Is this the sourest scoff in Saigon? Unripe or Green mangoes. These specimens are from Ben Thanh Market. I’m a fan of them in salads, but raw…??? Nah… Noodlegirl’s mad for ’em, but I’m not. But, but, but… I’m learning of a whole new raft of uses for these sour, crunchy oriental fruits: Curry, salad, chutney, marmalade, salsa, juice, Mamidikaya pachi pulusu and In Jaggery syrup What an intriguing unripe fruit. Anymore for anymore?
The recent flurry of activity around the ‘Is she or isn’t she’ weeping virgin of Saigon means the streets have been flooded with bauble sellers accosting the catholic crew for a religious dime or dollar. Almost a week has past since the first ‘tears’ were spotted by a lottery ticket seller. The believers still congregate in their hundreds to marvel at the concrete statue opposite the HSBC cash machine in central Saigon. Fortunately for the faithful, there are snack vendors aplenty on Nguyen Du street to sustain them throughout their vigil. The seller above normally flogs 80 chuoi nep nuong – rice wrapped bananas – and 20 bot ban – bean paste ball wrapped in sticky tapioca – a day around District 1 from her mobile stall. She tells me trade in her 2,000VD nibbles has been a wee brisker this past week. Praise be.
I’ve covered chuoi nep nuong before, so I won’t gas. Just sit back and ogle. Bloody gorgeous, innit? Hell – why not download the large version and reset your computer wallpaper. Not big enough? Think you can take more? really? Then chuoi nep nuong gigantic is the one for you. Study it carefully. I swear the one bottom left is blubbering. More scenes from the stall here. For more on Weeping Mary, see week old on the spot reports from The Rice Bowl and No Star Where.
If you’re in need of coc, you’ll find plenty available on the streets of Saigon at the moment. October and November are big coc months. I find three sellers at the junction of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Huu Cau streets in District 1. The one pictured above plies coc from a bicycle basket stall a length or two up the road from a guy with his nuts out. Most popular coc in Saigon come from either Vinh Long or Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. However, I understand other southern provinces are known to send their best coc to market too when they’re big enough.
5,000VD buys me three hard cocs and a small bag of salt to dip them into. Coc is a fruit with a big seed in the middle and an orangey, tart, soft, juicy, flesh.
Can’t say I’m a coc lover, but I’ll give anything a go. I’m not sure what coc is in English. In French I think it’s pomme something or other. If you know, please let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, if you spot coc for sale on the streets, have a nibble.
Fruit’s great innit? It looks cool. It tastes fab, gives your intestine a decent bit of fruitcerise and helps flush out any stubborn internal cobwebs. What’s also super-top-nice about fruit in Vietnam is that the stuff’s seasonal. What with the availability of all kindsa fruit year round in the west, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there’s some study somewhere showing that British and American kids don’t actually know that fruit is seasonal. Whereas I’m fairly sure your average Vietnamese kid knows exactly when to find longans and litchis for sale.
I am British and as seasonally clueless as most of my compatriots. However, in Vietnam there’s a nifty way of finding out what’s a la mode at any given time. Take a walk down the street and see what’s on offer. If it’s on sale, it means it’s ‘in’ and it didn’t come from some Israeli kibbutz, a Californian growth hormone farm or the Windward Islands. These here grapes be in season right now and’ll set you back 12,000VD/kg.
This guy’s got a basket full of hairy, red chom chom (rambutan). You only find them during the rainy season – May to October(ish). They just recently started to appear on the streets. Binh Hoa, near Saigon, is where many of these fellas are grown. Crack open the hairy outer and there’s a sweet, white blob inside. 10,000VD/kg
Sau rieng (Durian) is the legendary stinker. Can’t quite see what all the fuss is about to be honest. It smells, but it’s really not that bad. I’m not a big fan of this gunky, creamy fruit. It’s the texture that freaks me out. However, noodlegirl is keen and so we normally buy at least one per week. It’ll cost you around 12,000VD for one from a street cart like this. The skin is a jagged bitch and I’ve cut myself more than once on one of these things.
It’s best to ask the seller to open your durian for you. They then stick the fruit meat in a polystyrene box.
The durian seller on my local market can be seen above hacking up a durian for us. She’s not taking any chances and wears something of a falconry glove to protect her paws.
On Ben Thanh market (see pic above) the durian are larger, but cost about three times the price of the street deal. Noodlegirl says the taste from the Ben Thanh babes is in another league.
The durian seller on my local market also sells the centrefold of the fruitarian galaxy, the dragonfruit. But, I guess much like many centrefold models, there’s not a lot going on inside. Under the gorgeous skin is an equally stunning night sky in negative effect – white flesh, dotted with wee black seeds – but it tastes of nothing, watery and unintersting.
