Skip to main content

a world beyond pho

A friend of mine from Atlanta, in the midst of a whirlwind tour to SE Asia, stopped by for two nights. He landed in Hanoi, then moved on to Bangkok before arriving in Saigon. As he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong, he whined: “I ate really well, but come to think of it, I didn’t even eat any pho!”, to which I replied. “But there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than pho!”.

In Hanoi, which he didn’t particularly like, he ate at the bun cha joint made famous by President Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s visit last May.  In Bangkok (“a cross between Vegas, New Orleans, and New York; it’s sensory overload!”), he ate at the floating markets and got food poisoning.  When he arrived in Saigon, he said he was game to eating almost anything as long as he took some medicine first.

So we ate - and ate, and ate.  We ate banh khot, the tiny pancakes cooked in cast iron molds, filled with coconut milk and crab meat. Cau lau, a dish traditionally made in Hoi An, noodles and pork with very little (but extremely flavorful) broth. Fresh spring rolls which we rolled up in lettuce and mint and dipped into nuoc mam cham (fish sauce with chilis, lime juice, and sugar).  A vat of clams in a starfruit broth with tomatoes and loads of fresh dill. Caramelized pork ribs encrusted with sesame seeds (which he proclaimed to be “one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth”).  And consumed more ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) in two days than I’ve had in a year of living here.

One can find Vietnamese restaurants all along Buford Highway in Atlanta, and lot of their menus consist of more than pho and banh mi sandwiches, but those two food items are really the only things that most Atlantans know as Vietnamese food, which is a crying shame.

Two days is just not enough time to sample the variety that encompasses Vietnamese cuisine. He said he’d come back next year, with wife and kids in tow, and vowed to spend more time diving into the food culture.  And I’m glad I’m doing my part to convince people back home that there’s a whole great big wide world out there beyond pho.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

potato, potah-to.

During my first few months living here, I played with a computer program to learn Vietnamese.  Unfortunately I didn’t learn much (I have serious trouble remembering vocabulary words, something that never happened to me before while learning another language).  But I couldn’t figure out why nobody understood a word I was saying.  It wasn’t until a Saigonese friend told me she didn’t like to visit Hue or Hoi An because she could not understand the locals before I realized that, like everywhere else in the world, Vietnam has different accents.  Complete ignorance and stupidity on my part.  After all, there are distinct accents in the US, and even amongst the Southern states there are subtle differences if you pay attention. When I lived in Savannah, Georgia in the late 1990s I noticed how the local drawl was vastly different than the Mississippi accent that my great aunts Ima Lee and Lula Mae had.   I’m not making this up; my Dad’s side of the family are as Southern as Southern can get.…

Drynuary.

So I participated in Whole30.

And I’m not going to bore you with the details of what I ate every single day, which is why I didn’t post about it throughout the month.  At the end of December when I mentioned to a few people that I was going to do this cleanse, most of the responses were incredulous. “But why? Why deprive yourself?”, was the main feedback I got. Let me tell you why.

December, and let’s be frank, November, were full of holiday spirit, in all definitions of the word. My boss hosted various lunch and dinner parties, and I spent a lot of my free time imbibing and eating pretty much everything in sight. Hey, it’s Christmas, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  In the beginning of December, I noticed a few days of indigestion, but firmly pushed it out of my mind as I didn’t have time to think about it. I kept cooking, and that included a lot of baked things, chocolate, crazy Australian desserts I’d never heard of before (something called a White Christmas which is basi…

walking.

It’s raining in Saigon. Again. We’re supposed to be out of the rainy season, but I don’t mind it. December seems to be a few degrees cooler than the other months, and the rain brings the temperature down a bit more.

Tonight, while walking back from dinner through the streets of Đa Kao, it was pleasant enough for me to wear a sweater (not a heavy one, but at least something long sleeved), and the rain misted down gently as I circumnavigated some of the near-empty side streets and hẻms on my way home. In high school, one of my great friends was a kid named Andrew who lived with his mom on Quai de Bourbon on the Ile Saint Louis, in two rooms with uneven flooring, high ceilings and hand-painted support beams.  The stone stairs on the way up to the apartment were polished to a shine and worn down by the thousands of feet that scampered up and down them over the centuries. I never met Andrew’s mom; she seemed to be away on business trips a lot, so a few of us would gather at his place in th…