The Vietnamese are also ringing in the New Year, they call the holiday Tet. Our own culinary curator, John T. Edge, has just returned from Vietnam, where he reveled in pork-stuffed breadsticks, rice paper peanut brittle, and other delicacies prepared by sidewalk chefs. Welcome back, John T.
JOHN T. EDGE: Thanks, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Did you find street vendors on every corner in Vietnam?
EDGE: Just about every street corner, especially in Hanoi, you'd turn a corner and stretching down one avenue, going two, maybe three blocks deep, there would be specialized vendors. There was one street I remember walking down. There must have been 20 people all selling dried fish, or turn the corner and there would be 20 people all selling chaggio(ph), these fried spring rolls. Turn the corner the other way and everybody is sitting at little plastic stools, literally with the curb as your table, eating breakfast, eating lunch, eating dinner. For me it was incredibly inspiring.
ELLIOTT: What were some of your favorite dishes? What did you like the most?
EDGE: I liked sticky rice, and I didn't think I would like sticky rice. At a sidewalk vendor I found in Saigon, this woman was taking a banana leaf and piling onto there a little bit of black sticky rice, a little bit of white sticky rice. She was mixing a little mung(ph) bean that was powdered, fried turnips, fried garlic and her husband was shaving coconut with a bottle top, wrapping all that up into a parcel. And then when you open that parcel back up, you got all those flavors that kind of assaulted your nose. I mean that was breakfast for two or three different mornings for me. I loved that stuff.
ELLIOTT: Now did you travel much outside of the cities?
EDGE: I did. One day when I was in Hue, which is the imperial city, the old imperial city. I took a taxi about an hour and a half north into Quang Tri Province, into in essence the old demilitarized zone, the DMZ from the war. Quickly, though, people started gathering around the taxi. An instant seafood restaurant emerged.
So this guy comes walking up to me. I'm on the beach by this point. This guy comes walking up to me with the fiberglass liner of an old military helmet and in it are two beautiful cuttlefish, monstrous squid, in essence. They had this beautiful almost wood grain to them. More crabs than I could count. And then his friends began assembling a makeshift dining room there, little plastic table, little plastic stools. And I sat down to this feast of crab and of cuttlefish, both steamed, both dipped in toasted salt and pepper, which you mix with a little bit of lime and then take the seafood and dip in. And if I look to my left or look to my right, as far as I could see were these long boats, fishing long boats.
The rudder of each one was crafted into - by hand - whittled from wood into the sickle of the Communist Party, as far as I could see to my left, as far as I could see to my right.
ELLIOTT: How would you say the street vendors in Vietnam compare to what we might see here in the U.S., say, in the streets of New York or the streets of New Orleans?
EDGE: The economy of street vendors in Vietnam is a lot more informal. You get this sense of kind of ebb and flow. It isn't like in New York where somebody stakes out a corner and stays there. You see women with, you know, portable restaurants on yokes, traveling through the streets and stopping and serving as they go.
In some ways, you know, we think of street food as a compromise in the U.S. Ah, I got to pick up a hotdog. I'm in a hurry. But there street food is an indulgence.
ELLIOTT: Now, John T., I hear you once did a stint as a street vendor yourself. In New Orleans?
EDGE: I did. The very first magazine article I ever wrote, I worked a Lucky Dog cart for three days, culminating in New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street. And it didn't leave me scarred but left me inspired. And from that point on I went on with a friend here on Oxford and we bought our own hotdog cart and thought we were going to be the titans of hotdogs in Oxford.
ELLIOTT: John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Thank, John T. We'll talk to you soon.
EDGE: Looking forward to it.
ELLIOTT: If you'd like to read about John T.'s experience as a Lucky Dog vendor, go to our Web site, npr.org.