Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table

Motorcycles buzzing, car horns blaring, karaoke music playing in the background, the smell of a dog in the hot and humid air and the endless chatter coming from both diners and a noontime show. These are all the makings of a traditional carinderia in Manila, it might have the same sights and sounds sometimes not but more or less the ubiquitous eatery brings Filipino and a little bit of this and that cuisine down to the street level. Street food is truly a window to a country’s world, accessible and enjoyed by everyone. 

When I think about street food I think about my college days, choosing from an endless row of eateries along Dapitan or Asturias, the possibilities were limitless. If I was feeling exceptionally rich I would choose Lovelite or Almer’s sisig, if I was on a budget (which was most of the time) I was in a no-name shack serving up the best fried siomai in the whole of Manila. The experience was unforgettable and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Eating in carinderia’s in Manila was a way for me to survive, it didn’t matter whether these places looked dingy or had literally no Zomato review at all, these were places where I could rest my brain and enjoy the quick cigarette or two. These same experiences that I had are what drew Graham Holliday to write his book “Eating Vietnam”, a wonderful non-fiction novel on street food in Vietnam, and for the past few days I have been busy digesting every herb, noodle, snail, offal, and what-have-you to try and make sense of the magic behind street food and run down/not-so fancy eateries.

Much of Eating Vietnam draws upon Graham Holliday’s experiences in the side streets, alleyways of Hanoi and Saigon. He eats his way through many unpronounceable foods with endless swishes and curls in each of the vowels. From the famous pork somethings to snail and crab soup, to the bun cha or the buhn mi (forgive the spelling), and endless other chefs Graham Holliday met along the way.

Reading his experiences in Vietnam was truly fascinating, he spends chapters talking to random street food chefs trying to pick their brains on why their food tastes great or the history behind the food itself. Oftentimes Graham finds himself stumped by their responses, saying they don’t know how many they’ve cooked, how much they’ve earned, or how many they’ve served. For the chefs in Eating Vietnam, food isn’t a culinary experience found in Michelin-starred or high-class restaurants but it is a simple, hand-to-mouth existence for many. It doesn’t try to make itself fancy, Vietnamese food is just simple without any frills.

Taking part in Graham’s adventures throughout Vietnam, from making clear distinctions between Hanoian and Saigonese cuisines to dissecting unique dishes of the country was a fun and enjoyable reading experience. His tips on how to get the most out of the locals, he has a questionnaire-type checklist, really made me interested in Vietnam. One day I would like to stroll down the same streets grab a chair and enjoy a good bowl of pho hoa or some other unpronounceable and hard to spell Vietnamese cuisine while enjoying the chaotic sounds of the streets and it’s peoples endless chatter.

Eating Vietnam is available on Amazon.com and also in FullyBooked (Php. 1080)

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