We generally avoid malls and mall food like the plague. So it was a little disconcerting last year to find ourselves spending a lot of time in the region's shopping center food courts for a feature article in today's Wall Street Journal Asia 'Weekend Journal' (the annual Food Issue) on street foods cooked and served 'off the street' (a few out takes here).
I have to admit I accepted the assignment with some ambivalence. For me eating on the street is an integral part of travelling (where street food is available, anyway). It's such an easy and delightful way to connect with locals and immerse yourself in local culinary (and other) culture.
But I also realize that there are lots of travelers who, for whatever reason, just can't go there. And I do not turn my nose up at you. Street food is not just about the food, it's about the experience, and while the experience can't be recreated in a shopping mall food court or restaurant (though Saigon's Quan An Ngon comes pretty close), in the course of our research for this piece we found that - sometimes - the food can.
So I say, to those who just can't bring themselves to eat on the street or in a market: I'm glad that there are places like this, where you can find at least an approximation of the street's flavors. (I also say, put yourself in my hands for a day and I'll have you converted. But that's neither here nor there.)
For this article we visited malls and standalone restaurants in Bangkok, Jakarta, Saigon, and KL (we had help in Singapore) . And we found something interesting, a little tidbit that hasn't entered the debate about the desire of some regional municipal governments to sweep foods off the street: places like Jakarta's Kafe Betawi (a chain) or Tanah Abang food court may actually become repositories for some tastes of the street, as certain street foods disappear from their natural habitat.
The owner of Kafe Betawi, who is really very passionate about street foods, told me that she tries to conjure, in her restaurants, approximations of street foods she remembers from her childhood that are now nearly extinct on the street. And on the 8th floor of Tanah Abang, a massive textile market, we found a street specialty - kerak telur, a sort of rice and egg 'omelet' with coconut and palm sugar - that we'd been searching for in vain. It was even cooked old-style, over charcoal.
That said, for us the street is still where it's at. I mean, just have a look at that opening photo: com tam (broken rice) topped with grilled pork, sweet-tart cucumber-carrot-daikon pickle, a fried egg, and scallion greens (fish sauce-chili dipping sauce on the side) taken with a glass of inky iced coffee at a tiny, low-to-the-ground beaten metal table, at 7am on a Saturday in an alley in Saigon's District 1.
It's a dish we often overlook, common as it is to nearly every Saigon city block in the a.m., but it's so delicious. The broken rice is fluffy, light, almost couscous-like, the pork slightly sweet and smoky, the pickles a sharp counterpoint to the richness of the meat. The egg's yolk, broken to spill over the rice, pulls it all together. And the dipping sauce, with it's lightly sugared, fish-flavored chili punch, is the flavor of Vietnam itself. What a way to wake up. (That, and the coffee.)
But this meal isn't just about the deliciousness of what's on the plate in front of us. It's about being out and about when Saigon is at it's best, when the buildings still cast long shadows and the air is a bit cool and as close as it ever gets to clean; when the motorcycles, relatively thin on the street, speak a soothing purr instead of a deafening roar; and when locals, fresh from a night's sleep and not yet worn down from all the crap that a day in Saigon can throw at them, are at their friendliest.
(Smiles and nods also come from the sight of a couple of tall foreigners perched on kiddy stools hunkered down over a plate of com tam. Don't ever underestimate the power of partaking.)
It's about the aromas that waft about in that alley, the good ones: the comforting, enveloping smell of steamed rice, the hint of sourness rising from the vendor's jar of pickles, and the meaty smoke snaking up from the grill that taunts your growling belly while you're waiting for your plate of com tam and then, after it's delivered, stokes your hunger even as you're eating.
It's about the tinkle of bicycle bells and the honk of motorcycle horns (at the end of the alley sits an apartment building, and at 7am residents walk or ride by your table on their way to work, school, the market, breakfast, coffee), and the nods and high-fives sent your way by other eaters, many of whom probably breakfast here every single day. It's about the vendor's smile as she sets down your plate, the coffee lady's laugh at your pronunciation of 'cafe sua da', the privilege of watching your meal prepared right in front of you, and the pleasure of tucking into something so luscious yet so ridiculously cheap.
In short, this fantastic plate of com tam is about everything - the whole experience rolled into one tasty package.
And that's why, given the choice, the street is where we eat.
Com tam, alley behind the opera house, Saigon. Starts early, closes when she runs out.