Dr Sister Outlaw on food tourism, and other vices

Zoe’s beautiful summer food pictures underscore the fact that the best things about holidays are having the time to enjoy food at its best. My holidays were spent in Thailand and Vietnam, where the food is legendary. However, it must be said, food does not always broaden the mind, particularly if one treads a path worn down by many tourists before you. I did come home with recipes and ideas, but I also learned much about the pitfalls of food tourism. At this point, I will confess that the first thing I learned is not to let your pockets and your camera be worked over by Hanoi’s best, but I’ve decided my best work is literary. This is a post which will rely on the power of words.

The second lesson is do not go to a tropical island that is too small to grow its own food, particularly not if it is run by people who are convinced that farang do not like spice. Don’t get me wrong, this island, Koh Tao, was gorgeous and New Year’s on a phosphorescent tropical beach, sitting in long-tail boats and floating Chinese lanterns into 2009, was intensely memorable. But, the best food I ate during my stay there was a pad kee mow and Zanzibar’s eggs florentine, which, whilst done with silver beet, was a passable imitation of the best in Sydney cafe food. It wasn’t what I wanted to be sampling. I wanted to sweat! The resort who served the pad kee mow have asked my farang friend’s boyfriend if he will advise them on how to make their pizza taste right, because their tastebuds are inured to a particular set of flavours and they just can’t get it. I guess that’s what motivates the resorts to try to tailor Thai flavours to what they think farang want, but I’ve tasted hotter food in Australian RSLs than what I got on Koh Tao.

Luckily my Thai food experiences were richer in Bangkok. There I dreamt on Singapore orchids draped over the sides of shakes made from ice and coconut and the lightest rice paper rolls I’ve ever tasted at the budget Mai Kaydee’s near Khao Sanh Road. The street stalls! Young coconuts, opened with gleaming machetes. Smoking barbeques and dried fish surrounding the numbers games on the boulevards. Carved pineapples and watermelons, carted around in little trolleys of ice. Tired men sleeping on a rack above the ice they cut in a terrace in Banglamphu. Lotus root, green beans and bamboo shoots in a sharp tangy tamarind curry, sold in a plastic bag from a street vendor on Samsen Road and eaten with a sugared, deep fried cake of sticky rice (the only thing that made me sweat). Tiny balls of peanut and coconut, tucked into blankets of fluffy rice paper, served with green chilis and fried onions. We also went to the biggest restaurant in the world, Royal Dragon, which measures more than 8 hectares and is navigated by waiters with roller blades and with the aid of a giant flying fox. There were only 25 people in it when we were there, but, nevertheless, a young woman in a flowing red gown demonstrated the use of the flying fox by bearing a flaming dish aloft across the lotus ponds. It was ace.

But we got over it all. In the past I have written about the food averse child and his brave attempts to deal with spice. It wasn’t actually the spice that got to him. By the time we were in Bangkok, the heat and smells had overcome his senses and he swore off pad thai and spring rolls. Neither would he eat coconut, and he found the food far too sweet and oily. As a result, my desire to sample things led to me consuming enough for two, and to a rather serious waistline expansion. I mean, I thought I would lose weight in Asia, but alas, it was not to be.

Luckily, next was Hanoi, where the weather was cooler, the food was kinder to a delicate palate and the money was running out. Pho bo, or beef noodle soup, was welcomed by my travel buddy, and by me, although it’s not exactly a new thing. But our cruise on Halong Bay was a revelation. Firstly, the order of the courses in the set menu was odd. We started with soup and shellfish which was followed by greasy french fries, then more shellfish, then a steamed fish, then chicken or pork or seafood and vegetables, along with vegetables in ginger and, finally, steamed rice. Overeating was compulsory, because it was REALLY delicious. The highlights of those meals were little crabs stuffed with peas and lime leaves and deep fried; steamed fish that showed very French influences in its covering of steamed tomatoes and, unexpectedly, dill, and the oddest sea creatures I have ever eaten. They had eyes like prawns, torsos and front legs like praying mantises, and tails like Balmain bugs yet tasted like freshwater lobster and I have no idea what they were called, or even what species they were. This food, coupled with the still languor of the cruise on Halong Bay, was food tourism at its best.

Back in Hanoi there was more. We ate the legendary, guide book listed steamed fish at Cha Ca La Vuong, which is sizzled in a pot with greens and onion and dark sauces and served over noodles with coriander and a strange foamy mauve substance that was described to me as ‘simsong’. It tasted like grapes and fish sauce and was astounding. The boy perked up and discovered the delights of sugar cane, peeled and cubed with a machete on an exhaust-filled Hanoi street corner, and fresh peanuts, on the shell, from a basket outside the Dong Xuan market. I enjoyed many delicious ginger-based beef barbecues, most memorably one on our last day that consisted of lemongrass and Sichuan peppers. Pho ga – chicken noodle soup – was universally divine and settled my overloaded stomach, and I even managed to persuade the small boy to eat it for breakfast at our hotel on our last day, in lieu of the coconut-flavoured bread they usually served him.

