In December 2014 I spent a week on the much-hyped protein/high fat/low carb diet. I ate mostly street food or dined at informal Vietnamese eateries in Saigon for my meals, but I also branched out to other world cuisines that are rich in protein, such as Japanese. I wanted to find out if it’s possible to keep up a low carbohydrate diet in an Asian country, where rice – in one form or another – is found in almost every dish.
The protein diet has received a lot of attention (both positive and negative) over the last few years. Its supporters argue that the diet is an effective way of losing weight and of achieving a more efficient, better-functioning body. Without going into too much detail, the underlying principle of the diet is to avoid carbohydrates, and that was my main focus over the week. This meant no rice or wheat, both of which play a central role in most world cuisines, including Vietnamese. Although I’ve never had any weight problems, I do play a lot of sports and, having turned 30 in 2013, I’ve experienced minor changes in my physical strength and stamina. Would I feel any different on a protein diet? Was there enough variety in Vietnamese cuisine to keep my meals interesting? And would the cost of a protein diet be significantly higher? The answers to these questions can be found in my conclusion.
On this page I kept a Protein Diet Diary, recording each of my meals as I went with a photo, description and price. I plotted all my meals on my map, so that anyone who wants to try the food for themselves can go there.
MY PROTEIN DIET DIARY
DAY 1: Monday, December 1, 2014:
BREAKFAST: My first meal of the week is my regular breakfast of orange juice, papaya, banana, plain yogurt and coffee at my house in Binh Thanh District. This is perhaps the only meal that I would ‘normally’ have that does not contain rice or wheat. It’s been part of my diet for more than 10 years. I love the strange interplay of flavours between the fruit and the coffee, especially the papaya, which tastes like roses.
LUNCH: Cơm bình dân: local rice eatery | Price: 60,000vnđ ($3) | Address: 3 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] This is a protein meal to remember. Take one ordinary Vietnamese ‘common rice eatery’, order half a dozen dishes without the rice, and you have a feast of flavours and colours. This spread includes crispy roast pork, melt-in-your-mouth stewed pork belly and egg, chicken intestines (real paté), grilled chicken, a mound of tropical herbs, pond weed soup and a pungent fish, eggplant and lemongrass soup. Oh yes, very satisfying.
DINNER: Sò điệp nướng, chim sẽ nướng: grilled scallops & bbq sparrows | Price: 200,000vnđ ($10) | Address: Ung Van Khiem Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] Just around the corner from my house, on ugly Ung Van Khiem Street, there are lots of fresh seafood restaurants. My housemate and I wander past the dozens of water tanks filled with sea creatures on the ground floor, to our table upstairs. Seafood protein is easy to come by when you live in a country with over 3,000km of coastline. We order grilled scallops with shallots, spring onions and peanuts, grilled oysters with cheese, a whole grilled red snapper, and a plate of barbecued sparrows. A great way to end my first day on the diet.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 260,000vnđ ($12)
DAY 2: Tuesday, December 2, 2014:
BREAKFAST: Bò kho: beef stew | Price: 29,000vnđ ($1.50) | Address: Quán Cô Bà Lài, 27 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] One of my favourite Vietnamese soups, bò kho is a mildly spicy, hearty beef stew. Usually served with a fresh baguette for dunking in the broth, I add a liberal amount of herbs – basil, sawtooth coriander and rice paddy herb – instead. Wonderfully tangy and full of large chunks of long-cooked beef, this is a superbly satisfying way to start Day 2 of my diet. Read more about bò kho HERE.
LUNCH: Cơm tấm: marinated pork chop | Price: 39,000vnđ ($2) | Address: 141 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] This is a classic Saigon dish: cơm tấm is a grilled pork chop marinated in lemongrass and fish sauce and served over broken rice. I order mine with some extras including a fried egg, pork skin, and a kind of pork and egg quiche. Another favourite dish of mine, I admit that, without the broken rice, this was not as exciting or filling as usual, especially after 2 hours of tennis in the midday sun. Read more about cơm tấm HERE.
