When I first Met Melissa Yen “Senior Syrup Slinger” of Jo Snow Syrups, as I mentioned in my blog introducing her as a partner, we had breakfast together; I knew I had to talk to her about partnering with Salty Fig, but I really just wanted to sit and ask her questions about Vietnam, a recent trip she had been on. At the closing of our Breakfast I asked if she might write a guest blog for Salty Fig about Vietnam, since we like to encourage people to travel and try new foods! She graciously accepted…read on, below you will find an account of her favorite foods.
PS I wonder what new syrup will evolve out of her trip?…..Fun to ponder the possibilities
A Sensory Experience of Vietnam, account and pictures by: Melissa Yen
“I want to go everywhere…so narrowing that down to one place for a three week trip was daunting. My husband & I finally chose Vietnam & Thailand. You know why? The food! Vietnamese & Thai has to be our favorite food, so fresh & light but with bold flavors and great textures. We discovered foods there we had never had before.
I don’t even know where to start. It was overwhelming there, in a good way. If I had to pick a favorite part of our trip it would have to be the street food & market stalls & tropical fruit. You knew this was going to be food related, right? Here in Chicago, we really don’t have a street food culture, unfortunately, so we were in snack heaven. Street food is a way of life in Southeast Asia. People have very small kitchen & I think some people may not have kitchens at all. Street food is cheap and abundant, so people snack all day long for pennies. Yes, pennies. The snacks we devoured averaged about 30 cents to a dollar. And it was hot, fresh and tasty. A hearty bowl of pho, the national soup came in at $1.50, but that bowl of soup would keep you going for hours.
How did we go about picking the food we wanted to eat? You hear so many stories about saying “Don’t eat the street food, you’ll get violently ill” Not if it is fresh & well prepared. We developed a second sense of what we should or should not eat. Busy stands with lots of turnover. Definitely a good option. The vats of steaming soup were always a good bet.
That roiling boil would kill any bacteria lurking there. Freshly grilled meats were also a good bet. Hot off the grill, nothing is gonna hurt ya there. Anything fresh and made to order. Go for it! One of my favorites? The 5 cent popsicles made from soda pop in Bangkok. I ate 3 of them in a matter of five minutes. They hit the spot!
And fruit, fresh exotic, never seen before tropical fruit. Mangosteens. I had heard of them, but never tasted them. Ever hear a wine describes as tropical. That’s the essence of mangosteen. Rambutan, spiny exotic little orbs. I had bought very expensive sad looking ones in LA just to try them, but in Vietnam, they were fresh from the orchards. Speaking of orchards, We were lucky enough to stay with a friend’s cousin’s family in the Mekong delta who had orchards full of exotic fruit. Gigantic jackfruit, “milk” apples with juicy milky interiors and gigantic pomelos.
We spent the day picking them & gorging ourselves. We even got to try a fruit that has no name in English. You had to chop it off the side of a tree & then hack it open with a machete. The fruit inside you scooped out with your thumbnail & popped in your mouth, barely a morsel, for all that work. But so exciting and different and out of this world. We were grateful we had a chance to experience this.
“You know how coconut water is a health food here & very expensive? We drank it like water in Vietnam! It is cheap and refreshing. The perfect quencher on a hot day. Then you have the coconut hacked open & eat the fresh coconut meat with a spoon. It tastes nothing like the sweetened desiccated coconut in the stores.
I became obsessesed with Che while in Vietnam. The word Che covers a vast number of cold & hot “soupy” desserts with coconut milk, colored jellies, lotus seeds, mung bean filled rice flour dumplings. There are che stands everywhere like the one here in Ben Than Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Colorful jewels in cups just waiting to be chosen. Then topped with coconut milk & shaved ice. Just what you need after braving the chock full market & bargaining for souvenirs to take home. I became so obsessed with che that our friend whose cousin we stayed with in the Mekong Delta invited me over when her mom was in town for a private che lesson! Khe & I made six different kinds of che & that was just the tip of the che iceberg. This one is three colored jellies, mung bean, coconut milk and black beans. Another called Che Dau Sanh is water & sugar with seaweed, lotus seed and clear jelly.
How different & exotic. It may not sound appealing, but the explosion of textures & flavors and sensations is just what you want on a hot and humid day to cool you down and keep you going. I plan on making a version for my snow cone stand at the farmers market this summer. This is a perfect example of inspiration finding its way home. It is a chance to share my amazing trip with friends, family & customers. Che, to me, is much more than a unique treat that I enjoyed in Vietnam. It is way to introduce others to something that I found very special, that I am excited about, that I am obsessed with. Che is a way to introduce others to something they may not have known existed or could have even imagined. Che is a way to share a piece of what is now a part of me. ”