However, it has to be said, the best thing about food in Vietnam was not what we actually ate, but what we learned about eating. In our last week we went on a tour to the Perfume Pagoda, which is the most sacred site of Vietnamese Buddhism (and is said to be shaped like a grain of rice, although I am quite sure it’s shaped like something else that is, ahem, perfumed). Here it is, snapped with the replacement camera.

It is approached by a winding limestone and granite path that was, when we visited, being lined by bamboo and plastic canvas huts for throngs of visitors who were about to descend on the place for a two-month long Tet and Spring festival. At the side of the holy river by which you approach the Pagoda we were shown live fish and crabs in basins that are designed to be released back to the wild. But every other basin we saw on our way up the mountain contained fish and turtles that were very much alive, but very doomed, as were the puppies we saw and a number of other creatures.

On the way down our guide, Nam, said that the Vietnamese joke that they eat everything with four legs except the table, but the fact is that they eat everything with legs, and a number of things without. I asked him why they keep dogs and he said to protect the house, so I asked if dogs were only eaten when they reached the end of their useful life, but he said no, they were eaten whenever the family felt like it. But it’s a country where everyone is skinny, including the chooks and cows, and most live on cassava and rice. Food tourism in most countries is a journey into the lives of the wealthy, but when you see men everywhere who barely stand taller than your seven year old son and women whose hips are but a few inches wide but who work 16 hours every day you realise that the tastes of authentic barbecue beef, fat steamed fish and fresh fruit and vegetables are rarer for the residents of Vietnam than they are for you, even if you don’t manage to return for another 10 years. Something about all that cured the appetite, and I did return lighter than when I left, albeit with a devotion to pho ga. And with a determination to return to Asia, to the heat promised by Chiang Mai, but also to the simplicity of Vietnam.

12 thoughts on “Dr Sister Outlaw on food tourism, and other vices

  1. I’m OK with it now. The memories are etched on my mind, but it’s nice to have images to talk to and I had taken pictures of the food I was eating!

  2. Great post!

    Andrew X Pham wrote in his book, Catfish & Mandala, that VN is a country full of skinny people obsessed with food.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree that “most live on cassava and rice” but the area of VN where my family used to live is rich agricultural land, and I can well imagine that the urban poor would subsist on meagre food, while the rural poor, especially the ones near water, have more options. And I guess my extended family are comparably well off, although I look back on the pictures from my visit and marvel at how much poverty they lived in, and how when I was there I was somewhat inured to it all (culture shock, I expect). I found one house seemed so luxurious. The photo of that house is here and looking at it now, I’m amazed I thought my uncle was ‘rich’.

    You did not have som tam while in Thailand? Now that would have made you sweat!

    chuc mung nam moi!

  3. Hi Oahn, I missed out on som tam unfortunately. The guide who took us to the Perfume Pagoda was from a family of rice farmers, and it was he who told me that his village, which is quite close to Hanoi, survived mostly on cassava and rice, with very rare servings of meat, usually for special occasions. I don’t know whether he excluded fish, because there do seem to be a lot of fish in rice paddies.

    One thing I noticed in the towns near Hanoi, particularly those up the road to Halong Bay, is a lot of two story gothic style gabled buildings, built of brick and rendered with concrete. They all seem pretty new, so maybe they are a sign of increasing prosperity in the region? They look like the mass produced oversized housing you see in western Sydney, except they are built by hand, with bamboo scaffolding! Even so, I can see why you thought your uncle’s place was luxurious – it’s very solid and does look cool and clean.

  4. We were in Vietnam this time last year and my food highlights were banh xeo (pancakes) eaten at a suburban restaurant in Sai Gon – a Vietnamese friend told us to go there and it was a tourist free experience, and it was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

    We also loved the cao lau noodles in Hoi An (made from water from a special well, so they said) and white rose dumplings. Spectacularly good.

    And pho bo of course, which I get intense cravings for.

  5. Dear Zoe and crew,

    Off topic request. Am heading up to Canberra in a couple of weeks where I will be whisked off the plane (by someone enroute from Sydney), quickly grab supplies then heading to the NSW Sth coast to camping for a few days. Never camped there before – the national parks look good. Do you have any favourites to recommend?

    Thanks in advance AOF

  6. I am sure that Ampersand Duck will confirm that Depot Beach (near Durras and Bateman’s Bay) is an excellent choice, and I’m also pretty keen on Mystery Bay, near Tilba.

  7. Oh, yes I do! Depends how much driving you fancy, though. We tend to head a few hours away, to Bournda (near Tathra, world’s best oysters, and delightful op shoppe) or even further south to Ben Boyd. Mimosa Rocks is also beautiful, although you need water. Closer to Canberra Murramurrang is pretty great. It’s pretty hard to get a dud, actually.

    If you have google earth on your computer, type in “x national park” as a search and satellite view (I think) and you can see where people have mapped in their geo-located photos. Bittangabee Bay in Ben Boyd is our fave spot, but it’s south of Eden.

  8. Thanks both of you for the excellent tips. Played with G Earth last night and did my head in. Will be driving back to Melbourne so might split our very short time between two spots so will keep bournda and places south in mind too.

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