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Vietnam's street food

Correspondent Carolyn O'Neil and chef/cookbook author Mai Pham sample street food in Vietnam  

April 28, 2000
Web posted at: 4:21 p.m. EDT (2021 GMT)

(CNN) -- From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the swirl of traffic starts at dawn and on the sidelines, up and down those busy streets, vendors set up their stalls with small charcoal fires to cook and sell all manner of Vietnamese foods to go. Bowls of noodles, spring rolls, rice cakes in banana leaves, spicy beef on a stick, baguette sandwiches and sweet warm soy milk are just a few of the hundreds of different dishes offered by enthusiastic cooks with tiny portable "kitchens."

Seeing foods chopped, grilled and steamed literally on the sidewalk is disconcerting at first. As a registered dietitian and correspondent covering nutrition and food safety for CNN, my first reaction was a common one -- it looks good but could this be safe to eat?

"You know when you say 'street food' to an American, maybe it sounds like they are actually eating off the street," says Greg Drescher, Director of Education for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

He has visited Vietnam seven times, doing research on the food to organize special tour groups interested in the country's traditional cuisine. He says many of these street food vendors are experts in the particular dish they prepare day after day -- even year after year -- on the same stretch of sidewalk.

"In Saigon we met people who had been doing the same sticky rice recipe for 25 years and that's all they do. And think about the quality you can deliver in that case, not having to be responsible for a long menu," Drescher says.

Drescher does offer some tips on choosing where to stop and eat. Ask the locals, the concierge at your hotel or a taxi driver which vendors seem to do a lot of business. If it's a popular stall, the food is more likely to move quickly and be freshly prepared.

Also, use your eyes. "Anything that looks good to you that's hot and steaming and has been really cooked, you're in good shape. And much of the culture, it's noodles coming out of boiling water, it's things coming off the grill -- all of the grilled items are sliced very thin and so they're cooked all the way through, so you're going to be fine with a lot of these items," Drescher advises.

Since so much of what's fun about travel is being adventurous and trying new things, it would be a shame to miss out on the flavors of Vietnamese street food because you're not in a standard restaurant. The price is right, too. Most dishes sell for under a dollar. So, with the right attitude and guidance from locals, hitting the streets may be the most delicious way to discover Vietnamese cuisine.

Food Central - News - Light and aromatic: Take a trip into Vietnamese cuisine
April 28, 2000

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