From Market to Table – 58 of 365

Street Market in Hanoi

Think about that delicious meal you just shared with family or friends.   The pot roast and potatoes probably had quite the mundane journey halfway across the country from some Chicago factory to Salt Lake and finally to your kitchen where it all may have awaited its fate for days in the refrigerator.  The beef most likely arrived home in a plastic wrapped styrofoam container and the produce laid out ever so neatly in the corner of a clean grocery store is bagged up with little twist ties.   Oh wait, you don’t cook and this scene is a little foreign?  Quite alright my friends…subsitute in a Lean Cusine sitting atop the coffee table and it’s “same, same but different” as they locals say around here.  And yes, I am more the frozen dinner crowd back home, too so no worries!

To be sure, this sanitized (at least we tell ourselves it is) world somewhat exists in Vietnam at places like the Big C or CitiMart but only for the select few with some disposable income.  The vast majority of meals, however, start as raw ingredients in streetside markets that both fascinate and repulse such as the one behind my apartment tower.   Who in their right minds would consume meat hacked up on a plastic tarp or cooks fish that only an hour before was flailing around in a metal tub?  I certainly had vowed to never find out and for two years have firmly stood my ground.

The fish we ate

Well, this goes to show never say never in life. Hell has frozen over and pigs have flown.   Another uniquely Vietnamese experience landed on my plate in the form of  a homecooked meal sourced from one of these very markets.   People in the US pay good money for a trendy farm to table experience, yet in Vietnam the average person lives it day to day.   Transport that woman wearing a conical hat and haggling over an inexpensive chunk of pork from Saigon to Ogden and suddenly she’s trendy and didn’t even know it.   That free range piece of meat was most likely oinking around some Vietnamese back alley just hours before and foodies back home would go hog wild paying a fortune for such freshness.

My friends in Hanoi, Michael and Nhung, eased me into my first home cooked Vietnamese meal from inception to table.  We headed out on motorbikes to a teeming, stinking, bustling, colorful market near the Sofitel Plaza Hotel.   Yes, this is the Vietnam in the raw we always imagined from afar.  Picture a narrow muddy street with vendors hawking their goods in the cold damp air.   Nhung explained this is how the Vietnamese shop…each meal is sourced fresh that day.   “Fresh” or not, I could only give thanks some 40 degree air hopefully was providing enough natural refrigeration to keep all the nasties at bay.

Nhung settled on a live fish that met a sudden demise as the sidewalk fishmonger weighed it, clubbed it, scaled it and then filleted it.   Wow…all this with such precision right in the litter strewn street only a foot away from motorbikes whizzing by.  Next up were some large snails fished out of a metal tub and then some pork hacked off a larger chunk atop a table dripping in blood.   Can the senses handle any more authentic overload than this?   Imagine being a Vietnamese homemaker and undergoing this ritual day in and day out.   Then again Nhung probably would abhor a pack of factory raised meat that has been transported cross country in the US only to “age” for days in a meat case.  Some odds and ends such as tofu, herbs and vegetables rounded out this shopping excursion and bargaining for each meal sure would exhaust this westerner.  Will that sparkling new Harmon’s opening in downtown Salt Lake fascinate a visitor from Vietnam as does this market in Hanoi us?

Snails and Green Banana Stirfry

Nhung prepared two special dishes more than likely absent from any cooking school’s menu…ốc chuối and cá rán sốt cà chua, or snail meat stir fried with firm unripe green banana and fried fish sauteed with tomatoes, hot chili and tofu.   This entire exotic experience was at first so beyond my comfort zone but in the end a delicious part of it.  Michael commented that Nhung never cooks this fancy for him and that I need to visit again to ensure another überfresh gourmet street market meal.  Don’t worry Michael…I will be back to sample some more of Nhung’s cooking repertoire.

On the way home from dinner a tour bus heading downtown passed in front of me.  At some point those tourists surely will cross paths with a local market, Iphones will instantly transmit the images of the sensory overload home and the whole experience will be soon forgotten as they move on to their canned itinerary’s next epic stop.   Will they actually savor a meal cooked by a Vietnamese friend?  Probably not.   Living in such a colorful country does have advantages such as collecting and always remembering experiences such as this meal.  Food can definitely bridge all cultural gaps as this special dinner proved with one Vietnamese girl and two American guys.

Fried Fish and Tomatoes

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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