During a pre-Tet visit to my apartment building’s grocery store, I spied a frozen bag of fish and vegetables that looked like a decent meal. For sure this must be the tasty Vietnamese twin to one of those heat and eat meals in an American frozen food aisle. You know the ones. Dump the different components in a pan and 30 minutes later a meal passed off as award winning “homecooked” graces our plates. Indeed, some real effort such as tearing the bag open was expended rather than the easy way out of dialing a phone or receiving greasy bags through a car window. Martin Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” theory would once again be put to the test. You remember my gỏi cuốn disaster.
Nine hours of quality thawing time left the contents of this clear bag a little more visible, much to my horror. I think I almost puked a little when I peered through the plastic at contents much more visible now that their ice crystal glaze had receded. Amongst the ingredients was a fish head and words cannot even describe my repulsion. But I had paid just over a dollar fifty for this crap and wasn’t about to let the chance to try it go to waste. I am after all trying to take the training wheels off and my 14th floor kitchen is as good a controlled environment as any to transition to the more exotic offerings of the streets below.
With no idea how to even launch any semblance of a cooking process, I chose the poaching method. Adding water to the pan caused the fish head to leech blood and I stared down at it all in disbelief. OK, I can do this. It’s just some natural flavoring, right? Steak bleeds, too. As the contents simmered I decided to flip them over and things just went from bad to worse. The other side of the fish head was the actual insides of this silvery vessel and what is normally reserved for the dissecting table in biology was bubbling away in my pan. How is it that every bit of awful offal in Vietnam finds me?
Oh yeah, I almost forget to taste it. So how was it? Blaaaaahhhh. The packaged red sauce tasted ok enough with its faint hints of lemongrass and chili, but otherwise I just couldn’t do it. I thought back to my mom’s take “just one bite or you’re not leaving the table” rule when I was a kid and spent about five minutes working up the nerve to make her proud. Peeling the skin back from a section containing the flipper revealed a small piece of white meat. I am sure had this fish been a clean filet from the grocery store I would have gladly eaten three, but first appearances are everything. That eyeball staring at me from the pan kept asking, “Are you going to eat me or not?” As they say in the South, it was time to fish or cut bait. So I took a bite, gagged, spit it out and so concluded our home experiment.
Fish from the freezer section of CitiMart turns out to be much like ordering chicken over here. The end product is just the entire animal whacked into pieces with no regard for what comes along in each chunk. This stew of fins, innards, skin, gills and even an eyeball honestly made me wonder what the hell is the matter with people that they think this is fit for human consumption. I felt sorry for this animal that recently had been minding its own business in the ocean but was now taking his final swim from pan to plastic trash bag.
The fumes wafting from my stove were just so horrendous and I can only wonder if I will ever eradicate the smell from my apartment. Opening the windows brought in the sounds of beeping motorbikes and Vietnam in general. Yes, I am far, far away from home in a parallel universe never to be fully duplicated or understood back in the United States. This is after all why I am here.