodles for the beef, chicken, duck, fish and other variants.
Another staple of Vietnamese street food – especially at lunchtime – is bun cha: chargrilled pork patties with cold vermicelli (the ‘bun’ component), served with various dipping sauces, usually wrapped in a lettuce leaf with Vietnamese mint and/or other pungent herbs (another taste that Western palates might take some getting used to). Again the index lets the book down, however (it needs more of the Vietnamese names as well as English), but you’ll eventually find it on page 46.
The recipes are divided into seven chapters: five on savoury dishes, one on sweets (only six recipes, but good especially if you like fruit desserts), and the last on the various dipping sauces and condiments served with almost every Vietnamese meal. This chapter is particularly good and provides even a novice cook with simple ways to add authentic Vietnamese touches to your cooking without resorting to the preservative-laden and somewhat boring-tasting equivalents found in Australian supermarkets or Asian supply stores.
The first chapter is dedicated to spring rolls, described as ‘perhaps Vietnam’s most well-known culinary export’. Australian-Asian restaurant menus usually feature only prawn or pork variants, but the book has recipes for beef, tofu, Chinese sausage (lap cheong), jicama (yam bean, often hard to find in Australia), crab and omelette. The book assumes however that you live somewhere near a store selling rice-paper wrappers; no recipe is provided for this essential component, or any substitute, so if you’re one of the perhaps 50% of Australians (or more?) who don’t have access to them, then bad luck I guess, or look on the internet. (They keep well unrefrigerated, and could easily be posted).
The next chapter is grill/roast – both very popular techniques with marinated meats and poultry – which according to the authors, ‘group(s) recipes where the preparation requires slightly more effort, but the results are rewarding’. These include several dishes suitable for the barbecue, ideal for beer food and summer.
Recipes include barbecued/grilled pork, duck, squid, chicken, beef and fish, for which to be totally authentic you would be using a charcoal brazier, plus two clay pot dishes under ‘roasts’ (more correctly pot roasts).
Next comes boiling and steaming, although there is no visual cue to tell you that you are now in another section, so I find it gets a bit confusing. Here you can find dishes such as Sticky Rice with Peanuts – a children’s favourite (perhaps our Western epidemic of peanut allergy and phobia has yet to reach Vietnam?), Wonton Soup, the elusive Pho, and Duck Rice Porridge – which you can make with a purchased ready-cooked Peking duck, again should you be lucky enough to have a nearby supply, or substitute with fish or chicken.
There are only a few vegetarian dishes, including Sticky Rice with Turmeric and Mung Beans, Bitter Gourd and Tofu, and Mock Crab Soup, which is surprising as many Vietnamese follow the Buddhist tradition of eating vegetarian food on the first day of the lunar month; some more regularly.
The next savoury section is ‘fry’: real snack food, mostly easy to make at home in the wok or deep fryer. Recipes include West Lake (of Hanoi fame) Prawn Cakes, Fried Rice Cakes with Egg from Ho Chi Minh City, the classic Salt-and-Pepper Squid from all along Vietnam’s extensive coastline, and the easy and delicious Stir-Fried Lemongrass Beef with Noodles.
The effort to quantity ratio is high for most dishes; in many ways, the book is an evocative souvenir of a trip to Vietnam, rather than something you might use to cook for your family or for large-scale entertaining, unless you have plenty of kitchen-savvy helpers. The nature of street food is that it is cooked quickly (with most of the preparation done beforehand, as with stir fries) and served almost immediately, sometimes a few pieces at a time; not necessarily conducive to relaxing with guests unless they are all in the kitchen. But I imagine that most would take no more time than tempura, and could be as much fun.
The last section is for baguettes and salads – the latter sometimes served in the former. There are baguettes stuffed with Salt Steamed Chicken, Pâté and Cold Cuts (that French influence again), Lemongrass Beef Skewers, Omelette, and Fish Patties with Coriander and Chilli, plus salads built around Lotus Root, Eel with Cellophane Noodles and Mint, and Green Papaya.
Disappointingly, the recipe for baguettes themselves is absent, which given they are made not to the standard French manner but contain rice flour as well as wheat, is to me an oversight. Refer to Luke Nguyen’s Indochine or the internet instead.
I do like the last chapter on sweets however; perhaps it’s because I am not a chocoholic, and enjoy fruit based desserts and healthier treats than cream and loads of sugar. Sticky rice makes a wonderful dessert base, here as Ginger Sticky Rice Cakes, but you could also use mango, banana or even durian if you can get it.
The Fruit Cup includes a Vietnamese favourite, condensed milk – a highly underrated ingredient for the home chef – here it’s mixed with coconut milk and yoghurt. Or try the refreshing Banana and Coconut Soup, which can be served hot in winter or over ice in summer.
Sadly, the glossary lets the book down as much if not more than the recipe index. I find it hard to understand why or how, in these days of computer-generated indices, tables of contents, and glossaries, these should be so neglected in a book such as Vietnamese Street Food where the food terms and ingredients are not on the tip of everyone’s tongues. What exactly are ‘green rice’, jicama and char lua? Please explain. (The more unusual herbs including perilla are better covered).
And while the person responsible is at it, why not spend another 30 seconds, press the sort button and order the glossary alphabetically? It’s meant to be a pleasure, not a chore, to read and use a cookbook, and readers should not have to Google the ingredients frequently. It signals ‘in a rush to get to print’ to me.
Which brings me to the font. I don’t know whose bright idea it was to print each recipe’s method in a pale to mid-tone grey, but clearly they don’t spend much time in the kitchen. Yes, it may look more aesthetic alongside the lovely photos, but try finding the recipes’ next step quickly whilst in mid-dish. Forget it.
That said, the book has some good recipes, once you locate them. The section on dipping sauces and condiments at the rear is excellent, ditto the evocative photos by Michael Fountoulakis. His street scenes intersperse the yummy food shots (along with some lovely stories of several vendors) and he clearly has an eye for the real Vietnam, crumbling masonry, plastic bags, cheap enamel plates and all.
It’s a country I love and want to visit again; mainly for this reason I enjoy Vietnamese Street Food. Its paperback format is far more usable that the 3 kg weight of David Thompson’s Thai Street Food, and some of the recipes are sure to become favourites. Others will fuel dreams of a walk down the streets and laneways, following my nose to the nearest stall….
Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl is published by Hardie Grant (Melbourne, 2011; sc, 208 pp) and retails in Australia for A$39.95.
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