The man was chowing down on so many of the incredible edibles I adore. When he started talking about all the wonderful flavors in Vietnamese cuisine, I could practically smell them, taste them, feel them dancing on my tongue.
I love Vietnamese chow, but I ate very little of it during my first year in Vietnam. Maybe that's because I was in the middle of a combat zone. Restaurants didn't exist, of course, deep in the high-elevation woodlands and rain forests of the Annamite Mountains – yes, Vietnam is more than jungles and rice paddies – during my war in Vietnam.
Marine Corps cooks created my first meal in Vietnam. That was in 1967 in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion mess hall at Camp Reasoner, just below the 1st Marine Division headquarters on the outskirts of Da Nang. Vietnamese chow was not on the menu. I know: What menus? So, we walked the chow line with our metal mess trays, as the cooks and mess-duty attendants slopped on the Marine Corps grub. I ate most everything they could dish out.
On patrol in the bush, we enjoyed olive-green tins of combat rations – c-rations, or c-rats, for short. Sometimes our menu was bolstered by long-range rations, or long-rats, which were pouches of freeze-dried food that wasn’t bad. My favorite was spaghetti in meat sauce. The other choices were beef and rice, beef hash, beef stew, chicken stew, chicken and rice, chili con carne, and pork and scalloped potatoes. Good stuff.
My first taste of Vietnamese food was, supposedly, monkey meat inside a sticky rice cake, which was wrapped in banana leaf. At least that’s what the young Vietnamese vendor told me it was, and I took her word for it. It looked like a little green pillow, and when I opened it, I found a thick, square, moist cake of rice, with meat and a bit of vegetables inside. Maybe she was fooling me, though, and perhaps that beautiful rice cake was stuffed with pork, which would be more believable. Whatever it was inside – and the conservationist, or the environmentalist, inside me is hoping it was pork – I enjoyed my introduction to Vietnamese chow on that beach just north of Da Nang so many years ago.
Later on during my first tour of duty in Vietnam as a reconnaissance scout, I got to taste a few of the plants growing in the mountains and foothills. I relished the heart of a small tree that was introduced to me in the hills south-southwest of Hue by a veteran bush Marine, who probably learned about it from a South Vietnamese scout. I think it was some kind of palm. Its center was moist and succulent and a welcomed addition to combat rations while on reconnaissance patrols in the upper elevations of central Vietnam — at that time, the northern sector of South Vietnam. But I couldn't identity most of the countless plants in the Annamite Mountains, so I didn't try them for fear they could be poisonous. While I wasn't real smart, I wasn't flat-out stupid either.
I really learned to appreciate Vietnamese edibles during my second deployment to the country, when I was assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon, which is known now as Ho Chi Minh City. At first, I tried a lot of French dishes. Reminders of the French colonialists were everywhere in Saigon. You saw it in the architecture, the cars and a lot of the food, and I tried all of the French cuisine I could wrap my lips around. I especially enjoyed some outstanding little lobsters served up at a restaurant about a block up from the famous Hotel Continental Saigon on Tu Do Street, which had been the rue Catinat before the French departed. Then there were the delicious frog legs in olive oil and garlic at a restaurant on Le Loi Street. And I ate my first boulliabase at a little French eatery not far from the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker.
But, hey, I was in Vietnam, and eventually – ah, yes, finally – I began my exploration of Vietnamese food, a cuisine influenced by Chinese and French and Indian dishes yet uniquely its own. I loved Vietnamese noodles, all kinds of Vietnamese noodles. Another popular creation was cha gio; most people know them as fried spring rolls – something like little egg rolls but made with rice spring-roll wrappers filled with crab, shrimp, pork and some kind of vermicelli, served with nuoc cham, and uncooked veggies. How could a chowhound not like that?
Saigon was famous for its many street vendors. Some offered fantastic sandwiches on baguette-like breads or submarine-like rolls – OK, basically I'm talking about demi baguettes here – doused with excellent sauces. Many vendors cooked traditional bowls of goodness that could feature any combination of such edibles as noodles, fresh vegetables, fish, meat and exotic broths or sauces. And if a streetside eater needed a little extra heat, Vietnamese hot sauce was offered.
