Our first view of Ruili's night market came through waves of rain, crashing down from the sky like we were walking under the world's biggest waterfall. The streets quickly flooded and became streams. We crossed several in water up to mid-calf.
When we got to the market, it was ghostly. Tarps rattled in the wind, covering deserted stalls. The stalls were filled with coolers, which were empty and draped in cloth and cardboard. Only a few places were open. In one, one drenched diner sat, bedraggledly sipping a papaya smoothie.
We tried again a week later after a scorching day spent on the Burmese border, watching villagers traverse the tiny border river using unofficial makeshift bamboo bridges or merely wading with their pant legs rolled up. I wanted to find crab to eat; we'd seen rows and rows of workers packing their little silvery blue bodies up into crates bound for the rest of Yunnan.
The night was clear and the market was hopping. Vendors jostled for space at the edges of a massive inner dining area, their carts all identically piled with skewered meat, snails, crabs, crickets, worms, and baby bees.
I wasn't that hungry, because, as I recall, I had had about 40 pork and green onion dumplings for lunch, but the night market vendors only sold their merchandise in one size: gigantic-Chinese-family-sharing-size, for 50 kuai (~$8.25).
Julian, of course, refused to eat any of the creatures on offer, so he was tasked with trying to convince the vendors to give me a smaller portion at a smaller price. Some were mildly amused by the question (in a why-would-I-even-entertain-that sort of way), and some were offended by it (in a you-want-less-of-my-delicious-food?!?! kind of way).
One, though, didn't understand the question, or else didn't care. "40 kuai," she said with a shrug and a take-it-or-leave it flip of her wok-stirring spatula. As a normally utterly ineffective bargainer, I was shocked but pleased by this turn of events: an unintentional bargain!
As the dish was set in front of me and I smelled the garlic and chilies wafting up into the air, all my hunger came rushing back somehow. The dumplings, though still digesting, became a distant memory, as though I had eaten them in a dream. It was a good thing I hadn't gotten a half-order. I ate every last claw.
The crabs' sauce was so dark and thick it was tough to distinguish the basil leaves from the undercurrent of pounded chilies. At first I tried to dig the meat out with chopsticks, but quickly came to realize it was a futile endeavor. I pulled a rubber band from my pocket, tied my hair back, pushed wayward strands behind my ear, and dug into the bowl with both bare hands like the sauced-up and hot-oiled crab bodies and claws were nothing more than a bowl of jelly beans.
Before long, I couldn't pick up my drink without it slipping right out of my absolutely sauce-coated hands. I dug my fingers under carapaces and wormed my way into tiny claw crevices. I scraped claw adductors with my teeth and smeared my cheeks trying to get my tongue all the way into some of the spaces between organs.
The garlic had been stir-fried so thoroughly that it could be eaten in chunks right along with the crabmeat, which was good since they were indistinguishable in color. The chilies' flavor had seeped into everything so thoroughly that eating them directly had no spicy effect beyond the effect of the rest of the dish, which was very hot. At first, my tongue delightedly bounced from garlic to ocean to spicy to herby and back, but before long it started tingling and burning them all together.
On the way out, we told the crabs' cook that her work had been amazing. She barely nodded as she kept stirring someone else's eventual dinner in her wok; she knew.
Khmer cuisine is one of those cuisines that hasn't been widely exported to the U.S. Last year, I was persistent enough to ferret out a few places in Long Beach, but apart from those tastes, I had no idea what to expect when I found myself on a bus to Phnom Penh earlier this week.
Luckily, Cambodia and Vietnam share the custom of, at nightfall, dragging out hundreds of plastic chairs and tables along with countless tanks of fresh shellfish. They do this in front of places that remained shuttered and gated all day. A place that was fixing motorbikes at noon might be tossing sea snails with lemongrass at nine. And language barriers can't stop me from recognizing those telltale shells.
There was one such place right down the street from our hostel. It was called the Oyster House. They had a simple one page menu largely consisting of English translations that left a lot to the imagination. This wasn't unusual in Phnom Penh, a capital with a much higher general English level than Ho Chi Minh City - enough English to have translations, not enough English to have detailed translations. One restaurant, for example, listed a particular soup as 'Khmer spice soup' and what came out was full of pumpkins, wintermelon, green beans, eggplant, and cucumbers.
My crab dish was an exception, though - it was called "Shake Sea Crab with Salt and Chili".
Which is exactly what it was.
It came out unadorned with any sort of silverware altogether, which confused me for a good minute. My stomach was rumblings and I couldn't get any meat out! Was I supposed to scrape the brain meat with my fingers and then stare at the legs wistfully?
No: I watched the locals. They were cracking the legs with their teeth.
Despite knowing my dentist would wince if she saw me, and despite the fact that some of the legs were spiky, I did the same. The crabs were small, about the same size as my palm. Their open heads were full of potent pepper seeds and sea salt; the legs were grilled until they could almost be crunched like BBQ flavored potato chips. To get the tiny wedges of meat out of their skinny limbs was like performing hand surgery, but ultimately worth it. The seasoning was simple, but the crabs were effortlessly, lightly fresh, the kind of fresh you only get in the States by paying over $30 per head or by going out in a boat yourself. Getting them for $1.50 was an experience I knew I shouldn't take for granted.
But they were tiny... so I couldn't help ordering some of the restaurant's namesake afterwards: grilled oysters!