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Where Y'Eat: Stalking Greens At The Vietnamese Market


As the sun comes up on Saturday mornings, the crowd is already out at the Vietnamese farmers market in far eastern New Orleans. Like any farmers market, it's a place where vendors and regular shoppers look like they're right at home, conducting face-to-face commerce with familiar people, discussing their fresh-from-the-soil produce and chatting between sales. To the first-time visitor, however — and to anyone uninitiated to the local Vietnamese-American culture — this market is like a postcard of foreign travel come to life, complete with all the smells, sounds, tastes and touches of a bustling marketplace.

The setting for this market is the parking lot of a rundown and ragged-looking apartment complex, an anywhere-America suburban scene. But this is smack in the heart of the city's Vietnamese community, in the Village de l'Est neighborhood, a dense cluster of residential blocks and small businesses that post-war Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants call home. Just about everything here is Vietnamese, from the exotic produce, to the profusion of conical, straw hats to the language filling the morning air.

The community's neighbors are industrial on the largest scale, including the huge Folgers plant perpetually perfuming the air with the aroma of roasting coffee beans and the Michoud rocket assembly plant, where NASA's space vehicles come together.

But the enterprise that draws shoppers to this farmers market so very early on Saturday mornings is micro, the very epitome of grassroots commerce. Vietnamese-American vendors sell Asian vegetables just cut from their garden plots. They sell shrimp and whole or butchered Gulf fish from coolers and pickup truck tailgates. And they sell snacks like spring rolls or crepes from their own kitchens.

Vendors set up shop by simply unfurling a blanket or plastic tarp and spreading out their piles of produce. Bundles are tied with string and mounded in a complex green weave of leaves and stalks, roots and bulbs.

There are different types of watercress, water celery, various cabbages, or big leafy mustard greens that bite back, with a spicy taste like wasabi. There's an herb called crab claw, with soft stalks and small spade-shaped leaves, used raw in salads; and water spinach, which grows like a weed with hardly any care and fries up beautifully in the wok with garlic and oil. Some have highly specific traditional uses, like the bitter, tiny-leafed rice paddy herb, used to flavor sour fish soups.

Some are minty, some lemony. Some are sweet, others pungent and peppery. Many can be found in guides to herbal medicine, with purported health benefits from fever cures to digestive aides, though here you won't find any labeling, much less marketing.

The market lasts from dawn to about 9 a.m., but by 7 a.m. some of the more successful vendors already pack it in. Shoppers head off into the neighborhood, women walking in pairs under parasols, men slowly pedaling bicycles, all of them carrying plastic bags bulging with herbal, leafy tropical treasures. Soon, the Vietnamese farmers market reverts to a parking lot, and by Saturday's lunchtime, the only evidence of the morning market scene will be sitting in soup pots, woks and salad bowls in the city's better-provisioned kitchens

Vietnamese Farmers Market

Saturdays, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

4500-block Alcée Fortier Blvd.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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