As far as almost final Vietnamese meals go, this one is about as unlike anything I will find in America as they come. And that is a great thing. I do want to end this food journey with some memorable yet far from whacky selections. Bún thịt nướng chả giò is a who’s who of most everything I like about Vietnamese food…Marinated grilled meats, rice noodles, sweetened fish sauce, cucumbers, pickled carrots, peanuts, crispy spring rolls, bean sprouts, and a variety of herbs. It’s all in there. Hungry yet? Yeah, I thought so. I am, too again thinking about this one.
Though this meal is a close cousin to the breakfast pork and noodles so common all across Saigon, a few nuances make this version from Hue something quite new for me. The chewy bits of nem chua were one such flavor sensation I had never before sampled. They are simply squares of a sour pork paste boiled up inside banana leaves. Their texture is akin to one of those spongy vegetarian sausage patties found in the freezer case after having taken a few spins around the inside of a microwave.
Biting into a batch of herbs nestled in the side of the bowl washed that mouth puckering taste of soap all over my tongue. No, this was not actual soap or half cleaned ceramic but rather some herb I have ingested before. Seriously, this tasted just like soap. You know how sometimes a taste or smell can take us down memory lane? Immediately I thought about how my mom always threatened to wash my mouth out with soap when I was a really young kid if I committed some sort of verbal infraction with bad words.
I suppose moms the world over can rejoice should their adult kids get a bite of this green stuff. It’s like their punishment being meted out decades later without warning. I was half expecting my mom to jump out from behind a wall and yell “gotcha sucker!”
I tried different combinations of this soap herb and meats, noodles, and other herbs to no avail. Soap, soap, and more soap. OK, I think I’ve done my repentance here for any and all bad words I may have uttered when I was a kid. And thankfully all those threats to wash my mouth out with soap turned out to be idle in nature for that soapy taste truly is vile if this herb is any indication.
This odd tasting mess turns out to be cilantro of all things. I don’t get it. Mixed into some foods like a nice tomato salsa I can eat it just fine. Even in some Vietnamese foods the plain leaves taste great with a bite of grilled meat. Yet toss some cilantro into a bowl of these noodles, and the cook might as well have shoved a bar of Irish Spring soap down my throat. Perhaps some strains of cilantro are different than others.
Why at times I can handle cilantro and not others will just remain one of life’s little food mysteries for me. What isn’t a mystery is that this bowl of meats and rice vermicelli hit the spot and allowed to me to reflect on how far I’ve come in terms of sampling new foods once so mysterious and foreign to my tastes that used to run so sheltered.