Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I think of you, Rita, every day on my motorbike ride home from school. Here’s why: Yes, it’s the RITA restaurant! It's the first place we will go if you ever come to visit(I think Nam was bothered that I wanted to take a picture of this...maybe that is why he stopped at the statue of Uncle Ho yesterday, so that I would be a proper tourist!).

This post is dedicated to RITA because her friend/student Liane sent me the following question in an email, and I am going to answer it here for all of you:

Hi, I understand you’re in Vietnam and I think that’s amazing. If you’re too busy I understand but I really wanted to touch base with you. Mrs. Ireland says you love food and guess what, food is what I'm doing my senior project on- cultural food to be exact. I was wondering, for starters, what is the biggest difference in how people eat and what people eat in Vietnam as opposed to America? If you have time it would be great to hear from you, I’m really interested in travel and culture and would love to hear any cool stories. Thanks!!

Ok, so...there is a little strip right outside of RITA, where I recently discovered my new favorite snack. Now that I have discovered it, I see it everywhere, and it’s kind of like the breakfast rice ladies…how have I missed this wonderment until now? My new favorite snack, now, in my mind, looks like the RITA lights, only they are not only lit but they're flashing: PAPAYA! NOODLES! LIME! PEANUTS! TAMARIND! YUMMY THINGS I DON’T QUITE RECOGNIZE! (I know the RITA restaurant doesn’t have an exclamation point after it, but if you know Rita Ireland, she should have an exclamation mark after her name, so that is how I see it.)

So, Laine, my answer to your question begins with this: Vietnamese food is SWEET! SALTY! CRUNCHY! And CHEWY! (Rule #1) all at the same time! And RITA! STREET offers what I find to be the best of this world. Women sit on little plastic chairs that are very close to the ground and set out a cart with about nine containers, all filled with goodies, such as dried shrimp, chewy tamarind bits, dried onion, powdered something or other... You get to choose your goodies- as many as you want-- out of the nine containers, and these women will mix these items in a big plastic bowl with shredded papaya, dry, flat, three-inch long noodles, and lime. The moisture softens the noodles, and after mixing they put the whole concoction into a plastic bag and stick the chopsticks in it. Oh, and they also throw in a couple of tiny quail eggs, too.


I think about this snack all the time now. I found a SSCC Snack Lady right outside of my school, and even though I really don’t like to leave during the day, I have been making exceptions. Monday, Tuesday and Today (soon).

Sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy…so many foods here fit into this most brilliant category. Take, for example, the salad rolls. Fresh, crunchy lettuce and basil, shrimp and rice noodles are wrapped up with rice paper and dipped into peanut sauce.

Or the “Number One” breakfast Nam showed me last week: strips of noodles laced with nuts, topped with a savor y, crunchy doughnut, basil, bean sprouts, what looks like a chunk of bologna but tastes divine, all covered with fish sauce. Or the ban Xeo, which is a French-influenced crepe, made with shrimp, bean sprouts and pork. This you break apart, wrap up in lettuce leaves and basil and dip into the fish sauce (just like you do with my favorites, turmeric rice cakes…small rice cakes topped with shrimp and wrapped in the same greenery and dipped in the fish sauce.)

Even the soups come with fresh vegetables and sauces and limes, and morning rice (purple, green, yellow, white, with beans or lentils, without beans or lentils) comes with coconut or nuts or pate or peanuts or crunchy onions or, again, the tiny quail eggs. Jellos, too. They come in cup sizes and are always layered with something, like custard or cake with nuts.

Now, Rule #2, I think, would have to be FRESHNESS!

Everything is fresh here. Fish in restaurants or our market are live until you eat them. Often you will see a crab escaping down the alley, or like last Saturday, Katherine saw a fish wriggling away and the seller just yelled out to a shopper something about catching it. The passerby was thrown a net and she simply just kicked the fish into the net and returned it to the seller.
Creatures still come with bones here. Our American boneless chicken and fish would be considered tasteless to Vietnamese people. The bones are where the flavor is. Soup broths are cooked all day long and many pho eaters won’t eat until 8 or 9 because the broth is not developed enough before then. As I mentioned before, huge bones are piled up beside the Pho carts (the dinosaur bones)!

