So, Vietnam.Though it may be less than constructive to essentialize a whole nation, it seems that in this case it is somewhat enlightening. What I realized is that the Vietnamese just don’t give a shit. About anything! Practically every question that may come to one’s mind while in Vietnam can be answered with, “They just don’t give a shit.” Why do little kids pee on cars? What’s with the small plastic furniture on the street corners? Why doesn’t anyone wear a helmet? They just don’t give a shit! The Vietnamese really are a chill bunch of people.
When it comes to food, though, attitudes tend to vary. In general, most Vietnamese hate food from other regions: the Southerners think that the food in the North is underseasoned and bland, the Northerners see Southern food as frilly and hedonistic, and the other Viets are fiercely proud of their own regional specialties.
The — I can’t think of a better term than this — Middle Vietnamese are serious about cuisine. Our first stop was Hue, Vietnam’s former capital city, which is situated in the midsection of the country. We were taxied through a procession of temples and tombs until they all started to blend together into a frightening showcase of stone monoliths. At that point, we decided to break for lunch. My aunt told the taxi driver, “Take us somewhere cool!” so he drove us to a tiny restaurant on a shady, tree-lined street.
The driver said, “Hue has the best food in Vietnam, you’ll see!” Unfortunately, I really couldn’t care less; I was starving. He was right, though: it was amazing. We had something like a tasting menu, so here’s the breakdown:
We started with some shrimp cakes, which were a hybrid of an omelette and the traditional “cake of meat” food. They were spongy and peppery, and were supposed to be dipped in fish sauce. It’s sort of hard to think of an American equivalent for it.
Next was a fried thing with melted mochi on top. The mochi was very cheese-like in texture, which was really surprising. I’ve heard of American chefs doing this too, but this was entirely new to me. This, like most of the food, was to be dipped in fish sauce.
The next plate was a pile of banana leaves filled with steamed tapioca flour dumplings, called banh bot loc la and banh bot nam la. They were filled and topped with shrimp and ground pork. The banana leaves gave them a somewhat smoky taste, and the dumplings themselves were really springy. The banh bot nam la wasn’t so much of a dumpling as a smear of steamed cake on a banana leaf. You just sort of scoop it out with a spoon and eat it like that. These were awesome.
We then got a tray of tiny rice flour pancakes called banh beo. They each came in a small dish and went down in two bites. Eating them was sort of a Buddhist moment for me: they were so good, but only lasted so long. How delightfully transient! But like White Castle burgers, you can’t have just one. I must have eaten like 7 of these.
And then, the grand finale! Banh xeo are crepes stained yellow with turmeric, served crackly and crispy with a wonderful collection of fillings inside. They’re traditionally filled with pork (ground or otherwise), shrimp, mung beans, and bean sprouts. Eating them is a very DIY affair: you wrap one in a lettuce leaf with mint, basil, and/or cilantro (which are on a separate plate) and dip the whole thing in fish sauce. The textures might be too GAR for some, so exercise caution while devouring yours.
We ended lunch with some durian, but it was so horrible that I dare not write about it now. Yeah, I think I’m going to go grab a bagel. Peace.