DINNER: Heo quay, cơm chay: roast pork, vegetables | Price: 65,000vnđ ($3) | Address: Phát Tài, 288, Binh Thanh District [MAP] Throughout Vietnam you see sides of roast pork hanging from metal hooks, on display at roadside butchers. The belly pork has just the right amount of meat, fat and skin so that there’s a mix of textures; chewy, soft and crispy. I head down to a roast pork joint on Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, one of Saigon’s busiest arteries, to a place that’s been selling roast pork more than 30 years. I balance this meat feast with a healthy selection of vegetables from a nearby vegetarian restaurant, including mushrooms, bamboo shoots, aubergine and okra. This turns out to be the biggest, most filling meal of my protein diet week so far.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 133,000vnđ ($6.50)
DAY 3: Wednesday, December 3, 2014:
BREAKFAST: Due to time constraints and some unfinished work, I have my usual breakfast at home this morning. Morning is the best time of day in Vietnam, especially in Saigon where the days can get so hot and stuffy; in the early mornings the air is clean and everything feels new and fresh. I enjoy my breakfast in the morning light while working on my computer. Although it may not be a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, all the ingredients, including the coffee beans, come from Vietnam.
LUNCH: Cơm bình dân: local rice eatery | Price: 45,000vnđ ($2) | Address: Cơm Út Tâm, D1 alleyway, Binh Thanh District [MAP] Another local ‘common rice eatery’ is the venue for lunch on this hot and humid day in Saigon. Down a typical Saigon alleyway a small sign announces ‘CƠM’, which literary means ‘rice’ in Vietnamese. Fortunately, there are dozens of excellent dishes available without the ‘cơm’. My friend and I indulge in fish head stew with pickled cabbage, tofu stuffed with pork and mushrooms, bitter gourd fried with egg, beetroot soup, and snails sautéed in lemongrass. I love the variety on offer at these local rice eateries, and the food is marvellous, especially considering that this is just an average, unremarkable office-lunch outlet. Read more about local rice eateries HERE.
DINNER: Sườn nướng kiểu Mỹ: American-style BBQ pork ribs | Price: 250,000vnđ ($12) | Address: Quán Ụt Ụt, 168 Vo Van Kiet, District 1 [MAP] Every now and then a new restaurant, specializing in a particular western cuisine, opens in Saigon and becomes hugely popular with both the expat and local crowd. Quán Ụt Ụt American BBQ is one of them. Packed even on week nights, it’s an informal place with communal seating on wooden benches. The signature dish is barbecued pork ribs that melt off the bone in delicious pink chunks, smothered in a tangy cashew-flavoured honey. This is protein heaven, so I invite all my housemates to join in the fun. Between us we consume two full racks of ribs.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 295,000vnđ ($14)
DAY 4: Thursday, December 4, 2014:
BREAKFAST: Bún bò Huế: Spicy beef noodle soup | Price: 32,000vnđ ($1.50) | Address: Cơm Gà Hải Nam, 37 Phó Đức Chính, District 1 [MAP] Vietnam is famous for its soups, but the majority of them are served over noodles which, of course, rule them out of my low-carb diet. Soups are a favourite breakfast food in Vietnam, and I’ve found it difficult to find a good substitute for my morning meals. However, on the advice of a friend, I order bún bò Huế (a famous beef noodle soup from central Vietnam) for my breakfast today, without the noodles. In their place I fill my bowl with the fresh herbs, roots, flowers and stems that accompany the soup. This provides texture and crunch the my ‘noodle-less’ soup. It works well, but the broth is overpoweringly sweet and spicy without the noodles to ‘dilute’ the richness.
LUNCH: Cơm gà: chicken rice | Price: 69,000vnđ ($3) | Address: Tùng Lâm, 49 D2 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] After 2 hours of tennis is soaring heat and humidity, it takes a lot of will power not to stop at the first rice eatery and shovel some carbs into my empty stomach. But I manage to wait until I find a cơm gà restaurant, specializing in crispy-fried chicken and rice cooked in chicken stock. Because I’m not having the rice, the teenage staff give me a cut price and throw in some extra chicken. It’s about to rain so I get my food to go. On the way home, worried the chicken won’t satisfy my hunger, I make a stop at a small vegetarian restaurant and order some vegetables to go with my animal protein. I put it all together on a plate at my house and wolf it down.
DINNER: Đậu phộng: peanuts | Price: 30,000vnđ ($1.50) | Address: Crescent Mall Cinema, 5th Floor, Crescent Mall, Nguyen Van Linh, District 7 [MAP] After my large lunch I don’t really feel any hunger this evening. I drive across the city with my housemate to Crescent Mall cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Interstellar. Popcorn is not allowed on my diet, so I improvise with a large bag of peanuts. These last through the movie and are sufficient as my ‘dinner’ for today.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 131,000vnđ ($6)
DAY 5: Friday, December 5, 2014:
BREAKFAST: I wake up this morning to the smell of fried bacon. To my surprise my housemate is cooking up what appears to be European-style bacon and eggs. In fact, he is reheating the significant leftovers from a botched take-out order of the previous day. Due to a misunderstanding, two of my housemates ended up receiving 5 portions of cơm tấm (pork, egg and rice) when they had only intended to ask for two. However, this is good news for me and my protein diet. I watch the pork and eggs sizzle in the pan before my housemate serves them up onto my plate with chopsticks. I add some fruit, yogurt and peanuts to make it go further: a hearty if rather strange low-carb breakfast.
