(No.7, Vol.6, Sep-Oct 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

For those who can brave their odours, these foods are worth the pain

There’s no doubt that Vietnam has very diverse cuisine, from top royal delicacies to humble, mouth-watering everyday dishes or even simple snacks that make you cannot stop eating. And yet, there is no lack of bizarre dishes with a smelly element, which will make you cover your nose as soon as you see it. But believe me, they can be super-addicting.

1 Nước mắm
Fish sauce

Everywhere! A lot of Vietnamese believe that every dish needs a touch of nước mắm to be complete. They add it to everything: fried, steamed, raw, boiled, stir-fried, and grilled dishes. And if you go to some Southern Vietnam’s provinces, you will see people there only use nước mắm as their only dipping sauce. It’s a brown, from light to dark brown sauce. And the odour will vary from brand to brand. The amount of protein printed on the bottle will define its saltiness. It is made from fermented anchovies.
There are many styles of dipping sauce made from nước mắm: nước mắm gừng (with ginger, chilli and sugar), nước mắm mè (with tamarind, chilli and sugar), nước mắm chua ngọt (with sugar, lime juice, garlic and chilli). Some common dishes are: cháo vịt (duck congee), gỏi (salad), canh chua cá (Catfish sour soup), cơm tấm (Vietnamese broken rice)

2  Thuốc Bắc
Traditional Chinese medicine

Last but not least, traditional Chinese medicine with many, many elements available. They are added to dishes as to make the food more delicious, heal the body and for disease treatment. Popular elements are: ginseng, goji berry, dried longan, jujube, snow fungus, lotus seeds, ginger, dong quai, etc. The combinations of different elements will create a very unique smell when you come to District 5 in HCMC, which is the city’s Chinatown. And it is not easy to get used to for newcomers. It won’t be just one eatery you will find. It will be a whole street or whole neighbourhood with the smell of it. Still, it’s good for your health.
Each organ will have its own healing soup.
You can find a Traditional Chinese medicine store, tell them what you want, and maybe let them have a check on your pulse and they will guide you with the recipe. One famous street food with the medicine available is: Canh gà ác hầm thuốc bắc (Silkie with Traditional Chinese medicine elements stew). Other soups can be found in eateries and restaurants.

3 Mắm tôm
Shrimp paste (Fermented)
A purple fermented shrimp paste. Very strong odour. Of course, in South East Asia, this will not be the only mắm (fermented paste) you will see. There are so many, with different strong odours. However, I found this one among the most popular ones, and it causes also the best frowns.
Accompanying a lot of dishes such as: Bún riêu (Thin-rice-noodle soup with tomato, ground river crab, fried tofu and herbs) and canh bún (Thick rice noodle soup similar to bún riêu, but without tomato). It is also a key element to: Bún đậu (Rice noodles with fried tofu, boiled pork, fried rice cake and herbs), thịt luộc cà pháo (boiled egg with white eggplant), thịt cầy (dog meat) (Sorry, I’m offended by this too, but it’s a reality here in Vietnam). It’s salty but with a remarkable taste.

4 Sầu riêng

A fruit with thorny green shell and yellow segments. After you open it, your whole house will have the unique smell, and even if you have put it in the refrigerator, you can still smell it when you step in your house. Even after you have swallowed it, it still remains in your mouth and your burps. Many people really can’t stand the smell.
Don’t eat too much; it can give you indigestion. Available in a lot of street dishes, mostly sweets and desserts: chè (A kind of sweet stew, sweet mix of fruit and sugar), xôi sầu riêng bánh phồng (sticky rice with durian covered in crunchy rice cake), kem sầu riêng (durian ice-cream), bánh sầu riêng (durian pie), chè khúc bạch.

5 Măng
Bamboo shoot

We have two types of bamboo shoot here: wet and dried. Their colours are normally yellow and white. The wet one is very smelly and has a yellow colour. Many can’t stand this kind of smell. It can be very long-lasting and stick to your clothes for a long time until you wash them. However, the taste is great. Once it goes in your mouth, you can feel the softness with the crunchiness of the shoot’s veins. It has its own sweetness. It might be a bit bitter if it hasn’t been boiled enough, but many people like it that way. Bamboo shoot does not appear in many dishes in Vietnam. Only some which feature it as the main ingredients: Bún măng vịt (Duck and bamboo shoot rice noodle), thịt ba rọi kho/xào măng (Braised/ stir-fried pork belly and bamboo shoot), canh măng chua cá (Pickled bamboo shoot and catfish soup).

That would be my top five. Remember, they are smelly, but they are delicious and can be addicting! I really recommend you to give them a try. With the names above, you can sure find the place to eat by Google or Foody. And if you have your own ‘smelly’ experience in Vietnam, feel free to share!

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