People here buy what they need for one day…they don’t have big refrigerators. They buy tons of fresh vegetables (huge plates of vegetables are served with everything here…especially bean sprouts and basil, along with their meat), and do the same thing the next day and the next. They make their ice cream on- site. Coconut ice cream tastes like smashed up coconuts with sweet cream, because that is what it is!

Rule #3 is a semi-true stereotype: THEY! EAT! EVERYTHING!

My Chinese and American sixth graders joke with the Vietnamese kids about eating dog. The Vietnamese kids have a funny, uncomfortable reaction to it, because many people in this country really do eat dog. But it is the exception. However, at the beginning of the year, I learned that most Vietnamese kids don’t name their animals...guess why! I think the real truth is that this is not a culture of waste.

You see it all on the menus, if not in restaurant windows. The other day, Katherine and I saw a skinned raccoon in a window. And menus list brains and livers and intestines of various animals. Pig tails and snouts grace one stall very close to my castle and I must pass it every day. They eat snake and lizard and anything that moves. Lots of frogs (bundled up, live, in groups of five) and eels and snails, too. One street over from our alley serves a lot of this food. Clams and snails are dipped into a lime and salt mixture, or are made with a chewy tamarind sauce. SWEET! SALTY! CHEWY! CRUNCHY!

Rule #4 is the most important rule: COMMUNITY!

Everything in Vietnam is about family and community and so eating is also about family and community. Late at night, buildings are barred with metal gates and locked securely, but from early morning until about ten pm, side shops and restaurants spread out onto the sidewalks. Mostly, restaurants provide seating on red or blue plastic chairs and plastic tables that are easy to move around. People here sit very low to the ground, sometimes only inches above it so that they are really sitting on their haunches. Sometimes when I am offered a seat like this, I think I will never be able to get up out of it (especially if I have been eating any of the above mentioned food). So if you look down our alley from morning to night (which represents most alleys in HCMC), you will see people sitting in big groups around tables, or crouched in the doorways of their homes, and usually they will have a soup bowl of noodles in their hands (pho). And they will be using both spoons and chopsticks to eat it. It seems that people must eat noodles all day long. Every shop is full every time I pass, whether during breakfast, lunch or dinner.

So, Liane, there you go. Let me know how your senior project goes...

I’m going to go out and get a snack RIGHT! NOW!
And when I get back, I’m hoping for a ONE! MINUTE! POEM! by RITA! (who is sweet, salty, crunchy and chewy, too~)


kumma said...

The fish are live until you EAT them?? Holy cow! You have to grab a live fish and EAT it in order for it to DIE?! Now, that's commitment.

kumma said...

By the way, whilst reading this, I am currently enjoying some lemongrass chicken from the Pho Cyclo Cafe on 1st Ave. S., just blocks from my office... Probably not REAL Vietnamese, but tasty nonetheless...

Angie said...

I was just fine, thinking that HCMC was THE place to be, until you descibed snails and SWEET! SALTY! CHEWY! CRUNCHY!


Barb said...

I am waiting for Rita's poem!
Love your stories Marjie!
I sure miss you at school (SLHS for those of you that don't know me)
I was OK with the Sweet and Salty, but you lost me with the addition of Chewy and Crunchy!

marjie said...

Posting for Rita:

Holy dog!
She's blogged bunches of frog...
With escaping fish amid bowls delish
Among low-seated smiles near dinosaur piles
And Pho-get-me-not images of villages within
Her sanctity of castle and sweet! salty! food...so zen.

The Norris Clan said...

BRILLIANT poem, Rita! I love this post. It is so metaphoric with your whole trip... sweet: all the adorable bum bum girls and their friends (and pretty much any one you meet there); salty: Mother Nam; Chewy: the LIVE fish you so love; Crunchy: every juicy morsel you give us about your time... I LOVE this. Now I need to go eat something peanut sauce.