Troi oi! It’s pronounced choi oi and these two simple words roll out Vietnamese mouths in reaction to just about any situation possibly arising in daily life. Witness something crazy? Troi oi! Almost get hit by a motorbike? Troi oi as well. Someone surprise you? Yes, you guessed it. Troi oi indeed.
Loosely translated as “oh my God,” troi oi to the highest degree best describes lunch today. Never did I expect that returning to District 1’s Con 31 would annihilate my food sensibilities in the span of mere seconds. This com binh dan, or “peasant rice” joint, or has nourished me well here in Saigon and I have such wonderful memories of crispy sweet chili glazed fried chicken, tender frog legs, squid stir fry and more.
Well, troi oi indeed. Lunch today sure did derail and drive me right into the ditch. It’s my own fault really for daring to venture outside the safety of my relatively benign food box. Fish caramelized in a clay pot is such a wonderful dish, and one I look forward to. When I saw rows of these brown containers of cá kho tộ simmering I knew right away an amazing meal waited. Caramelized fish only means that the heat causes the sugar based sauce to thicken nicely.
With a quick flick of the chopsticks, I had this fish out of the pot and on a bed of perfectly steamed rice. Only problem was this hunk of fish was about as unappetizing a piece of animal I have ever seen. A fatty something was hanging off the main body of meat and gave me great pause. Upon closer inspection, some spongy layers near the gills and all sorts of innards jumped right at at me.
I think I threw up a little in my mouth and cursed myself out for not ordering the fried chicken or stir fry beef. Even the skin had hardened from the heat of the pot, and the scales reminded me of snake skin. I got to thinking maybe this was a snake rather than fish and this vision only served to gag a little bit more. This thing was boa constrictor thick, and I had to quickly reconvince myself this was indeed just a chunk of bony, fatty, inedible (for westerners at least) ocean going nonsense.
The tasty, spicy sauce infused with flecks of chili pepper and lemongrass hit the spot with the rice and this lunch quickly became a carbfest rather than one based on a nice protein. Oh well, you win some and loose some. I am sure this chunk of fish is probably some sort of prized delicacy over here. In a way I am glad I ordered it though I couldn’t take more than one bite. It reminded me how different cultures can take the same food and present it in a myriad of ways.