One of the greatest rewards of overseas travel is the chance to taste new and exotic foods. Nowhere is this truer than in Vietnam, which has one of the most varied and healthiest cuisines in the world. This, people say, is due to the freshness of the ingredients, the preponderance of herbs, the combination of textures, the cooking methods (never a hint of overcooking), and the faithful adherence to the principles of yin and yang in the preparation. For visitors, the range of Vietnam’s exotic and unique dishes is irresistibly tempting.
But, having said all that, there are some Vietnamese foods that not even the most intrepid of visitors will be tempted by.
In the West, the number of living creatures considered suitable for eating is quite limited: cattle, sheep, pigs, fish and fowl are the only things likely to end up on the table. That’s just five food sources from the animal kingdom. In Vietnam, you can multiply that number by three at least.
For example, dog meat. Westerners would never for the life of them consider putting faithful old Fido on a spit-roast and serving him up for dinner, but in northern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta that’s exactly what they do. Eating dog meat at the end of the lunar month is believed to bring good luck for the coming month. The favourite method of cooking dogs is to either roast them and serve smothered with plum sauce, or boil them with ginger. Dog meat is especially popular in the colder months as it’s said to warm up those who eat it. Its popularity is such that a kilogram of dog meat costs three times as much as a kilo of pork.
The very idea of eating rat is something to send shivers up the spines of most Westerners, but rat meat is highly thought of in many regions of Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta. They’ve got to be farm rats, though; city rats just don’t make the grade. They are skinned, cleaned, gutted and char-broiled or deep-fried and served with lemon grass and chilli or stewed in coconut milk. Connoisseurs of rat meat say it tastes very much like chicken. Some say even better than chicken.
Slithering, sinister snakes are another thing Europeans wouldn’t eat for love nor money. In some Vietnamese restaurants, snakes are killed at the table and the blood drained into your glass of rice wine. The still-throbbing heart is considered a particular delicacy (as well as an aphrodisiac). The skin, bones and innards are taken away to be chopped up and cooked, and served shortly after as soup, spring rolls, dumplings or fillets. I did once take a few sips of wine with snake’s blood in it, and found the taste not all that bad, but those few sips were enough for me, and I put the glass aside and switched back to beer.
Few people brought up in the West would entertain the thought of eating turtle. It’s not that the idea of the meat itself is all that repellent, it’s just that turtles, those gentle, non-threatening creatures that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, are on the list of the world’s endangered species. There are a few restaurants in Vietnam that offer turtles on their menus, but not many. Most turtles in Vietnam are exported to China, where demand is vast. Those places that do offer turtles steam them with ginger or grill them and serve them up with roast banana. Medium-aged turtles are preferred, especially those containing unhatched eggs.
Seahorses, another endangered species that Westerners steer clear of, are valued in Vietnam for their medicinal qualities. Eating them whole or preserved in rice wine is said to cure fever, baldness, infertility, rabies and more.
In the West, when an animal is butchered for food, certain parts are routinely discarded. The head, tail, feet, and intestines are automatically swept from the chopping-board and into the waste bucket. Not so in Vietnam. Here, fish heads, chicken heads, chicken claws, pig tails, goat testicles, blood, and intestines are served up as delicacies. Waste not, want not, seems to be the general principle.
Fish heads are picked over eagerly, with the eyeballs being the prize catch. Boiled chicken heads are sucked appreciatively, then crunched up and eaten. Roast, seasoned chicken claws are as much in demand as the other parts of the bird. Pigs ears and chopped pig tail regularly pop up in soups and stews, and boiled pig brains are a favourite.
Tiết canh, or duck blood pudding, is sometimes part of the menu in northern Vietnam. It’s made of uncooked duck’s blood mixed with fish sauce and contains finely chopped duck meat and gizzards topped with crushed peanuts. Once the blood has congealed, the dish resembles a pizza.
Another thing that few people hailing from the West have the stomach for is trứng vịt lộn, or duck foetus eggs. Upon cracking open the shell, black-green amniotic fluids ooze out and inside the shell the partially-formed embryo is complete with feathers, tiny beak, eyes and claws. These eggs are considered to bring good luck, provided you eat odd numbers of them. Eat one and good fortune will smile upon you. Eat a second one and that puts you back at square one.
Other strange dishes that don’t raise an eyebrow in Vietnam are termites, squid teeth, stingrays, centipedes, grasshoppers, scorpions, bee larva and black ant eggs.
The insect world provides a rich harvest for Vietnamese chefs. Originally it was only the hill tribes that saw insects as a food source, but the concept has now been adopted by many people in the mainstream population.
Crispy, deep-fried crickets are rated as a desirable finger food, ideal for eating during beer-drinking sessions. Eating them is an art in itself. The secret is to pick up a cricket in one hand, peel back the wings with the thumb and chomp down on the body, then casually flick the wings away. To keep up with demand, most crickets destined for the table are farmed.
Silkworm pupae are a taste treat for Vietnamese, and a definite turn-off for travellers from the West. Their white or brown segmented bodies look very much like short, bloated earthworms. One night when I was in an adventurous mood I took one from a companion’s plate and bit into it. The pungent, bitter juices squirted out into my mouth leaving a lingering after-taste. ‘More?’ my companion asked. ‘Um … no thanks.’ But silkworm pupae are a highly-regarded dish in Vietnam, and devotees are quick to point out that silkworms are full of protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals and are low in fat.
The very name of stink bugs is enough to put any Westerner off, but they are eagerly devoured in some regions. But first the stink has to be removed. This is done by soaking the bugs in brine and removing the tails. Stink bugs are typically roasted and served in lemon leaves.
Another popular dish in Vietnam is wasp larva. One method of preparation is to ferment it beforehand. First it is boiled, salted and dried in the sun, then once the fermentation process is underway it is wrapped in banana leaves and baked. I have tried this and found the taste to be very much like bacon. Alternatively, wasp larvae can be eaten live straight from the comb. (That I’m not brave enough to try.) Coconut worm larva is another dish that doesn’t need cooking; the wriggling larvae are brought to the table ready for consumption. In some variations, each coconut worm has a peanut inserted in its rear-end before serving (a delicate procedure best not dwelled upon).
Now, it should be pointed out that not every Vietnamese enjoys all the foods mentioned here. Tastes differ. For example, while rats or insects may be a welcome addition to some people’s dinner table, there are others for whom the very idea is repellent. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Source: Exotic Dishes and Strange Food in Vietnam: bugs, dog meat, duck blood, cats and rats, by Jeffrey Hays, 2008