eat real.

fermentag-ing of things and stuff, open air market in Hué

I recently read a blog review written by a woman I met a couple of times in Atlanta who had just returned from Cambodia.  She begins her post with: "Ever wonder why there aren't any Cambodian restaurants in Atlanta, while Thailand, Japan, Korea, and even Vietnam are all well represented? Having just returned from my epic Asian adventure, including six days in Cambodia, I think I know why." She goes on to bemoan the lack of flavor, taste, and spice in pretty much everything she ate while there.

I read this, and it upset me. I myself had a fantastic food experience in Cambodia, though entirely way too short (30 hours in Siem Reap is not nearly enough time).  But then I remembered when I first arrived in Vietnam back in August. Through a tour company, we scheduled a weeklong expedition of the country, starting in Hanoi, heading south to Hué, then Da Nang, Hoi An, and ending in Saigon where we now live.  The tour was to be a "food lovers" tour, so naturally we were excited.  What I haven't blogged about so far was how abysmal the food was during the first half of the tour. Americans are well-known around the world for having aversions and allergies to everything, so wherever we checked in or whatever restaurant we walked into, the first questions we were asked were, "What allergies do you have? What foods do you not like?." The fact that we have no allergies (real or imagined) and that we eat pretty much everything surprised most of our hosts.  They had already prepared meals for us wherever we went, and the menus were quite boring. The same bland fried spring rolls, the same ultra-bland ultra-sweetened corn soup appeared frequently.  The best meals we had those first few days were from the hotel breakfast buffets where we raided the pho table. I was perplexed because the Vietnamese food I'd eaten in the US was different than this Vietnamese food. More complex, much more flavor.  It finally dawned on us at dinner one night while sitting in a restaurant eating their set tourist menu and looking longingly at the food being brought out to the table next to us, food that looked really amazing and strange and delicious, food that wasn't what we were eating. So we contacted the tour company and told them: Enough is Enough, we want to do away with these set tourist menus. They were perplexed. They couldn't believe it. No one had ever complained about the food before, they said.  We pushed. And finally, we got our way. It was only after we got to Hoi An that the food got better, though the meal we made ourselves in Hué was wonderful (i've previously written about that). And the area around Hué has the spiciest food in the whole country, along with lovely fermented things and stuff sold at the local markets. In Hoi An we finally had hot pots, grilled fish, and clams using minimal ingredients, but just enough to make them all shine; produce used correctly, its integrity not lost beneath flavorless, thin sauces. This was the Vietnamese food I had been craving. This was what I had been longing for.

clams in a gingery, lemongrassy herbal broth. Hoi An

So I get it. You're on a tour in SE Asia, you get shipped off in droves of buses to these so-called tourist restaurants which cater to the bland palate. It sucks. They answer to this is to get off the beaten path and take some risks.  Not everything will be spicy (as in heat); the food will typically be sweeter the further south you go in Vietnam towards Cambodia.  I myself am prone to topping my food with as many of those tiny little fresh red chilies as my taste buds can handle; I have accustomed myself to liking and craving spicy food, and that can't be readily changed, nor do I really want it to. But heat alone doesn't make something flavorful; you must have herbs and other seasonings and spices too.  I had a passable burrito at a Mexican restaurant here last week, flavor that couldn't be ameliorated by the addition of as many pickled chili slices I could cram into the damn thing. And don't even get me started on their guacamole.

I need a do-over of Hanoi. When grumbling about the dreadful food we ate there, a Hanoian friend living in Saigon said cryptically, "You haven't seen my Hanoi" (an offer i'm totally taking him up on, hopefully soon).  And I want a do-over of Hué; street vendors every 20 feet sold corn on the cob grilled on tiny little grills set up all over the sidewalks.  We were always too full, wandering back from some crap tourist restaurant, to partake in what smelled and looked like an absolutely lovely snack.

So I feel a bit badly for the food writer who just hated Cambodian food. I wish she could have her own do-over. And if someone wants to open a Cambodian joint in Atlanta, I'm all for it and would be behind it all the way. Just give me the word.

grilled sea bass, smoked eggplant, cucumber, fish sauce, cilantro. Saigon


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