LUNCH: Ếch xào xã ớt: frogs sautéed with lemongrass | Price: 30,000vnđ ($1.50) | Address: Quán Thien Thanh, 99C4, D1 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] After a swim in the late morning sun at Van Thanh Pool, I head to my favourite local rice eatery. Run by a bright, friendly woman, this is a run-down, patched-up, local rice shack – just the sort of place I love. As is so often the case in Vietnam, the appearance may be shabby, but the food is a cut above other rice eateries. I order – without rice, of course – fried tofu with shallots and lemongrass, green beans with pork, and sautéed frogs’ legs with lemongrass and chilli. It’s the height of the ‘workingman’s’ lunch hour, and all the plastic chairs are taken up with diners, devouring their lunches under the breeze of half a dozen rotating fans. A classic meal in a classic Saigon diner.
DINNER: Sashimi: Japanese raw fish | Price: 250,000vnđ ($12) | Address: Sushi Nhí, 25 Nguyen Cong Tru, Binh Thanh District [MAP] Recently in Saigon small, cheap sushi joints have been popping up outside the city centre, catering to Saigon’s cash-strapped students. Quality can vary, but Sushi Nhí is fabulous value for money. Simple casual-but-cool decor, an endless menu of sushi classics, and young, sushi-experienced owners, make this place a dining gem. My friend and I order up plenty of tuna and salmon sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish). Bright colours, complex flavours – at once subtle and rich – soft, silky textures, and an informal yet comfortable environment; this could be the best protein fix of them all.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 280,000vnđ ($13)
DAY 6: Saturday, December 6, 2014:
BREAKFAST: Sườn ốp la: pork chop & egg | Price: 40,000vnđ ($2) | Address: Alleyway on Phung Van Cung, Phu Nhuan District [MAP] I have an early start on weekends because I teach English from 7am until the evening, so my ‘first breakfast’ is at home. However, my ‘second breakfast’ is at a break between classes at 10am. A local no-name pork and rice place on the corner of an alleyway near my school serves up cheap and filling food. I come here every weekend during my morning breaks, so the husband and wife running the stall know my regular order. But today I inform them of my dietary needs and, to make up for the loss of the rice, I order two portions of grilled pork chops marinated in lemongrass, grilled Vietnamese sausage, and fried eggs. This, as it turned out, was enough to see me through three more hours teaching, and two hours of tennis, until 5pm!
LUNCH: Cơm chay: Vegetarian food | Price: 24,000vnđ ($1) | Address: 27 Phan Xich Long, Phu Nhuan District [MAP] Next door to my school there’s a popular vegetarian restaurant. Today it’s busier than ever because it’s a full moon, when many Vietnamese Buddhists abstain from eating meat. I have to make this a quick meal because I only have a few minutes between afternoon classes. But I’m starving after a good run around playing tennis in the sun during my lunch break. I order heaps of green vegetables and plenty of tofu creations resembling popular Vietnamese meat dishes in colour and texture (but not in taste). It’s just what I need to tide me over for the last class of the day.
DINNER: Gà chiên: fried chicken | Price: 160,000vnđ ($8) | Address: Hoang Ky, 64 Van Kiep, Phu Nhuan District [MAP] After a long day teaching I reward myself most weeks with a visit to Hoang Ky, not far from my school. The speciality here is chicken, cooked in a mysterious and wonderful concoction of herbs and spices. The aroma is so powerful and full of body that you could eat the air around this unassuming eatery on Van Kiep Street (which is one of my favourite street food streets in Saigon). I order – as is my habit – a whole chicken to go. Back home I make a small dipping sauce of salt, pepper and lime and consume the entire animal. My friends and I call this ‘Wow Chicken’ because, when we first introduced it to my housemate, he couldn’t stop saying ‘Wow!’ after every mouthful.
TOTAL DAILY COST: 224,000vnđ ($11)
DAY 7: Sunday, December 7, 2014:
BREAKFAST: Today’s breakfast follows the same pattern as yesterday’s: ‘first breakfast’ at home; ‘second breakfast’ near my school, at the local pork chop and fried egg place.
