Poultry

Poultry

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
15 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

The other fast food nation

When our daughter, Franka, was four years old, she snuck out of the house very early one morning while we were still asleep. she took the wallet with the weekly housekeeping money from the kitchen table, managed to unlock the front door, inexplicably persuaded our septuagenarian landlord living in the back building to open the front gate for her, then marched down the narrow lane to our local street market. her destination: Ms Sau’s sticky rice (xoi) stall, for her usual breakfast of xoi with mung bean shavings and peanuts. Franka handed over the wallet and Ms Sau removed 5000 dong (about 50 cents), before returning it with her breakfast, and then organised the tofu-seller with whom she shared her stall to take Franka back home.

Ms Sau’s street stall is in many respects typical of the grassroots entrepreneurship of street-food vendors who are the commercial and social backbone of the numerous lanes and alleyways in Vietnam’s cities. Like most stallholders, she plunged into self-employment on the back of one food item, based on a family recipe and prepared so often it is now as close to perfection as possible. But food stalls like hers are not just places to buy or eat. They are neighbourhood information exchanges, where patrons from all walks of life socialise and catch up on gossip cheek-by-jowl on blue plastic stools or wooden benches, over their favourite dish.

Street-food vendors turn the streets into an open-air kitchen and the pavement into a dining room. At every corner something tasty is being fried in a wok, simmered in a pot or barbecued on little hibachi-style grills, the cooking stations fuelled by the ubiquitous honeycomb coal briquettes delivered throughout the day by peddlers pushing impossibly overloaded bicycles.

Kerbside dining has become so much a part of everyday life in Vietnam that it is easy to overlook that this street-food revolution is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the first half of the 20th century, a ‘takeaway’ system was more common. Vendors would wander the streets with food and cooking utensils in baskets strung from bamboo poles, calling out to advertise their wares, and the locals would take their ready-made meals back into their homes. Thirty years of fighting for independence, from 1945 to 1975, followed by economic change and modernisation, caused a role reversal, with many food vendors claiming a regular spot on the footpath, feeding people who were on the move.

The street-food scene follows a daily rhythm, like a giant tag team of vendors taking on different shifts. Breakfasts are hearty: lumps of delicious sticky rice, bowls of fragrant noodle soup (pho) and rice porridge (chao), or crunchy baguettes with egg and herbs. Lunches are either based on rice noodles, with meats like the marinated chargrilled pork patties in bun cha, or on steamed rice. At com binh dan shops, which are types of lunch buffets, patrons receive a plate with a mountain of rice, then select two or three accompanying side dishes from an array of trays. Other vendors target the after-work and after-school crowd, setting up shop in the afternoons to sell snack foods such as layered sweet soups (che) or fried dumplings with pork and quail egg filling (banh goi). And finally, there is dinner — the most social meal of the day, where groups of diners huddle around steamboats or kerosene-fired table barbecues, enjoying their meals while reviewing the day’s events.

Although meeting their customers’ needs for a bellyful of fast, fresh and cheap local fare, the economics of street vending can be difficult. Unlicensed and without legal status, vendors are often pitted against city planners and local authorities who are more concerned with traffic flow than taste sensations.

Luckily, out of economic necessity and tradition, the vendors persist in turning the city into a paradise for food grazers, and in doing so provide us with a window into Vietnam’s unique culinary and cultural identity.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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