Vietnamese restaurants don't make splashy plastic molds of their dishes and stack them in display cases outside, like they do in Korea or Japan. They also don't generally like to translate their menu items like they do (with often hilarious results) in China (cephalomappa belly burst, anyone?).
So I learned to distinguish my gà from my cá, my rau from my trái , my bún from my mì, and more. I recognized the shape of the words even when I couldn't get my mouth around them, and used my pointing finger to the best of its ability.
I've been doing that for over two years.
Imagine my surprise, then, yesterday, when I came up short against a restaurant whose menu was like French to me.
I rocked on my heels outside, squinting at the board that listed its specials. Nothing was familiar. Diacriticals danced around collections of vowels. Patrons clustered around steaming hotpots glanced curiously at me, while waiters enthusiastically motioned me to come inside and have a seat, but I balked.
As my blog indicates, I eat everything. But I don't generally make complete shots in the dark. Doing so has historically resulted in (for example):
- globs of fish paste and lettuce
- a pile of raw beef
- noodles with a pat of butter-cheese on the side
So my translation app and I suffered through some permutations of definitely-not-at-all-what-they-meant (metal oil slab chicken, crib wheel noodles, property of horn fish) before I finally remembered that I knew how to say 'head', and ordered something with the word 'fish head' in it:
Lảu đầu cá hồi.
It came out a deceptively small bowl of mostly green, the okra and bamboo hiding in a forest of morning glory.
But underneath, in the depths?
The broth was almost tom yum, with a decidedly sour undertone to its sweet-and-citrus light broth. The okra had nearly all its slime coaxed out, and its seeds wafted under the cheekbones of the salmon, whose flesh wedges dislodged with one mere poke of a chopstick.
Healthy hotpot for one!
That night, I set off in search of a dish recommended my by a Vietnamese penpal (Hi, Thủy!): bò lá lốt (beef grilled in betel leaves). My frankly pathological geographical memory served me well in this search: I'd briefly glanced at a stall selling this three days before while taking a random walk, and for some reason remembered the exact intersection I'd seen it at.
The stand was nothing more than a 3X1 foot counter with a hot grill wobbling alongside. But the smell... it filled the block. Duck porridge, broken rice, and phở stands had their scents summarily overwhelmed by the aroma of fatty beef melting and sizzling inside their leaf wrappers.
I ordered one order, thinking I would get a five-leaf skewer of wraps, but what was carried to my table was this:
Just out of frame on the right is a MASSIVE plate of herbs - almost bigger than all the rest of it put together.
Ten crackling sausages of beef. Ten cigarette-shaped green-black betel leaves filled with beef. Sweet soy with chilies. Crab paste softened with peanut sauce. A bowl of noodles tossed with chunks of pork skin and fat. And of course, enough herbs, lettuce, sour starfruit, and cucumbers to feed a whole army of discerning rabbits.
As helpful onlookers crowded around, trying to make Julian the vegetarian understand that he needed to dip his beef into his crab paste, rather than pick fastidiously at the bowl of noodles, trying to rustle them free of the pork pieces, I grabbed my rice wrappers and dug in.
Vietnam loves its leaves. It occurred to me as I was masticating like a gorilla lounging around beneath banana trees that I was essentially eating beef wrapped in a leaf (betel), covered in three more leaves (basil, mint, and saw-leaf), all placed in another leaf (lettuce), and stuffed in rice paper.
I guess that's how I always manage to feel so healthy and vibrant after eating platefuls of the fattiest, oiliest, most flavorful meat while squatting precariously on plastic stools!