Put on your Honesty Cape and place yourself in the following scenario:
After you save the life of a Nigerian prince with the timely provision of your US$7,500 wire transfer, he invites you to his lavish palace in Abuja for a celebratory feast. The prince decrees that every notable dish from every global cuisine will be provided for your dining pleasure, as part of the world’s largest-ever buffet table.
There is a catch, however, as there always is with Nigerian princes: you can only have one plate. So, with all of the world’s delicacies at your fingertips, how much plate-space would you devote to Vietnamese cuisine?
Your correspondent’s answer: zero percent.
Make Ready the Torches
That doesn’t necessarily mean your correspondent has an irrational hatred of Vietnamese food, though.
We are sloppy with our language. Not in the sense of abbreviations or emojis (the obese cats are adorable, and if you disagree then you’re a silly old coot), but in our word choice. For instance, your correspondent might say that he “loves” chao ga because it reminds him of the ubiquitous chicken-and-rice porridge-type gruel his mother used to make.
What he means to say is that he has eaten chao ga on multiple occasions and found it to be agreeable, with a not-unpleasant flavour and a familiar consistency. But if you asked him to name his Top 50 favourite foods, and he took the time to make the list properly, chao ga would be nowhere to be found.
Unless, perhaps, he felt like presenting himself as extra-sophisticated that day. Then he might be tempted to pepper the Top 50 with any “exotic” food he could remember eating. In that case he might also proclaim his love of Vietnamese bo kho, Laotian aw lahm AND Cambodian somlar mochu sachko, instead of just saying that he likes beef stew. He would overstate his enthusiasm in the interests of appearing more worldly and progressive.
In reality, your correspondent’s general attitude w/r/t local cuisine can best be summarised as:
Vietnamese food is a palatable option for occasional meals, but as a daily diet it has major shortcomings.
Let your correspondent suggest four criteria for evaluating a cuisine: cost, variety of flavours, visual presentation and nutritional value. He would argue that Vietnamese food usually satisfies only the first criterion. Street foods such as mi xao bo and bun thit nuong are especially cheap, which is why he used to eat them regularly. And they’re available almost anywhere, which could be considered another advantage.
Flavour and presentation are wildly subjective things to discuss, but your correspondent submits that a majority of Vietnamese dishes appear limpid and sad on the plate, which is often helpfully illustrated by the blurrily magnified canvases stretched across the restaurant’s front entrance. Also, the 2pm remnants of a com tam’s slop pans are a stark reminder of our own perishability.
Regarding flavour, your correspondent’s main impressions of Vietnamese cuisine are the following:
1) Many things are very sweet.
2) They are not nearly as spicy as locals claim.
3) There is a strong tendency towards smearable meat pastes, ambiguously grey foodballs and globs of pure fat.
4) Fish sauce is basically soy sauce, except worse.
5) Rice = :(
Rice is, from an environmental and nutritional viewpoint, a woefully inefficient food to cultivate and eat. According to the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers, it takes more than 2,400 litres of water to produce a single kilogramme of rice.* Comparatively, it takes 287 litres to produce a kilogramme of potatoes. At a time when water rights are sparking armed conflicts and encroaching megadroughts threaten to destabilise regions from the Indian subcontinent to the American Pacific coast, the costs of rice production are increasingly difficult to justify.
Nor does rice have an impressive dietary resume. It is the edible equivalent of packing peanuts. Deepak Pental, former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi and one of the world’s most distinguished nutritional scientists (Google it), says, “White rice is the most ridiculous food human beings can cultivate. It is just a bunch of empty starch, and we are filling our bellies with it.”
Vietnamese cuisine relies heavily upon the emptiest kind of rice, too. Today the nutritional advantages of unmilled brown rice, with its bran and germ layers intact, are widely known, but Vietnamese rice is almost exclusively white, stripped down to its starchy endosperm. It serves little purpose other than to induce a temporary satiety, yet it is the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine.
But enough with the humbug and moodiness — your correspondent’s most enjoyable respites from everyday rice-and-noodlery occur at the following places:
In Saigon, visit Zeus on Cong Quynh. The owner is a Greek man with a hearty moustache. Ask for “three kalamaki pork” and he may mistake you for this correspondent.
In Mui Ne, visit Ratinger Lowe on the end of the big street by the hill (your correspondent suspects you will be too drunk to remember street names, should you be in Mui Ne). Order the Metzgerplatte, which means “butcher’s plate” in German. Enjoy the schnitzel and sausages. Fill your pockets with leftover potatoes before you leave.
In Nha Trang, visit Ana Beach House and politely request the spice-rubbed beef tenderloin. If the waiter says it is not available, drown yourself in the nearby infinity pool.
Call Zeus at (08) 3837 3248. Call Ratinger Lowe at (062) 374 1234. Call Ana Beach House at (058) 352 2222. Or just Google them, you lazy bastards