My fellow Marines and I often devoured those delicious, vendor-crafted sandwiches, called bánh mì, after enjoying a few too many bia hoi draft beers or Ba Muoi Ba bottled beers during an evening of liberty in Saigon. Ba muoi ba is Vietnamese for 33, but today 33 beer is called 333 Export. A couple of shots of local whiskey during the evening could add some kick to the local beer and greatly improve its taste!
If you wanted to cook up your own local dishes, many fresh ingredients were available from sidewalk grocery vendors, shopkeepers and at the Saigon Central Market. You could find such edibles as ducks, fish, live crabs and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
To cook authentic Vietnamese dishes, one needs a few ingredients for which there are no substitutions. The most important is fish sauce, or nuoc mam. Most American supermarkets today have a few shelves stocked with Asian specialties, and you usually can find fish sauce from Thailand or the Philippines.
The odor of nuoc mam can smell pretty bad, but the flavor it casts into Vietnamese recipes is very good. You have to have it, and you'll like it. Speaking of the bad smell, nuoc mam production can stink up a surrounding neighborhood, because it's made from fermenting fish. Some of the U.S. Marines in Saigon during the war experienced that firsthand, because one of their guard posts was at one of the USAID buildings in Saigon, and a nuoc mam maker lived and created his dark fish sauce close by. Eight hours on duty amidst the aroma of fermenting fish sauce could be a challenge even to a combat-hardened Marine. However, that was much better than an eight-hour firefight in the northern sector of South Vietnam, where most Marines served.
I won’t pretend to be a great chef of Vietnamese food. However, I love it, and if I want to eat it often, I usually have to prepare it myself. If you want to try your own hand at Vietnamese cooking but don't want to start with a whole meal, here's a different and delicious snack to serve to your guests:
CHAO TOM (Hey, my name’s in the name!)
This Vietnamese specialty is a real treat and makes for great hors d'oeuvres. It consists of shrimp paste packed around a sugarcane stick and either grilled or broiled. According to an old pamphlet I picked up way back in 1969 at the Vietnam National Tourist Office at 25 Bac Dang Quay in Saigon, locals enjoy chao tom accompanied with whiskey. Of course, that’s a matter of taste, but if you imbibe, I suggest savoring the little rascals with some rock ’n’ rye, as both chao tom and rock ’n’ rye whiskey require rock candy in their preparation.
You obviously need to plan ahead for this delicious dish, because you probably won't find sugar-cane sticks and rock candy at your average grocery store or supermarket. However, rock candy can be found at some old-fashioned candy stores and, of course, online. And some Asian grocers and international markets have sugar cane and sugar-cane sticks, and they're available to online shoppers. If I'm shopping at Global Foods in St. Louis, for example, I can pick up a 2-pound, 10-ounce can of sugar cane in light syrup
You will need:
1 lb. raw shrimp
1 lump of rock candy (rock sugar), about sugar-cube size
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 egg white
12 four- to five-inch sugarcane sticks
After peeling and deveining the shrimp, plop them with the lump of rock candy into a food processor, mincing the shrimp and pulverizing the rock candy. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend together. Put the shrimp paste mixture into the refrigerator for no more than an hour. Form the paste into balls, each about golf-ball size. Then press and form each ball around a sugarcane stick, until the little goodie looks like a mini-corndog with a short stub at each end (instead of a long stick at one end). About four or five minutes under the broiler or on top of the grill will do just fine.
Anthony Bourdain has taken his "No Reservations" television show to Vietnam several times. I've seen each one at least once, probably multiple times each. Today he was in the Central Highlands. About two weeks ago, Travel Channel showed us one of his Ho Chi Minh City episodes, and I was carried back to old Saigon.
Right now I shall carry myself to the pantry and find a can of Aroy-D sugar cane in light syrup. And thank goodness shrimp from the freezer thaws in just a few minutes. Yep, nothin' like a good excuse to break out my little whiskey glass.