LUNCH: Cơm chay: Vegetarian food | Price: 30,000vnđ ($1.50) | Address: Com Chay Hy Lac, 43 Truong Sa Street, Phu Nhuan District [MAP] There’s still plenty of vegetarian food available in Saigon, even after the full moon. On my way back home from work I stop in at a vegetarian hole-in-the-wall along the banks of the newly gentrified Thi Nghe Channel. There’s a lot of food on display – I count 17 different dishes – so I choose five of them: tofu fried with lemongrass and chilli, stewed jackfruit, mustard leaf fried with garlic, fake pork ribs (made from soybeans), and đậu rồng (literally ‘dragon bean’ in Vietnamese). It’s a decent vegetarian feast, but the cooks have been too liberal with their use of salt and soy sauce for my liking (probably an overcompensation for the absence of meat).
DINNER: Bơgơ kiểu Mỹ và xà lách gà: American burgers & chicken salad | Price: 190,000vnđ ($9) | Address: Ore-B, 157/62 D5 Street, Binh Thanh District [MAP] It’s been a long weekend of teaching, so I opt for some Western food tonight. Located on D5 Street – a lively student area near several big universities – Ore-B Restaurant (I’m yet to discover what the name means) offers Vietnamese students the chance to try Western food at low prices. My housemates and I have only recently discovered Ore-B and, as Western ex-pats living in Vietnam, we’ve been impressed by the quality and variety of the Western dishes here, as well as the excellent value for money. I order two American-style burgers without the buns, and two chicken ceasar salads (yes, I am very hungry). The burgers are great – real, thick, heavy beef patties with melted cheese and onions on top – and the salads are light and fresh. The meal successfully recharges my weary body after the long weekend. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera!
TOTAL DAILY COST: 260,000vnđ ($12)
My week of avoiding carbohydrates in Saigon is over. What, if anything, did I learn?
Well, it certainly isn’t difficult to find food to suit a protein diet. The majority of rice or noodles places are perfectly happy to serve their dishes minus the rice or noodles. However, this would be pretty hard to communicate if you didn’t speak any Vietnamese. Không cơm means ‘no rice’ and will be understood at most informal rice eateries. Meat and fruit (and vegetables to a lesser extent) are readily available at roadside vendors all over Saigon. I especially like the roast meat stalls that hang their whole-roasted suckling pigs, chickens and ducks from metal hooks behind glass display cases. Seafood and shellfish restaurants are hugely popular in Saigon and these are a great source of no-carb dishes. Snails and shellfish in particular are full of protein and Saigon is crazy about them.
Variety was OK; I found myself eating cơm tấm (pork chops) more than a couple of times this week, but I love this dish and would probably eat it a few times in a ‘normal’ week. The biggest problem for me was the soups. Noodle soups are perhaps the greatest strength of Vietnamese cuisine, and I missed them very much. I tried bún bò Huế (a famous beef soup from Huế) without the noodles, but it just didn’t have the same magic as usual. However, considering I didn’t go out of my way to actively seek low-carb-friendly places to eat (I simply used my local neighbourhood – or wherever I happened to be at mealtimes – for my food, as I would during a ‘normal’ week), I think I ate pretty well, and I felt satisfied and sated after almost every meal.
Although weight-loss was not my objective, I weighed myself before and after the diet. There was no significant difference between the beginning and end of the week; if anything I gained a tiny amount.
I was physically active this week, and I think I noticed a slight difference in my endurance and strength when I played tennis on Saturday. I felt more agile and energetic, even having come straight from work to the courts. However, this could have had something to do with the weather; it was a relatively grey, overcast day, as opposed to the direct, baking-hot sunshine we usually play in.
The most apparent difference between my week on the protein diet and my regular diet was the cost. Rice, noodles and bread are cheap; without them I had to fill up with extra ‘main’ dishes, and this meant that all my meals were about double the normal price. As a comparison, when I spent a week eating street food in Saigon last year, I spent a total of $29 for all my meals. During this week of eating protein I spent a total of $74. Perhaps this is one reason why we’ve ‘evolved’ to eat grains rather than meat!
TOTAL WEEKLY COST: 1,583,000vnđ ($74)
My Protein Diet Week
RED PINS=Monday (Day 1)
BLUE PINS= Tuesday (Day 2)
YELLOW PINS= Wednesday (Day 3)
GREEN PINS= Thursday (Day 4)
PURPLE PINS= Friday (Day 5)
ORANGE PINS=Saturday (Day 6)
BROWN PINS=Sunday (Day 7)
Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats: What's this?