Nov 30 2011
Saigon isn’t much of a city for famous world-class landmarks — though certainly there are a few, it’s really the food on the street that’s something special. But despite the street food being great some people, rightfully, are concerned about the safety of food sold on the street in a country where you can’t drink the tap water. So, to get to the bottom of Street Food Safety 101, I enlisted the help of my friend Chad Kubanoff, a fantastic chef who’s been in Vietnam for more than five years. The majority of his time has been spent with food, not only as a patron of Vietnamese dining but also as the head chef at the luxurious Xu Restaurant, a position he recently left to start Back of the Bike Tours. I pulled him away from the kitchen to ask some food safety questions.
Q: You’ve obviously heard some of the concerns people have with street food, as a chef do you feel that it’s as safe to eat on the street, in Saigon, as it is to eat at a more established restaurant or hotel?
Chad: I think it’s just as safe. There’s not much difference. The culture in the street is the same in the restaurants. Pretty much everyone gets their ice from the same place, maybe some of the big five-star hotels have their own ice but I think that’s rare. There isn’t much refrigeration of meat. It’s really not much different; I’ve been in restaurants and seen cooks take meat off the counter to chop it on the ground! I was like, ‘Guys, we have tables!’ Kitchens are pretty gross anyway, even back home. At least on the street you can see where they’re cooking.
Q: So you’re not that worried about getting sick on the street?
Chad: I’m not. It’s all about mindset. If you think you’re going to get sick by eating on the street, you’ll probably get sick.
Q: What are some signs you look for to tell a safer street vendor from a bad one?
Chad: I either look for a lot of people or a lot of product. A street vendor isn’t really able to save food overnight, so very rarely do they buy more than they’ll sell. If a lady has a lot of food in front of her or on her cart, then it means she sells plenty of food, she’s prepared for the rush that she gets at some point, and if she sells a lot then she must be pretty good. I’m worried about someone who has just a little bit of meat and one pack of noodles because she doesn’t get enough business, probably because she’s no good.
Q: What would be the first dish you recommend to someone new to street food?
Chad: If I was starting someone out on street food I guess I’d take them to get some bun bo hue because it’s not pho and it’s always good. Sometimes it’s great, but it’s always good.
So, there you have it: street food is pretty safe, or at least as safe as anywhere else in Vietnam. I trust Chad’s opinion: he’s the one who got me to try hot vit lon, and I’m not dead!
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