When I was a kid, a cook would set up a green canvas army tent behind my family’s general store in Ðà Lat. He made only one dish: crispy egg noodles with seafood. I would go there frequently after school (we lived over the store) while I was waiting for my parents to finish work. I’d sit on a low stool waiting for my order, listening to the sizzle of liquid hitting the hot wok and the monsoon rains battering the tent, the air thick with the smell of browning noodles. It’s one of my first food memories.
Vietnam is full of snackers who are never far from a quick bite. Because the country is lacking in entry-level jobs, and because there is a huge market for food cooked outside the home (most home kitchens are poorly equipped or very cramped), people start their own ad hoc businesses, including food stalls. The entrepreneurial spirit drives cooks to the streets, where they master the art of making a single dish: sticky rice, banana fritters, green papaya salad. The cooks employ every technique—deep-frying in jury-rigged pots set over open fires, stir-frying in big woks over high flames, steaming in giant lidded bamboo baskets balanced atop rickety propane burners—to make snacks that are served and eaten on the spot. Even talented home cooks don’t make these dishes at home. Yes, space is at a premium, but an attitude persists too: why try to make something at home that you can so easily and cheaply purchase from someone who has perfected the recipe? Since we don’t have the luxury of a steamed-bun vendor or stand on every corner here in the United States, making these snacks at home is the only option.
Unlike the subsequent chapters in this book, which explain a single technique, the unifying element of the recipes in this chapter is that they’re some of the most popular foods that you’ll find sold from stalls in cities and small towns throughout Vietnam.
Street food offers a direct connection between the cook and the eater. Part of what makes the food so appealing is that it’s superfresh. You’re literally watching the dishes being made, start to finish, in front of your eyes. It is Vietnam’s answer to fast food, only it is far more interesting, varied, and well prepared.
Unlike a full-service restaurant, street vendors usually make only one or two items. That means they’ve spent their entire careers perfecting their recipe, customizing their equipment, sourcing the best ingredients. After trying an excellent bite from a vendor, I’ve often asked for the recipe. Not a single cook has ever given me one. The recipe, and the practiced technique, is as much a commodity as the food they’re selling you.
The three common denominators that help identify the best vendors: they’re usually stationary, serve a single dish or one ingredient prepared in a few different ways, and they’re always crowded.
In Vietnam, the foods you buy from street vendors aren’t categorized as hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, or main courses, though some items are traditionally served at certain times of the day. Rice porridge (page 20) and soup are found in the morning and are rarely eaten after lunch. Sweets stalls might open for only a few hours each evening. A soup vendor might pop up for a few hours during the morning commute, then pack up until the next day.
We serve many of the recipes in this chapter at The Slanted Door, where they’re some of the most popular items on the menu. Those favored Vietnamese street foods inspired the first dishes we served when we opened in 1995, and they have remained on the menu ever since. Some, like the fresh spring rolls (page 44), are easy. Others, like the filled rice-paper packets called (page 62), require some practice to perfect. As the Vietnamese vendors know well, mastery comes only from repetition. I think you’ll find the flavors so compelling that the labor will be worth it. Once you get the hang of a few of these recipes, you’ll probably find yourself making them a lot. Without the chaos, the heat, and the noise, it’ll never be exactly like eating on the streets of Vietnam, but the food will still be delicious.
These quick pickles are the perfect foil for rich foods. They are often served alongside fried things and are always piled on top of meat-filled bánh mì sandwiches. If you like, use julienned daikon (see page 204) in addition to carrots.
• ¼ cup distilled white vinegar
• ¼ cup sugar
• ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
• ½ cup peeled and finely julienned carrots
Makes ½ cup
In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Add the carrots and let stand for at least 20 minutes before serving. If not using right away, cover and refrigerate for up to a week. Drain the carrots well before before using.