Saigon street eats paradise
Saigon has been long well-known as food paradise where different food cultures meet. This young city, actually, had few origin dishes. Saigonese are open-minded and we appreciate the diversity of cultures. Most of the food you find in Saigon now are migrated from other regions and countries, mainly from Mekong Delta and the Chinese groups. Some are kept as its original flavors, but most of them are slightly modified to create a suitable taste for Saigonese. Saigonese love eating out, thus it is not difficult to find a food street in every turn. Food lovers will surely get lost with thousands of food choices along the hustle bustle streets.
Saigon bread roll “Bánh mì Saigon”
“Bánh mì” – bread roll was introduced to Saigon – Gia Dinh in the early 1900s during the French colonial period. At first bread roll was just a quick choice for students and blue-collar workers in the break time, and was simply combined with ham only. The breads at that time had solid core and soft skin like French baguette, and ham was served separately. Gradually, shapes and ingredients of breads were slightly changed to create more crispy skin and thinner core so that it can be filled with layers of pate, mayonnaise, sliced Vietnamese hams, pickles, sliced cucumbers, sprigs of coriander, and last but not least, fresh pounded chilies. And this is why Bánh mì has been awarded as one of the best “sandwiches” in the world. Walking around Saigon you’ll see dozens of carts with signs selling Banh mi – it’s actually hard to go more than a block without seeing one – so it’s never hard to find. Nowadays, with the creative yet sophisticated eating demand of Saigonese, Bánh mì is also served with many other ingredients such as shao mai (by Chinese Vietnamese), fish cake, grilled chicken, grilled minced pork sliders, etc.
Broken rice with grilled pork chop “Cơm tấm”
“Cơm Tấm” -Broken rice with grilled pork chop is as popular to Saigonse and Southern Vietnamese as Pho to Hanoians. The broken rice is the leftover of grains after being milled, it is cooked and eaten with grilled pork chop, steamed egg, shredded pork, pickles and a little bit of sweet fish sauce. Cơm Tấm used to be the main course of the poor living in rural areas only. When people from the countryside moved to Saigon for working and living, they brought the taste of Cơm Tấm to every corner of this city. It is said that Cơm Tấm was a creation of a Hainan Chef who worked for a Western restaurant, that explains why a fork and a spoon are always used when having Cơm Tấm. Starting from the most basic version of Com Tam, you can then upgrade with all sorts of marvelous extra things like a fried egg, Chinese sausage, braised eggs, etc. The list goes on. Years before Cơm Tấm was mainly served as breakfast only, but during the past 5 years, a lot of Cơm Tấm stalls has started to open at night and attracted a great deal of street eaters.
Sticky rice “Xôi”
Saigonese loves “Xôi” – steamed sticky rice. Sticky rice can be used to create hundreds of different dishes, including both main course and desserts. Elders, children and adults eats sticky rice in the morning, afternoon or evening. Steamed sticky rice can be divided into two main types: sweet and salty, and can be mixed with abundant of ingredients. The original salty sticky rice “Xôi mặn” is a combination of steamed sticky rice, pate, grind peanuts, Vietnamese ham, Chinese sausage, quail egg, pork floss and some spring onion stir-fried in oil. Besides, people also put in some grilled chicken and char siu to enrich the flavor. With the finical eating habit, Saigonese has worked out a diversity of methods to make the best desserts by sticky rice. Some of those that can be named are green bean sticky rice with sugar or fried onion, sticky corn stewed with coconut milk, young green sticky rice, red gac fruit and magneta plant sticky rice, durian sticky rice, etc. Normally salty sticky rice is sold together at the same stall with Bánh mì.
