Out of the ORDINARY

The wonders of Vietnamese cuisine are already well-known, but some dishes and condiments really do take some getting used to

By JOE A on December 12,2018 09:53 AM

Out of the ORDINARY

Vietnam has become increasingly known around the world as an exporter of one of the most highly-desired culinary cultures. Along the west coast of the US and Canada are a host of Vietnamese communities created from the influx of post-war immigrants and Vietnamese food is easily found, while in the middle of the country sporting a Vietnamese restaurant is something of a bragging point. In one instance, a family of Vietnamese immigrants running a sushi restaurant were petitioned by local people to start selling “pho”, and it quickly became their number one selling item ... at a sushi restaurant. Europe too seems to have a taste for Vietnamese food, spreading out from communities in France and the Czech Republic. The wide success of the late Anthony Bourdain’s many TV shows highlighting the wonders of Vietnamese street food gave a large audience of foodies a whole list of things to try when they visit the country. There are a few dishes, however, that, perhaps not surprisingly, are yet to make it on to foreign menus.

Out of the ORDINARY

During the lunar new year you’ll find a special cake ubiquitous throughout the north

After becoming acquainted with different cooking styles around the world I’ve begun to notice the major differences are in the condiments. There are only so many ways you can cook meat and vegetables, but when it comes to combinations of spices, seasonings, oils, and fermented, aquatic fauna the possibilities are astounding. The most famous condiment in Vietnam is fish sauce, which is already a bit too pungent for many a foreign nose, but the momma of them all is “mam tom”, or fermented shrimp paste. The main dish this is eaten with is a noodle and tofu dish called “bun dau” and lately it has been served with a collection of fried meat as well. If served on the streets of any major city around the world it wouldn’t look so out of place. It starts with a few clumps of “bun” noodles, then some fried tofu, add whatever pieces of sausage or fried pork and then, BAM, dip it all in the fermented shrimp paste.

“Mam tom” is so famous for its strong taste that even in Vietnam they say that both people on a date need to eat it or neither will want to kiss the other that night. If the term fermented shrimp paste is still appetizing for you then allow me to elaborate a little on how it is made. First you take raw shrimp, the tiny shrimp that remain fishy even when they are cooked, and blend it with some salt. Next you take the liquified, raw shrimp and put it in a pot with a bit of rice wine. Then let the natural fermentation process do its job, and it helps if it’s left in it the sun so decomposition can really get kick in. Basic “mam tom” sits for ten days, but if you want to go for the really tasty stuff you can leave it for months. When served at the table it will have a bit of the oil used to cook the tofu to kill any harmful microorganisms - a nice way to say thank you for doing all the work of fermentation - then throw in some lime and chili and you’re ready to eat like a Vietnamese.

Aside from condiments there are also some strange ways that the Vietnamese eat normal-seeming foods. One of my favorite things to eat that is actually quite tasty to the Western palate is barbecued duck. A whole duck is taken and cooked over some coals (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). The part that can be tedious and almost not worth the experience is the way the duck is then cut and served. After grilling the duck to absolute perfection, it is placed on a cutting board and chopped in a grid pattern with a dull knife. This action results in the uneven scattering of bones throughout and the occasional shard that has splintered off in a random direction. Imagine licking the world’s most delicious chocolate off of a rose bush, and may I remind you that every rose has its thorn. This is exactly how I feel when picking through sharp bone fragments to enjoy the fatty fowl.

Another way the Vietnamese take their duck is in egg form. We are all accustomed to chicken eggs and so duck eggs shouldn’t appear that different. An egg is an unfertilized embryo and all chickens and ducks lay them every few days as long as there is no male bird around to fertilize the eggs. Let’s say that there does happen to be a male duck around. The male duck does his business and the next egg the female lays is a fertilized egg. If you wait for the miracle of birth then you’d get a little baby duck, but if you’re hungry you can just boil it up and enjoy the little baby duck fetus inside. When you crack one of these duck fetuses open you can see the entire anatomy of the duck: little baby duck feet, little baby duck wings including feathers, and even that little baby duck beak. This might be quite shocking to some, since it is the equivalent of duck veal that appears to be looking at you as you consume its unborn flesh, but the taste is actually quite normal. This “trung vit lon” has the taste of a hard-boiled egg; after all, it is just that. The way a hard-boiled egg yoke tastes is the way the duck fetus tastes, but without that gritty dry texture of the boiled yoke. And since Vietnamese cuisine is heavily based around condiments there is a good one for this too. Take some salt and squeeze a lime into it, mash some chili into the mixture and eat it on top of the contents of the egg and a thin slice of ginger. This one is possibly the scariest to eat, but is completely worth it.

Finally, I would like to tell of another famous dish in Vietnam, but I need to carefully check over both shoulders before saying anything negative about it. During the lunar new year you’ll find a special cake ubiquitous throughout the north. This cake is called “banh chung”, and no matter how loved and adored it is in the hearts of basically every Vietnamese, it’s rather boring. I’d like to clarify that this is not a cake; this is a pad of rice with a wedge of spam in the middle. Add some dusty green beans and you have the dish that people wait all year to enjoy. There have been some rather hard times in the country’s history, so it’s more than just a tradition, it’s a symbol of prosperity to have enough meat and rice to waste on a chewy mouthful that I find difficult to swallow. Wait a minute, I think my neighbor may have heard me speaking my mind about their proud culture, and there’s a knock on the door…

All Comments (0)

Other news

Voyage of discovery

09AM, 10 December

A trip around Vietnam offers a variety of distinct cuisine from the country’s three regions

  • VnEconomy - Nhịp sống kinh tế Việt Nam và thế giới

Vietnam EconomicTimes © 2014. All right reserved

An electronic media of Vietnam Economic Times - Thoi bao Kinh te Viet Nam.

Other publications of the contents this website as well as their reproductions must be approved in writing by Vietnam Economic Times.

Editor-in-Chief: Professor Dao Nguyen Cat

Licence No 04/GP-PTTH&TTDT on April 23,2014

Head Office: 98 Hoang Quoc Viet, Cau Giay District, Hanoi

Tel: (84-24) 375 2050 / Fax: (84-24) 3755 2058

Email: info.theguide@tbkt.vn ; editortheguide@gmail.com