Vietnam is renowned worldwide for its dynamic and delectable cuisine. From the north’s heavenly symphony of fragrant broth, noodles, and thinly sliced beef that is pho to the spice-infused dishes of the central region down to the food-coma inducing com tam (broken rice served with succulent grilled pork), bi (shredded pork), and cha trung (egg meatloaf) in the south, you can be sure that gastronomic delights await.
For the more intrepid among you there is something special that also awaits. Allow me to introduce the more exotic and unusual side of Vietnamese cuisine. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list that guarantees to surprise, shock, and turn your stomach.
Disclaimer: This list of bizarre foods is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish.
To say that Vietnamese are adventurous eaters is a gross understatement (no pun intended). Vietnamese people eat just about anything, including animals that would be deemed sacrilegious to consume in other parts of the world. If the animal or critter moves, crawls or wiggles and won’t kill you, it’s edible or at least worth a try. The Vietnamese also ensure that nothing is put to waste, eating the whole animal: blood, brain, guts, and all.
So proceed at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Then again, as your mother probably use to say: if you don’t try it how do you know if it’s good or not?
Tiet canh (blood pudding)
If you were a vampire, tiet canh would be atop your list of favourite foods. This traditional dish is made of freshly congealed blood. Duck is the most common source, but tiet canh can also be made from goat, geese, pigs, and any other animal with a sufficient supply of blood.
The fresh blood is added to a bowl or shallow dish of finely chopped and cooked innards and is then allowed to coagulate. Finally, it is topped with crushed peanuts, a bit of lime, black pepper, and chopped herbs such as Vietnamese cilantro and mint. The consistency and texture of tiet canh is similar to a cross between pudding and gelatin. Tiet canh is one of those dishes that sounds and looks unappealing but is surprisingly good. Do try if you dare.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of filming a TV show at the same restaurant featured in Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. Notorious for serving an assortment of six-legged insects and creepy-crawlies, the owner presented us with a feast fit for an insectivore. There were scorpions, spiders, worms and other unidentifiable creatures. My favourites were fried crickets and grasshoppers with lemongrass and coconut flavoured sticky rise with ant larvae.
Of course, not all of critters were palatable. The live fat and fleshy coconut worm in particular was difficult to get down. I also wasn’t a big fan of silkworms, which unlike other bugs are more commonplace in Vietnamese diets.
Trung vit lon (duck embryo)
‘Close your eyes and eat it.’ Heed this advice if you want to try this dish.
This popular protein-packed snack is eaten in many countries throughout Southeast Asia. In the Philippines its called ‘balut’, in Thailand ‘khai khao’, and here in Vietnam trung vit lon. Whatever you care to call it, it still contains a partially formed duck fetus which, quite honestly, is visually appalling.
Good for us, then, that our sight isn’t directly connected to our taste buds. Excluding the duck fetus, trung vit lon is not much different from a eating a boiled egg. It does have the advantage of having juices that surround the embryo. Trung vit lon boiled and served hot is normally eaten with a pinch of salt, lemon juice, black pepper, ginger, and mint leaves. This concoction of ingredients fuses seamlessly together, giving you quite a treat.
Thit chuot (field mouse)
This dish is revolting not only to foreigners but also to many Vietnamese as well. This is because most people associate thit chuot with disease-infested city rats when in fact these mice are caught in rice fields after harvesting. Mouse meat is normally marinated and butterflied before being fried or barbequed and, yes, the tail is removed.
Before you go knocking it, give it a try if you find yourself in the Vietnamese countryside. The flavour and texture is very similar to chicken and some even claim it to be sweeter and tastier than its feathery counterpart.