Who Needs a Label When You’ve Got a Stomach?

Growing up in New York and being introduced to a variety of cuisines helped save me from exhibiting a few untimely gasps when traveling overseas-  raw fish in Japan, multicolored “styrofoam chips” from Thailand and anything that moves in China come to mind. However, Vietnam and its culinary palette must have caught wind of the awful flight delays at Newark and instead ended up in Louisiana, Orange County and Carthage, Missouri.

Which is to say, I had no idea what Ho Chi Minh’s City had in store for me eight years ago.  So what’s a food traveler to do when he hasn’t done his research (in other words, refuses offers of MSG at every meal) and also habitually forgets about asking for drinks without ice?  Explore the deal, that’s what.

And I did that with aplomb.  Pho, spring rolls, snake fried rice, sweet and salty plum soda- can’t say I’m proud of that one, and longan ice cream, among other dishes, were notable selections.  Notable in a good way.

On the flip side, we have purple “pottery paint,” or mắm tôm.  Fermented shrimp paste.  I was sitting in Bến Thành Market, a popular place to give your wallet some fresh air, and sat down for some aforementioned pho.  Quite nice, especially for the first bowl I’ve tried.  But beside the soup lay a mason jar of questionable merit.  There was no label, though now that I think about it you never get a menu for condiments, so it is assumed the patron knows that when there are chili peppers, it’s spicy, and when it’s purple, it’s shrimp paste.
My delight for Vietnamese soup screeched to a halt after trying a spoonful, and because of that, I decided to try another spoonful.  No good.  Nope, though, what do you in the audience think?

Ho Chi Minh City - Shrimp Paste


About buildingmybento

Bread, olive oil Waking up in Nakagin Sure does sound like me
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11 Responses to Who Needs a Label When You’ve Got a Stomach?

  1. Ah ha! That’s what the stuff is! I was sitting at a table down one of the many lanes that weave their way through HCMC and tubs of this stuff lined every corner but I didn’t know what it was…until now. I thought it was some sort of bean paste or something…and the smell…well, there’s no polite way to say it but it smells like a fart, right? And the taste was aligned…and I’m certainly no food snob 🙂

    • Thanks for liking this post and for following Collateral Lettuce!

      Yep, I had no idea what that violet sauce was either until I wrote the post! Nasty, no? But it’s worth a shot. Did you cap off that day’s wander in HCMC with a durian shake;)?

      • Yes I have had a few of those durian shakes. Just yesterday I was hanging out with some Vietnamese friends when they invited me to go out for some “special Vietnam food”. It turned out to be a beef organ soup…I ate most of it but the intestines were squishy and grey inside and I really wanted to gag so I kept putting it into my friends bowl when she wasn’t looking lol

      • Yep, Vietnam it seems, is home to some “shady” dishes…though I find chicharrones equally as sickening as foods generally thought to be “exotic” in the West. Which is to say, I’ll try nearly everything once, but I may not finish everything once…

        What are some of your favorite Vietnamese meals?

      • I couldn’t go past a good bowl of Pho Bo and I really love their quail eggs (although I’m not too keen on the fertilized ones!). I don’t mind eating rice everyday either. Oh, they also have awesome Vietnamese style BBQ chicken…you can’t miss the smoke billowing across the street…that’d prob be my fav actually!

  2. kerril29 says:

    Our neighbours out here absolutely love the stuff – but the smell. Oh god, the smell. The minute you put it with something hot, it unleashes this stench like nothing I have ever experienced. They usually have it on a Thursday night, so now we know to keep all our windows open and the fan on to help waft. It goes without saying, I’m not a fan of the stuff, haha.

    • (Un)fortunately, I don’t remember the smell as much as the taste, but what made the biggest impression was the color. Besides eggplants, purple carrots and beets, oh and chicha morada (made from purple corn), which other indigo foods come fastest to your mind? Not to mention, the shrimp don’t exactly start out that color!

      Which foods do you think “hold up best” when comparing nauseous odors?

      • kerril29 says:

        Thankfully I’ve never tried the stuff – I can only imagine what a horrid lasting impression it has left on you. I’ve come across a few nauseating food smells during my travelling – obviously there is the vomit diffusions of the Durian, that has to be right up there for me. Apparently if you can get past the smell though, it is actually quite delicious – have you ever tried it? There was also some kind of veg that I once received on top of my Cơm Tấm lunch – I’ve never been able to identify what it actually was, but it smelt like a combination of petrol and expired bacon (Someone told me it was bamboo, but I don’t know if that’s correct). And how about you? Any winners in the nasty food odours category?

      • You know, durian is bad, but there are definitely worse culprits out there. I think stinky tofu is one, another fermented seafood paste from Vietnam (this one is cream-colored), most of Jakarta, Dundas St. in Hong Kong, and 7-11s in the US come to mind… I’ve tried durian though, and the taste is disgusting. It lingered for hours, and clearly continues to do so in my mind!
        Petrol and bacon, that’s a doozy. So, CEFALT is treating you well?

      • Thanks for following BuildingMyBento!

        I taught in Jakarta and Shenzhen (China), so I’m curious about the pedagogical life in Saigon just the same.

      • kerril29 says:

        No problem 🙂

        Hopefully my blog will provide a bit of an insight for you! Would be interesting to compare how different the teaching experience is across other Asian countries. I for one can say that I absolutely love it!

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