FANTASTIC FOODS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM PART 1
The world is a loud place these days with countless blogs and all the so-called ‘experts’ screaming for another click, another like. After all the ‘Top 10’ lists, TripAdvisor reviews and other siren songs thrown at a modern traveler, the single greatest catalyst of genuine discovery happens through one vehicle: food. Not in the narrow lanes of manicured Western diners and tourist traps, but among the damp alleys and squatting roadside tables in venues beyond the reach of Google or ‘best-of’ countdowns and in eateries without the crutch of separate tourist menus.
Hoi An is a wonderfully colorful city, it’s faded yellow Ancient Town and green horizon of flooded rice paddies capture a certain calm and charm. It’s filled to the brim with culture and nestled in hidden places and among the busiest, there are places they do not include on the tours. Places that serve food a little… differently. They serve Hoi An’s Fantastic Foods:
|What is a “Fantastic Food”?|
|1. A simply delicious dish, regardless of its cultural origins not seen in Western diets.|
|2. Considered abnormal by most Western tourist standards|
|3. Mostly non-vegetarian; best when dripping with blood|
|4. Odd by location, preparation, texture or taste|
In ‘Fantastic Foods and Where to Find Them’ we are only concerned with definitions 2-4
Ministry of My Mouth Classifications
The Department for the Advancement of Taste Buds (DAT), headed by esteemed Councilwoman Sal Iva, gives classifications to all known fantastic foods through the 5 key elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami.
Department for the Advancement of Taste Buds (DAT) Classification:
|II. “Feeling Cheeky”|
|IV. Food Adventurer|
|V. The Stomach Gauntlet|
The Fantastic Foods in Hoi An
Clearly there are Fantastic Foods hiding in corners across Vietnam and Hoi An not included in this brief volume. This (non-comprehensive) list will continue to grow with each new experience.
DAT Classification: I
Discovered: MC Restaurant on Cam Nam Island
The unassuming dimly-let restaurant sat next to an overgrown abandoned lot, hidden in a deep side-street of Cam Nam island. Our wide-eye gaggle of expats squeezed into the back corner, the restaurant was apparently popular. The menu scrawled in Vietnamese into the side of the building gave no indication of what to expect.
We had been drawn by the lure of a local favorite: jellyfish salad. And I had just so many questions. First, can the jellyfish still sting? Is that a stupid question? As a collection of cells without a central nervous system, can jellyfish be technically considered vegan? And how does one possibly go about cooking a jellyfish?
Once served, without hesitation, I grabbed the biggest pile of jellyfish I could find. All or nothing. Alongside the Vietnamese staple, papaya salad, a slight sense of uncertainty hung in the air as I took a first bite. And then there was a cool and refreshing crunch. Deliciously ripe, even for the most uncertain stomachs.
This dish receives a ‘beginner’ rating, and let’s be clear, the only stinging these jellyfish will be doing is a sting of pleasure to your taste buds.
Judgement: Highly recommended, try this wherever you can find it.
DAT Classification: II
Discovered: MC Restaurant on Cam Nam Island
Often found as a frequently consumed delicacy in many other parts of the world, I find it surprising to see so many Westerners scoff at the sight of snails in Vietnam.
The savory delight was presented simply, with no flavor deceit to hide behind. Served in a medley of garlic and local spices, these slimy little guys provide some of the most mouth-watering, appetizing dishes around, period. They are soft, yet chewy and eaten along with a heaped pile of crunchy-fresh herbs. With the shells already removed and half the work done, the snails were a common favorite of other expats sharing our communal dinner. The most squeamish among us required some convincing, but most eventually shared a mutual affection for the unique taste.
Snails are a perfect “horizon expanding” opportunity for many seeking their first foray into the advanced world of ‘Fantastic Foods’.
Judgement: These are a must-try regardless of your taste tolerance.
DAT Classification: III
Discovered: Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant near the Night Market
Located in plain view of the popular Night Market on An Hoi islet, Ms. Vy’s Market Restaurant is a popular destination for tourists passing through Hoi An. The open cafeteria-style tables, surrounded by a diverse selection of menu options, keeps the environment light and friendly. Behind the usual suspects of local Hoi An plates, Cao Lau and Mi Quangs – the ‘Weird & Wonderful’ menu immediately grabbed my attention.
After a short deliberation, I settled on the Silk Worm Salad with Mint & Roasted Peanuts. (Sadly, they were out of the pig’s brain soup). Minutes later, the busy waitress hurriedly plopped the bowl at our table. There was a sense of obvious freshness; I could see the last remaining squirms of the silkworms as they mingled in the surrounding bed of herbs. With their rather unappealing beige color and ridged bodies, I scooped up the first bundle, ready to dive in but unsure what to expect.
Rather disappointingly, the silkworms had a formless flavor, tasteless and reminiscent of a moist uncooked potato. This dish is difficult to describe in a positive or negative manner as the surrounding salad in which it is served completely dominates the palette. While silkworms pack an obvious punch of protein, there are plenty of additional options from the Weird & Wonderful menu satisfying the Fantastic Food criteria that are infinitely more delicious. I recommend the spicy frog legs, the jellyfish salad or, if you’re lucky, the steaming pig’s brain soup.
