On my second night in Ba Ria, Viet Nam, my host, Pham Van Nhan, threw me a welcoming dinner. There were a couple of young people from Nhan’s scout troop, a couple of Scout Leaders, and Mr Le. Le is an expatriate Vietnamese who lives in California and is a sewing contractor, setting up and running sewing fabrication shops. Le is a great guy, gregarious and easy to laugh. I feel like I have known him for years even though we just met. There were a few other friends of Nhan there and I was impressed by the atmosphere of total welcome and hospitality. I was treated like an honored guest yet, also one of the guys.
Language is a funny thing. Anyone who is mono-lingual is missing a lot. Take Mr Le. The little cups they drink liqueur from is called a “ly”. So when a Vietnamese is “friend-ly”, he is a friend of the cups, in other words, a boozer. The Vietnamese delight in word play. They would toast Mr Le and drink then laugh at their pun. Being a tonal language, word play comes very easy. Once they explained the joke I laughed along with them… the next 20 times, or so. Nhan did attempt to explain some of the more esoteric word-play but it doesn’t translate well.
Food… Eating Vietnamese is a social occasion. Platters of different foods are served and everyone serves themselves from the common array. The person on either side may reach over and put food into their neighbor’s bowl at random intervals. Sauces are very popular but, apparently, certain sauces only go with certain foods. Lan kept correcting me on my choice of condiment. Yes, Virginia, I did sample nước mắm and I did not die. If fact, nước mắm has gotten a bad rap It is quite good with the right dishes. It’s great with squid and octopus.
The table at the right shows, from bottom to top, left to right, beer, bread and the cup of ice for whatever beverage you might desire, including beer. There is a plate of leafy greens, I am not sure what they are but they look like raw spinach but have a “celantro” like aromatic flavor and aroma. Next is a plate of spring rolls, shrimp, crab, rice flour, and onion, I think. Excellent. The next dish is Mountain Chicken. This takes a little acclamation. I think the preferred method of butchering a chicken entails a small block of C-4 or a lawn mower. Be careful to avoid sharp bones and splinters.
Mountain chicken has black skin and the flesh is gray when cooked. It wasn’t bad but not really suited to the American palette. Platters of octopus with onions and other veggies, clams, boiled fish, a huge bowl of rice and a fish stew/soup rounded out the menu. It is all healthy, solid basic food and I feel lighter and more energetic for having stuck to the local diet.
Okay, I do have “Half done eggs” for breakfast with bread, tomato and thick, sweet coffee.
Breakfast is the only meal that I have that is not “communal”, it seems. But I think that is in deference to my menu choice.
On our excursion to Vung Tau, we stopped at a small eatery for a quick nosh, although, I do not believe there is such a thing as a “quick” meal in Viet Nam. There was Nhan, Bao, Nghia, Lan and Nhi who is Nhan’s step-daughter, and our driver. The dish-de jour was what I call a Vietnamese burrito. They brought out a plate of rice paper wafers, about 6 inches in diameter, a platter of the green leafy veggie, a plate of rice noodles that formed loose sheets and a fried roll of shrimp, crab, onion and rice flour. Taking a rice paper sheet, pile on some veggies, a clump of noodles and a shrimp roll. Roll it up tightly and dip it into one of the ever-present sauces in small bowls on the table and enjoy. It is very tasty and extremely palatable, even for my jaded Western tastes.
So far, I had been spared Vietnamese Puppy Surprise but one night Nhan served what looked like pieces of short ribs. I could not place the flavor and steeled my self for the answer to “What is this?” Yep, dog. It didn’t kill me and I didn’t embarrass myself or my host by making a big deal. I just concentrated on the other dishes on the table.
Lan took me to the restaurant where she works and it was an experience I think that when Nhan ordered for us he took into consideration my frail American sensibilities.
Lan has no such prohibitions. We had shrimp served with raw tomato, greens and pineapple, octopus with cooked tomato,pineapple and greens and chicken, but it was the presentation that struck me. Ummm..
It was different. This is not meant as criticism. On the contrary, we should understand that our way is not the only way nor is it intrinsically superior. Just different. Close your eyes, and it is just chicken. Boiled chicken. The cooking style does tend to make the meats a tad chewier and tougher than is the American norm, but they always have tooth picks on hand, so it’s no big thing. Truth be told, I would enjoy a cheeseburger or pizza but I will wait until I am back in the States. I may sample some local “American” dishes, strictly in the name of research, of course.
Actually, I think my tastes are becoming acclimated to Viet Nam. I am very comfortable at the table with 2 to 20 people and I don’t ask what I am eating or judge the food by Western standards. That’s not to say I am never going to Mickey D’s again, just that if one can shed our learned inhibitions and preconceived notions of presentation, flavor, aroma and texture one can find a world of new culinary adventures out there.
Last night, Nhan, Nhi, Lan and a fellow restaurateur and lady friend of Nhan’s had a casual meal at Nhan’s.
The first dish out was something that Nhan whipped up, special. It is squid, stuffed with pork, mushrooms and rice noodles then deep fried. It has an excellent taste and texture and with a dab of nước mắm, very pleasant. Also served was a platter of squid and veggies As you can see, it is very colorful, very nutritious and tasty.
My favorite was the octopus, tomato, onion, pineapple and lettuce salad It was a nice change of pace from squid. Squid and octopus have a somewhat chewy texture but a surprisingly mild flavor that I find very pleasing. By the way, the peppers are not for the faint of heart. I love hot food and I like these but they will take your breath away and only give it back reluctantly, if at all.
After the main meal, Nhi brought out some fruit, none of which I had seen before… (I wish I had known about these back in the day!!!) There were six varietries; Blue Dragon Fruit, mango, rambutan, custard apple, langstat(bonbon) and mangosteen. The blue dragon fruit flavor was elusive, evoking a hint of mango but with a firmer texture and overtones I could not identify.
The bonbon, once opened and the rind peeled back, tasted like citrus-like, reminding me of grapefruit. The mangosteen has a rind that separates easily exposing a white, juicy core. It has a pit, so be carefl, otherwise, it is quite good, as are all the fruits. The dragon fruit was a bit tart but Nhan assured me that it wasn’t quite ripe I liked it just the way it was.
That’s it. Soup to nuts (boiled peanuts as appetizers). A wonderfully different and exciting new spectrum of flavors, aromas and textures for the adventurous Western palette and your cardiologist won’t yell at you, either. Thanks for stopping by. It’s time to eat.