Quick lessons in flavor from Asia's street-food vendors.


Street food is theater in Southeast Asia. From Chiang Mai to Ho Chi Minh City, curbside cooks deftly turn out satisfying food--spicy salads, layered sandwiches and hearty noodle soups--as their customers watch. The vendors make each dish fresh, adding more or less heat and adjusting the balance of salt, sweet and sour to order. It's always a great performance.

It's then the customer's turn to fine-tune flavors by adding a squeeze of lime juice, herb sprigs or a dab of hot sauce from jars of condiments and platters of fresh ingredients. It's like dressing your hot dog at the ballpark, with an Asian twist.

At home, with your rice noodles soaked and a pot of hot broth on the stove, you can prepare Asian noodle soup quickly. The same goes for the salads: Prep ingredients ahead of time, then toss them together and dress them at the last minute. As for the Ho Chi Minh City Subs, just put out fillings like pâté, ham, coriander sprigs and chopped chiles, and let friends assemble their own sandwiches.

Toronto-based food writers and photographers Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford are the authors of Flatbreads and Flavors (Morrow), as well as Seductions of Rice and the forthcoming Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia (both published by Artisan).