Peculiar PIE

Local and highly unusual touches have been added to the menus of some pizzerias in Vietnam

on April 17,2019 10:12 AM

Peculiar PIE

PHOTOS: Pizza 4P’s

A regular crust pizza with a layer of Camembert cheese and fermented “mam tom” (shrimp paste) was recently introduced to customers by Pizza 4P’s in Ho Chi Minh City, making both local people and foreigners open their mouths wide. Is it a brilliant Western and Asian fusion, or a strange “kiss” between the Italian Beauty and the Vietnamese Beast, as pizza is a beloved dish all over the world while “mam tom” is a scary and odorous sauce for most Westerners and even some Vietnamese?

“Bun dau mam tom” (vermicelli with deep-fried tofu and shrimp paste), the new pizza dish from the Japanese-style pizzeria, features a regular crust with cheese with toppings of steamed pork, fried tofu, fish balls, and a variety of herbs like coriander and perilla, with fermented shrimp paste; all typical items in Vietnam’s array of street food. There is no vermicelli on the pizza, of course, replaced by the crust.

“Bun dau mam tom” is one of the most popular dishes used with “mam tom” as a dipping sauce, as well as other food such as steamed meat, fried tofu, dog meat, crab noodle soup, or “cha ca La Vong” (fried fish) - a Hanoi specialty. Shrimp paste, or shrimp sauce, is commonly used in Southeast Asian, Indian and subcontinent, and Southern Chinese cuisines. In Vietnam, it is possibly the second most-popular sauce after fish sauce.

Made from fermented shrimp, “mam tom” is renowned for its strong taste and smell, which can take the breath away even at a distance. It even takes many Vietnamese a long time to get used to it. Some childhoods are scarred by memories of being told by the parents to try it. It’s like one of life’s first challenges, and is usually accompanied by tears. Many just never took a liking to it and gave up, accepting the inevitable gentle teasing in later life of “not being Vietnamese enough”. Others, though, stuck with it and found each taste easier than the last, until they realized they loved it. Many even say that if they don’t have “mam tom” for a while, they start to long for it.

It would be an even rougher road for “mam tom” to win the hearts and stomachs of foreigners, who have probably never come across it prior to arriving in Vietnam. But those who love it love it with a passion.

The owners and chefs at Pizza 4P’s must count among them, though this is not their first pizza featuring “mam tom”. Last year it also introduced a “cha ca La Vong” pizza. The iconic Hanoi dish is served as a pizza topping, including fried fish, peanut, dill, spring onion, chili, and the indispensable “mam tom”.

Falling in love with Vietnamese cuisine, the team at Pizza 4P’s have tried to add it to their Western-style menu as much as possible, for a new blend of Western and Asian, according to Tung Ngo, manager at one of its pizzerias in Hanoi.

In fact, “unbelievable” is the word most commonly used by those who see the new menus. Plenty, though, doubt the “bun dau mam tom” one is real and think someone’s having a joke.

But it caught a lot of attention, and pictures were soon shared on forums and social networks, particularly groups of local foodies expressing their pride that a local street food dish is part of a Western dish.

Many had their curiosity piqued and decided to take the plunge. One, 27-year-old Phuong Thuy from Hanoi who was in Ho Chi Minh City, went to a restaurant to order a “bun dau mam tom” pizza but was disappointed to find it’s only on the seasonal menu. “I’m looking forward to it coming to Hanoi soon, as the restaurant said. I like ‘mam tom’ and ‘bun dau mam tom’, so I want to see how it tastes on pizza,” she said.

Others talked about it and were a little jealous of people living in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang - the only three locations where the pizza is available.

Foreigners are also curious. “If you love ‘mam’ [Vietnamese sauces], you’re going to love it. ‘Mam’ goes with everything in Vietnam - rice, noodles, veggies, meat, fish, so now why not pizza?” said Joseph Lewis, an American expat in Hanoi, before adding that he tried the “cha ca La Vong” pizza and was impressed.

Not only fans of “mam” in general and “mam tom” in particular think it’s worth a try. “It’s something new and sounds unique,” said Declan McAllister, an expat from the UK in Ho Chi Minh City. “I don’t like ‘mam tom’ but I’m always up to trying new things. I’ll try both pizzas soon.”

While a few foreigners are willing to try it, however, some Vietnamese refuse to. The most common reason is either the bad taste or the risk of stomachache when cheese is mixed in with the shrimp sauce. But those who have tried it said there were no problems stomach-wise. Most said the pizzas tasted exactly the same as the Vietnamese dishes they’re based on.

Many had their
curiosity piqued and decided to take the plunge.

Many had their curiosity piqued and decided to take the plunge.

But they agreed it lacked the traditional taste of a pizza as well, and looked like it had been overwhelmed by the topping.

This was mainly the concern of Western pizza fans who come to try it for the first time. Pizza has to have its ingredients merge with each other, they agree. If it’s a hodgepodge of ingredients, it just tastes like a sandwich, not a pizza. “It’s like making ‘pho’ with Parma ham, and calling it ‘phosciutto’,” said Italian expat Italo Francoide in Hanoi.

Valentine Constantinescu, an expat from Romania in Ho Chi Minh City, said he appreciated new ideas in food in general and in pizza in particular, but everything has to go well together. “It’s all about taste,” he said. “For example, I don’t like pineapple on pizza. But that’s just my taste. Many people like it.”

Despite taste buds differing, many orders are placed for the two new pizzas, according to 4P’s manager Ngo. Most orders for the “bun dau mam tom” pizza actually come from foreign customers, and while “cha ca La Vong” is apparently more known to foreigners than “bun dau mam tom”, the pizza is ordered more often by Vietnamese. “The ‘mam tom’ pizza doesn’t really have the usual bad smell,” Ngo told The Guide. “I think foreign customers like the new pizzas for their uncommon taste.”

Pizza 4P’s is not the only restaurant adding Vietnamese cuisine to pizzas. A Pizza By The Slice, another pizzeria in Hanoi, offers “bun cha” pizza, another popular street food among foreigners, though the vermicelli and fish sauce is left out.

Stretched Pizza in Melbourne, Australia, alongside pizza maker Joe Codespoti, launched the world’s first “pho”-flavored pizza last year. Vietnam’s best-known street dish, “pho” features a special broth, with beef, onion, bean sprouts, and basil added to the pizza.

“Bun dau mam tom” and “cha ca” are not the first or most odorous pizzas, either. A durian pizza was previously introduced by Thailand’s The Pizza Company and Pizza Hut, while pizza with topping of stinky tofu, popular in Chinese food, is also on the menu at some restaurants in Taiwan.

It looks like pizza inspires chefs’ creativity to mix ingredients and see if anyone’s brave enough to eat it, with some of the more unusual combos including banana curry pizza in Sweden, full English breakfast pizza in the UK, kangaroo, emu, and crocodile pizza in Australia, cicada pizza in the US, and sushi pizza in Japan.

So wait a while; pizzas with hotpot broth or spring rolls or duck embryos may soon be coming to Vietnam.

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