Wednesday, 8 December 2010

By the Rivers of Babylon


I was reminded of an experience I had with food by a discussion on Blog Catalogue. The discussion itself concerned good experience with bad food. My experience, as I said there, was neither good nor bad; just an experience, and what an experience.

We were in Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the local people). Have you ever had pho? It’s really super, large bowls of soup, with fish or chicken, or whatever your preference happens to be. It comes with lots of vegetable accompaniments, to be added to the pho bowl according to preference. There, on the table, amongst the other things, was a little dish of chopped salad onions. At least that’s what I thought it was. It wasn’t: it was chopped green chillies, a kind I’d never seen before.

So, thinking nothing of it, I spooned them abundantly into my bowl. All unawares, just one spoonful was all it took. Wow! I like spicy food, and I like chillies; I’m particularly fond of Mexican cuisine. But this was different; these chillies were not hot; they were lethal. As I wrote on Blog Catalogue, it was as if an atom bomb had gone off inside my mouth, and that is the mildest way of describing the sensation. It was a hotness of quite unbelievable intensity.

I started to cough uncontrollably. Quick, a mouthful of cold beer! That was absolutely no use at all, even several mouthfuls. The Vietnamese waitresses were so sweet; they knew exactly what was wrong, bringing me glasses of warm water, which, for reasons I cannot explain, really did have a calming effect. But, as always, that which did not kill me only made me stronger…and more wary.

I really will try anything once when it comes to food. In my travels I’ve had all sorts of unusual things. I was going to try bear in Russia but the waiter advised against it, saying that it was an acquired taste, and since it was my first night in Moscow, since I was tired and hungry, I really did not feel like experimenting. The blini with caviar and soured cream were excellent though!

Sometimes the best meals are the simplest, though often the setting, the context in which one dines, significantly adds to the pleasure. Eating barbequed sardines overlooking a Spanish beach is lovely. Then there was the substantial local gazpacho I had in Cordoba, a restaurant near the Mezquita, or having luncheon with some wonderful friends in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penn or dinner at Per Se in New York. But the best of all, the meal that has yet to be exceeded for pleasure in taste, the pleasure in setting and the pleasure in the company was one of fried fish ( I have no idea what it was) sitting by the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, red with the sinking sun. That truly was divine. Some memories are so sweet; some moments truly are magic.







26 comments:

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  3. Vietnamese food is excellent. The chillies were hot, that's all.

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  7. Do develop healthy eating habits, you will live longer, or at the very least die in good health.

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  8. very interesting experience and wonderfully recorded. :-)
    while i consider myself open minded i am truly "closed stomached" - i can be considered as 200% chinese in terms of foods! and of course, not all chinese foods.

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  9. Yun yi, thank you. Oh, I love Chinese food, particulary Szechuan cuisine!

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  10. ha, ana, good. i am from szechuan. we can go restaurant together:-)

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  11. If you like Chinese, you should try Filipino. It's like Hawaiians, Spaniards, and Chinese had one big cookoff.

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  12. Coll, I'm intrigued; I've never had Filipino food. If it successfully combines those disparate elements it must be quite something.

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  14. Pho is Vietnamese for "noodle". And you're right, VN food IS delicious, though they DO have an inexplicable taste for dog & rat...When I was there ('67-68), we washed suspect rations down with Ba Muoi Ba ("33"), reasoning that the formaldehyde in the beer would preserve us while killing any stray germs...it worked for me.

    Bob Mack

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  15. Also, the sunset photographs are super did you take them ?

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  16. Yes, the smaller the chilli, the more deadly. The short Asian chilli is the most powerful on Earth. As you can see from my denunciation of the piss-weak chilli at Post#165 on R&A, I despise the feeble stuff.

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  17. Got interrupted there...

    I grow a few chilli and capsicum bushes in my back yard and I've tried cross-pollinating the chilli plants which I think have the most powerful fruit. They make a white-hot sauce and I'm proud to say they may be eligible for inclusion in the Convention on Chemical Weapons.

    I've never observed any insect to be able to eat chilli seeds until a few years ago when something appeared for a couple of seasons which was able to eat out the fruit from the inside. I was never able to catch sight of this critter but it must have been a formidable beast.

    I'm informed that the best treatment for chilli burn is to chew some sugar.

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  18. Bob, dog and rat! There are limits, even for me. :-) Oh, Ba 33 is still the beer of choice.

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  19. Retarius, I should have consulted you before I went. :-)

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  20. "Nigel! Three Ba Muoi Ba and three rice wine!"

    That's a quote from Mike Frazer's book "Nasho",one of the few Australian reminiscences on the topic. It's a fictionalised account of his experiences there. I'm amazed that Beer 33 has survived the revolution. "Nigel" is from Nigel Nog, the archetypal Vietnamese, so-called by Diggers because of the (to them) unpronounceable local names beginning with "Ng".

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  21. Retarius, not just the beer but they also produce wine, clearly a hangover from French colonial days. It's terrible, though!

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  22. I like seriously hot food, but not as a regular diet, which is why Szechuanese cuisine is an occasional treat. However, I'm more than happy to eat Cantonese and/or Chiu Chow regularly (I do anyway). Both styles bring out the natural flavours of the ingredients, rather than obscure them. That said, Chiu Chow chilli oil is the best regional chilli-based condiment in China.

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