Where once vegetarian street food was difficult to find, now it is almost everywhere. And it’s nothing to do with Buddhism, either. Vi Pham traces a trend. Photos by Owen Salisbury
As Tet always comes and leaves with a wave of food, now is the time when all the taste buds need a break from the meaty and greasy protein. For this, eating a vegetarian snack is one of the best choices. Even though vegetarian food has long been a part of Vietnamese cuisine, it was not until recent years that vegetarian street snacks have garnered attention. More vegetarian food stalls and small-sized veggie hubs are popping up around town with a wide range of dishes to choose from, making healthy snacks a reality.
Vegetarian snacks have not become popular without reason. It has always been there in the dining culture of Vietnam and for centuries, vegetables have been a must-have part of a typical Vietnamese home meal.
Vegetarian food used to be consumed only for religious reasons, when Vietnamese families would have vegetarian meals on the last, the first and the middle days of a lunar month. But young modern-day consumers are aware of the health benefits of vegetarian food. And older adults are viewing vegetarian recipes as a healthier, more environmentally friendly alternative.
Cuisine prepared without meat also represents a promising market. Since people do not just eat vegetarian food based on the lunar calendar, the demand for vegetarian snacks has increased to meet daily demand. If one could previously only find vegetarian dishes around temples and pagodas, vegetarian street snacks are now available everywhere — from eating areas in the markets, on the street and in restaurants.
“I'm not really religious but I’ve beaten cancer with a vegetarian diet, so I want everyone to know vegetables can give them a better life,” says Ms. Lien, the owner of a small vegetarian snacking corner in Binh Thanh District when asked about her business motivation. “Eat more of my snacks and you’ll have better skin, too,” she adds as I dip into bi do kho — pumpkin cooked with soy sauce after a bowl of hu tieu chay — vegetarian noodle soup.
Good Food, Good Price
Another reason for the increasing availability and consumption of vegetarian snacks is price. They are affordable to all social classes as the recipes are often simple and do not require too many ingredients. Despite being low-cost, the quality remains beneficial.
Unlike other snacks that provide mainly empty calories, vegetarian snacks are high in fibre and rich in protein. They also give your stomach a break from too much protein. For only VND50,000, you can buy a set of various vegetarian snacks for four people. One interesting thing I’ve noticed while driving around town is that many vegetarian snack stalls can be found near or in front of schools — students love to snack on meatless meals anytime of the day.
“So I won’t be too full and get sleepy in class,” answered my niece when I asked about her eating vegetable noodles almost every day of the week. One portion costs her VND15,000.
If you’d like to be a part of this cultural cuisine movement, check out 9 Phan Chu Trinh, Q1 or 157 Dien Bien Phu, Binh Thanh. Prices for each dish cost between VND15,000 and VND55,000. Also look out for any street stalls with the sign “chay”.