Grilled seafood and snails “Hải sản – Ốc”
“Ốc”-snails, as they are known in Vietnamese, can basically refer to any type of snails, usually saltwater, and they are so popular, they could be considered a major part of the Vietnamese culture of Saigon. When you go to a snail food stall – called “quan oc”, there are typically dozens of different snails to choose from, as well as other shells like blood cockles, clams, and often shrimp and crab as well. The seafood selection of the day is normally proudly displayed at the front of the food stall or restaurant, and you proceed to choose whatever looks good to you. After you choose the type of raw snails you’d like to eat, then choose a method for it to be cooked – like grilled, sautéed, coated in salt and chili, steamed, curried, and so on. Before Saigonese did not prefer having Ốc at night as they believed it would cause difficult digestion. But the booming of snail food stalls in Saigon have proved that, snails and grilled seafood are a wonderful choice for those who love to meet friends after work, sit down to relax, enjoy some cold beer and snacks.
Grilled rice paper (Bánh tráng nướng)
Having just been adopted by Saigonese for the past 4 years, “Bánh tráng nướng” -grilled rice paper has proved itself a worth-trying street food for every foodie. There are more venders that sell “Bánh tráng nướng” and each of them serves a different taste. A special type of rice paper is used for making this Vietnamese pizza. Rice paper is placed on the charcoal grill, and topped with scrambled eggs (some places use quail eggs), minced pork/beef/chicken, dried shrimp, cheese, tiny mussels, spring onion and a lot more ingredients which sure to meet expectation of most picky street eaters. Then the rice paper will be folded, or cut, or even rolled and served with hot chili sauce and tamarind sauce.
Pan-fried scrambled egg rice cake “Bột chiên”
“Bột chiên” is basically fried rice cakes. The rice cakes are made from rice flour and tapioca starch, some Chinese and other Southeast Asian versions include daikon radish in the cakes. The cakes are sliced into bite sized pieces, then fried, normally on a hot skillet in lots of lard, along with some light seasonings, until crispy and golden brown on the edges. Once cooked, the rice cakes are topped with an egg and a handful of green onions before being served. The result of bộc chiên are little bite sized nuggets of crispy sticky rice flour, enriched with egg, and with a nice smoky flavor. “Bột chiên” was served on a plate, along with a side sauce which was a perfect combination of soy sauce, red vinegar, sugar and hot chili, and topped with a handful of thinly shredded green papaya, giving it a nice fresh touch.
Pan-fried pancake and mini pancake “Bánh xèo – Bánh khọt”
“Bánh xèo” -pan-fried pancakes is a very popular street snack of Saigon. “Xèo” in Vietnamese is the sound of sizzling when the pancaked is made. Making a thin and crispy Bánh xèo requires a cleverness and experience from the chef when spreading the batter on the pan and keeping it intact when lifting out. The mixture of batter also plays an important role to make a perfect Bánh xèo. Basically Bánh xèo includes bean sprouts, green bean, some cuts of pork side and shrimp. Some restaurants start to create more ingredients to diversify the choices in their menu, it can be mushroom, seafood, or vegetables only. However, “Bánh xèo” can only be considered fully delightful when wrapped in a variety of herbs, including Vietnamese salad, mustard leaf, mints, basal and fish mints. The fish sauce goes with Bánh xèo should be a balance of sweet, sour, salty and chili.
It is difficult to give an exact translation of “Bánh khọt” to English. They could be understood in a number of different ways, from crispy savory pancakes, to coconut mini rice cakes, to kettle cakes, etc. Bánh khọt is a miniature crispy pancakes, topping with mince pork, minced seafood, mushroom, or simply just a shrimp and some spring onion, with the similar eating method to Bánh xèo. The little Bánh khọt is wrapped in herbs and vegetables, and dipped in sweet and sour fish sauce. Watching people making Bánh khọt is as much interesting as enjoying them. A special type of pan with many little holes on it is used for making the pancakes. The vendor add some oil in, following with a mixture of batter of which the ingredients are the secret of success. Then the required topping will be tossed in and covered up until the pancakes are ready to be scooped out. Bánh khọt is crispy outside, but the batter on the inside was smooth and almost creamy, especially when coconut milk is added on the top.
