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picture of four bowls of sauces

Given it has been raining non-stop at moderately heavy rate since I woke up, I though today would be a good day to update the blog. 

Let’s start with:

Food I didn’t know I was supposed to hate

Apparently, I have been breaking some Vietnamese stereotypes about “người nước ngoài” (i.e., foreigners) – imagine that, me...breaking a stereotype…

But first, a bit of background.

Although you can order a single food item at any street-food kiosk or walk-in restaurant (e.g., a bowl of phở, a bowl of bún chả, a bánh mì [sandwich of sorts]), many times lunch and supper comes in waves of 2-3 courses and there will always be multiple food items/dishes on the table at any given time. They also come with all sorts of dipping sauces, leafy green items (mint, basil, marjoram, stuff I can’t identify that don’t seem to have an English/Latin name on ye o'l Goog!), and side dishes (e.g., sliced/whole limes, sliced/whole red peppers, whole garlics & red peppers in a paste or liquid) that you use to supplement your main meal items. Wow that sentence was a mouthful…(see what I did there? eh?, a mouthful? arr…arr)

Additionally, many “hot-pot” dishes come with multiple items already in the broth, and a whole hoard of items to place into the broth once it begins to boil (meats, crustaceans [shrimp, crab], seafood, leafy veggies, fungi, sprouts, shelled gastropods [snails], cephalopods [squid, octopus]). Also, many foods wear a disguise (breading, rice paper wraps, stuff embedded inside sticky-rice cakes, etc.) that makes crop identification, for the uninitiated, a bit of a challenge. 

As I’ve noted before, Vietnamese are very considerate and frequently ask you if you like a food item in advance of ordering food: “Mr. Paul, do you eat pork?”, “Anh Paul, do you like squid?” “Paul ơi! (hey Paul!) phở gà okay (chicken noodle okay?)” etc.  

However at times, like at a luncheon for university faculty at a restaurant, food has been pre-ordered. At other times, food is just brought into a meeting and placed on the table for anyone who wants to partake, like at a faculty meetings. And many times, it’s not humanly possible for your host to remember to ask you if you like every single food item or dipping sauce, or condiment on the table. Also, if you don't know what something is, and you want to know, you also have the responsibility to ask “Em trai Long, ăn này là gì?” (Younger brother Long, what is this food?). 

By the way, when asking a question in Vietnamese you seldom raise your voice up at the end of the sentence (try doing that some time, harder than it sounds). In fact, with Vietnamese you most always drop your voice downward at the end of the sentence (or keep it level) because the word has a huyền tone mark over the letter (à, è, ì, ò, ù, , , , , , , ừ) like in this question: “Em trai Long, ăn này là gì?” the last three words “này là gì?” [literally translated to: “this to be what?”] have down tones, so you start with a mid-high flat-tone for “Em trai Long, ăn” and then progressively drop your voice down for the này là gì and the words, themselves, ask the question. – or to complicate things you can simply add “à” with a down tone to the end and that makes the sentence into a question. For example “dừng ở đây” (pronounced “zung uh die” the first “d” lacks a cross member like in the second “đ” so it is pronounced as a “z” and the second one is pronounced like a “duh” sound) means “stop here” add “à” at the end “dừng ở đây à” means “Stop here? Then to make it even more confusing to me, if you are speaking to a person older than you, you must add “” at the end to show respect as in “dừng ở đây ạ” (stop here, with respect) vs. “dừng ở đây, à ạ” (stop here? with respect).  à and sound very, very similar (same sound ("a" sound – like in “at”), but the first falls in pitch and the second one is shortened by cutting off the air mid-pronunciation...and I wonder why it has taken me so long to learn what little Vietnamese I do know?

Back to breaking stereotypes...many times in the past, without prelude, I merely saw a food item on a plate or in a bowl, grabbed some with my trusty chopsticks, and popped it in my mouth and ate it; or, I dipped it into something and then ate it. Such was the case with mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste), con lươn (eel), quả sầu riêng (durian),  con chuột (rat), chim sẻ (sparrow), and con ếch (whole frog), con dê (goat), con ngựa (horse), and nội tạng (offal – blood [sausage], tendon, ear, intestine, tongue, stomach). After eating these, I then said, with out fail, “rất ngon!” [“r” in the north is pronounced as “z” and in the south as “r”] - (“this is really delicious, what is it?”). 

I’ve often wondered…had I known in advance that I was not supposed to like these items, if it would have biased my assessment of the flavor or food item? I know I would have tried them regardless (why wouldn’t I?) but I wonder if I would have enjoyed them as much? That said, I'm glad I didn't know…

I have since eaten these things many, many times while here. That said, apparently enough foreigners do not like these items, that my hosts are always surprised when I answer “yes” to “do you like” or when I simply eat them. 

Out of all these items…it seems two are notoriously unpleasant for foreigners due to their taste and/or smell: mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste) and quả sầu riêng (durian). Mắm tôm is a very pungent, salty, fishy, and strong tasting sauce made by fermenting tiny shrimp that are about ¾” long. Quả sầu riêng has a very pungent, almost rotten cheese-like smell to it, but the fruit inside is very sweet. 

The picture above shows four common sauces. The upper left bowl that holds a dark black sauce is regular soy sauce with hot red peppers, the bowl to the right of that one with the brown sauce is a very hot, hot sauce with extra hot red peppers [I guess you can't get hot, hot enough?), the next bowl with the foamy pinkish sauce is mắm tôm with lime and red pepper in in it (you can see the lime seeds), and the bottm bowl with the orange sauce is a sweet hot sauce - no red peppers. 

Surprise coming on page 4! Cue: Wilhelm Richard Wagner's -Flight of the Valkyries



JULY, p. 9

AUGUST, p. 9

SEPTEMBER,  p. 2 , p.4