Rainy season thoroughly squashed my plans to venture on foot deep into Saigon’s street food scene. As is de rigeur in Vietnam when something craps out, you just make do with the next best thing. A box of takeaway from Café 91 next to my apartment on Nguyen Huu Canh came to my street food rescue just before the sky once again burst open to wash away the final remnants of my afternoon wanderlust.
You may remember this tiny concrete food shack from many a previous meal where a meat product, rice, vegetable, soup and banana cost just over a buck. Inflation has irritatingly edged prices up about 20 cents over the past few months, but still, this cheapness is what makes street food a value beyond comparison. What does a George Washington buy in the US anyhow? A bland double cheeseburger maybe or something you probably won’t even remember in an hour except that it’s festering deep inside you like some sort of ticking gut bomb.
I swear the owner of the place sees me coming and every curse word under the sun swirls around in her head as I approach her cart overflowing with pans of food. I can’t ever make up my mind, and she stands there rocking the takeaway box back and forth while staring me down with a blank expression on her face. As I waffle amongst the choices, she eventually moves on to the next person to thin out the growing herd behind me anxiously awaiting their shot at hitting the pig gut jackpot.
A basic looking stir fry enticed me this time after about 5 minutes of deliberation amongst the fried fish heads, entrails and other exotic offerings. Do I really think staring at this mess is actually going to make me order it? No, most likely not so let’s just go with a more benign basic here of pineapple, ground pepper, onion, cucumber, scallion, carrot and cilantro all mixed together. Getting hungry? Now add some sugar and of course fish sauce. What Vietnamese dish doesn’t come to fruition without a few dashes of stinky, highly fermented fish remains? Now what would you think if I told you we are going to add squid? Whoa. This one derailed fast, didn’t it? Yes, but bear with me here.
Mực xào thơm. Stir fry pineapple and squid. Though strange in concept, this one delivers in taste. Well, strange in concept to this Western palate at least. I mean who puts pineapple and cucumbers in the same dish along with a slimy ocean dweller that squirts black ink when upset? Squid which inherently lacks any great depth of flavor other than a faint hint of the seas is a blank, chewy, rubber canvas awaiting the flavors of its surrounding ingredients.
One of these days I will scratch up the nerve to harvest some squid from a metal sidewalk pan at the street market and learn how to clean it and cook it at home. Squid really is that good that I would soil both hands and kitchen to learn more about it. Vietnam sure is opening up my formerly sheltered tastes to a whole new world.