I’ve been thinking a lot about Nguyen Thi Thanh ever since departing from Saigon in the summer of 2008. In the three years since I first sat down to interview her, there’s no doubt that her life has changed. In a corner of the city previously unknown to tourists, she now finds herself dishing up noodles to a steady stream of Anthony Bourdain fans. These days, it seems that a trip to Saigon isn’t complete without bargaining in Ben Thanh Market, flagging down a cyclo for a rusty ride, and sitting on a stumpy stool slurping up a Lunch Lady-made noodle soup.
I have often wondered how the Lunch Lady’s livelihood and that of her tight-knit community have been impacted by the fame and influx of foreign dollars made possible by modern travel journalism. Have her prices skyrocketed? Is her cooking watered down? Mostly, I wondered if I messed up something really great by blabbing about it to someone who had access to a global audience.
I found the 46-year-old proprietress more or less unchanged since we last met. She was clad from head to toe in a colorful do bo (Vietnamese pajamas) with a well-worn non la (conical hat) atop her head. Her smile was as big as ever. Nearly every table was occupied on this sunny afternoon, which meant that she and her team of workers were up to their ears in orders.
Continue reading ‘Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady’
During my first few months in Vietnam, I developed an obsession with street donuts. Whenever I saw a cart frying up some sweet and savory balls of dough, I just had to have a couple. Perhaps my donut addiction existed even before I moved here, but it used to be suppressed by knowledge of the outrageous trans fat levels in each pillowy ball of joy. In Saigon, nutrition facts are not available, and it turns out ignorance is bliss.
Although nothing quite matches banh cam for pure sugary goodness, I also love Bánh Tiêu . These hollow, roundish pastries are nothing like Krispy Kremes—their primary flavor is salty rather than sweet, and they make for a relatively subtle but satisfying snack. Most Bánh Tiêu vendors pair the donut with a strange, gelatinous cake called Bánh Bò. At first this didn’t seem all that appealing to me, but the combination is perfect. The Bánh Bò is sponge-like and mildly sweet, and it provides a wonderful cooling contrast to the salty Bánh Tiêu . If you’re ever walking around Saigon and see a man slicing open donuts with scissors, you can be sure you’re in for a treat.
The Astronomer and I both have killer sweet tooths. Whereas my heart skips a beat for che (details on my latest obsession to come), The Astronomer cannot resist doughnuts and cream puffs sold street-side.
Back in the good ‘ol US of A, we both ate very healthily and only splurged on occasion. However, in a country without trans-fat bans or nutrition labels, we’re throwing caution to the wind and enjoying ourselves to the max. It’s a good thing we’re continuing to run nightly!
On the outside, Vietnamese and American doughtnuts seem to have a lot in common. However, one bite and it’s obvious that their sole commonality is the hot bubbling oil they’re cooked in. The major differences between the two lie in the lack of frosting and types of flour used in Vietnamese doughnuts.
While American doughnuts are sickeningly sweet, Vietnamese doughnuts are dramatically less so and even a bit salty in some versions. The rice and tapioca flours used in Vietnamese doughnuts bring about a springy and chewy texture not found in Krispy Kremes or Dunkin Donuts.
The Astronomer’s favorite doughnuts are Bánh Vòng (rice flour rings sprinkled with sugar) and Bánh Tiêu (hollow mounds of dough dusted with sesame seeds).
A little less common, but just as addictive are cream puffs or banh kem su. The puffs are made beforehand and the custard and whipped cream are smeared to order. The first cream puff we enjoyed contained a vanilla custard that took us back to Beard Papa’s in NYC. Unfortunately, we weren’t as thrilled with our second experience—a sau rien (durian) flavored custard! It wasn’t horrible, but the flavor was unexpectedly intense. After the durian debacle, I’ll be sure to ask what flavor the custard is before placing my order.