For anyone in the Czech Republic wanting to experience the freshest and most authentic Vietnamese dishes, my advice is: skip the travel agent – you don’t need a ticket to Vietnam. The Sapa Market, located on the outskirts of Prague, offers an amazing array of Vietnamese language, food, and culture.
After a few weeks of sampling Czech delicacies such as svíčková and fried cheese, newcomers to Prague may be in the mood for something a little different; something spicier and bit more on the colorful side. My advice is to trek down to the far south-east of the city to a district called Libuš. Here, you will find a huge Vietnamese marketplace known as Sapa. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but the mass of stalls selling both food and all kinds of wholesale and retail items carries a distinctive, traditionally Asian flavor. The endless compartmented shopping units span a space the size of several sports fields. Stores sell everything from clothing, to spices, to fish, to home décor. But for me, the aromas coming from the food stalls are the greatest attraction. As soon as these Asian smells hit my nose, I begin to salivate. Standing here, I feel like I have been transported to some far away land, certainly nothing like historical, baroque Prague. As I walk around the vast Sapa complex, I see Vietnamese merchants not only trading, but also cooking meals mostly intended for their fellow Vietnamese workers. There are pots bubbling over with some kind of stock; there are large steamers and fluffy buns containing unknown delicious contents. What to choose? I decide to follow my nose.
A visitor to the Czech Republic may be surprised to learn that Vietnamese form the third largest minority in the Czech Republic. Over the past few years, that country’s cuisine appears to have finally won over a great number of fellow Czechs. While eateries offering pho – a Vietnamese soup – can now be found all over Prague, the real enthusiasts will make the effort to experience the freshest ingredients straight from the source. Sapa is where such ingredients arrive from the rest of the world before being distributed around the country. It’s also one of the few places where I managed to track down one of my favorite condiments, the red chili sauce known as Sriracha. I always relish the exotic thrill of picking up a bottle that doesn’t have a word of English on the packaging. What a potential delicious risk to take back to your kitchen!
American chef Anthony Bourdain says that he found Sapa to be one of his favorite places in Prague. I wholeheartedly agree. There is a stimulating energy that surges through the market like nowhere else in the city. It excites the senses and offers a vibrant window on Vietnamese culture. Sapa is not only a place to eat; it is a place to learn about a different culture.
I’ve heard that Sapa is known the freshness and quality of its ingredients, some of which cannot be found anywhere other than Vietnam. Officially, it is little more than a depot, serving as a distribution center for Vietnamese and other Asian goods. But it has grown into something far more vibrant than that. During my visit, I made sure to stock up on the most unusual items I could find, including a variety of odd smelling spices and colorful Vietnamese candies. Walking through the market I came across a man searing a pile of pig feet with a giant blow torch. He did not permit that I take a photograph but it sure was a site to see.
I also saw a group sitting by a pot of some delicious-smelling substance, playing poker. It may seem like an alien world at times. But there is no need for alarm. It is the soul of this place that made it so special to me. Sitting on the outskirts of Prague, I imagine this market is nowhere near as bustling as similar traditional markets in the East. But coming from Los Angeles, I found its calmness rather appealing.
Vietnamese food is also winning new devotees beyond the Czech Republic – across Europe and the US. So get out of your comfort zone, get your chopsticks ready, and slurp your way through Sapa. The pure joy that can come from a steaming bowl of noodles!
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