středa 7. října 2009

TTTM SAPA - the Vietnamese market

There is no other place like this in Prague. In fact, there are one or two similar but smaller markets, but they can’t compare to TTTM SAPA. It’s a small world of its own and is the center of the Vietnamese community in Prague and maybe even in the whole country. It's like a small town, it has language schools, a kindergarden, a buddhist temple, hairdresser and beauty salons, casinos, grocery stores, restaurants etc. People working in Sapa are generally very friendly but speak very little Czech. The place itself is actually a wholesale market with clothes, household items, electronics and other stuff found in many smaller Vietnamese markets and shops. But all of this was of no interest to us because we were there for the food! There are many small vendors selling just one particular food and also places serving the more traditional Čínské bistro fare.
The grocery stores in Sapa sell exotic fruits and vegetables (even stinky durian!!!), live fish, seafood and meat. There are also many ready made foods sold, like whole grilled ducks, banh mi sandwiches, different sweets, fresh juices etc etc.
On our first visit we tried the Bun cha at an eatery called Hai Ha. It’s a small joint where 1 guy is grilling, 1 guy is chopping and marinating the meat, 1 guy washing and chopping the herbs and vegetables and 2 women are assembling the plates and waiting the tables. The meat is being grilled outside of the restaurant in a small adjacent side-street. The meat is marinated in a sweet marinade and so it burns ferociously on the grill, due to this the guy operating the big grill is constantly wearing a mask. A somewhat bizarre sight. The place itself has 2 big and 4 small tables. What you do is come in, sit down and wait.
One of the ladies will either come and ask you something or she will start bringing the food straight away. We were approached by one of the ladies, but didn’t understand a word she said and so I just made the victory gestrure with my fingers to indicate that we want two portions. She nodded and walked away. In about 2 minutes we were brought a dish of greens, a dish of noodles and a bowl of sweet and sour dressing/soup each. A couple of minutes we got our two plates of meat.
This is how it looks altogether.
Perfectly grilled thin morsels of delicious meat and tiny thin “hamburgers”, they are meant to be dipped into the bowl with the sweet and sour dressing and eaten with the provided greens. The noodles are aslo meant to be eaten with the dressing. These herbs are not sold in regular supermarkets or groceries, apart form cilantro and iceberg lettuce they are authentic Vietnamese herbs and their names remain unknown to me (Ngo gai perhaps?). The combination of the four elements contributes to the complex experience from this dish. The meat is tasty on its own, but together with the herbs, noodles and dressing it is a major delicacy. It costs 90 crowns each I believe.
After finishing off our Bun cha we wandered around the market and came across a vendor frying something closely resembling doughnuts. We bought to kinds of doughnuts and a mysterious
square parcel wrapped in a leaf (banana??).

The doughnuts are…uhm….unusual :-) They were extremely greasy, oil was dripping when I bit into one of them. They had thick and hard crusts inside which was some gooey substance. The most interesting thing was that they were not sweet at all! The one dusted with powdered sugar was sweet because of the sugar, but the filling and the other doughnut were not even close to being sweet. Oh well, I never was a connoisseur of Asian desserts and I guess it will stay the same :-)
The leaf wrapped parcel was another surprise! We unwrapped it when we got home and it contained a square made of sticky rice with some pastelike yellowish-grey filling. It was
something like this. Interesting, but not something I would buy again.
We visited the market again this weekend. This time a couple of friends joined us. We wandered around the market a bit and sat down in a place serving Pho.

It was very good, but I thought that the Pho soup served in the Holešovice tržnice is richer and has deeper flavours. Here is a picture of some delicious noodles I had in the Holešovice tržnice recently, these are actually also called Pho (Pho xào) but are not served as a soup.

Pho is probably the most famous Vietnamese dish. I am obviously not the only one who wonders how it is possible that there are no Pho restaurants all around Czech Republic, with so many Vietnamese people living here. For some inexplicable reason they resort to operating Chinese bistros with food of questionable quality. Vietnamese food is much healthier and tastier than sladko-kyselé kuře! You can get Pho at several places in Prague though, Sapa market being one with the best variety.
For more information on Sapa, check out Pan Cuketka’s wonderful report and a map worked out by his readers, it’s very helpful! Pan Cuketka also wrote 2 extensive articles on Pho and bun cha in Prague, here is one and the other.

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