Give Your Palate An Adventure
Have a taste of exotic Vietnam
Issue: Mar 2010
Field mice done Vietnamese style that reportedly tastes like quail
Photo courtesy of www.bootsintheoven.com
Vietnamese cuisine – that perfect balance of tastes - rests heavily on the Asian principle of the 5 elements of Nature. That is why, despite regional differences, most Vietnamese dishes incorporate the 5 spices – spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (Earth); 5 types of nutrients – powder, water or liquid, minerals, proteins and fats; and 5 colours – white (metal), green (wood), yellow (Earth), red (fire) and black (water).
But while the likes of pho (rice noodle soup flavoured with beef or chicken), banh xeo (rice flour pancakes with eggs, shrimps and vegetables) and goi cuon (rice paper rolls with shrimp, herbs, pork and rice vermicelli dipped in a peanut sauce) have garnered global acclaim, Vietnam has a lot more to offer the culinary world than these all-time favourites. So if you want to venture into the real Vietnam, set aside all prejudices, suspend disbelief and give the quirky side of Vietnamese cuisine a chance.
One Man’s Meat …
This restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City believes in letting you know exactly what you’re in for
Photo courtesy of www.bootsintheoven.com
When it comes to meats, the Vietnamese, who are known as a nation of rather reserved people, are anything but shy. While chicken, pork, beef and fish done with lots of vegetables, herbs and the ubiquitous fish sauce are quite the mainstay, in a cultural renaissance of sorts, middle class Vietnamese have come to have a growing appetite for the unusual.
Cats, rats, bats, porcupine, monkey, lizards, scorpions, crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, tarantulas, turtles – barbecued, braised, fried, steamed, grilled, made into soup, eaten raw – are all fair game (pun intended).
At the village of Le Mat in Hanoi (also known as Snake Village) where the snake-breeding industry is alive and well, snake is the haute cuisine of the day. You can sample snake in soup, fried, grilled, made into a pie, and stuffed into spring rolls. Snake skin is deep-fried to make a crispy snack, snake ribs are crushed and served on rice crackers, snake fat is used to cook glutinous rice and snake blood is mixed with wine and drunk. Snake meat is lean and tender and reportedly tastes like crab.
Worming its Way onto the Vietnamese Dinner Table
Thumb-sized palm worm sautéed in garlic and butter, crunchy heads and creamy bodies
Worms and grubs are also part of the Vietnamese diet. A seasonal favourite is the ragworm which can be made into an omelette, fermented into a sauce, steamed or stir-fried with bamboo shoot or radish.
Another delicacy is sau chit, a species of worm steamed with a special spice that has its origins in the northwestern provinces. The chit worm lives in ivory bamboo sections and each section contains only one worm. So this particular dish is rare, to say the least.
And if you should suffer a snack attack, try a hot vit lon sold in street carts which is a fertilized duck egg with the embryo still inside. It is boiled and served with Vietnamese coriander, salt, pepper, lime juice, and sometimes pickled carrots, garlic, radish, turnip and mint leaves. Crack open the top, slurp up the juices then spoon the creamy morsels into your mouth.
A Drink to Good Health
Beer can be found in abundance in Vietnam. But for a drink that’s a little different, blood wines are the thing to go for. Blood from a variety of animals – snake, dog, turtle, goat, even porcupine – is mixed with wine and consumed. Believed to have restorative powers, blood wines are said to have medicinal properties.
And if you have heard of the aroma and richness of Vietnamese coffee, how about some weasel coffee or civet coffee? Found in several parts of Asia, this brew of coffee is also available in Vietnam. Made from berries that have been consumed and then passed out by the Asian Palm Civet, weasel coffee is prized because civets are known to pick the ripest and sweetest fruits and the enzymes in their stomachs help to break down the proteins in the beans that enhance the coffee’s bitter flavour.
So, if you have the stomach for it, have a gastronomical adventure with a little Vietnamese exotica. It can’t possibly do you much harm. After all, Vietnamese cuisine has been voted by health experts as the world’s healthiest food.