Well, after a fairly horrible two weeks of illness, I’m finally feeling well enough to resume blogging. I’m by no means better yet – after a proper flu with secondary bronchitis and laryngitis I’m still weak as a kitten and sleeping almost as much as my cat – but I’m itching to write more about Vietnam and Thailand. I’m hoping in the coming weeks to intersperse travel posts on Southeast Asia with what I’m cooking now. But since I’m still on a sick-girl diet of plain rice and chicken, cooked by the wonderful Mr Lemur, it might be a few days before I’m back at the stove. For now, I’m starting a short series of market posts. Like any foodie, one of my favourite things to do in any new destination is to check out the food market, and throughout our trip we spent mornings and often evenings wandering around stalls, tasting new foods and just looking longingly at produce. I’ve been saving these posts up to enliven a dull January with vibrant images. First up, the Mekong delta town of Vinh Long.
We stopped off in Vinh Long town relatively briefly in between cycling in the little villages of the surrounding islands and taking a boat trip up the Mekong river. We originally planned simply to pick up some cash and provisions but when we got to Vinh Long we saw that the morning market was in full swing. And what a market it was! I’ve been to a lot of markets in my time but this one was amazing: alive with people and animals, loud and sometimes mildly alarming. The wet market was properly slippery, and I often had to step back more or less into buckets of seething crabs to get out of someone’s way. Everywhere, fish were flapping around and the few marine creatures that were already dead were, like these squid, overflowing from containers all around.
Some of the food for sale was unusual to the Western eye, like the tanks full of snakes that offer high-end meat for the Vietnamese table. The bigger the snake, the more expensive, so some tanks had really scary contents.
Everywhere you went, live animals were piled up in crates or lined up for inspection. It can feel uncomfortable to see your dinner still alive – I’m sure my vegetarian readers are feeling especially queasy – but then again as a meat eater, I think we should be aware of where our meat comes from. Certainly, Vietnamese shoppers aren’t alienated from the farm and they know exactly how fresh their food is. This is obviously a good thing but the experience takes a bit of getting used to. The chickens and geese in this section seemed kind of unhappy, though maybe I was projecting.
But it wasn’t all alarming meats. The market also had a beautiful vegetable section, filled with giant piles of fruits, vegetables and herbs, many of which I didn’t recognise. This doesn’t actually happen all that often – usually you know what more of less everything is in a vegetable market. Vinh Long had an astonishing range of greenery. Here are some gorgeous zucchini flowers, lotus heads, okra, bitter melon, papaya, and some herbs I don’t recognise.
There were piles and piles of fresh and dried noodles.
We came across a durian stall in the fruit section and thought that the time had really come to try some. Durian is famously stinky and the sellers wrap up the pre-sectioned fruit in cling film to keep the smell in check. I’ve often wanted to try the fruit that’s famously banned in many Asian buses, hotels and other public spaces and whose flavour is often described in terms of parmesan, vomit and garbage. So we jumped in and bought a piece. And…I didn’t really think it tasted of any of those things. It reminded me forcefully of caramelised shallots, with a hint of roast pork, all in a loose custardy form. I quite liked it, certainly didn’t find it disgusting or vomity, but to be honest, as they say of babies, I couldn’t eat a whole one. We ate a little and gave the rest back. The durian lady clearly enjoyed freaking out the white people.
Our most exciting discovery of Vinh Long, though, was this vegetable preparation. It looked to me a lot like Italian puntarelle, the thinly julienned strips of chicory that appear across Roman markets in winter and make a delicious salad with anchovy and garlic.
Obviously, this wasn’t exactly the same thing but I kept seeing stalls selling these white curls and others with green ones too. What were they? I had to find out. It turns out that they are banana flowers, which are finely shredded and turned into a salad, sometimes alongside morning glory. It was clearly the season for this delicacy as I could see it on so many stalls…and this information stood me in good stead back in Saigon where we had fantastic banana flower salad at the Christmas barbeque and in a couple of other places too. Poking around markets is pretty much awesome in its own right, but it’s even better when it points you toward what’s in season and what you need to be eating now.