Wow. So much has been happening over the past few weeks. Things are wrapping up, plans for the future are falling into place. Endings and beginnings, and still so much to experience in between. It’s been a little overwhelming for me to process internally, let alone channel those thoughts and experiences into blog posts. I’m working on it, and maybe I’ll let this blog see a little bit of what’s going on inside my head. After all, it is part of the experience, right?
But I’ll do that later. Today (and for the rest of this week), I’m going to focus on something simple and fabulous: food. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love food. It’s one of my favorite ways to get to know a culture, or even a person.
I used to be a relatively picky eater. But, as I’ve adopted a new, “Why not eat it?” attitude, I eat (or at least sample) everything put in front of me. My time in Vietnam, especially in Can Tho, has been a culinary delight. I leave every meal satisfied but craving more. I’ve already talked about phở, and in this post I’m going to introduce you to some more of the exceptional meals I’ve consumed.
1. Nem nướng (grilled pork sausage).
Hands down, one of my favorite Vietnamese foods.
This is smoky grilled pork sausage, which is sliced and wrapped in rice paper along with lettuce, herbs, cucumber, pickled carrots, onion and corn, and rice noodle paper, and finally dipped in a silky peanut and chili sauce. Delectable. Once the sausage is gone, we dip the cucumbers and rice noodle paper in the sauce until every drop has been devoured. Oh, it’s just so good!!! … !!!!!
2. Cá lóc nướng (grilled snakehead fish).
In America, I hated fish. I had a really bad experience with salmon when I was little, so I subsequently avoided all fish. Here, as it is a significant part of the Vietnamese diet, I have developed an appreciation for fish and seafood. Especially snakehead fish, because the bones are so easily avoidable :)
Anyway, the cook skewers the snakehead fish through the mouth with a wet bamboo stick (and yes, the head really does look like a snake), grills it, slices it, and sprinkles it with a combination of peanuts and green onion. Then, everyone reaches eagerly with their chopsticks and, carefully bypassing the bones, snatches a morsel of the creamy fish, which we then wrap in rice paper with, again, lettuce, herbs, etc. This time, however, the roll is dipped in a sweet and tangy tamarind sauce.
3. Canh chua cá, or, below, canh chua tôm (sour soup with fish or shrimp).
This soup is made with tamarind, banana flower, pineapple, okra, a kind of spongy Vietnamese vegetable, shrimp or fish, herbs, and sauteed garlic, served over a bowl of rice. Classic. A little sour, a little sweet, a little savory, all entangled with the aroma of fresh seafood. It works.
4. Cơm tấm, or cơm sườn (Vietnamese pork chops over broken rice).
And finally, another Vietnamese dish that’s almost as famous and popular as phở.
In the interest of full disclosure, this picture was taken in Phnom Penh, but it was prepared by a Vietnamese immigrant so it counts. Thin slices of pork marinated in fish sauce, sugar, and garlic, then grilled and served (usually with egg and a dash of green onion) over broken rice, smothered in more garlic and fish sauce. The pork has a sweet and charred flavor, enhanced by the salt of the fish sauce and bite of the green onion. A side of sliced cucumber adds a delectable crunch. It’s usually accompanied by a bowl of clear soup, with specks of black pepper, chunks of orange and white carrot, and bits of green onion.
People prepare this dish usually around 6:00 in the morning or 3:00 in the afternoon. I’ll ride my bicycle down the street and see shirtless men standing on the sidewalk, fanning coals into flame, seizing dripping pieces of meat with long silver tongs and slapping them onto a blackened grill, flipping them expertly with one hand as the other rests casually on their hip. A fan blows the fragrant smoke out into the road for passersby to inhale. Hungry customers sit on small plastic stools at low plastic tables in clusters on the sidewalk, tearing the meat into bite-sized pieces with a fork and spoon. And I breathe in the scent of grilling meat and pull over for a meal.
This was just a taste (pun intended) of the amazing food I’ve been gorging myself on since I got here. There are so many other dishes and so many other options that I’d need a dozen more blog posts to cover them all. People told me I would lose weight in Asia. Psh. Clearly they don’t live in Can Tho!