Vermicelli noodles with grilled pork and fried spring roll “Bún thịt nướng chả giò”
“Bún thịt nướng chả giò” is a brilliant combination of the contrast flavors and textures. The rice vermicelli is displayed together with mix chopped vegetable and cucumber, bean sprouts, few skewers of grilled pork, fried spring rolls, pickled carrot and radish, a pinch of spring onion and crushed peanuts. Chili sweet fish sauce also plays an integral role to specialize the flavor and color of the dish. It is recommended to eat vermicelli right at the stall rather than take away, as the hot grilled pork and crunchy spring rolls will set the highlights for the noodles. Besides grilled pork, some places use grilled meat ball instead. Each has its own flavor and taste, depending on what the eaters are keen on. “Bún thịt nướng” in Saigon is quite similar to “Bún chả Hanoi”, but instead of chunking the grilled meat ball into light fish sauce, Saigonese place the meat on the top of the bowl and souse fish sauce on.
Saigon ice coffee “Cà phê đá”
For Vietnamese in general and Saigonese in specific, coffee is not simply a drink. It is a habit, a lifestyle, an appreciation, and most of all, a highlight of local soul culture. As the world’s second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, the love of coffee obviously comes naturally to the Vietnamese. In Saigon, coffee treats await you on every street corner – whether it’s at one of the many street side food stalls or the myriad independent coffee shops that are popping up everywhere, at any given time of the day you’ll be able to pick up a cup of brewed coffee for prices as low as less than a dollar. Vietnamese coffee can be a bit mind boggling when you first encounter it. Unlike Hanoians who usually enjoy hot coffee due to the cold winter, Saigonese prefer ice coffee, including black and milk coffee. Actually Saigonese loves to add ice in almost every drinks because of the city’s hot and humid climate. What makes the Vietnamese milk coffee different from other countries is that, condensed milk is added at the bottom of each coffee instead of fresh milk. That helps enrich the taste and flavor, as well as creating an appetizing brown color to the coffee.
Saigon desserts and smoothies “Chè và Sinh tố”
It is not an exaggeration to confirm that Saigon is a paradise of desserts. From traditional to international, from hot to cold, from easy recipes to complicated cooking methods, Saigon has it all. The image of people sitting on the small plastic stools along the pavement, watching the hustle bustle motorbikes running back and forth while enjoying a glass of ice cream or smoothies, or sweet soups, has become a symbol of Saigon nightlife. As a tropical country, fruits and beans are widely used when making desserts.
Fruit shakes is ranked number 1 among the favorite drinks of the young Saigonese. Fruit shakes can be easily found at many drink stalls along the streets, especially when nights come. Different from shakes of Thailand, the fruit shakes in Saigon not only contains fresh fruits, sugar and blended ice, but also a few spoons of condensed milk which help enrich the taste and flavor.
If fruit shakes is the most popular for drinks, sweet soups “Chè” must be awarded at the top of the list for desserts. It is mostly impossible to list out all types of Chè you can find in Saigon. It may take a week to try all kind of Chè. Besides local flavors, Saigon Chè is defined with sweet soups brought from other countries in the region, adding various flavors and tastes to the dessert scene in the city.
- The ingredients of traditional Vietnamese sweet soups ranging from a wide range of beans (mung beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans) to tapioca, jellies, glutinous rice, coconut cream and fruit (longan, mango, durian, lychee and jackfruit…). Other types are made from ingredients such as aloe vera, seaweed, lotus seed, sesame seed, sugar palm seeds, taro, cassava and pandan leaf extract. Vietnamese sweet soups are served in small portions, can be hot or with ice. Some people assume that Chè is a bit too sweet, but some believe that the sweetness of Chè will help cool down their stomach after a heavy main course.
- The oldest are Chinese sweet soups which can be found in District 5’s China town. They serve all kinds of Chè made from familiar ingredients like red beans, mung beans and lotus seeds to exotic ones with tortoise jelly, almond tofu custard and gingko nuts. Not only a pleasing dessert, Chinese sweet soups are also regarded as natural medicine, helping cool body heat, give abundant vitality and cure constipation