US food blogger brings lesser-known Vietnamese dishes into limelight
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Mark Wiens sits down at a restaurant on Vo Van Tan Street in a busy corner of downtown Ho Chi Minh City after ordering some grilled beef in piper lolot leaves.
“Bo la lot,” he repeats after the chef lady in Vietnamese that is almost perfect for a first timer.
He lays out the feast, examining everything from the pieces of peanut on top of the sausage-like rolls, a side dish of raw vegetables and some red chili that has been chopped into tiny pieces.
Then he rolls everything up in a piece of rice paper, dunks the roll in a small bowl of fermented fish sauce, and takes a big bite.
Now you have to wait for him for 30 seconds as he makes a delighted face, and he will tell you how the combination tastes and what more is in there.
Wiens, a Thailand-based American food blogger, visited Vietnam last year and has uploaded nearly 30 such videos of the foods he tried, mostly in Ho Chi Minh City.
He has blogged about all of Vietnam’s most popular foods like the iconic noodle soup pho, the big round crispy pancake banh xeo, and all-in-one baguette banh mi, but his favorites are not so well-known to outsiders.
Bo la lot is one of them.
“It has a real smoky flavor that makes it so good. And then being able to wrap it in rice paper and combine it with more herbs and chilies makes it even better,” he said in an email.
The 29-year-old was born in Arizona, the US, but spent his childhood moving from France to Congo to Kenya with his Christian missionary parents before returning to the US for university.
His mother is Chinese-American and his grandfather was a Chinese chef, which he said makes him gravitate towards Asian foods.
“We definitely have some roots in food.”
After he graduated in global studies, he traveled to South America and then around Southeast Asia before coming to Thailand, where he met his wife.
He started blogging seriously in 2013 with him and his wife traveling most of the time for the purpose. His wife Ying Wiens does the filming.
He is now uploading two videos every week on his YouTube channel, each providing viewers details about the foods, the atmosphere, how to eat, where to eat and how much it costs.
Nearly every meal includes an abundance of vegetables, which not only play an important role in flavor, but also in texture”
What possibly makes Mark Wiens the perfect flood blogger is he looks for places frequented by locals and eats the foods the way they do.
That’s how his videos in Vietnam reach out well to both Vietnamese and foreigners.
His videos manage to highlight some main principles of Vietnam’s food culture, like the habit of creating combinations.
His other favorites are two of the best examples of that mixed cuisine.
One is bun rieu, a vermicelli soup with a mix of seafood flavors that tastes best when eaten with various fermented and sour sauces, and com tam suon, which is broken rice with grilled pork chops, meatloaf, shredded pig skin, omelet, scallion oil, and pickles.
In his blog spot about the best foods he tried in 2014, when he also visited Hawaii, Tokyo, London, and Myanmar and traveled around Thailand, he listed chao vit, which is congee served with braised duck and a plate of herb salad, and oc, which is an exotic street food with snails and herbs.
I just can’t get enough of the street food culture in Vietnam, and how dining on the sidewalk in the midst of action is such a common part of daily life”
Wiens said his biggest impressions about Vietnamese food are the prolific use of fresh herbs and the street atmosphere.
He said the first thing that comes to his mind when describing Vietnamese food is how well it utilizes fresh herbs and fresh vegetables.
“Nearly every meal includes an abundance of vegetables, which not only play an important role in flavor, but also in texture.
“And I just can’t get enough of the street food culture in Vietnam, and how dining on the sidewalk in the midst of action is such a common part of daily life,” the blogger, who has tried restaurants along busy streets, banh khot pancakes in the middle of a wet market and omelet baguette in an alley, said.
Wiens said in his banh khot video that he loves it more than its bigger, more popular version, banh xeo.
“I would love to return and try more food. I would especially like to get into more regional and coastal Vietnamese food, and anything that includes seafood.”
The blogger recently published an eBook guide about the Vietnamese food he ate in HCMC that is available for download for free.