People who fall in love with Vietnamese cuisine fall hard, and with good reason: There's nothing else like it. Simple elements - noodles, broth, herbs - are the starting point, but there is alchemy in the way they're combined and balanced. Flavors are distinct, yet nothing overpowers.
Local photographer Gregg Goldman was inspired to visit Vietnam in part because of his experiences with Vietnamese food here in St. Louis. His riveting photographs of the country's rich food culture inspired us to talk with local Vietnamese chefs about how they apply their homeland's culinary philosophy.
A Balanced Blend of Influences
Pho ("fuh"), the ubiquitous beef noodle soup, is a perfect example of the Vietnamese genius for balancing flavors and influences. The basic structure (and the name) may have originated with the French pot au feu, a culinary leftover from a century of colonial rule. Clear, richly beefy broth is packed with noodles that reflect the influence of Chinese invaders. Vietnamese chefs added fish sauce, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and star anise to the broth, with herbs, chiles and lime on the side to create harmony among the ingredients.
In Vietnam, pho is what's for breakfast, and it's eaten on the sidewalk - makeshift kitchens and tiny tables and stools are sandwiched between buildings and streets. Everything a vendor needs is easily within reach, from simmering broth to eager customers, who sit cheek by jowl with rushing traffic. After choosing a protein (typically beef, pork and tripe, but eel and snails are not uncommon), customers hunker down at the Lilliputian tables and add basil, cilantro, lime, chiles and chile-garlic sauce according to taste.
LOCAL EATS: Long Kim Hua, owner of Pho Long in University City, uses a broth recipe passed down from his grandparents and says his menu emphasizes pho because he believes it's "best to specialize in one thing." For beginners, he recommends Pho Tai, a simple version of the soup that comes with eye of round. For the more adventurous, Pho Dac Biet is a good bet - it's loaded with oxtail, spongy Vietnamese meatballs, tendon, brisket, tripe and paper-thin slices of raw beef that quickly cook in the hot broth.
Close to the Source
Refrigeration is sparse in Vietnam, so using fresh ingredients is a necessity. People shop for food every day, and markets abound.
In the south, on the river networks in the Mekong Delta, floating markets are common. Vendors (and their families) live on their boats and run their produce up a flagpole to advertise their wares. They congregate in the middle of the river, and customers paddle up to haggle for melons, dragon fruit, live ducks and the like.
Commerce happens on terra firma at open-air markets, where rows of sellers perch near their produce. Customers visit their favorite vendors, picking up greens here, a live chicken there and bananas somewhere else.
In coastal areas, fish markets nestle near the shore, a stone's throw from the fishing boats that brought in the day's catch. At night, fishmongers are replaced by seafood restaurant stalls where customers enjoy simply grilled seafood - some of which is live until it hits the fire.
In larger cities such as Hanoi, there are covered markets similar to Soulard Farmers' Market, but even here vendors lack refrigeration and rely on ice suppliers (conveniently stationed outside the entrances) to keep their perishables reasonably fresh.
LOCAL EATS: Deep in South City, the garden behind Banh Mi So #1 - Saigon Gourmet gives customers extra incentive to visit from late spring to early fall. The herbs, chiles and sweet potatoes grown there are used in "everything on the menu," including a popular sweet potato appetizer.
Manager Dewey Truong told us it all began last year when his mother, Lynn, declared that herbs from out-of-state suppliers "weren't up to her standards" and wanted the convenience of an on-site garden. The restaurant's popular spring rolls get the royal treatment: Dewey's father, Thomas, goes outside to cut herbs for each order. After the first frost they revert to using produce vendors but keep a sharp eye on quality.
With an infrastructure that's a work in progress, pre-prepared foods are not part of the food culture in Vietnam, and restaurants and vendors make most of what they need, from sauces on up. At Van Ky, a Chinese-style noodle and won ton shop on the island of Phou Quoc, Goldman watched the owners and their nieces and nephews make a batch of dough.
The process begins with "9 kilos of flour, 40 duck eggs, salt, water and ‘secret water' - she wouldn't tell me what was in it," says Goldman. The mixture is muscled into two kinds of noodles and won tons, which are served with house-made broth and sides of herbs and lime at the simple but spacious adjoining restaurant. The shop is open only for breakfast and dinner because the family members nap from approximately 1 to 3pm, when they make dough for the evening rush (the morning batch is made at 4am).
LOCAL EATS: Qui Tran, who refers to himself as "manager, chef, everything" at Mai Lee in Brentwood, says the restaurant makes all its own sauces except fish sauce. After extensive flavor trials, the restaurant settled on Three Crabs brand, which you can find at Asian groceries such as Olivette's Seafood City (see sidebar).
The menu is extensive and authentic, but some dishes, such as Banh Xeo, feature an American twist. Tran calls it "peasant food," a humble dish that's made in restaurants and homes all over Vietnam. Freshly made rice flour crêpes (another French leftover) are tinted with turmeric and crammed with julienned jicama (the twist), sautéed onions, mashed mung beans, shrimp and savory bits of pork. Lettuce leaves, mint, cilantro, cucumber and a fish sauce-based dipping sauce come on the side.
For a "typical Vietnamese meal" that balances sour, sweet and salty over several courses, Tran recommends following the crêpes with five-spice pork and Canh Chua Tom, a traditional sour soup. A lemongrass-tamarind base swims with fresh tomatoes, pineapple, shrimp, a Vietnamese herb called ngo om and slices of elephant ear, a crispy, spongy vegetable that soaks up the broth. It's as close as you'll get to Vietnam without buying a plane ticket.
Global Foods Market, 421 N. Kirkwood Road, Kirkwood, globalfoodsmarket.com
This Kirkwood mainstay has a good all-around selection of herbs and greens including Thai basil and sawtooth coriander, both of which are great in pho. You'll find it has a variety of frozen Vietnamese-style meatballs and dried noodles, and if you want to get really authentic, it carries pork blood.
Jay International Food Co., 3172 S. Grand Blvd., South Grand, 314.772.2552
The granddaddy of international grocery stores, and the only place we found baguettes, which are key in making banh mi. It also has a wide selection of dried rice sheets for making spring rolls, including some embedded with sesame seeds and tiny dried shrimp. If you go here to pick up herbs, you should know that not all of them are labeled.
Olive Farmer's Market, 8041 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.997.5168
Don't let the name mislead you - this is an Asian grocery par excellence, with four or five kinds of fish sauce; all the beef bones, herbs and sprouts you need for pho; and several kinds of fresh noodles. It also has a wide selection of fresh produce, which included dragon fruit when we visited.
Seafood City Grocery Store, 8020 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.993.2800
Think of Seafood City as the Target of Asian groceries: It has everything. Among the more unusual finds are packaged grilled cinnamon pork, the widest variety of fresh herbs we came across and a rice-based meal frozen in a clay pot. Of course, if you're in the market for live koi, catfish, crawfish, clams, crabs, lobsters or snails, this is definitely the place to go. And you'd be in good company - Mai Lee's Qui Tran shops here.
Banh Mi So #1 - Saigon Gourmet, 4071 S. Grand Blvd., Dutchtown, banhmiso1.com
Mai Lee, 8396 Musick Memorial Dr., Brentwood, maileerestaurant.com
Pho Long, 8627 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.997.1218