“It’s never the same place twice.” Isn’t that line from some Marshalls ad campaign back home? This random tagline popped into my head as I wandered through the everchanging Binh Thanh district on my way downtown. I think Vietnamese streets have the monopoly on things never being the same place twice. Sorry Marshalls. A merry go round of entrepreneurs cram their products and foods into these narrow alleyways in true here today, gone tomorrow fashion. Blink and you just might miss part of this street parade.
Yesterday a shirtless man had been selling fruit and cigarettes out in front of his 15 foot wide piece of the Vietnamese dream. Today the cigarettes remained but baskets of frogs now replaced the pink dragonfruit and purple mangosteens. These critters in their natural prefood stage made me wonder the sanity of eating them like I did the other day. I am beginning to realize I am ok with most meats as long as they bear no resemblance to the donor animal. Yes, the legacy of growing up with American food…The land of the sanitized and neatly filleted has once again manifested itself in another case of post traumatic food disorder.
With visions of frogs still jumping in my head, I continued my walk towards District 1 and met my friend, Anneke, at Com 31 on Ly Tu Trong to introduce her to some cuisine other than her standard sushi and pasta. After five minutes of us staring at the daily selection laid out in metal pans, the owner of the place finally started losing patience with my six foot frame blocking her passageway about half my size. She started saying in English, “fish, chicken, pork” while waiving at the various piles of animal parts. In a moment of fluster Anneke pointed to the one serving pan not identified in English and I thought to myself this is not gonna be pretty.
A minute later two plates of steamed rice and two small bowls of meat arrived, and Anneke was excited to try her “chicken wings.” “Ah, ja, the chicken looks nice” quickly turned into a loud “ehhhhhhhhh” as gravity pulled a frog leg from her chopsticks back to the plate. How ironic that only an hour earlier I had been marveling at trays of the things out on the street, and I couldn’t help but wonder if our lunch had sprung from a similar alley. Commenting on this observation only repulsed Anneke further.
Remember back when we sampled frog legs from Loan right next door to Com 31? Those tender bits had been my first exposure to edible swamp critters and left me wanting more. A whole different animal crawled out of the rice paddy this time. I never thought about it until now but yeah, I guess frogs do have feet. While Loan thankfully cuts that part of the leg off, Com 31 serves these babies up webbing, toes and all. I have to admit I felt like I was back in 8th grade biology class staring down at some anatomy lesson gone terribly wrong. I chewed some tender and tasty meat off the legs but still couldn’t get past the feet.
Tiny little toes staring us down may be a bit offputting, but that sauce…that delicious red curry sauce had a fair bit of heat, and if Vietnam’s equivalent of Emily Post had allowed it, I would have licked the plate clean. Picture something just a little hotter than Taco Bell Fire Sauce but with the taste of cumin, curry and more. Even 15 minutes after that meal my lips were tingling just enough to remind me of that great sauce (and the feet). For Anneke this meal was dead on arrival which worked out for me. Frog legs have about zero meat and it took her portion as well to give more than a few bites.
As I later walked back home, the frog man and his baskets were long gone and in their place was a pile of plastic bottles, old newspapers and wilted herbs. It goes to show…Vietnam truly is never the same place twice, even a plate of frog legs.