In Phan Rang and tasked with writing a Street Snacker on Cham cuisine, I ask our host — a 30-year-old Cham community organiser and sometime tour guide named Inra Jaka — whether there are any good Cham restaurants in the city.
“No,” he tells me, there are no Cham restaurants at all. That’s one of the problems with publicising the community, he laments.
I’m skeptical — I know of one Cham restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District, which just opened its doors last month. When I point to it as evidence that there’s a Cham restaurant somewhere he says, “No, I don’t think so.”
Jaka is used to provoking confused frowns in novices, and I don’t disappoint him. (Later he explains: “There are some in Ho Chi Minh City but they’re mostly for Malay people. Cham and Malay cuisines are quite similar. So you may call it Cham, but it’s not what we’re doing here.”) He waits a beat, then continues: “There is a saying in Cham. The wise will eat the liquid, the fool will eat the meat.”
After giving us a moment to absorb his cryptic words, Jaka provides us his spin. “A host will always say he’s already eaten when he goes around the table to serve his guests, otherwise they won’t feel comfortable eating. But it’s the host that gets more out of the meal.”
Later in the trip, with pottery villages and ancient hilltop temples behind us, I get a chance to sample the liquid of Cham cuisine — a 12-course meal, ladled into 30 waiting bowls.
‘Cheers’ in Cham
On the patio, three hours after the first pigeons are slaughtered and plucked clean, we unleash our first toast — clinking glasses of beer and tamarind juice to a Cham-language count of “tha, dwa, klow — mu!”
In front of us lie 11 courses, all served at the same time. There’s shrimp salad, broken rice, mashed tamarind, fried pigeon, pigeon porridge, sour soup with pigeon, sour soup with chicken, sour soup with dried fish, fried corn, slow-cooked fish with egg and minced dried fish. There’s an emphasis on tamarind and different herbs are employed to those found commonly in Vietnamese cuisine. They’re fresher, more bitter. After the meal we receive some green bean che, but that doesn’t come for a long time.
The diners in my radius seem to gravitate towards the shrimp salad for starters, garnished with a lush spread of peanuts and a herbaceous leaf called la chum ruot. Its fruit is used in Vietnamese cuisine but not the leaf, and it lends the tangy mix of tamarind and shrimp an earthy grounding.
The slow-cooked fish has a chopped liver-like consistency, and is heavily salted. On its slow, tingly roll down my tongue the salt gives way to chilli, and the lingering burn is clean, almost light.
The vegetable dish includes herbs that are unusual by Vietnamese standards; banana flowers, la chum ruot and young tamarind leaves. Everything is intended to match specific dishes and aid digestion. Jaka says, “All of Cham cooking focuses on healthy digestion.”
The pigeons — aka squab — are not the overfed scavengers of western cities, but small birds whose meat has been lightly fried and well-salted. On one dish they provide supple, juicy morsels on their own; in another they mix in with a light but glutinous porridge, coming together under a liberal shake of pepper. They’re both delicate and moreish. As I take a second helping I realise that I like pigeon — a lot. Who knew?
Meet Our Hosts
As the meal winds down, we go around the circle to introduce ourselves.
Jaka translates for those who don’t speak English, and sometimes adds in bits of his own, as he does with Cam Ry, the first to be introduced. Cam Ry, Jaka tells us, was one of the young men who rejected their Cham identity, assimilating into Vietnamese culture because he didn’t know enough to be proud of his roots. When he met Jaka, he learned things he could connect to and be proud of. Now his love of cooking and Cham culture have found a fulfilling intersection.
The rest of our hosts are teachers, tourism pros and university graduates in interesting disciplines, all from the surrounding villages. A few are jobless or not working in something they’re passionate about, but they love to travel.
And then there is Ly: “My name is Ly, I’m from this village, and when I’m full I like to sleep.”
These sporadic meals are part of a larger plan, one that will hopefully accomplish more than just full bellies. “We are doing this,” Jaka says, “because we want to know the food we are cooking. We want to raise awareness.”
They switch villages every meal, and in every meal a different household cooks. As they cover more ground, more interested Cham youth follow along, actively participating in a culture that — for many — they never knew.
Their next destination is a pottery village, and the dishes will be claypot dishes — slow-cooked fish, banh beo. This approach is characteristic of the Cham, and is the same approach they have towards their environment, as much as deforestation has changed it.
“The rain is coming,” Jaka says in talking about the next meal. “Some of the ingredients here are always available, some depend on the season. We eat the seasons.”