Singapore Adventure

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Weasels And Cha Ca And Dog, Oh My!
by venitha

Jim's stinky tofu post absconded with my appetite, and I've been too nauseous to do justice to Vietnam's incredible cuisine. Here, at long last, are the epicurean highlights of our October trip:

Watermelon juice. Light and refreshing and pretty in pink. The perfect accompaniment to a buffet lunch deckside, though I wouldn't recommend drinking a gallon of it before a 3-hour van ride.

Dragonfruit. I wrote in my journal that aboard the Dragon's Pearl we were served dragonfruit that burst in our mouths with tangy flavor and lit the skies above Halong Bay with explosions of hot pink fireworks. Clearly a hallucination brought on by too much watermelon juice.

Bia hoi. It's fresh, and it's beer, light and refreshing and really really really cheap. Best of all, it makes Jim really really really happy. That wonderful smile is all-too-rare these days.

Dill. I had no idea that dill was so big in Vietnamese food, and I'm hoping it was just a fluke. Perhaps we just stumbled onto dill season. Or maybe Hanoi is experiencing a dill surplus similar to what's fueling Taipei's current Banana Bonanza. To my palate, dill is a bully, overpowering all the shyer, better-behaved herbs, and I resented the feathery sprigs protruding from our spring rolls and the down blanket burying our cha ca.

Dog. While I had no intention of going anywhere near a restaurant serving dog, the suspiciously few street dogs in Hanoi managed to upset my stomach nonetheless. The village we trekked through on Cat Ba Island had a comforting crowd of canines; then it occurred to me that perhaps they were no different from the flocks of chickens.

Weasel coffee. It's hard to believe that weasel coffee - yes, you guessed it; they pass the beans through a live weasel before roasting them - is anything but a joke on the tourists, but we all happily fell for it. And it proves my theory that just about anything brewed by superslow drip and mixed with sweetened condensed milk is going to be delicious. FYI, the below converts to just under USD 3.50/lb.

Praying mantis prawns. If these have anything to do with passing the prawns through a , I don't want to know.

Spring rolls. Mmmm mmmm mmmm. Any spring roll delivery system works for me, but my favorite is roll your own with shrimp, basil, bean sprouts, cucumber, pineapple, and - yummy! - lots of that delicious sauce.

Cha ca. We worked up an appetite wandering from a closed-for-the-afternoon restaurant to a closed-forever restaurant to a relocated-down-the-street-but-woo-hoo-open restaurant in search of the famous cha ca. Lonely Planet Vietnam may be just a tad in need of updating. Cha ca is fish fried with herbs. Dammit, Dill! Stop molesting the fish! Ours was served with rice noodles, spring onions, cilantro, peanuts, and - yummy! - lots of that delicious sauce.

That delicious sauce. No, no, not the peanut sauce, though that one's scrumptious, too. And, no, not the tamarind sauce either, though hey! I could make that here with fresh tamarinds! No, the sauce that's closest to my heart is, well, that's just the problem. What is it?

Light, refreshing, watery, yellow, it skips playfully across my palate and induces me to tag along in its childlike behavior, licking my fingers, ignoring double-dipping etiquette, and jousting over the sauce bowl with cucumber spears limp with the afternoon heat. My searches on the web would have me believe that it's fish sauce, lime juice, and garlic, but I'm skeptical. These are all heavy hitters, and this sauce is anything but. I'm collecting recipes - please post yours here - and eventually I'll make some spring rolls and do a Vietnamese dipping sauce taste test. Want to come?