It starts with the fact that these countries have the building blocks: fresh produce of exceptional quality, cooking techniques developed and refined over millennia, potent condiments that can be combined in thousands of different ways to create vastly different effects. But just having the right paint isn’t enough to make a work of art. The proliferation of street food—in Thailand and Vietnam, just like in ancient Rome and Athens—is, by definition, an urban adaptation. When the bulk of Thailand’s population lived in rural villages, most meals were cooked and eaten at home, but as people began to swarm towards the cities in the mid to late 20th century, domestic life underwent radical changes. Urban kitchens were ill equipped for family cooking and busier lifestyles left little time to stand around the stove. Plus the economies of scale made eating out every bit as cheap as eating in. And while Mom might make a mean green curry or tom yum, it’s tough to compete with the legions of street cooks who dedicate their lives to making the same dish over and over until its part of their identity.
If the game is to eat one of the best meals of my life for as little money as possible, I’ve already won.
On my last afternoon in Bangkok, standing in front of a dizzying number of street vendors besides Siam Center, I decide to play a game. With a bus to catch in 20 minutes and unable to find my preprogrammed location, I set out to deposit my remaining 300 baht (about $10) into the hands of as many cooks as possible. I start with dessert: an old man covers a flattop with a dozen mini crepes, toasting them to a rich mahogany brown. The crepe itself is as thin and crunchy as a candy shell, the warm savory filling evoking the sweet, salty comfort of an American diner breakfast. A few stands down, a plump middle-aged woman cooks chicken meatballs: smooth, pale orbs threaded onto bamboo skewers, grilled until gently charred on the surface, then dipped into a crimson vat of sweet chili sauce and served with a few slices of cucumber. Next stop, som tam, the ubiquitous northern Thai salad of green papaya, chilies, and dried shellfish, pestle-pounded into an electric mix of spice and sweet and ocean umami.
If the game is to eat one of the best meals of my life for as little money as possible, I’ve already won, but I keep going: I still have a wad of bills in my pocket and the last stand in the line of vendors is the most enticing of the lot. A mother and daughter work in a tight formation, pulling chicken parts from their fish-sauce marinade, dredging them in flour, then dropping them into a vat of burbling fat. The chicken emerges with a craggy coat the color of maple syrup. By the time I board the bus five minutes later, it’s still too hot to handle without a napkin.
And so I sit there, lips blistered with chicken crackling, fingers singed with pounded capsaicin, watching the whole of Bangkok sink into the horizon behind me, smilingly stupidly, wondering what to do with the last 150 baht.
We sit down next to a woman on a street corner adjacent to the Ben Thanh Market in Saigon’s District 1. There is no stove, no cooking implements, no visible sign that she’s offering food of any sort. But after my friend orders in Vietnamese, she goes to work unpacking boxes and trays and tiny little cups filled with mysterious ingredients that seem to materialize on the spot. Slowly, a plate begins to take shape: first comes a soft ivory crepe made from rice flour, stuffed with ground pork and chunks of woodear mushrooms, then a thicket of pickled carrots and radish, next a scattering of fresh herbs and fried shallots, and finally, a few generous spoonsful of fish sauce. By the time she presents us with her creation, banh cuon, the plastic plate nearly snaps under the labor of a country’s worth of condiments. In that first bite I taste the whole of Vietnam: salt and sun and…
The life of a street vendor starts early. There are vegetables to buy, herbs to wash, bread to bake, noodles to boil. This being southern Vietnam, land of a million noodle soups, there are meats to braise and rich, complex stocks to simmer. Some of these are made in homes with functioning kitchens, others on portable stoves or over charcoal fires, but all, regardless of origin, will end up on a street corner somewhere, sold as fuel to a breakfasting businessman, as a respite for a weary cabbie, or as a gathering point for young Saigonese on the cusp of a big night.
If Singapore stands as a crossroads of Eastern culinary traditions, and Bangkok’s identity is found in the delicate balance of flavor extremes, Saigon street food is about subtle elegance and sophistication, part of it left behind by French colonialism, part of it birthed from the Vietnamese’s own exacting standards.
Consider the series of meals I eat on my second day in Saigon: First, a bowl of chewy brown rice noodles, strewn with crab whose meat has been boiled and removed, cut with pork and herbs, turned into meatballs, then tucked back into the empty crab shells like a little surprise. Next, frog legs braised in yellow curry and holy basil, the kind of dish you might find for $23 at a Vietnamese fusion restaurant on the Lower East Side. Finally, to close out the day, a plate of grilled clams topped with scallions, peanuts, fish sauce and a drizzle of warm pork fat—a dish so good from a place so unassuming my brain immediately does summersaults. Beautiful grilled shrimp? Sure, I can process that. But a dish this sophisticated? You search for answers: Who is behind the stove? What type of training does he or she have? How the hell did they come up with this idea? Why am I the only person among the 20 or so scattered on the sidewalk currently eating it? None of it really adds up, but nothing in Vietnam does. You should hate this city—for the crowds, the noise, the heat, the smell—but your heart sinks deeper into your stomach when you realize someday soon you must leave it.