We’ve already sampled a few of the dishes served to my airline’s customers at the boarding gates in various cities. In an attempt to eat a little bit healthier than the airport noodles or rice, I put in an order for fruit in Buon Me Thuot instead. My cabin crew were completely confused as to why I had eschewed the standard starch for much lighter fare, and little did I know this fruit would send me off on a strange taste journey.
A clear plastic bag filled with pinkish-red crunch appeared alongside the tiny golf ball sized apples and the very unripe guava slices. Vietnamese people love their sour, unripe fruit! Sniffing the salts proved a fatal mistake, and my now scorched olfactory nerves shall never again be the same. Imagine malodorous fish mixed with a healthy dose of dog squeeze.
Have you ever eaten artificial bacon bits straight from the plastic container or from some low rent salad buffet? Take something that size and texture and voila, Vietnamese mystery spice. A strong salty sheen washed over my tongue, and chewing released an assault of fishy wickedness. Is this how a bacon bit mated with fish sauce would taste? Choi oi!!
Perhaps this nonsense in a bag just needs a fruit canvas to really shine I thought to myself. I accidentally turned the bag upside down and unwittingly tested this theory by unleashing its fury all over my fruit. First of all, this unripe guava is tart enough and the infusion of salt, chili pepper heat, and fish does little to further its cause.
I asked my cabin crew about this curious oddity, and they both buzzed excitedly amongst themselves. One of them finally said, “Very delicious. Very famous.” Famous to whom? The other of course volunteered the requisite, “Good for health!” A pattern is developing here. If a Vietnamese person says very delicious, keep in mind western tastes may not overlap with his or hers. If a Vietnamese person says good for health, chances are the American Heart Association might have heartburn. If a Vietnamese person says both very delicious and good for health in the same breath, the suspect food is probably best left untouched.
And untouched this muối tôm, or brine shrimp, remained. Our purser said this spicy, bitter, salty food enhancer hails from Tay Ninh and asked if I had yet made a special pilgrimage to the home of this condiment. If I don’t like the taste of it 30 minutes from Saigon by air, somehow I doubt a hot and stuffy six hour bus odyssey is going to make it any more palatable. When I politely said I hadn’t yet journeyed to the heart of shrimp salt, she looked so disappointed and the conversation died. If I felt as if I had somehow squashed a bit of her culture and trampled her spirits.
Though my fruit breakfast was nothing out of the ordinary, that little bag of spice took me just a little deeper into Vietnamese cuisine. I can’t say I am a big fan of it now, but I will try it again. I learned to love fish sauce after all so maybe this one holds promise down the road as well.