Adventures In Vietnam — Street Food, Love And Taking Chances

Apr 12, 2015
Originally published on May 20, 2016 3:48 pm

When English journalist Graham Holliday got tired of his office job in the U.K., he knew he wanted a change — a big one.

So he packed up and moved to Asia, first to Korea to teach English and ultimately, to the place that would be his home for nine years: Vietnam. As soon as he arrived, he was determined to immerse himself in Vietnamese culture — and for him, that meant food.

Holliday chronicled his adventures on his blog, Noodle Pie, and in his new memoir, Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table, a humorous and nuanced exploration of the country's food and culture. His advice on how to best to tackle Vietnam's vibrant street food scene?

"You just kind of take chances. You just literally follow your nose," Holliday tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Fortunately, Vietnamese, the language, you can read it. So you can have a pretty good stab at what it is you're going to be eating. After that, obviously, you get a certain number of favorite dishes, and you might want to try a particular dish in many different places."

Indeed, Holliday's sampling of one dish — Bún chả, a noodle and pork ball in fish sauce – took him to "about 25 or 30 different places" in Hanoi, he says, "just to kind of try and find the best one you possibly could. And it was a lot of fun, obviously, to try these things."

While Vietnamese cuisine boasts many fabulous dishes, some of Holliday's gastronomical explorations took a turn toward the extreme. That includes seeking out foods like pig's uterus and intestines — "they're fairly common drinking foods. I think it might kind of help with the digestion of beer, possibly, I'm not really sure."

He also sampled alcohol made from cobra body parts. "And the next day I really did not feel well," he recalls. "I think the way I described in the book as feeling like there's a fire through your arteries. A friend of mine, the next day – I was quite worried and he said, 'Oh don't worry, you're just poisoned a little bit. It's OK, you'll get over it.' He was so blasé, it kind of gave me confidence that it's maybe actually not so serious after all."

Holliday's wanderings didn't just introduce him to Vietnam's culinary bounty; they also led him to his now-wife, Sophie.

But if he had to pick a quintessential Vietnamese dish, Holliday would nominate called Bánh tráng phơi sương – which translates to "dew-encrusted rice papers" -- a simple boiled pork, sliced very thinly and served with rice papers left out over night to collect the morning dew. You eat it with pickles, sometimes fresh bean sprouts and what he calls the "pièce de résistance" – a mountain of seven to 12 different herbs and greens.

"And so, you take some herbs, you take some meat, you wrap it together in the rice paper, and then you dip it in the ever-present nước mắm, the fish sauce, and that's it. So the flavor is purely pork, all those herbs and the fish sauce. And to me, that is the simplest but the most beautiful dish in Vietnam."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Graham Holliday got tired of his office job in the UK, he knew he wanted a change - a big change. So he packed up and moved to Asia - first to Korea to teach English and ultimately to the place that would be his home for nine years, Vietnam. As soon as he arrived, he was determined to immerse himself in Vietnamese culture. And for him that meant food. On this week's Winging It, a taste of Vietnam with food blogger and journalist Graham Holliday. Graham Holliday's memoir is called "Eating Vietnam: Dispatches From A Blue Plastic Table." He gave us advice on how to best tackle Vietnam's vibrant street food scene.

GRAHAM HOLLIDAY: You just kind of take chances. You just literally follow your nose. Fortunately, Vietnamese - the language is - you can read it, so can have a pretty good stab at what it is you're going to be eating. After that, obviously you get a certain number of favorite dishes. And you might want to try a particular dish in many different places. So I think in the end in Hanoi I tried bun cha - which is a noodle-and-pork-ball in fish sauce dish - I think I tried it at about 25 or 30 different places just to kind of try and find, like, the best one you possibly could, you know. And it was a lot of fun, obviously, to try these things.

MARTIN: Now I don't want to leave the impression that Vietnam is - the cuisine is only famous for the extremes because there are a lot of just fabulous dishes that don't have to do with extreme body parts of animals. But you did eat some crazy things - pig's uterus?

HOLLIDAY: Yeah. Yeah, pig's uterus is not a favorite, I must admit.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOLLIDAY: It's quite rubbery, spongy on the inside depending on how it's cooked. Uterus, intestines, they're fairly common drinking food. Yeah, it's kind of - I think it might help with the digestion a bit, possibly. I'm not really sure. But it's very much associated with drinking. Those kind of things you would kind of have to go and look for them. They're not everywhere.

MARTIN: Yet you were compelled to go find it. Why?

HOLLIDAY: I was a lot younger back then.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOLLIDAY: And maybe a bit more stupid. So the idea of going out for snake obviously is so foreign from where I grew up. It's what you've got to go and try it.

MARTIN: Can you recount the tale that you describe in the book of eating cobra, and what happened to you?

HOLLIDAY: There was one night, yeah, we - I think we probably had a bit too much snake penis alcohol. And the next day I really did not feel well. The only way I can describe it - I think I describe it in the book as feeling like there's a fire running through your arteries. It's - a friend of mine the next day he - I was quite worried. And he said, oh, don't worry. You're just poisoned a little bit. It's OK. You'll get over it. So he was so blase it kind of gave me confidence that actually maybe it's not so serious after all.

MARTIN: Is there a quintessential dish that if I were to visit Vietnam you would say, Rachel, you simply cannot go there unless you eat X.

HOLLIDAY: There is one dish which I think really sums it up and it's basically simply boiled pork which is sliced very finely. It's called Banh trang phoi suong. And you only get it in the South. And it's served with rice papers which they leave out in the night to collect the morning dew. Banh trang phoi suong actually means, like, dew encrusted rice papers. So you have these on the table with the sliced boiled pork with some pickles, possibly some fresh bean sprouts. But the real piece de resistance I guess you'd call it is a mountain of herbs. It's about between 7 and 12 different herbs you'll get - herbs and greens. And so you take some herbs, you take some meat. You wrap it together in the rice paper. And then you dip it in the ever-present nuoc mam, the fish sauce. And that's it. So the flavor is purely pork, all those herbs and the fish sauce. And to me, that is the simplest but the most beautiful dish in Vietnam.

MARTIN: Graham Holliday is the author of "Eating Vietnam: Dispatches From A Blue Plastic Table." You can follow Graham on his blog noodlepie.com. Graham, thanks so much.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.