This meal represents so much more than a salad of grilled meats, tomatoes, fried shallots, pickled vegetables and raw lemongrass. Mixing everything together along with a fish sauce based spicy dressing sent me on a taste journey even a year ago I could never have imagined. That I missed out on so much is mostly my fault for I had already been in Vietnam a long time before starting to sample its wonderful delights. Part fear, part indifference, and part worry about food poisoning had all held me back.
Fish mint on its own has both fascinated and repulsed me since it first defiled my tongue. How can any anything so leafy and innocuous smack so much of tuna? Imagine biting into some lettuce and the taste of fish washes all over your mouth. Exactly! Now you know how I have felt all along.
This changed all of a sudden with a simple lunch time meal. Somehow fish mint isn’t so treacherous as all, and it works well with the other flavors. This ladies and gentlemen is the key…it is meant to complement everything rather than stand on its own. I had always sampled it alone rather than pairing it with other herbs and competing flavors. The strong taste threw me off of course, and I thought no way in hell am I going to ruin my food with it.
Well fast forward a few hundred meals and all of a sudden things are making sense. Vietnamese cuisine is a careful balance of sweet, sour, salt and spice. No one ingredient ever seems to outshine the others, and when tempered with other herbs, fish mint believe it or not blends into the background.
Rather than eviscerating my taste buds, this herb added just enough flavor to make this meal memorable. Next time fish mint crosses my path, I am diving right in and mixing it in with everything else on the plate.
I had to laugh when the girl produced forks for us out of nowhere and handed them over as if she had found some sort of culinary treasure. No, no forks here. I am definitely not the same guy I was at the beginning of the journey. Chopsticks seem the more natural way to heave scoops of fish mint flavored delights into this hungry mouth.