I find this seller at the corner of Truong Dinh and Nguyen An Ninh near Le Lai street and Ben Thanh Market in District 1. She occupies the very corner spot next to a banh my pate seller and opposite a popular bun moc shop. Two upturned buckets and a couple of metal trays make up her economical shopfront stall. A slab of ice the size of an Alpine glacier keeps her commestables cool – what they are exactly I’m not entirely sure. I think we’re talking coconut palm hearts.
One non-English speaking Saigonese tells me they’re called dua nuoc. As far as I understand it this translates as coconut juice. Hmm?? Am I barking up several wrong trees, a sizable geranium bush and a fist full of fuschia here? Hardly looks liquid now, does it? She also sells them peeled and bagged with coconut juice (see below). A bag is what I buy and from memory (this was a few weeks ago) one costs 5,000 or 7,000VD.
As for taste, it’s quite the oddest texture. Fairly firm, rubbery, yet yearning to be water chesnut crunchy and there’s the merest hint of coconut. It’s the spitting image of a lump of plastic and when all’s said and done it’s not that interesting, but I’m glad I tried it. I imagine a snazzy chef with more imagination than Imagination could conjure up all sortsa hipster New York dessert section/salad bar trendiness with these. Maybe they already do?
You really wouldn’t want to have one of these fat fruits land on your nonce. This colossal fruit coral packs plenty of weight. This is jackfruit. Open up the hard, pebbled exterior and you’ll find yards of slim, creamy, fragrant, yellow flesh to gobble down. This guy hacks up dead jackfruit on the corner of Nguyen Van Thu and Hai Ba Trung Streets in District 1 from 11am onwards every day.
His missus flogs the stuff. If she likes the look of you, she’ll give you a free nibble. After delving into the delights of this stall, you’re bound to want to stump up for a take home cartoon. An elastic band sealed, plastic tray will cost you 10,000VD. It’s the stuff fruitarian wet dreams are made of. Just two shakes of a badger’s snout away, on the opposite side of the road, is a competitor selling the same stuff in the same way at the same price. However, you won’t find a cone on her head.
If you’re foraging for streetscoff around Saigon and you’re into gooey nanas and grilled rice, keep ’em peeled for Chuoi nep nuong. Much like the sandwich the concept is bonkers simple. Cook rice, peel nana, wrap nana in rice, grill and serve. Warm fruity goo awaits scoffdom inside the charred rice case. Since the Earl of Sandwich’s brainwave during a gambling session in 1762, the sandwich has mutated big style. We now have (the classy) Marks & Spencers, (the retro) Breville and (the naff) Pret a Manger. Through it all, the humble Vietnamese nana ricewich remains unchanged. What no durian ricewich? Whither the mango noodle wrap? A matter of time maybe, but not for now.
The bitter burnt rice crisp cover combined with the stickier interior rice and the warm nana centre is a gargantuan gobfull – Well, it is if you try and hog down close to your loading bay limit first nibble – whoops. Ideal picnic fodder or ‘grab ‘n’ go’ scoff. It looks the business, it’s surprisingly filling and it’ll keep you going all morning. You’ll need to cough up 2,000 sobs to get a taste of this savoury fruit tease. This seller stalks central Saigon, specialises in Chuoi nep nuong, but also sells a small array of rice cakes.
Yesterday, many of the regular stall holders on the local market, including old troutface with her Bun mam, switched from meat based scoff to strict vegetarian. I wasn’t quite sure why, but in the comments Lisa tells us, "January 9 is the equivalent of November 30th on the lunar calendar. Vietnamese Buddhists do not eat meat on the 30th, 1st and the 15th of the lunar month." Thanks Lisa, now I know who’s Buddhist and who ain’t and also when I can and can’t get a meat fill down here. There’s plenty for fruitarians too. Here we have the papaya seller. The smaller, reddy ones
on the right are sweeter than your regular more yellowy numbers on the
left. Personally, I find papaya a wee bit bland, but at 2,000VD a slice it’s a healthy snip.
Curiosity got the better of me last night and I doubled back to this seller at the top of Nguyen Hue Street slapbang in the very epicentre of District 1. Sure, I’ve seen this around town, but I’ve never bothered buying it before. Looks like sheets of thin cardboard, but is in fact dried, finger bananas that have been sat on by the heaviest member of the family, for a very, very long time. It’s called Banh chuoi. Not sure how many bananas go to make one sheet, but I’ll guess at just the one. This seller tells me she’s been in the mobile street stall trade for four years and stalks predominantly in District 1. She’ll heat a sheet up fresh for you on the charcoal burner in one of her baskets, or you can buy a bag of three sheets for 6000VD. Banh chuoi is popular nightime snack food with Saigonites, Tastes like it sounds. Of bananas, slightly warm and dry. Interesting and worth a try, but I doubt I’ll buy it again.