Judgement: Ms. Vy’s Market Restaurant has a wide range of delicious options and unusual foods. But for those looking for flavor, forget the silkworms if seeking a ‘Fantastic Food’ fix.
Fetal Duck Egg (hột vịt lộn) aka Balut
DAT Classification: IV
Discovered: Hoi An Markets
Kicking it up a notch, the first real challenge many flavor adventurers will face in their time in Southeast Asia is an overall visual and psychological test. Commonly referred to as Balut across the world and served straight out of the boiled egg after a 14-21-day incubation period, these duck embryos are a common in Vietnamese diets. While the locals have no problem gobbling up the delicacy on a regular basis, expats and tourists often find a challenging uphill climb.
For me, the Balut experience has become progressively easier; three times now. No Balut is the same, all three experiences were completely separate and distinct. And each time, a ridiculous psychological weight hung over me. I mean, look at the little guy sitting in his shell. He probably would’ve grown up to be a happy little duckling, splashing away merrily in the Hoi An rice paddies among hundreds of his little duckling friends. Until I came along and gobbled him up.
Internal argument aside, it was a wild ride of taste and texture. If you have an adventurous spirit and are looking for a real local taste, take your spoon and knock some cracks into the nearest egg you can find. After splitting a neat hole on top, sip the flavorful soup inside and place the rest of the egg in a bowl. It’s then time to dive into the egg itself. Combined with a chopstick load of veggies with every bite, the overall texture is no different than your average hard-boiled egg with a little extra punch. The unformed embryo is slightly crunchy and please forgive the obvious cliché: it tastes just like chicken!
There’s a reason it is such a widely-eaten delicacy across the region. It’s delicious and the perfect example of a Fantastic Food whose bark is worse than its bite. Nevertheless, along with the bragging rights following the last bite, any Balut-eating moves onto the rung of “Food Adventurer,” gaining some hard-earned respect.
Judgement: Don’t overthink this one. Give it a try – you might be surprised how much you like it.
Goat Blood Pudding
DAT Classification: V
Discovered: Dong Quan near the Pacific Hospital
As the wide plate slid across the low table, a sense of foreboding clung to the air, eroding my confidence. The intense red intimidation of the Goats Blood Pudding is difficult to deal with upon first sight. It was reddest thing I have ever seen, deep and hypnotic. From the view of my little red chair, the gelatinous texture underneath the spread of peanuts, green onion and lemongrass was daunting to say the least. Without a single tourist in sight, the waiters gathered stealthily nearby, eager to see how I’d cope. Sensing my obvious inexperience, one of the waiters stepped in to assist with the preparation process. The first cut into the viscous top coating revealed a thicker, solid layer underneath containing the actual pudding, also made of goats blood. Once placed in the bowl, a layer of local herbs were sprinkled on top along with a sliver of lemon juice.
It was too late to back out. I had an audience now, a red spotlight shining on the cramped corner where we sat huddled. Just in front of me, the small bowl containing my latest test, increased in size and distance with each passing second. It was now or never, time to switch off the swirling thoughts wrenching my anxious stomach and just go for it. Grasping the small spoon tightly, the mocking red hue disappeared with the first slurping bite.
And what a taste, so completely unexpected and rich. A wave of confidence washed over me, this wouldn’t be an ordeal after all. The splash of chewy sweetness complemented the powerful wave of sour from the lemon juice and the cool of the mint leaves. Quite surprisingly, the Goats Blood Pudding contains almost no trace of the taste of actual blood. A hint of a metallic tone hid underneath but was so muted to be nearly nonexistent.
At the end, I had managed to down over half the huge portion of pudding. A combination of the weirdly intriguing taste and the audience of locals judging every bite got me there. The smiles and laughs as we took pictures with blood dripping from my mouth blew away the remaining tension, and I like to believe an ounce of respect was earned that day.
This adventurous bowl receives the rare “V” rating from the DAT and not because of taste. This dish contains blood. Real, actual uncooked blood. It’s a visual challenge unlike any other dish I have ventured to try in SE Asia. More so than the bugs or the eggs or the worms. But in the end, I was glad to have taken the chance to try this unique snack.
Judgement: Not for the squeamish or those with haemophobia. If you can move past the sight of blood in your dish, the Goats Blood Pudding might find a sweet spot in the far reaches of your taste buds.
Disclaimer: While this article is intended to encourage expansion of culinary horizons for tourists and expats in a light-hearted manner, the Hoi An Now team does not condone nor encourage the consumption of dog (con chó) or cat (con mèo) in any form. Due to certain cultural customs and practices, these animals experience an extremely brutal and painful preparation process. In addition, the dog & cat-snatching industry in Hoi An has become extremely lucrative due to the high cost of the meat, and the disappearances of dogs and cats in homes across Hoi An is commonplace. As expats living in this environment, we ask tourists and expats not to eat or support these dog or cat restaurants in any way.
To see more of Bobby’s culinary interests check out Hoi An Now’s video Weird & Wonderful Food (Caution: not for the squeamish!)
Photos: Avery Bullock & Louis Boehling