Do Vietnamese people say any sort of mealtime prayer before ingesting some of their delicacies? During the full moon people arrive by the hundreds at Buddhist temples to appease the gods in creative ways such as burning fake American money. So surely the concept of prayer exists. Maybe the dinner table scene plays out something like this: Buddha, we thank you for this most interesting bounty we are about to receive. Now please watch over us as e. coli obliterates our insides while we attempt in earnest to ingest what is not meant for human consumption.
Yes, food in Hanoi can lead the uninitiated down a most interesting road, in this case Hang Cot Street in the old quarter. The same very block that provided last week’s tasty pastry lunch serves up something beyond western comprehension within eyeshot of the bakery. A string of narrow shophouses offer up beer and soda and the casual passerby might just stop in for a cold one. Closer inspection, however, reveals charred legs sticking out of the cans rather than a refreshing hops beverage.
What did these innocent birds ever do to deserve being unceremoniously shoved down into a beer can? I mean one minute you’re clucking around the barnyard and the next you’re face down in an aluminum cylinder with green weeds shoved up your butt. These baby birds never dreamed their charred tuchuses would be mooning fascinated westerners from all corners of the world.
For the year and a half I lived in Hanoi, I did a fair bit of curious rubbernecking as I walked on by these beer can birds. Eventually though, morbid curiosity will lead anyone to discover what secrets lay stashed within these cans. Ordering one causes the lady to open a steamer to fish out one heated to proper perfection. In so doing a noxious plume of steam shoots skyward and envelops everything within ten feet. Indeed, this foul fowl so stinks to high heaven, I figured lobbing a prayer in that direction couldn’t hurt.
Seeing legs sticking out of a can is one thing. Actually pulling the bird out of the can with chopsticks is a whole different animal. I really don’t know why I was shocked when the tiny Sprite can crapped out an entire bird in one wet splash. Why wouldn’t the head and wings be attached? This is Vietnam after all. Unfortunately, it was like the can had given birth but wasn’t yet done. Tilting the can caused even more liquid and innards to pop out like some streetfood afterbirth gone horribly awry.
Evidently food prayers do go unanswered over here, for reflex caused me to spit out the tiny bit of meat I had skittishly dissected away from the body with chopsticks. Three gargles of Listerine later I had the gamey ginseng and soy remains 80% rinsed away from my tastebuds. Reassembling this slimy mess back into the can proved to be equally gut churning but you do what you have to do in the name of research. Sorry little guy, your journey is far from over. You’re going on a ride to the airport in an hour so the cabin crew can explain just how in the hell people think your consumption is a good idea.
Both the purser and flight attendant seemed genuinely shocked a western guy would be in possession of a soda can containing black chicken or gà ác. And neither seemed too enthused to have him as an extra passenger. Our purser said, “I have not eaten” before pausing. I could tell her brain was churning out something she so badly wanted to express, but the English failed to come forth. Finally she just offered, “It looks not very interesting” and walked away. “Interesting” most likely means gross based on how she squinted and pursed her lips.
Gross or not, for over a thousand years this bird has offered the Chinese various medicinal properties, and the black skin, black bones and black meat are supposedly rich with an antioxidant called carnosine which helps with motorskills and speech among other body functions. Yes, I can vouch for the veracity of this claim as I did let out a few curse words with amazing clarity while quickly backing away from the plate where my bird landed.
Black Chicken’s journey from Hanoi ultimately ended in the galley trash can where he was offloaded in Buon Me Thuot along with the discarded snack boxes and plastic cups. No one wanted Black Chicken, and I actually felt bad for him. Eating him is supposed to bring good luck and health, neither of which crossed his own path in the end.