A few months ago during one of our many girlie-girl kitchen gatherings, Kimberly and I were pondering a much unexpected and under-contemplated question, “Do you prefer soy sauce or fish sauce?”
Being that I’m Vietnamese, it would be obvious to most that I’d prefer fish sauce. But when Kimberly ecstatically replied, “Fish sauce, no question!” I was a bit skeptical and excited all at once. Was she familiar with the process by which fish sauce was actually made, the mere thought of which could instantly curb any Westerner’s appetite for days? I mean, soy sauce is made, as the name suggests, from fashionable soybeans. Fish sauce, however, well let’s just say fermented fish hasn’t made it into any shampoos or body lotions just yet. Did Kimberly really understand that this commonly underappreciated ingredient in all its salty pungency (which some may call umami) is probably the most ubiquitous flavoring element in all of Southeast Asian cuisine? Having been a close friend of the FOOD Maven’s for many years, I’m guessing so.
With the hundreds of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Filipino restaurants serving up Southeast Asian food in New York City, as well as the dozens more fusion permutations of each, the proudly “cultured” New York mainstream generally believes it has been exposed to each cuisine enough to express an opinion. For instance, while I was dating my now-husband, Michael, he used to profess his love for me and Vietnamese food in almost the same breath. “Really?” I’d ask with justified suspicion. “How many different Vietnamese dishes have you tried?” “Well, I love pho!” (He does, and he’s got a t-shirt proclaiming this to prove it.) “And spring rolls!” My recipe for which was how I lured him into my arms in the first place. But pho and spring rolls does not the whole of Vietnamese food make! Being English, he came to understand that his “love” of Vietnamese cuisine based on these two dishes would be like someone saying they love English food based on an unhealthy appetite for fish ‘n chips and shepherd’s pie.
So exposing my Brit to the cuisine of my roots was, for me, the most anticipated part of our recent 3-week trip to Vietnam. Not to discount the fact that I, as a baby in my parents’ arms, fled the war-torn country 34 years prior for the promise of a free life, never before having returned to the land of my ancestors and heritage. I was finally returning to my homeland for the promise of good food–the food that reminds me of big family feasts, grandma, and all that I take comfort in.
Our journey began in Hanoi, the country’s capital in North Vietnam, where the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh rests on display in a highly guarded massive concrete mausoleum, and the birthplace of the ever-popular Vietnamese soup, pho. It was my first real impression of the other side of the world, and it didn’t fail to impress. With the heat and humidity, hundreds of mopeds making their way under no obvious traffic laws, constant car horns, dust, smog, Soviet and Vietnamese Republic flags patriotically hung side by side at every French-colonial style storefront, and posters commemorating the 80th anniversary of the communist party adorning the perimeter of Hoa Kiem Lake in the city center–all of this enveloped in the pervasive scent of incense from the Buddhist altars in nearby homes and temples–Vietnam never ceased to overwhelm.
After resting up at the historic Sofitel Metropole, home to Graham Greene while writing his legendary work “The Quiet American,” our mission was to fill our bellies with the best of Hanoi’s street food. Vietnamese street food has somehow become quite a culinary fad on the Western food scene, evidenced by the growing banh mi craze. Unlike the swanky accommodations you’d get in New York City, however, we were happy to dine on street food like the locals do…on the street, crouching in plastic chairs next to plastic tables seemingly made for children. Any other way to be served bun cha (marinated minced pork meatballs grilled and served in pork fat and fish sauce with rice noodles, fragrant Vietnamese herbs, fresh chilies, and minced garlic on the side) just wouldn’t be authentic. Another Hanoi delicacy we had to try was cha ca (whitefish seasoned with turmeric sautéed table-side with fresh dill and green onions, served with rice noodles and a sweet, spicy shrimp-based sauce). Washing all the sweet, salty, spicy goodness down with bottle after bottle of Tiger beer, I was truly in heaven.
Walking the streets of Hanoi afterwards, and anticipating the destinations ahead, beginning with the majestic limestone karsts and isles of Halong Bay the next day (do not die before you see this), I started to appreciate the many street vendors selling fresh produce from the nearby farms of the largely agrarian country. Although Westerners generally pity the Third World for its lack of pervasive modern technology, this also means it doesn’t have the resources or need to produce processed foods on massive scales, subjecting eaters to hormones and pesticides. Like the Vietnamese lifestyle, the food philosophy is simple–fresh and seasonal. Unlike what the West is now demanding and paying premiums for, farm-to-table has been the mode of dining here for centuries.
Progressing on our culinary journey to Hue in Central Vietnam, its cuisine regarded by the Vietnamese as the best in the country, Michael experienced a palette-changing epiphany. After exploring the ancient imperial capital, its Citadel and the ruins caused by one of the largest battles of what the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War,” we surveyed the locals for the best spot to feast on one of my favorite noodle soups, Hue’s signature dish, bun bo Hue. Like pho, beef bones are simmered for up to a day to produce a flavorful broth. Unlike pho, lemongrass is the major aromatic, as opposed to star anise, cloves and cinnamon, and shrimp paste is the primary flavoring component instead of fish sauce. It also packs a satisfying spicy punch. And if you’re lucky, over the slices of stewed beef shank, the cook might throw in a respectably-sized braised pig’s foot for you to gnaw on in between slurping fat rice noodles and sipping deliciously aromatic broth. Accented by fresh Vietnamese herbs such as mint, cilantro and purple perilla, it epitomizes complexity. And now, to Michael’s surprise and dismay (because of its limited availability in New York), bun bo Hue is his new favorite Vietnamese dish. I got great satisfaction in his revelation.
Making our way down the countryside to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang, the Cham Towers, and the picturesque jungle-mountain landscape of Dalat, not to mention the copious amounts of freshly-caught seafood and nem nuong (more grilled pork meatballs, this time wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, cucumber, herbs and pork-fat-fried rice paper cracklings all dipped in a peanut and minced pork based sauce), we finally headed to the metropolis of Saigon.
If you could only hit one destination in all of Vietnam, Saigon is the place to go. With its growing and bustling economy, it’s no wonder this city attracts the best culinary talent in all of the country. From district to district, amid the dichotomy of poverty and luxury, Saigon is the rest of Vietnam times ten–ten times bigger, ten times busier, with ten times more opportunity to eat great food. It was here, where we patronized the street venue of the Lunch Lady to delight in her made-fresh-daily-beginning-at-the-crack-of-dawn noodle soups, made internationally famous by Anthony Bourdain in his Saigon episode of No Reservations. It was here where we had the privilege of dining at Quan An Ngon, which offers fare from every region of Vietnam cooked by that region’s best under one roof. It was here where we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, and rang in the year of the tiger on the streets so brightly festive in theme. It was here where we were able to get a decent cocktail. Hallelujah! But above all, it was here where we really fell in love with Vietnam–the people, the culture, and, most importantly for Michael, the food.
Anyway, thank you, Kimberly Belle readers, for allowing me to share this extremely amazing experience with you. I hope it inspires you to visit Southeast Asia one day. But more immediately, I hope it inspires you to choose fish sauce over soy sauce. Cheers!