Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where's the beef?!?

It will shock everyone reading this, I'm sure, to learn that that my initial motivation for visiting Vietnam was to eat soup. A close second priority was eating baguette sandwiches. Vietnam is a country rich with history and culture, some of which is poignantly entwined with that of the U.S. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people have emigrated to various communities in the United States and brought a delicious culinary tradition along with them. In cities I have been happy to call home, most recently Portland, little Vietnamese noodle and/or sandwich shops are prolific. I spent a great deal of my free time over the past two years occupying corner tables of these spots with a book and a steaming bowl of noodle soup accented with various cuts of beef, or perhaps a pig knuckle or two. Naturally, I figured that if the native cuisine could be so enjoyable in America it would be more so on it's home turf. I also assumed it would be everywhere. Back home of course I had to trek over to the Vietnamese area of town to get my fix. In Vietnam I would have the geographical advantage of always being in the Vietnamese area of town. Score! Right...?

Not exactly. It was a persistent and annoying theme of my two weeks in Vietnam to be searching far and wide for something interesting to eat. I'm always willing to tough out hunger until I find the perfect meal, but it started to get ridiculous after a while. In Thailand food is everywhere! There is no end to the variety of new and interesting things to eat. Vietnam started out decidedly less exciting. I would set out to find a meal and instead of spending my time narrowing down the vast selection, I would have to walk further and further just to find a roadside stand serving up anything at all. By the time something came up I would generally give it a try, not wanting to risk walking even further down the maze of alley ways searching for food that might not be there. The crushing part of this picture is that the version of Pho Bo, the Vietnamese dish most widely represented in America, I would find never lived up to what I am accustomed to. Recreations of Pho Bo - beef noodle soup - in America are usually adorned with a variety of beef cuts including but not limited to flank, eye of round, fatty brisket and my personal favorite: tripe. All of this in a rich meaty broth, served with a side plate of bean sprouts and various herbs to garnish with. In the homeland, the best I received was often watery with stringy shavings of unidentifiable beef trimmings, no garnishes and nary a morsel of tripe. I had a few classic, "where's the beef?" moments. My expectations smashed, I would move on to the next, hoping it would be better. Perhaps I built things up too much in my head before arriving. My initial image of Vietnamese food in Vietnam may look depressing, but what kind of blog post would this be if I weren't able to put some sort of positive spin on the situation. Am I not the same person who can look back fondly on two years of capping twelve hour work days by washing dishes late into the night? There's got to be a silver lining, even if you have to work with the scouring pad a little to find it.

The longing left by a few disappointing food finds created unique opportunity for me to be dazzled by some unexpected discoveries. Thailand was monumental, but too easy. Vietnam proved to be more difficult but ultimately more rewarding at the same time. The first milestone was in Sapa, a mountain resort town way in the north. It was my first real stop in the country after four rugged days of bus travel (see previous post). Sapa had way too many "western themed" restaurants and even what was touted as local cuisine seemed over priced and underwhelming. That is until I found the food market. I love walking through Asian versions of what we would call a Farmer's Market in America. Endless rows of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. The meats especially are something to behold. Far from the pristine and packaged versions we are used to, Asian markets usually have entire carcasses on display and overflowing bins of offal. It's a truly unabashed and unashamed display of carnivorous glory and what I love about it most is that it's totally normal. There is no cultural stigma involved with enjoying meat and accepting what it is and where it comes from. No one is afraid or finicky about eating what nature has provided. Nothing gets wasted and the eating experience is richer and more fulfilling as a result. In the market's equivalent of a food court, there were numerous vendors preparing a version of chicken soup that seemed custom fit to me, specifically. Egg laying hens, which are also used for meat in Asia, always have a few eggs still in production when slaughtered. It amounts to nothing more than a yolk without white or shell, that is extracted along with all the other innards. The soup I had came garnished with a few of these yolks lightly boiled along with the noodles, deeply flavored broth, shredded meat and fresh herbs. Truly unforgettable!

In Hue, an ancient capital city that was horribly bombed during the Vietnam war I walked with a few other people for a while through staggering heat and humidity to track down a noodle stall that was marked on a tourist map we had been given. Not sure what to expect, we found a roadside stall that didn't look like much, but was the only thing there. We opted in, and while waiting for the soup to arrive I noticed the bowl of quail eggs on the table along with the usual suspects of chilis and fish sauce. There was also something wrapped in a banana leaf. Next, I realized what all the hype was over. Three old ladies were crouching around a pot of boiling broth cutting rice noodles by hand from a fresh made dough. This amounted to the best Vietnamese soup I've had to date, hands down. Fresh, toothsome rice noodles in a light fish broth, garnished with quail eggs I peeled myself at the table and a fine ground pork pate, which is the gift that was hiding inside the banana leaves. There are so many different attitudes and mentalities that go into preparing food for others, but as I've noted before there are elements of pride and passion that can't be acted out. They're either real or not there at all. Watching those ladies chip away noodles - which they do night after night for the masses of local folks who were lining up as I sipped steaming soup in 90 degree heat - I knew I was witnessing undeniable pride in action. It's a common ingredient in great food no matter what or where you are in the world.

There were others as well. Also in Hue, I stumbled upon a stand serving slow simmered beef and rice soup. I had some along with the water from an enormous coconut while losing half my weight in perspiration. How the locals eat hot soup in that heat regularly is beyond me. The gaggle of ladies sitting nearby mistook my sweating for inability to handle the spiciness, and ran over to fan me off, laughing incessantly the whole time. It's difficult to fathom how stupid I looked sweating out that soup quicker than I could eat it while hoisting a basketball sized coconut to my lips every so often. No matter how hard I try not to look like a tourist, there are moments like this one where I fail miserably. In Hoi An, I finally found the baguette sandwiches I covet so much. I went back daily and carried one to my favorite sugar cane juice vendor right along the river and would sit there for a while, escaping the heat and excessive commercialism. All of this was prelude to Ho Chi Minh City - aka Saigon - where I sadly stayed for only one day. As it turns out, Saigon is the answer to the title question. It's all there! The soup, the sandwiches and much more are lining the streets of HCMC, with endless variety and opportunity to eat. I indulged in as much as I could with limited time. I ate fresh steamed snails with black pepper and lime, and enjoyed embryonic duck eggs and Tiger Beer while talking to a man who moved from Saigon to Texas after the war, but was back visiting family. He left because the country wasn't safe for members of the South Vietnamese Army back then. Things are different now, though. America and Vietnam established diplomatic relations in 1995, and although there is still justified animosity concerning the atrocities commited, people I met embrace Americans with open arms. I was approached by numerous people both young and old over two weeks there who wanted to practice their English and learn about America. They all hope to travel there some day, and hope for more Americans to visit their country. I was surprised at first, because other travelers had given me mixed reviews of how they had ben received in Vietnam. Getting a visa to visit was considerably more difficult than entering other countries in the region. All the drama leading up to my actual arrival set the stage for an awkward stay, but it stands to reason that sometimes an arduous journey offers a more satisfying reward. The hidden culinary gems I found far exceeded my expectations even if the day to day dining did not. In the same respect, people I met and spoke with more than made up for the visa application frustrations and bumpy bus rides. I departed Vietnam already plotting the route for my next visit, whenever that may be.

1 comment:

  1. great thoughts! unfortunately in some places of Vietnam, access to ingredients make some dishes rather skimpy..