The Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is one-stop shopping central, just about 24/7. Top quality fruits and vegetables, seafood and meat products are delivered fresh daily, beginning in the wee hours of the morning. I had a chance to explore the market with an expert when I joined three other travelers to gather the fresh ingredients for a cooking session with Chef Pruang of Hua Toc Restaurant’s Saigon Cooking School.
All about the fresh
With Chef Pruang, we sniffed and tasted our way down aisle redolent of herbs and pungent greens. We were introduced to morning glory—stems, which we would learn to turn into a crisp salad—and leaves, which we would see on just about every menu in the country, stir-fried with garlic.
We saw lotus stems, roots, leaves and seeds, and were told that when used in fried rice, the seeds taste much like chickpeas; and were introduced to houttuynia, a leaf that smells of fish and is often used as one of the green leaves folded around banh xeo, or Vietnamese pancake. We learned to spot long coriander and lemon myrtle, and fingered sky flowers, pumpkin blossoms, and melon flowers. My only regret was that we couldn’t sample everything.
According to Pruang, Ben Thanh is the cleanest market in Asia, boasting freshness that is second to none. Drains carry away the residue from cleaning fish, and fruits and veggies are sluiced down regularly.
Prepared foods & specialty ingredients
Indoors, we stopped by restaurant stalls ready for the early lunch trade. Some counters sported glasses of brightly colored noodles, jellies and beans, to be eaten as sweet or savory snacks. Others advertised a variety of noodle dishes, and tasty snacks such as prawn paste grilled on sugar cane sticks, or boiled eggs in seasoned jelly.
We stopped at a spice stall to check out bags of spice blends for beef, eel, pork, and goat. Some were specific for BBQ, others for stewing the meats. When someone asked which would be considered most representative of the region, Pruang answered: “If you’ve not tried goat meat, in a hotpot or barbecued, you’ve not really visited Saigon.” Much as I enjoyed several days stay in HCMC, I did not have a chance to try goat this trip…so I I’ll have to return if my visit is to register on Pruang’s ‘visitometer’!