Snake follows mouse afler pig

(No.2, Vol.5,Mar-Apr 2015 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Fried field mouse

Tofu cooked with pork

Grilled snake

Bánh cống

As somewhat of a foodie, I have long been intrigued by the culinary arts and learning more about the local cuisine wherever I am. I now live in Ho Chi Minh City, and, luckily, Vietnam certainly offers a lot to study. It is fairly common knowledge that Northern Vietnam’s often salty cuisine differs greatly from that of the South, where they tend to go heavy on the sweetness in their food preparation, but the country’s vast array of adventure fodder does not end there. Vietnam, which is about 70 per cent as large as California and 50 per cent the size of France, is divided into 58 districts, each with its own distinct local specialties, taste, and methods of preparing certain dishes.
Recently, I visited Can Tho, the riverside town located in the heart of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Can Tho is best-known for its amazing floating markets, its luscious fruit, and the vibrant feel that the city gives off, thanks to its large student population. The aspect of Can Tho life that I was most interested in exploring during this trip was, however, its local cuisine. Because the city is surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of wetlands, dense forests, flora, and fauna, the city’s cuisine has become known both for its fresh fruit, imbued with extra sweetness and flavour due to ideal growing conditions, and its freshly obtained meats, which range from the ‘normal’ meats, such as pork, to exotic eats such as snake.
Upon my arrival, I decided to dive into the local cuisine immediately and find out first-hand what the ‘grittier’ side of Can Tho’s food offerings are really like. I debated my options. Preferring to explore independently, I do not regularly enlist in guided tours. But in this instance, I reasoned, a tour with a couple of seasoned locals might have been my only way to quickly gain access to the city’s most exotic dining options. As I always say, anyone who cannot speak Vietnamese is unable to experience about 70 per cent of what the country has to offer, and, unfortunately, I knew this would be one of those cases. It does not help, either, that I do not ride a motorbike.  It was for this reason that I was most happy when I met two tour guides, both of whom had lived in Can Tho all their lives, were incredibly friendly, and spoke nearly flawless English. I had chosen to go with the ‘exotic’ food tour rather than simply the ‘normal’ food tour, and I felt confident after meeting the guides that they would be able to show me and my five fellow tourists some authentic  places to get traditional  Can Tho food.
Our group set out from the hotel at 6.30 p.m. We began our trek through the city streets, all made up of charming alleyways and quiet avenues, none of which are disrupted by the loud and hazardous traffic that plagues much of Saigon, Danang, and Hanoi. Although the streets were not busy, the city was still spirited and exciting, thanks to the lush parks, colourful lights and crowds of smiling friends and families we passed. As we strolled by a lady selling live rabbits out of a cage by the side of the street, one of our guides announced to the group that our first stop would be a shop where we could eat nem nướng – fermented pork with rice noodles, lettuce, thin banana slices, pineapple, basil, mint, and coriander, all wrapped in rice paper. I was a bit disappointed when I learned what the first dish would be, because I had hoped for more out-of-the-ordinary delicacies when I had booked the ‘exotic food tour,’ but I changed my mind once the food arrived and I tasted it. True to Can Tho food's reputation for being exceedingly fresh, the vegetables, which comprised a large portion of each wrap, were absolutely bursting with tanginess and sweetness. The pork itself was cooked to perfection, and the fermentation had given it a delectably tart yet succulent flavour. I have always appreciated the common tendency of Vietnamese dishes of allowing the eater to literally add his own flavour to his dining experience by assembling his own meal with fresh ingredients provided at the table, and this nem nướng certainly undid the initial disappointment I had felt about it. Every crunchy bite of my wrap was not only a brilliant circus of fresh and zingy flavours and textures, but it also brought with it the reminder that I had created that specific flavour myself. In my opinion, that knowledge simply makes food taste better.
Once we had finished a few wraps each and paid the bill (which was surprisingly low, even compared to the already-inexpensive Saigon), we headed down the street to our next stop. Again, the shop did not sell the more ‘outlandish’ delicacies that we would be introduced to later on the tour, but it did sell something unique to Can Tho: a dish called bánh cống. Bánh cống are small cakes made mainly from rice flour, mung bean, onions, and spices. They each have a large shrimp cooked into their centres that adds decorative flair (a large component of many Vietnamese dishes) and a bit of flavour. I found the bánh cống to be dry and lacking in flavour, even after wrapping the cakes in lettuce and dipping them in fish sauce. Many Can Tho natives, however, consider bánh cống a delicacy.
Our next stop was right across the street from the shop selling bánh cống, and I was delighted to hear we would be trying chuột nướng – grilled mouse. Finally, something I had heard about but never had the chance to try. The tour group noshed on some appetizers, which consisted of stir fried tofu and beef or eggplant, respectively, before the main dish was served. As soon as the mouse arrived, I dug in eagerly. I was disappointed to find the meat difficult to eat quickly because it was riddled with bones, another quality common to Vietnamese meats that I still need to get used to. Unfortunately, the meat that was there was displeasingly dry, and the taste was nothing special – reminiscent of chicken, but gamier. I ate a few bites to get a taste for the dish, but the fact that I could wow my friends and family by telling them I had eaten mouse kept me eating more than the taste of the food itself. Besides, I wanted to save my appetite for what one of our guides told us would be our next course – barbecued snake.
The snake was served to us at a place several blocks away from where we had eaten the mouse. I would call the eating spot a cafe, but it was only a line of plastic tables and stools set out on the sidewalk. Luckily, the air was cool and clean, and there were no groups of men engaging in ‘nhậu’ (when Vietnamese men get together to get drunk, talk, and sometimes play cards), so it was a very pleasant evening to sit out on the sidewalk. I was happy when I found that our snake had been divided into two dishes: xúc xích rắn (snake sausage) and rắn nướng (grilled snake). The sausage, which was most likely processed and which one would not have known contained snake unless told so beforehand, was the group favourite. It was satisfyingly salty and well-spiced, and, because it did not contain bones, the bite-size balls it had been cooked into could easily be popped into the mouth and devoured. My personal preference of the two snake dishes, however, was the grilled snake. Complete with the snake's scaly skin and the bones, both of which had to be removed with either the hands or the teeth before digging in, the dish provided a unique flavour and texture that the sausage did not. While the sausage had had the consistency of burger and had reminded me of alligator sausage by its taste, the grilled snake was rubbery, more like calamari, and had an interesting and savoury flavour redolent of something between fish and pork. Both courses were eaten with chopsticks, and they proved to be my favourite eats of the night.
After we had eaten our fill of snake, we began back towards the hotel where the tour had started. On the way, we stopped for dessert – xôi ngọt (sweet sticky rice), my favourite Vietnamese sweet street treat. The friendly lady who served it to us scooped a generous ladle-full of the sticky rice out of the steel vat she had set up over a flame on the sidewalk, mixed the rice with sugar, heaped the mixture into a folded pouch made of rice paper, and wrapped the whole thing in a sweet pancake, similar to something one might find at IHOP. Although the rice in the vat came in several different colours and flavours, I chose to buy two wraps of the yellow coconut-flavoured rice. The final product was absolutely delicious, and it was a wonderfully savoury and satisfying way to top off a night of enticing and often intriguing local food.

Text and photos by Dustin Kemp

Text and Photos by Dustin Kemp
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