A local staple
A Saigon soup staple, chao -- congee in the Western world -- is basically a type of rice porridge; rice is cooked in a large pot of water until it softens into a creamy soup.
Usually, you’ll see chao coupled with a meat, which is cooked with the rice in the pot. The most popular versions are chao long, porridge with pork entrails and congealed blood, and chao ga, porridge with chicken and ginger. Luckily in Saigon, because of its close proximity to the water, you can also find a few seafood varieties of the soup; including chao ca, porridge with fish, or chao muc, porridge with squid.
Since the meat is usually cooked with the porridge a street cart seldom has more than one version of chao. This means a market that has street food stalls could have a few chao stalls all selling a different version of the soup. Ordering a bowl is pretty straightforward as most of the dish is already prepared in the pot however you will have the option of adding bean sprouts, chillies and chunks of fried bread. Chao is popular throughout the country as a breakfast food, however it can be eaten all day. Many locals consider chao to be a cure for the common cold, like their version of chicken soup.
Since one cart will only have a single version of chao they tend to be some of the better marked street foods in the city. If you see an unmarked cart a few indications that it sells chao will be the large pot, an absence of displayed meats, and a stack of fried break sticks. You’ll be able to find it almost anywhere in the city: mobile carts selling chao ga or chao long are regular sights, but if you’re looking for a seafood flavour head to a market or another area where street food congregates.
Chao is an inexpensive dish even by Saigon street food standards. A bowl is usually around the 10,000 VND mark and even seafood versions rarely run more than 20,000 VND. Plus, since the soup is on the thicker side, it is maybe a little more filling than the other soups on the street. Give chao a try and see what you’ve been missing; you don’t even have to be sick to enjoy it.
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 18th October, 2014.