I Love/Hate Vietnamese Food
(I wore this post a long time ago, before I went on to learn more about Vietnamese food from a friend. I have much more respect and understanding for it now than I did back then. I've done some edits since I feel the original post was much ruder than I intended. But I still think this post is sort of funny, so it gets a repost. I do, however, encourage people to engage with true Vietnamese culture when they can.)
Since I’ve lived in both Cabramatta in New South Wales and Springvale in Melbourne (or very close to them), it is naturally the case that I have tried Vietnamese food at multiple junctures. But my relationship with it is complex and fraught with drama.
(Probably the most famous of Vietnamese dishes, pho. Image from Pixabay, 2019.)
But it has to be stated that I come to the concept with some fairly extreme prejudices. When I was growing up, I was often told that Vietnamese food was dirty. I think this is partly because Chinese people tend to regard poorer nations as inherently inferior. But also, when I was growing up, I knew a family who contracted food poisoning from a Banh Mi shop in Springvale. It was a popular store and still stands to this day. But the salmonella poisoning they got was so very bad that it was on the news. The whole family nearly died, with some of them spending months either in hospital or at home under close observation. This, I'm very sad to say, was my introduction to the world of Vietnamese dining. But the fact is that I have never knowingly gotten sick from eating anything Vietnamese. I’ve had some bubble teas that gave me interesting bathroom visits. But I have eaten banh mi twice and not been ill with food poisoning. Admittedly, they were so spicy I nearly puked. But I still found them delectable.
In general, Vietnamese bakeries will have breads and sweets that are delicious when fresh. There was a place not far from where I live where I could once get fruit flans, which are little pastry casings filled with custard and fresh fruit. These are a treat I reserved for when I truly needed a reward. Sadly, they are no longer sold there and I miss them.
(I have no idea what this dish is. But I'd give it a go if I had the chance. Image from Pixabay, 2019.)
Every now and again, I will get myself to eat main meal Vietnamese food. The tastes are so foreign to me that much of the time I have eaten Vietnamese food I felt like I had not eaten at all. I continue to do it partially out of deference to friends who want to eat Vietnamese food. A friend in Cabramatta once took me to a pho place they considered to be the best in the area. I had to agree, it was very tasty and nourishing. When I've eaten Vietnamese food homemade by friends, or when I've made it for myself I've liked it much better for some reason. I'm not sure why.
(It seems Vietnam has it's own version of fried rice. Image from Pixabay, 2019.)
But more recently, I was wandering about Melbourne City alone and decided to challenge myself. I saw a kind of egg and pork chop dish was on the menu. It came with rice and sundry. But the man at the counter told me there was no rice and no pork chops left. Then he pointed at a beef vermicelli dish and told me I should have that instead. Since I know so little about Vietnamese food, I wasn’t inclined to argue with him. However, I regret this decision. The beef and the noodles came with some amount of shredded romaine lettuce and was floating in a broth of what seemed to be vinegar, fish sauce and water. For the uninitiated, fish sauce is a clear yellow substance that is very salty and umami in flavour but has a smell much like a poorly cleaned rear end. Together with the vinegar, it made a stench that was the perfect blend of butt and vomit. I say perfect because there is a strange, sick and very small part of me that actually likes the stench of fish sauce.
(Vietnamese deep fried spring rolls. Deliciousness. Image from Pixabay, 2019.)
There is something radically and aggressively Asian about the smell of fish sauce. It’s the one condiment that seems to give you the finger as soon as you open the bottle. And the whole time you’re cooking it and eating it, it never puts that finger down. You might think for a second that you’ve gotten used to it. But then you turn your head and there it is again. Sometimes your hands will get stained with the smell. You won’t know how it got there. You only know you are oddly satisfied to smell it, as though you just had the ultimate and most relieving bowel movement possible and you can’t help but smell it. Fish sauce is unapologetic and unrelenting in the way it assaults your senses.
(One Vietnamese dish I really enjoy is rice paper rolls. These typically contain vermicelli noodles, meats and vegetables. I tend to prefer the prawn ones, and I particularly enjoy them dipped in a special sauce they often come with; hoisin sauce mixed with peanut butter. Image from Pixabay, 2019.)
I did really want to be challenged that evening, so I decided to push forwards through the smell. The noodles were heavily flavoured by this broth and so they had a pleasant tangy salty sweetness to them. The beef seemed to have been pounded with herbs with edges of fat still attached and then flame grilled together. It was tasty, too. Though I felt some guilt for eating something that was potentially carcinogenic. The grill left little black particulates floating in the broth. I couldn’t tell whether or not some of them were dead insects. The lettuce was raw, as I expect would often be the case with Vietnamese dining. I couldn’t get myself to finish drinking the broth. It was far too strong. So, I closed the plastic bowl it sat in and meant to take it and the fat scraps home to my dog. However, the container opened in my backpack on the way home. The plastic bag I sat it in had a hole in the bottom. And so, many of my personal effects smelt of that poopie-vom smell, even after I rinsed them.
As I expected, even when I am ready to be challenged, Vietnamese food looked me in the eye and slapped me in the face. God bless it.